Archive for the Bay Area Art Scene Category

Bright Lights, Big(ger) City: Bay Lights Goes Live

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Public Art, Site Work with tags , , , , , , , on March 6, 2013 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Last night I gathered with a few friends at the Ferry Building on the patio outside Boulette’s Larder, to witness the official lighting of the Leo Villareal project on the Bay Bridge. Mille grazie to Lori, who set us at a table in the heart of primo viewing real estate. We shared a picnic and some wine, as the crowd and storm clouds slowly enveloped us.

Bay Lights—The Bay Bridge unadorned  ©Liz Hager 2013

Bay Lights—The Bay Bridge unadorned ©Liz Hager 2013

Long before the official “lights on,” the atmosphere was charged with anticipation. Thousands of people gathering, conversing (Christo came up a lot), waiting patiently, as the drizzle turned into a downpour. The concentration of ions! The absolute wonder of of it all was that we had amassed not for an Obama speech, a Lady Gaga concert, a SF Giants parade, but for a WORK OF ART. As an artist, I experienced a truly a thrilling moment when the bridge went live and the crowd cheered heartily.

What a star Bay Lights is! 25,000 twinkly lights programmed in dynamic water-related themes—fish, reflective patterns, and wave forms undulated along the bridge’s spans. The ebb and flow of the rain added the perfect theme-based notes to the evening.

Bay Lights—The Ferry Bldg nods to the bridge ©Liz Hager 2013

Bay Lights—The Ferry Bldg nods to the bridge ©Liz Hager 2013

I will always refer to this work affectionately as “tiny bubbles,” for the first blast of lights, which floated up the bridge cables like bubbles in a champagne glass. Kudos to the private consortium who raised major funding for the piece—it is a fitting congratulatory toast to our city by the bay.

Bay Lights—A crowd gathers at Ferry Bldg ©Liz Hager 2013

Bay Lights—A crowd gathers at Ferry Bldg ©Liz Hager 2013

The bridge will be lit for 2 years. As we left the site last night, still basking in the glow of those light-emitting diodes, all we could think about was how sad a day it will be for us when the bridge returns to unadorned darkness.

Though the Villareal Bridge (maybe our bridge will acquire a proper noun through all of this?) does not rank as the largest public art project in the US (that honor may belong to Christo’s Gates), for us this is a big deal, a bona fide celebrity art piece. Along with SFMOMA expansion for the Fisher collection of contemporary art and the Andy Goldsworthy Presidio and de Young projects, Bay Lights demonstrates how San Francisco is inching ever closer to recognition as a destination spot for art.

I hope the success of this project encourages the SF art community to step up the level of its commitment with respect to nurturing and promoting locally-grown artists. One day we may not have to import a New Yorker to make our celebrity art piece.

Bay Lights, Bikers waiting in the rain

Bay Lights—Bikers waiting in the rain ©Liz Hager 2013

Wider Connections

Venetian Red—“Programming the Cosmos”
Bay Lights project website
Leo Villareal

Man With a Mirror: Ian Ingram At artMRKT

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Drawing, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , , on May 23, 2011 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Ian Ingram, Forgotten Offerings, 2010
Charcoal, pastel, beads, and string on paper, 82 1/2 x 51″
(Courtesy Barry Friedman Ltd.)

Last Friday at artMKRT, the renegade spin off of the SF Fine Art Fair, I was instantly (and blissfully) seduced by the mighty sirens of Ian Ingram‘s monumental self portraits. The two on display—Forgotten Offerings and Pierrot—are startling achievements in the portraiture genre, technically brilliant and dense with iconography. And, in a truly refreshing turn, these nearly seven foot tall works are drawings (!!), executed in an almost laborious level of detail through graphite, charcoal, pastel. Further, real-world elements—string, fabric, beads, gold leaf and wire mesh—expertly integrated into the drawings add a unique physical dimension to the work. But they also heighten the symbolic meaning of the drawings. Reality and rendered reality play fluidly with one another.

Ian Ingram, He His, Me My, (Seashells), 2008
Charcoal and pastel on paper, 60 x 44″

The artist’s most important tool might just be his high-magnification shaving mirror.

I recall as a child loving the alone time I was allowed in bathrooms. The assurance of a locked door and walls surrounding ones own personal space provided meditative retreats from chattery school days. . .

I have been staring at my face in a magnified mirror for over 7 years now. Patterns emerge and dissolve. . . . .

When I was working on The Geometry of Happy Children, one of the lines began standing out and demanding attention. It was the line that ran along the side of the nose approximately where the bone ends and the cartilage begins. I actually grew annoyed with this line’s insistence, and erased it hoping to quiet it’s demands but it only added significance and so I drew it back in. Paper never forgets though, and that line kept it’s heat and at times I could see little else. Looking back and forth from mirror to paper, the line started taking it’s place on the surface of my skin. When my eyes weren’t on that line, but focused elsewhere, it would begin a trampy little dance for attention in bright magentas and blues until my eyes would dart over to see, and back to flesh it would go. . .

Ian Ingram, Pierrot, 2010
Charcoal, pastel, watercolor, gold leaf, and tulle on paper
82 1/2″ x 51″
(Courtesy Barry Friedman Ltd.)

Forgotten Offerings began with an “insistent line.” Over the period of the drawing’s gestation (Ingram’s large scale works can take up to three months to complete), this line led the artist on a journey through his subconscious, an investigation that had Ingram wrestling with his “judgmental/editorial” self. Ingram’s startled expression suggests being “caught in the act,” as if delving into the subconscious were a secrete and illicit undertaking.

