We are nonstop readers in our family. And although the writer,Dan Brown, is far from a fav, his use of art history and iconography In his books intrigues both Howard and me. OK, Howard has been known to follow detectives by PD James, John Le Carre, Ian Rankin, for example. A few years ago, Brown took his hero to Spain and Bilbao and as the Guggenheim art gallery there was one museum I’d always wanted to explore, we decided we would plan a trip with Bilbao as the focal point.
Here in Toronto, the AGO was reconstituted by Frank Gehry, our own local boy and if you know his work, it’s unique, distinguishable from many mundane buildings in Chicago, LA, Paris and of course Bilbao, Spain. Likely most people come to view the museum itself, but inside it, this summer we discovered exhibitions that complemented the iconic building.
At the Guggenheim, the headsets are free- in many languages-and the commentary is intelligent and helpful- although some may find the analyses of the artworks rather long. On view were shows by Anselm Keifer, Gerard Richter, Jenny Holzer, Lucio Fontana and Gorgio Morandi: likely not recognizable household names to many of the public. Perhaps and hopefully, Jenny Holzer’s is. She, like the others mentioned here, has been exhibiting for over forty years internationally, her voice calling attention to human abuses of power.
Her exhibition at the Guggenheim is entitled Thing Indescribable and contains several sections, each one taking aim at the deprivation of basic human needs. Art objects include Truisms and Inflammatory Essay posters. Her work stands beside the best of artists who have protested issues of social justice. Street art, engraved benches, posters in five languages, stone sarcophagi, metal signs, t- shirts all contain messages that proclaim a fighting stance for human rights. Videos and neon installations take aim at AIDS, rape as a weapon in war and torture. There is nothing quietly alluded to, her work stands boldly and strongly against oppressive governments. In this particular exhibition, her influences of Rosa Bonheur, Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois, Paul Klee among others are acknowledged. The museum’s press release states,
Visitors to this exhibition will experience the evolving scope of the artist’s practice, which addresses the fundamental themes of human existence—including power, violence, belief, memory, love, sex, and killing. Her art speaks to a broad and ever-changing public through unflinching, concise, and incisive language. Holzer’s aim is to engage the viewer by creating evocative spaces that invite a reaction, a thought, or the taking of a stand, leaving the sometimes anonymous artist in the background.
Her expose on the American government’s coverup of the Robert Mueller’s Report entitled Redacted is here, pages enlarged, the words and complete sentences blacked out. Wall after wall features the documents, words unreadable, patterns established by the consistency of marks that destroy or hide truth. Inscribed on linen, Holzer has digitally magnified the contents of the documents, meticulously tracing and faithfully reproducing both the text and the numerous examples of censorship in these paintings. Color and metal leafing have been applied to the surfaces of certain canvases in order to intensify or dull the information . Her aim is multifold as the works substantiate pictorial images in terms of their own materials and technique, but, as well, viewers cannot help but attempt to read and decipher what has substantiated evidence of Russian meddling in the presidential election of 2016. The sheer size of the art and, the notions of coverup are stunning. The exhibition is redolent of Picasso’s Guernica, Kathe Kollwitz’s wartorn subjects, abusive kingship etches by Goya, Ai Weiwei’s installations, the AIDS Quilt and so many more who employed art as a means of protest.This show is riveting , causing the viewer to reflect, mull, stand back and think: that involvement, that plea to be present and react motivates Holzer’s work.
Gerard Richter is a different kind of artist, metaphorical and his direction differs from the political stance of Holzer, for his concerns are primarily visual.In Seascapes, Richter manipulates the pictorial qualities of his paintings, addressing the viewers’ perceptions. Based on two different photographs of sea and sky in every work as others have done in the past, Richter draws on disparate realities that disorient his viewers. Suggestive of the awe one feels for the beauty of Nature along with the terror the sea can transmit, his works are vast, dislocating and overwhelming, causing one to be adrift,a bit unbalanced. In deed, one might think these are, in deed ,photographs, not realistic, but trompe- l’oeil paintings.
Comparable to Caspar David Friedrich, the German Romantic painter, Richter’s paintings suggest Wordsworth’s sense of the sublime in Nature, its expansive hugeness. However, unlike Friedrich who utilized humans in his paintings to provide scale to his landscapes, Richter does not, so we cannot know the boundaries, the breadth, the magnitude or scale of his endless seas, for we only observe breaking waves and vast skies, no trees, no foliage or people with which to gauge the size of the landscapes. Paint is thinly applied and diluted , even blurred in places like some travel snapshots.
