Jan 262012


Last week I was in Southern California for the final week of Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and La Jolla. The three-venue exhibition was part of Pacific Standard Time (PST), the six-month visual art extravaganza that is now the largest cultural collaboration in the history of the region.

The project’s mission is to commemorate the dynamic history of art in Los Angeles from the 1940’s through the 1970s. In the words of Deborah Marrow, Director of the Getty Foundation and one of the mastermind’s behind the project, “through Pacific Standard Time, the region’s enormously creative history has been preserved and re-examined, narrative by narrative. Now, for the first time, the full story of the genesis of the Los Angeles art scene is finally available to the public at exhibitions throughout Southern California.”

I repeatedly heard that of the 185 exhibitions (and counting) in the region, Phenomenal was the one not to miss. The exhibition explored the preoccupation among a handful of Los Angeles artists the 1960’s – 70’s of light and sensory phenomena as artistic medium. These artists, sometimes described as the Light and Space movement, created paintings, installations, sculptures, and atmospheres to shift and exceed the viewer’s capacity to experience and perceive art through basic manipulations of light and space. As described by Christopher Knight for the Los Angeles Times “whether by directing the flow of natural light, embedding artificial light within objects or architecture, or by playing with light through the use of transparent, translucent or reflective materials, these artists each made the visitor’s experience of light and other sensory phenomena under specific conditions the focus of their work.”

Phenomenal featured 56 works by 13 artists: Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Ron Cooper, Mary Corse, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, John McCracken, Bruce Nauman, Eric Orr, Helen Pashgian, James Turrell, De Wain Valentine and Douglas Wheeler. The impact of the exhibition outstripped all of my expectations and reinforced my conviction that art can profoundly inform and expand the way we see and process the world.

One of the most important aspects of Phenomenal is the time it requires to literally see and then experience the impact of the works in the show. Upon first blush, many of these works appear to be an empty canvas, a room with nothing inside. In Irwin’s biography Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Lawrence Wescheler describes witnessing a couple literally “not see” one of Irwin’s 7-foot dot paintings hanging in a museum. Standing with the work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Weschler describes that “a couple walked into the room. The young woman, gesturing with a sweep of her arm, sighed in mock exasperation ‘See, this is what I mean.’ Her friend smiled knowingly… and the two moved quickly on. They had literally not seen a thing – one does not, one cannot in that amount of time. She was just sick and tired of having museum walls cluttered with empty white canvases.”

Experiencing these works requires the patience of time and attention, the leap-of-faith conviction that experiencing an “empty white canvas” might actually be worthwhile. And the works do unfold. With time and patience entire rooms, materials, light, and color that were literally invisible upon first glimpse are revealed – visual assumptions are shattered. In the words of Christopher Knight for the Los Angeles Times, “the eye opens, the buzzing mind lets go. A spectator arrives at a perceptual base point. As your body begins to feel the space it occupies, the rational brain shuts off. The effect is sensuous and exciting.” Or perhaps more aptly, in Irwin’s words, “at the very best, a few people will walk in and it will change their lives.”

Dramatic though that statement may sound, Weschler describes that this level of visual engagement turns our perception inward and facilitates a heightened awareness or our own ability to perceive. “Engaging the picture, we in turn engage the wonder of our own perceptual facilities. As in so much of Irwin’s later work, for a few moments, we perceive ourselves perceiving.” It is within that fresh perceptual space that we are able to see nuances, ask new questions, and make room for new opportunities.

The impact of Pacific Standard Time upon Southern California has also created an opportunity for profound shifts in assumptions and perspectives. PST created a new paradigm in large-scale collaboration.  The project successfully fostered a sense of place and time through community consensus and the shared direction of powerful non-profit leaders in the region. In a time when so many non-profits dread collaboration and are loathe to share resources, Pacific Standard Time serves as a wake up call that a broader impact can result from a unified long-term community vision and a thoughtful and strategic combination of forces. Janet Lamkin, California State President of Bank of America, described the long-term impact of this project is that it “will bring together people of every neighborhood and background, and involve virtually all of this region’s arts institutions….(and) contributes to a climate where innovation flourishes, economies grow, and people, business and communities thrive.”

Dec 052011


Last week was the 10th anniversary of Art Basel Miami Beach. In what amounts to a week-long art viewing, hobnobbing, party-hopping bender, the international art glitterati descend upon Miami Beach to see, be seen, schmooze, acquire, revel, gossip, and generally carouse. In addition to Art Basel Miami Beach there are 16 satellite fairs scattered throughout the city, museum exhibitions, gallery openings, private collection tours, concerts, performances, brunches, and VIP events in a timeline better suited to a month-long endeavor than a five-day art event.

Art Basel originated in Basel, Switzerland and came to Miami in 2002. Over the years, the fair has profoundly transformed the city while it is there. Hotel rooms, flights, restaurants, stores, galleries, museums are teeming, and Miami garners the focus of international publicity on a previously unprecedented scale.