With Pierrot Ingram pushes farther down the road of the subconscious. Infinitely more sinister than Watteau’s famous mime, Ingram’s bust suggests a different dimension of the famous clown. Here, fear is palpable. Greek tragedy (Argemenon’s mask?); medieval armor (the mesh); a disturbing cleaved scull. Pierrot as the reflection of ego and id, the two halves of man. I am reminded of Pogo’s oft-quoted remark: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Says Ingram of the two works:

Pierrot is the companion piece to Forgotten Offerings. Pierrot is vacant and shows the interior space as a void whereas Forgotten Offerings is full of light. The poses obviously mirror one another. They are independent, but polar. The gold leaf in both brings focus to the border—an incredibly potent part of the composition as it is the dividing line between the “real world” and this imagined space of illusion and constructed meaning.

Wider Connections

Ian Ingram—Divining
Antoine Watteau: The Drawings
Daniel Bordet—Les 100 Plus Belles Images de Pierrot

Life? or Theater? at the CJM/SF

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2011 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Above average.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

From 1940 to 1942, while hiding in the South of France from the worsening situation in Nazi Germany, Charlotte Salomon devoted herself wholeheartedly and relentlessly to the realization of a fictionalized autobiography, Life? or Theater?: A Play With Music.  The resulting opus—769 of gouache paintings with text and musical references (edited from the over 1,300 pages she completed) —is a triumph of mixed-media storytelling, a richly thematic and profusely imaginative narrative.

The marriage of Franziska and Albert, Charlotte*s parents, imagined to the tune "We twine for thee the maidens wreath" (from von Webers "Der Freischütz")

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

The 300 pages currently on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (through July 31) encapsulate the essence of the work well enough; I wish there had been some of the pages from Salomon’s art school days. They evoke a happy sense of belonging that was missing for me in most of the rest of the work. Viewers hungry for more may want to consult Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?, which catalogs the entire oeuvre.


Charlotte: Why doesn*t she come, my Mummy—she promised.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

Life? or Theater? traces the arc of a fictional Charlotte’s (Kann) life from infancy to young adulthood. On the simplest level the narrative is about the close relationships of her life, though it actually begins before the fictional Charlotte’s birth with the courtship and subsequent marriage of her parents.  Like her creator, Kann lives in Berlin between the wars. She is the only child in a prosperous middle-class German-Jewish family. The people who intersected Salomon’s real life are given similar aliases here—Papa and Mama Kann (like Salomon’s mother, Mrs. Kann commits suicide while Charlotte is a young child); stepmother, Paulinka Bimbam (Paula Salomon-Lindberg); grandparents Knarres (Grunwalds); and perhaps most importantly Paulinka’s voice coach Albert Daberlohn (Albert Wolfsohn) with whom Kann/Salomon becomes utterly infatuated.


I*ve no one left now. Fate, fate, how harsh you are. And. . .

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

I’ve no one left now. Fate, fate, how harsh you are. And. .

Throughout Life? or Theater? the tension is palpable—between Charlotte and her family, between her and Daberlohn (it’s not clear whether her infatuation was ever more), between the Jewish struggle for acceptance through assimilation and impending destruction.  On a deeper level Life? or Theater? operates as subtle commentary on the range of culture available to middle class German-Jews in Berlin between the wars. Trips to Venice and Rome, recitals and concerts, schooling in art, literature and philosophy are all referenced in Life? or Theater? with imagination, poignancy and sometimes even sarcasm.

The German Jews, of whom each one is so preoccupied with himself that at a dinner party a silent observer feels as if he were in a goose pen. Albert—"First of all I*m sending away my daughter." Woman to his right—"And were going to Australia!" Man to her right—"And what will you do?" Sculptor—And I*ll go to the United States and become the greatest sculptor in the world." Paulinka—"We*ll be staying here for the time being." Mr. Blähn—"And I*ll go to the United States and there Ill become the greatest singer in the world." Daberlohn*s fiancée—"And were going to American, aren*t we Mucki. . ." Maid—"Take this piece, Professor, it*s the best one."

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

In the main section Life? or Theater? is punctuated with references to the growing persecution of Jews. While sometimes direct, they are just as often oblique, such as the series of paintings depicting Charlotte leaving Berlin for France. Salomon was apparently a quiet and timid girl; the paintings are commentary, not the biting satire of Georg Grosz.

Der Stürmer, organ of popular enlightenment. The Jew has made only money from your blood. The Jewish bosses financed the World War. The Jew has deceived and betrayed you, so— German men and women. Take your revenge!!! Once Jewish blood spurts from the knife, you*ll have by far a better life. Hunt the swine until he sweats and smash his windowpanes to bits. April 1, 1933—Boycott the Jews! Whoever buys from any Jew, himself a filthy swine is too.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)


Amadeus Daberlohn, prophet of song, enters to the tune of the Toreador*s Song from Carmen.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)

True to her rich cultural upbringing Salomon was said to have an endless repertory of musical references in her head, and was observed singing while she worked.  No doubt this is why conceived of music as an integral part of the experience of Life? or Theater? to recall musical bits.  In the Prologue,  Salomon describes the role of music in her work:

The creation of the following paintings is to be imagined as follows: A person is sitting beside the sea. She is painting. A tune suddenly enters her mind. As she starts to hum it, she notices that the tune exactly matches what she is trying to commit to paper. A text forms in her head, and she starts to sing the tune, with her own words, over and over again in a loud voice until the painting seems complete. . . The author has tried—as is apparent perhaps most clearly in the Main Section—to go completely out of herself and to allow the characters to sing or speak in their own voices. In order to achieve this, many artistic values had to be renounced, but I hope that, in view of the soul-penetrating nature of the work, this will be forgiven.