In the Guggenheim, we also encounter Lucio Fontana’s On The Threshold. I had believed I knew the two dimensional qualities that the Abstract Impressionists championed. They had focused on stylistic elements, not pictorial ones for example, pure applied colour that eschewed figurative and landscapes that established three dimensional illusions of depth or place. Instead they worked with their boards and canvases as two dimensional surfaces that accepted or absorbed paint. But Lucio Fontana extends my understanding by cutting and slashing his canvases. Often he waits until the paint on his canvas dries and shapes the slash. Often his intent is providing a backdrop, a secret story to his monotone pieces. Often the effect is to blur sculpture and painting, veering into the theories the Abstract Expressionists had initially extolled. The surface is observed as surface and one works with it, not composing and creating an imaginary mountain or forest because the properties of stretched canvas, a manmade space, differ from that of earth or Nature from which real things can sprout. The artists did not magically transform a slab into what it could not be; however, the intrinsic qualities of canvas could speak for what they were, manipulated in their own sui generis, torn, reshaped, heaped with paint. And now pierced by scissors.
A twentieth century artist with a backdrop of Cold War, space exploration, a witness to cultural, technological and political transformations, Fontana commandeers the knife that becomes a means of “ cutting through” the traditions of years of using canvases. That idea of space behind, also around motivates his thinking. Not an atypical instrument to use in artworks, scissors do play a role in collage, Mylar, design projects, but here the strong slashes or deep holes to evoke the possibilities of depth or even three dimensions,( not illusions), as in something behind or beyond the pictorial surface is intriguing, permeating our thoughts and hurling us into a new cogitation of space. Both thoughtful and material, his works pioneer new thinking, extending how we have thought about painted surfaces. I react and giggle because, why not?
In Widewalls, reviewer Balasz Takac comments that Lucio Fontana, a leading European figure from Italy has exerted a major influence on an entire generation of artists in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in the Arte Povera movement, and especially in Italy and Argentina. According to recent scholarly contributions, this artist can be considered one of the first European practitioners of installation art and is considered an early Conceptualist. He has influenced art movements in Futurism, and Neoclassicism. At the Guggenheim this summer, he slashes canvases, even copper, shows us ceramic, watercolour, bronze in a new light and rearranges geometrical shapes. It’s as if we can see freshly, centuries of traditional appropriation of artistic materials extended and made new.
Perhaps most traditional is A Backward Glance: Giorgio Morandi and the Old Masters for unlike themes of protest, the composition of canvases, Morandi’s pieces comprise small size vases and still life, the traditional topics the viewer has come to associate with museum painting. Although originally influenced by the early Italians, Massaccio, Uccello and Giotto, who struggled with form and folds in their religious frescoes, particularly depicting saints, and moving on to Cezanne and the later Futurists, Morandi began to seek the mystical or metaphysical nature of ordinary objects. Bottles, boxes and even humans seem to shimmer in his muted grays or off- white paintings as if he has reached beneath the surface to the inner essence of his inspiration. Shaky outlines, an awareness of an Italian light that slightly distorts in the heat, a powdery pale color scheme , a quietness that consumes but renders simple objects timeless pervades each scene of simple objects. Frayed and muted objects exude a feeling of “cherished relics”: John Berger opines that his objects as beautiful, intense, timeless and intense.
The Art Story concurs, “Although this subject is unremarkable in itself, Morandi believed it carried important potential, describing how ‘ even in as simple a subject, a great painter can achieve a majesty of vision and an intensity of feeling to which we immediately respond’. This desire to reach beneath the façade of his subject would push Morandi to focus on the development of formal qualities of line, color and composition.”
Metaphysical painting originated with the Surrealist de Chirico in Munich, Germany, where he was influenced by 19th-century German Romantic painting along with the philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, all impacting on Morandi’s evolution. Theirs is a belief in a hidden essence that definitely evokes a disquieting response in viewers. This feeling is shared by all of the artists exhibited this summer at the Guggenheim.
What unites these remarkable artists is a desire to go beyond their object and amplify their qualities: to obscure, disorient, tantalize, provoke. Where Holzer shakes and shouts through her pieces gathered from our society, Richter magnifies his, suggesting a breadth, a power, a relationship with Nature that dwarfs us and twists our perceptions. Fontana too changes our perceptions that concern what and how we work with the materials associated with artmaking. Morandi, as well, goes deeper, casting beyond bright colour and the accepted description of the commonplace used for centuries in the pursuit of realist painting. He pierces the surface so the essence of the mundane can grab our attention and hint at the hidden, what lies beneath.
When people ask what separates run-of -the -mill artists from the great, it is these concepts of art history and a way of making the world relevant to a contemporary audience that distinguishes the ordinary from the mundane. Whether posters slapped on a wall, canvases distorted and reshaped, or the transformation of seas and bottles, these artists invite us to see more deeply, loosen our worldly perceptions and expand into fresh understanding . Just as Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp shook us to view soup cans and urinals in a new way, that tradition of revisiting old mantras in these shows crown Gehry ‘s incredible building that houses them.
I’m impressed and even 4 ½ hours of witnessing these works merely scrapes the surfaces in a place that looks to be constructed from tin cans and fish scales.