The week is a testament to the unassailable and unnerving fact that money and art are inextricably bound. This week lays bare and unabashedly celebrates the fact of their interdependence. The art world is an amalgamation of pretense and brilliance – breathtaking imagination alongside gilded Gucci-clad lemmings. Miami invites that dichotomy in its most extreme – amazing works by little known and experimental artists at the fringes of art making presented simultaneously with the insecurity, boredom, and keeping up with the Joneses that is the “dark side” of the art world.

While in Miami I received an editorial by the infamous (and notorious) art collector Charles Saatchi. No stranger to controversy and criticism, Saatchi seemed to have had a massive art epiphany. Or – more likely – his wealth paled in comparison to the “artigarchs” of Brazil, Russia, India, and China who are out buying all of the traditional “major players.” Saatchi seethed that “being an art buyer these days is comprehensively and indisputably vulgar…do any of these people actually enjoy looking at art? Or do they simply enjoy having easily recognised, big-brand name pictures…In the fervour of peacock excess, it’s not even considered necessary to waste one’s time looking at the works on display. At the world’s mega-art blowouts, it’s only the pictures that end up as wallflowers.”

Beyond the madness and excess, the vulgarity of VIP swagger and “peacock excess,” Miami has gained an increasingly prominent position as a destination for art, culture, and design. The fair and all of its adjacent events have bolstered the Miami economy in profound and quantifiable ways. The fair’s continued success has encouraged the development of formerly dilapidated neighborhoods such as the Design and the Wynwood Art District that are now comprised of major private collections, boutiques, restaurants, bars, and a major influx of galleries – 4 to 45 over the past 8 years.

Another benefit, as described by Lizette Alvarez of The New York Times is that “as Miami’s cultural profile has grown, so too has the government’s willingness to invest. Local museums, including the well-respected Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, are expanding, partly with government money. The Miami Art Museum is in the midst of constructing a new building designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the architects who reimagined the Tate Modern in London.”

The fact that “trendy” and “chic” is often not (ever?) a sustainable model is an issue that major players in the Miami art world must address in order to maintain Miami’s current cultural growth trajectory. Every “cool” event has its expiration date, and for Miami to bank on the past decade of cultural success it will have to make real-time infrastructural and practical investments. As Rosa de la Cruz, patron of the arts and Miami-based collector explains, “Miami universities need to create graduate programs that will act as springboards for talented young artists.” Other ideas include Miami museums building major permanent collections…Art Basel has been wonderful to Miami, but for the rest of the year we need to start building an infrastructure,” Mrs. de la Cruz said. “We have to be very conscious of that, and we have to work very hard.”

Nov 022011


I just completed Francine Prose’s lucid biography Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. I have always been drawn to Caravaggio’s stunning paintings and the defiance and innovation with which he approached traditional religious subject matter. I was curious to know more about his work and infamously troubled life after seeing the Caravaggio / Francis Bacon exhibition at the Galeria Borghese in Rome, and this biography provided great insight into his work and life.

Esthetically, the pairing of Francis Bacon and Caravaggio was a brilliant choice by British curator Michael Pippiat. Both Caravaggio and Bacon unflinchingly plumbed the depths of the human condition. Each in his own unique and extraordinary way painted the sordid and debased, exposed the flesh and decay of the human body. Both artists simultaneously eroticized and laid bare the vulnerability of the human condition in forms that challenged the sensibilities and conventions of the contemporaries and patrons of their respective eras. Beyond this esthetic connection both artists’ lives were notoriously difficult, conflicted, and enormously self-destructive. Each perpetuated the myth of the tortured genius to the furthest reaches of their capacities. Bacon and Caravaggio were iconoclasts, virtuosos, addicts, and criminals – their very myths defined by the raging intensity of their personal turmoil and the extravagant beauty of their work.

Caravaggio seethed against the constraints of 17h century Italy. He embodied the sacred and profane and with each professional success his life spiraled deeper into brutal street fights, vendettas, exile, and multiple murder charges. His life, like his work, treaded a fine line between the sublime and the beautiful, the sacred and the profane. In Prose’s words “Caravaggio insisted on his freedom to defy categorization, his right to make art according to his convictions and out of whatever engaged his intellect and his soul, as well as his creative, religious, and erotic impulses.” Bacon, too, lived a contradictory and despairing existence. As described in his biography by Pippiat, Bacon was “generous but cruel, forthright yet manipulative, ebullient but in despair: He was the sum of his contradictions. This life, lived at extremes, was filled with achievement and triumph, misfortune and personal tragedy.”

It is fascinating that both artists have transcended their times to remain among the most important painters in the history of art. In Prose’s words, describing Caravaggio but also apt for Bacon, “all of these centuries later, the sense of connection, of communication—of communion—that we feel with the long-dead painter seems almost vertiginously direct and profound. Having spent his brief, tragic, and turbulent life painting miracles, he managed, in the process, to create one—the miracle of art, the miracle of the way in which some paint, a few brushes, a square of canvas, together with that most essential ingredient, genius, can produce something stronger than time and age, more powerful than death.”