While his face is being worked on, the following is taking place in his mind. The vision dominating his senses blends color and music: out of a confusion of swirling lines a theatrical mask of Paulinka takes shape.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)

At first go around, one might be tempted to judge Salomon a naive painter. She did have formal training in art, however, through enrollment in both arts high school and college.   Possibly she rejected more academic styles for this intimate work. Though very little of Salomon’s other work survives to compare, on the Life? or Theater? pages one clearly sees sophisticated influences—of the Expressionists, post-Impressionists, Fauves—and stylistic similarities (to Chagall in particular, as well as references to Michelangelo and Giotto.

And again, when I saw these two pictures, I was reminded of the essay by that other young girl. She makes it very clear: when she is happy and begins to paint, bright colors and red and yellow dots flow from her brush, and when her mood is dark her colors turn dusky gray. And it should of course be noted that this applies regardless of the subject the artist has in mind. When, as in these two pictures, the spiritual mood at the moment of creation happens to coincide wit the despair-filled theme "Death and the Maiden," the result, together with the optimistic "Meadow with the Yellow Flowers," is—on a very minor scale of course—true art. . . My discovery of the similarity between what young girls produce and what certain geniuses produce is completely justified. Like young girls. . .

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper
(Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum)

Amazingly, Salomon used just the three primary colors and white for her paintings. The blue of depression, the yellow of joy, the red of passion were her pictorial language. The 769 compositions are amazingly varied—scenes move freely between achingly intimate tête-à-têtes, sequential scenes bound together on a single page, boisterous group gatherings, “talking head” monologues and crowd activities.

For a long time I was covered by the earth. And I woke up among the corpses. And when I then miraculously came home again, I had partially lost my memory.

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)


High on a cliff grow pepper trees—softly the wind stirs the small silvery leaves. Far below, foam eddies and melts in the infinite span of the sea. Foam, dreams—my dreams on a blue surface...

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)

Beyond the thematic complexity, the inventive compositions and fetching use of color the most intriguing aspect of Life? or Theater? is the message embodied by the work itself.   Four-months pregnant, Salomon was murdered, almost certainly upon her arrival, at Auschwitz in 1943.  Thus, Life? or Theater? exists as a most poignant reminder that art is tangible evidence of a life lived. Art  affirms life.

The circumstances of Life? or Theater? suggest another, equally significant, nuance—the power of art to affirm life as it is being lived. Salomon conceived Life? or Theater? in the throes of deep despair. Having learned of the dark secret of her family—the suicides of many of her female relatives—Charlotte felt a mounting pressure to do the same. This project saved her. As she recounts in the Epilogue: “And with dream-awakened eyes she saw all the beauty around her, saw the sea, felt the sun, and knew: she had to vanish for a while from the human plane and make every sacrifice in order to create her world anew out of the depths.”  Perhaps then it should be no mystery why Charlotte Salomon named her fictional protagonist “Kann,” the first-person conjugate of the German verb können. I can, affirmation of being alive.

Charlotte Salomon gave herself to this work with the ferocity of someone fighting for her life.

. . . there awoke in a suffering yet somewhat aloof creature a sense of helplessness of all those who try to grasp at straws in the most violent thunderstorms. Despite her utter weakness, however, she refused to be drawn into the circle of the straw-graspers. . . and remained alone with her experiences and her paint brush. Yet, in the long run, to live day and night like this became intolerable even to a creature thus predisposed. And she found herself facing the question of whether to commit suicide or to undertake something wildly eccentric.Thus in the presence of the scorching sun, purple sea, and luxuriant blossoms, the memory of an experience of her fervid early love came back to her. And she tried to visualize that face, that figure. . . For she discovered that her figure might possibly preserve her from suicide inasmuch as she remembered one of Amadeus*s favorite utterances: Love, know thyself first in order to love thy neighbor. And then: one has to go into oneself—into one*s childhood—to be able to get out of oneself. . . then she did not have to kill herself like her ancestors, for according to his method one can be resurrected in fact, in order to love life still more, one should once have died. . . And with dream-awakened eyes she saw all the beauty around her, saw the sea, felt the sun, and knew: she had to vanish for a while from the human plane and make every sacrifice in order to create her world anew out of the depths. And from that came: Life? or Theater?

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? or Theater? 1940-1943
Gouache on paper.
(Courtesy Reading Charlotte Salomon)

Charlotte and her father Albert Salomon, ca. 1927-28

Wider Connections

The complete Life? or Theater? opus—Reading Charlotte Salomon

Michael Kimmelman— The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa. Among the 10 essays in this book “The Art of Maximizing Your Time” offers a  most beautiful mediation on the redemptive power of art, as evidenced through the work of Salomon, Eva Hesse and Jay deFeo.

Venetian Red“A Different Canvas: Raoul Dufy”

Mimi Jensen’s Week at the Met: New Work at Hespe Gallery

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Christine Cariati, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Mimi Jensen, A Week at the Met (Lunch With Andy and Marilyn), 2010
Oil on canvas, 12″ x 20″

San Francisco artist Mimi Jensen updates the traditional still life—incorporating humor and visual puns in her arrangements of non-traditional subjects. Jensen’s love of language is apparent in the witty titles she chooses for her work, which add a layer of meaning to the imaginative narratives she portrays.

Jensen’s still life paintings contain an intriguing mix of everyday objects—things she finds at thrift stores, estate sales, farmers markets or at a friend’s house. Jensen takes a playful approach to her compositions, arranging and re-arranging until the conversation among the objects has just the right balance and chemistry. Objects  clearly relate to one another, and exist in distinct harmony—even when the placement is a bit precarious. Jensen is very interested in reflective surfaces (silver balls and sugar bowls, martini glasses) and saturated color, and the balance of these elements also play an important part in her work.

Mimi Jensen, Love Letter, 2006
Oil on canvas, 22″ x 28″

Once Jensen completes the set-up—a process that she says can either be quick or agonizingly slow—she dramatically lights the composition, putting it “on stage.” Jensen works in a darkened room to highlight the drama. I asked Mimi to explain what happens next:

VR: Once the composition and lighting are set, how do you get started?

MJ: After choosing the correct size canvas for the final set-up, I give the canvas a sepia wash of raw umber to make it a mid-range tone so that both light and dark marks will be discernible. Using a straight-edge I draw a line where the objects will sit (a tablecloth, a shelf) and I mark the inches along that line to help me place the objects in the painting. I also mark the inches on the actual still life set-up so that when I start laying it in, the objects on the canvas correspond exactly to the placement in the set-up. I paint the objects in true life size, so this method works well. Of course, I cheat a bit when needed—I’ll make a bottle taller or shorter if it serves the composition.

Next, still using raw umber, I loosely sketch the objects with paint, mostly just outlining their shapes at first. After I am content that the composition is good and that the objects are about the right size and shape, I start to refine the images, still using raw umber.

Next I paint the entire scene, covering the whole canvas in raw umber and white, painting everything realistically and getting the correct lights and darks established. This is a technique called grissaille. Traditionally, grissaille is followed by many transparent glazes, and although I use glazes later in my process, at this point, after the grissaille is finished, I almost always start painting in color rather than glazes.

Mimi Jensen, Limoncello, (detail in grissaille stage)

Mimi Jensen, Limoncello, 2003
Oil on canvas, 10″ x 20″

Once I am satisfied with the painting in monotone, I start applying the color, essentially repainting the entire canvas. Sometimes I like the painting so much in its monochromatic state that I am reluctant to paint over it in color. Once or twice I’ve completed a painting in umber and white.

Mimi Jensen, Sepia Dream II, 2006
Oil on canvas, 16″ x 20″

From there it’s a matter of refining all the objects depicted, making sure they look right to me—blending, blending, blending. Sometimes I notice some new detail even after becoming so familiar with the object. Finally, I glaze any parts that need a color adjustment, e.g., putting an even brighter red over a tomato, or a brown glaze over a metal object to give it warmth. It’s easy to go too far at this stage. In the very last session, I paint the background, adjusting the depth of color from the initial wash to the otherwise finished painting, cleaning up the edges while trying to keep them soft, slightly blurry. I try to avoid the hard-edged look. Most paintings take me about a month to complete.

Mimi Jensen, A Week at the Met (Midnight Supper), 2010
Oil on linen, 16″ x 20″

VR: You’ve been exhibiting your work for twenty-five years. When did you settle on still life?

MJ: For the first 15+ years, I kept admonishing myself to loosen up. Finally, after a two-week intensive workshop with John Morra in 2003, I gave myself permission to paint realistic, detailed paintings, and started concentrating on the still life. I think as artists we don’t necessarily value what comes easily to us, but I finally started to value my ability, allowing myself that pleasure, realizing that painting “tight” suits me.

I’m often reluctant to say I’m a still life painter because people have misconceptions about what a still life is—they imagine dead pheasants, bottles of wine, half-peeled tangerines. I find these boring and often merely a vehicle for exhibiting technical skill. I like to paint found objects and things like jars of olives, cigar boxes, martini glasses, toys—and, of course, post cards of famous paintings. I often reuse the same objects again and again, like old actors appearing together in a new play.

VR: Which still life painters do you admire?

MJ: Still life (historically) became interesting to me around the time of Cezanne—beginning in the late 1880s and increasingly to the present day. Painters whose work I return to again and again are Bonnard, Cezanne, Morandi—simplicity made interesting—and Paul Wonner. Fairfield Porter who said: “I don’t arrange them….it strikes me suddenly and so I paint it.” I also admire the work of Mark Tansey, who stages scenes with visual puns that poke fun at art and historical cliches. Also Jane Freilicher and Nell Blaine, who both studied with another favorite of mine, Hans Hoffman. Richard Diebenkorn‘s abstracted still lifes. Vija Clemins. Martha Alf (pears, pears, pears.)

Other contemporary favorites are Norman Lundin, a Seattle artist who paints realistic objects in abstracted settings and Bay Area artist Donald Bradford—there is a serenity about his books.

VR: What would you like people to take from your paintings?

MJ: I’m a realist and I am fascinated with the way things look. For me, painting is all about seeing—acute observation and attention to detail. Which is why I work from life, never from photographs. I want to create images that the viewer will linger over—I want to show them something they may otherwise have overlooked.

Trompe l’oeil or illusionism doesn’t hold my interest for very long unless there’s an idea behind it. It is important to me for the spectator to bring his own narrative.

I always enjoy when people “get” my jokes and allusions, which often involve the title. I presume an audience that is familiar with the reproductions I use because they are by well-known artists, but I also include what I hope are subtler references or jokes. For example, the recent painting The Blues, a painting of blue bottles, includes a black and white tablecloth that suggests piano keys, which I hope causes the viewer to wonder if the title refers to the color of the bottles or the music.

Mimi Jensen, The Blues, 2010
Oil on canvas, 16″ x 20″

VR: Six of your new paintings are titled A Week at the Met, what’s the story behind that?

MJ: I love the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and never felt I had enough time to spend there on my visits to New York. Recently, I was able to spend an entire week—all day, every day—at the Met (with some side trips to the Museum of Modern Art.) This resulted in an on-going series of paintings, the first six of which are in my current show at Hespe.

Mimi Jensen, American Idol, 2010
Oil on canvas, 12″ x 12″

Mimi Jensen’s new work will be on exhibit at the Hespe Gallery, 251 Post Street, Suite 420, San Francisco, from September 1-October 2, 2010. The opening reception is from 5-7 pm, Saturday, the 11th of September.

Anselm Kiefer: Mirroring the Messy World

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Mixed Media, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , , , , on August 9, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: Nancy Ewart, whose posts appear on ChezNamasteNancy and Examiner.com, is a guest contributor at Venetian Red. Today she comments on German artist Anselm Kiefer.

By NANCY EWART

Anselm Kiefer, Wolundlied (Wayland’s Song) 1982
Oil, emulsion, and straw on canvas
with lead wing and gelatin silver print on projection paper
(SF MOMA, Fisher Collection, photograph ©Liz Hager)

Anselm Kiefer is an artist with large ambitions. He engages head on with the darkest period in the 20th century—National Socialism—searching for transcendence and the human place in the cosmos. Over the course of this decades-long investigation the artist has created works that manage to combine elements of destruction, creation, self-reproach, agonizing memory, the ghosts of militarism, anti-Semitism and the worship of violence. In his art Kiefer references, among other things, the occult, the Kabala, Biblical stories, and the Holocaust. He draws on a diverse array of Germanic spiritual guides including Richard Wagner, Frederick II, Joseph Beuys, painters Arnold Bocklin and Caspar David Friedrich and novelist Robert Musil, the Symbolists and the German Expressionists (i.e. Nolde, Kirchner, Beckmann), whose dramatic emotive paintings often focused on societal critiques.

Examining the Nazi past was an ambitious, if not hugely unpopular, proposition for a post-war German artist living in a country that likely preferred amnesia to analysis. Naturally,  Kiefer has said that he always wanted to deal with large issues in his art. He has not been shy about it, visually quoting from the Fascist architecture of Albert Speer and plumbing the German myths and legends so beloved by the Reich.  From the start Kiefer’s work was a loud and uncomfortable reminder that the nation had unfinished business. It has been hugely popular and greatly unpopular. In the hands of a lesser artist an agenda this challenging might have been reduced to grandiose or banal statements. Kiefer, however, has managed to stay true to the powerful emotions inherent in his subject matter, producing visually complex paintings that can still elicit raw emotion, nearly 70 years after the end of the War. A viewer of a Kiefer work today can count on confronting the messiness of the German cultural legacy—its inherent paradoxes, ambiguities, sublime achievements and horrific disasters.

In 1987, as Kiefer was claiming notoriety, Robert Hughes pointed out in his essay “Germany’s Master in the Making”: “His ambitions for painting range across myth and history, they cover an immense terrain of cultural reference and pictorial techniques, and on the whole they do it without the megalomaniac narcissism that fatally trivializes the work of other artists to whom Kiefer is sometimes compared— Julian Schnabel, for instance.”

Anselm Kiefer, Zim Zum, 1990
Acrylic, emulsion, crayon, shellac, ashes, and canvas on lead, 149 3/4 x 220 1/2 in.
(National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Born in Donaueschingen in southwest Germany in 1945, a few months before the end of the war, Anselm Kiefer was the child of a devastated country. He grew up in a Germany struggling to recover from the disasters of war. Fundamental to his art, however, were his observations of the ways in which Germany dealt with the Nazi past during the boom of the postwar economic miracle.

In 1964, before deciding to pursue a career as an artist, Kiefer began to study law. Even as a very young man (Kiefer was 20 at the time), he was drawn to the larger philosophical questions, specifically the relationship between history, philosophy and religion, as a way of making sense of the moral dilemmas inherent in Germany’s Nazi past.

As a law student, he was intrigued by the theories of Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). Schmitt’s philosophy “explored the most fundamental challenge of law and government; to reconcile the inherent tension between the concepts of free will, authoritarianism and spirituality.” (Wikipedia?) He formulated a world-view that mankind is self-interested and therefore, governments must be authoritarian for the sake of progress. Schmitt joined the Nazi party (as many, but not all, Germans did) but his interest in esoteric traditions, secret societies, the Jewish Kabala and Freemasonry caused him to be soon viewed with distrust.

Anselm Kiefer, Die Milchstrasse (The Milky Way), 1985-87
Emulsion paint, oil, acrylic and shellac on canvas with applied wires and lead
(Courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery)

But for Kiefer, Schmidt’s texts introduced him to esoteric theology that would later influence his artistic endeavors. “I was interested in people like Schmidt,” the artist has said, “because they got caught between the power of government and the power of God.” (Heaven and Earth, Auping, p. 28)

An increasing desire for solitude led Kiefer to the Dominican monastery of La Tourette. He spent three weeks living as a guest of the monks, “just thinking quietly—about the larger questions.” (Heaven and Earth, p 29). This marked a turning point in his life; soon thereafter he abandoned his law studies and turned to art.

At the Dusseldorf Academy Kiefer came under the spell of Joseph Beuys, who inspired him to think about the role of cultural myths, metaphors, and symbols in understanding history. Beuys, the older artist, was perceived as much a performance artist as a shaman, given to transitory and mystical events (talking to a dead hare, sweeping a pavement). As the protégé, the younger artist Kiefer was more interested in traditional expression. He began to be serious about art in the mid-1960s, jas Germany entered an era of hope and prosperity. The public wasn’t altogether ready in revisiting the shameful Nazi past.

Kiefer wanted to open up the wounds of Germany’s past that were still festering from the unexamined infections of anti-Semitism and rabid nationalism. He has been accused of trying to glamorize the Teutonic sagas and racism that led to the Holocaust. The 1975 photographs of Kiefer giving the Sieg Heil salute in front of various historical locations were categorized as neo-fascist and a “sinister nostalgia for Hitler.” It’s a difficult business to attempt to simultaneously mock, criticize and parody Nazism. Sometimes, Kiefer’s work can be too dense with allegory to be understood.

Anselm Kiefer, Die Meistersinger, 1981
Oil, emulsion, and sand on photograph, mounted on canvas
(SF MOMA, Fisher Collection, photograph ©Liz Hager)

He was much more successful in his response to the poet Paul Celan’s haunting meditations on the Holocaust. In his poem “Death Fugue,” Celan, a concentration camp survivor, evokes the death camps, the black sky, burning fields and omnipresent color of lead, which became one of Kiefer’s predominant materials.

Kiefer’s use of lead (both as color and material) in his work is a deliberate choice. The medieval alchemists used lead as a catalyst in their attempts to turn dross into gold. It was a basic ingredient in the search for the Philosopher’s Stone. Later alchemists such as Paracelsus viewed alchemy as a spiritual discipline and alchemical rituals as metaphors for transformations. Lead is also the symbol of creativity since it has been associated, since antiquity, with Saturn, the outermost planet known in the medieval cosmos and the Roman God often identified with melancholia and artistic creation. Additionally, in the book Heaven And Earth (p.39) Michael Auping quotes Kiefer as saying “For me, lead is a very important material. It is, of course, a symbolic material, but also the color is very important. You cannot say that it is light or dark. It is a color or non-color that I identify with. I don’t believe in absolutes. The truth is always gray.”

Kiefer does not believe in permanence. His monumental works have disintegration and decay built into them as a way to emphasize meaning and morality. They do not exalt power or the Aryan ideal of classical, “white” masculinity or the Nazi fantasy of a 1000-year Reich. By confronting “the still disturbing underlying bogeys of modern German society,” he seems to live up to the radical avant-garde stance taken by those artists branded as degenerate in the 1930’s by the Nazi government.

According to Dore Ashton, Picasso is supposed to have once asked rhetorically, “What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes of he’s a painter, ears if he’s a musician or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he’s a poet.” He continued: “Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world…”

Kiefer holds up a mirror to Germany, and, by extension, to the world. He shows us our wounded body and broken spirit; he reminds us of the suffering that we have both caused and experienced. In this way, his works evoke secular altarpieces, contemporary Grünewalds, which evoke history’s suffering victims nailed to the cross of war. His enormous landscapes function as postwar battlefields. They are barren to be sure, and mysterious fires burn in the muck, but the distant hope of regeneration and redemption is present. Kiefer’s paintings seem to be saying that it is only through self awareness that we will be liberated.

Wider Connections

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven And Earth, ed. Michael Auping
Monumenta 2007—“Women in the Work of Anselm Kiefer”
Dore Ashton—PICASSO ON ART: A selection of views

Venetian Red: SFMOMA Presents the Fisher Collection

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: On occasion, Venetian Red invites guest writers to contribute to these pages. Today Nancy Ewart, whose posts appear on ChezNamasteNancy and Examiner.com, covers the debut of the Fisher Collection as SFMOMA. VR has a long-standing interest in the Fisher collection; for other posts on this topic, click here.

By NANCY EWART

Anselm Kiefer, Melancholia,
(courtesy of SFMOMA)

I was out of town last month so I missed the press preview. However, one of the first things I did on my return was to get over to SFMOMA and see what all the shouting has been about. The museum is celebrating its 75th year and obtaining this collection gives them another reason to break out the champagne. This sweeping exhibition, entitled “Calder to Warhol: Introducing The Fisher Collection,” offers an extraordinary preview of the depth, breadth, and quality of the Fisher holdings, with works by Alexander Calder, Chuck Close, Sam Francis, Philip Guston, Anselm Kiefer, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell, Gerhard Richter, Richard Serra, Wayne Thiebaud, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, and many others—160 works by 55 artists, a tasty amuse-bouclé indeed!

Roy Lichtenstein, Reflections
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

Even if the museum had the resources of the legendary King Midas, there is there is no way it could have bought even a fraction of these pieces. While it is difficult to get accurate figures on the sales of contemporary art, a 2005 Artnet article reported that the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC paid $4.5 million for one of Serra’s pieces. Richter’s auction high is the $5.4 million paid for the “Three Candles” and Twomby’s key works from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s have exceeded $10 million. The collection is rich in works from artists below the top-ten echelon. According to a recent (May 1010) article in the Huffington Post, artists such as Chuck Close, David Hockney, Ellsworth Kelly, Anselm Kiefer, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Ryman, and Wayne Thiebaud, sell for prices in the $2 million to $4 million range.

Chuck Close, Agnes Martin
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

Agnes Martin, well represented in the exhibit, sells for around seven figures; her prices are probably higher by now. So, while the dollar value of the collection is into the stratosphere, the artistic value to art lovers and the museum is beyond price. Anybody who has followed the saga of the Fisher’s and their art knows about the long and acrimonious battle over his wish to have a museum at the Presidio. Conservationists and wiser heads prevailed to stop it. It wasn’t just a case of NIMBY but involved serious issues over questions of traffic, a huge footprint and, frankly, some distrust of what would happen “after” all the shouting died down. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors were anxious to keep the collection in the city and passed a resolution in 2007 to that effect. Nevertheless, the ultimate fate of the collection was unknown until the Fishers finally announced that the collection would to go the museum, by means of a 100-year renewable loan. Maybe it was astute behind-the scenes talks or perhaps an intimation of mortality that made Don Fisher agree to this for he passed away a few days later.

Andy Warhol, Nine Multicolored Marilyns
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

It is said that you gain immortality through your children; in a very significant sense, his art collection was one of Fisher’s children and now, it’s been gifted to us. The collection is a huge addition to SFMOMA’s collection and puts the museum on the map as a major destination for lovers of modern art. With few notable exceptions, the pieces are huge, bold and brassy, with a focus on the blue chip artists of the last decade or so. It’s beautifully organized and hung, thanks to curator Gary Garrels and the rest of the museum staff. The entire fourth and fifth floors of the museum, including the Rooftop Garden, present a distillation of the sculpture portion of the collection. The Fifth Floor gallery is full of light and airy Calder mobiles. One of the pieces, a charming freestanding sculpture evokes the aquarium of the title with a few witty twists and scrolls of wire. Calder could have given lessons to any minimalist sculptor on elegant simplicity. Major works by Serra, Richter and Kiefer, Lewitt and Bourgeois are also on display.

Alexander Calder, Double Gong
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

After all that, you will need a big cup of Blue Bottle coffee to tackle the rest of the show. The Ellsworth Kelly pieces are textbook examples of his statement that paintings should be the wall, art as a geometric idea and not an emotion. The Kiefer pieces will be another wonderful addition to the museum’s existing one. I am a fan of this enigmatic and philosophical artist so I lingered in front of his Sulamith” with its evocation of the Holocaust. Kiefer’s enigmatic and emotional pieces display an evocative Teutonic angst combined with an awesome list of painting materials (oil emulsion, wood cut, shellac, acrylic and straw on canvas).

Anselm Kiefer, Sulamith
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

Throughout the exhibit, Garrel’s has intelligently paired pieces against one another—a thickly textured Sam Francis (Middle Blue, 1959) matched with the more open brushwork of a 1989 Joan Mitchell; Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park #67 on a wall where it visually leads to the gallery full of Agnes Martin’s pieces. One of those paintings, (Wheat) with its subtle rectangles of cream, parchment and a glaze of creamy yellow, is possibly one of the quietest and most beautiful pieces in the show. The fourth floor is too full of good pieces to list but one in particular—a great Oldenburg Apple Core—adds a much needed taste of wit to the more ponderous pieces in the collection. SFMOMA has announced plans for a vast addition to the museum. Two hundred and fifty million of the needed $480 million has been raised by “friends of the museum” and the board is currently looking for an architect. When the new wing opens in 2016, it will include a 60,000-square-foot Fisher Wing and allow a far more extensive display of the collection.

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #67
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

“At this momentous time in SFMOMA’s history, we are not only celebrating 75 years of accomplishments and innovation, we’re also looking forward to a new era of growth and community service that will be greatly enhanced by the museum’s presentation of these outstanding works of art from the Fisher Collection,” said SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra. “Our collaboration with the Fisher family will give visitors access to some of the finest modern and contemporary masterpieces, placing SFMOMA among the greatest museums for contemporary art and elevating the cultural profile of the city as a whole.”

Claes Oldenberg, Apple
(Courtesy of Civic Center Blog)

As the first unveiling of Doris and Don’s incredible gift to the city of San Francisco, this exhibition will introduce the public to an incomparable group of iconic works that will inspire and educate generations of visitors in the years to come.” I think that Grace McCann Morely, the museum’s first director would be well pleased.

“SFMOMA: From Calder to Warhol.” On display through September 19.

Wider Connections

More on the Fisher collection from ChezNamasteNancy
Kenneth Baker weighs in

What’s Trending: The SF Fine Art Fair

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Mixed Media, Painting, Photography, Printmaking, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Klari Reis, Hypochrondria
Installation: Epoxy resin in 150 petri dishes
(The Cynthia Corbett Gallery)

How visitors to Miami Basel do it?  Walking the comparatively-miniscule 80+ booth show at the SF Fine Art Fair yesterday afternoon left me psychologically knackered.  Of course, I only stopped at a small portion of what was on view. Drive by scanning is a necessity. Still, I’m not sure I could be an Art Fair warrior.

Klari Reis, Hypochrondria (detail)
Installation: Epoxy resin in 150 petri dishes
(The Cynthia Corbett Gallery)

Despite the fatigue factor, fairs offer the most effective platform from which to view the commerce of contemporary art. Given the necessities of the gallery business, fairs aren’t always the best place to see truly inspiring new work (isn’t the much touted “up and coming star” an oxymoron?), but they do offer an unparalleled opportunity to reflect on “trending” in both the art- making and art-buying communities. Evesdropping among the Influencers and Buyers is inevitable, but it can be both an enlightening and depressing experience.

Jae-Hyo Lee,  0121-1110=106062, 2010
Stainless steel bolts, nails, burnt wood,  and sealer

Jae-Hyo Lee,  0121-1110=106062 (detail), 2010
Stainless steel bolts, nails, burnt wood,  and sealer

In terms of art making, the SF Fair (through Sunday at Fort Mason) sports the spectrum of expected artists: the established (and dead), the well-vetted,  and a sprinkling of the nearly newly-minted MFAs.  Painting dominates; no new trend there.

Alyssa Monks, Vapor, 2008
Oil on linen
(Scott White Contemporary Art)

Alyssa Monks, Vapor (detail: just to make sure it was actually painted. . . ) 2008
Oil on linen
(Scott White Contemporary Art)

Figurative styles, in particular hyper-realism, are alive and well—Janet Fish, Alyssa Monks (gloriously rendered bathing water, a subgenre all her own), Jeanette Pasin Sloan, and Alan Magee (he’s cornered the stone market, but VR readers will appreciate his portrait of Hannah Höch) are all on the walls. Much abstraction too adorns the walls; lots of dots, it seemed, though for my taste Barbara Takenaga and Teo González do them best. Patterns abound: Mark Emerson’s Utfart (at JayJay’s booth) is the equivalent of Steve Martin’s “wild and crazy guy.” Stylistic granddaddy of the genre Robert Kushner, represented by a stunning and muscular gold and copper infused arabesque at DC Moore booth, makes everyone else’s attempt look whimpy. Figurative/abstract mixes à la Squeak Carnith and Inez Storer are very much in evidence. Does the scratchy gestural style still have runway? Text also puts in a strong showing, from the obvious attempts to engage the viewer—Carnith’s Is This Painting?—to the more subtle  like Dunce at Rebecca Hossack’s booth.

Teo González, Beach (study), 2010
Acrylic on clayboard
(Richard Levy Gallery)

Barbara Takenaga, Black/White/Blue, 2008
Acrylic on canvas
(DC Moore Gallery)

Anecdotally-speaking, acrylic seems to be gaining ground on oil. Perhaps understandably (it doesn’t have the sell-power of painting), drawing was not much around, Alice Attie‘s pen and ink text-pictures caught my attention for their use of text as a structural element and finely-detailed work.

Katherine Sherwood, Neuron Nurse, 2010
Mixed Media
(Gallery Paule Anglim)

On the photography front: Sebastiao Salgado’s magnificent black & white journalistic shots inspire awe no matter what their environment; Erika Blumenfeld‘s ethereal abstractions of the Polar environment are a welcome change on both a visual and intellectual level from the legions of more mundane landscapes; and Isidro Blasco‘s  3-D stage set-like landscapes are intimate visual delights. I can’t shake the feeling that Robert Silvers’s work (Marilyn and dollar bill ) feels like a photographic retread of Chuck Close territory, but I imagine his prints are wildly popular for the a-ha moment inherent in the gimmick..

Stuart Frost, Gaiola, 2009
Medium seagull feather quills
(Richard Levy Gallery)

However, a lot of unconventional fine art media were on display, though not all of the pieces were successful.  Jaehyo Lee’s burnt wood and nail “Starry Night”-ish abstraction was sublime majesty, but Gugger Petter’s  “Madonna” at Andrea Schwartz’s booth felt overly gimmicky.  (“Look Ma, I can weave newspaper into a real picture.”) In a refreshing moment, glass artist Jeff Wallin was actually in the Patrajdas booth talking about his portraits.  Canadian artist Cybelé Young’s quirky miniature sculptures (at Rebecca Hossack) offered a refreshing respite from the scores of more self-consciously wrought work (which is not to overlook the loads of care that went into fashioning them).

Cybelé Young (no identifying tag)
Rebecca Hossack Gallery

A special thanks to Catherine Clark for the only two (that I saw) video-related pieces—John Slepian’s stamen and a Lincoln Schatz “generative” video, both of which use the digital medium in richly-complex and visually-arresting ways.

John Slepian, stamen, 2009
Computer-based sculpture: computer, LCD monitor, speakers, glass bell jar, moss, stand
(The Catherine Clark Gallery)

And finally, but not least, San Francisco’s own Arion Press had a small sampling of its collection of artists’ books—I could have looked at more.

And on the art buying side, I think Fine Art Fair Director summed it up perfectly in his introduction to the Guide: “With a rebounding economy, there is no better time to invest in art.” Consultants and designers referred to large-scale paintings as “right for the so-and-so project” and legions of young blonds, as well as older couples, seemed intent on buying.

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