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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Cara London, NYT Recycling, 2008. Oil on canvas, 24 x 24 in. Photo courtesy of the artist.
I’m easing into the season gradually—so far, only one big toe in the water. In this posting, which is the first of two I'm putting up simultaneously, I shall deal with 3 of the 11 topics I’m introducing today. The 3 are: 1) a fine British exhibition catalog; 2) delectable paintings onstage & off in an East Village theater; and 3) surprising reading on “The Vermonter”…


1) The fine British exhibition catalog is “Stockwell Depot 1967-79.” It was published by Ridinghouse in conjunction with the big show this past summer, in all three galleries at the University of Greenwich, of work created and/or exhibited in Stockwell Depot, the storied artists’ enclave that flourished for more than two decades in an old brewery building in South London.

However, the catalog is far bigger than the show itself.

During its earlier and more memorable phases, Stockwell Depot gave exhibition and/or studio space to a raft of young but exciting artists. Among sculptors were David Evison, John Foster & Peter Hide; among painters were Jennifer Durrant, John McLean & Mali Morris – as well as many other artists whose work I’ve never seen in the flesh but that mostly looked impressive in the catalog.

The author of the principal and very well-done essay in the catalog – and the curator of the show itself--was Sam Cornish, one of our younger British art critics and former editor of abstractcritical.com (which has since been succeeded by abcrit.wordpress.com).

In Cornish’s essay, he argues that this important chapter in the history of British sculpture – and painting – has undeservedly been marginalized, but suggests that this situation is beginning to be rectified (from his lips to God’s ears).

This show has so far garnered three reviews. One is by Corinna Lotz, in aworldtowin.net, one is by Martin Holman in the hard-copy magazine, Art Monthly, and one is by Robin Greenwood in abcrit.wordpress.com.

Lotz has some nice installation photographs of the show, plus an interview with Cornish, and Holman’s review at least indicates that the art-world Establishment paid some attention to the show, but Greenwood’s commentary is yet more welcome. According to him,

“What is interesting is to note the unconventionality of the best of the later seventies works from Stockwell….This contradicts the perception, then and now – for it persists – that the Stockwell Depot work was orthodox.

“The sculpture in particular was viewed by the artworld as an academic follow-on to St. Martin’s, in the shadow of Caro, and it became marginalised as such.

“A more perceptive view reveals it to be no such thing; the Stockwell sculptors were breaking free from Caro’s influence and developing ways to reinvent sculptural structures, free of Caro’s predilection for pictorial solutions to sculptural propositions…..…..” Amen to that, too.

As I said above, this 175-page catalog is far more extensive than the show itself was and is intended to function as a stand-alone publication as well as catalog.

The show had 22 works by 20 artists, but the catalog has excellent photographs of roughly 100 individual works (many in color, and not counting the additional installation shots of original Stockwell exhibitions).

The biographical sketches at the end include entries on 30 artists (counting Gilbert & George as two artists).

If you know anybody interested in fine modern art, “Stockwell Depot 1967-79” would make an ideal Christmas, Hanukkah or birthday present.

Although it won’t be released in the U.S. until October 27, you can pre-order it for only $32 per copy at amazon.com. If you can’t wait until October 27, it’s already at amazon.co.uk, priced at £17.95.

On a personal note, what I found more piquant than the photographs in the catalog of all the art is the photos of the artists themselves, particularly the big one taken in 1968.

It shows a whole group of people whom I’ve known only as revered seniors; here they’re seen as tousle-headed sprouts.


2) The last time I looked in on the work of this talented painter, she was showing in a cooperative in her hometown of Flemington, New Jersey.

This time, I was able (on September 5) to attend “Cara London – Paintings” in Manhattan, but alas only in the Theater for a New City Art Gallery, which is to say a theater lobby – though at least it's an off-off Broadway one, in the East Village (closed September 18).

I do wish that London would consider applying to one of those artists’ cooperatives in Manhattan (of which I have more to say in the post below).

That way, she might be able to get some art-world types besides myself to look at her work – which to me seems eminently worthy of being looked at.

For those who didn’t read my last post on her (dated April 28, 2014), London is a representational painter in the luscious tradition of Monet, Renoir & Cézanne, as filtered through the sensibility of abstractionist John Griefen, with whom she studied some years ago.

(She has, naturally, also studied in the more formal atmosphere of appropriate art schools, and participated in the original Triangle Artists’ Workshop.)

Mostly, she paints figure studies, landscapes, and still lifes in oil on canvas, with a few nearly monochromatic monotypes and the occasional acrylic thrown in.

For me, the figure studies are competent, and the landscapes often pretty, but it is most often in the still lifes that she manages to seize upon topics with a contemporary flair, topics that haven’t been done to death by earlier masters.

(I think apples is particular should be withdrawn from circulation by all contemporary still life painters, as nobody but nobody will ever be able to do them as well as the master from Aix-en-Provence).

The reason that London’s show was held in this theater was that it was staging a play with book, music and lyrics by her husband, Eric B. Sirota.

Entitled “Your Name On My Lips,” this play centered around Sam, a young painter, Suzanna, a young musician, and the forces that conspire to draw them apart.

It’s serious, more opera than musical comedy, and, since the message is that art is long even though life may be short, I endorse it (though again – on a personal note—I am more vulgarian in my theatrical tastes, so I most enjoyed a hilarious soft-shoe-type of routine by two subsidiary characters singing a song entitled, “No Girl Is Worth It”).

Anyway, all of Sam’s paintings – onstage throughout the show--were created by London. From a distance, they looked fine but not outstanding, except for the sparkling small portrait of Suzanna that Sam gives her at the beginning of the play. That one looked good enough to come down from off the stage.

Still better were the best of the 23 pictures hung in the theater lobby. One of them was a muscular sepia & white monotype portraying & entitled “Samovar” (2014).

Another was a large and very inventive oil-on-canvas cityscape entitled & portraying “Water Towers, NYC” (2001).

A majestic view, it has a high vanishing point, forcing the viewer to look up at these sturdy yet graceful water towers, themselves a freely-brushed symphony in grays and browns.

But as always, the largest number of paintings that seduced me were the still lifes, some I’d seen before and some I hadn’t.

Among the unfamiliar ones were two portraying the instruments that the artist’s son plays at his high school.

“Craig’s French Horn” (2008) shows the shiny classical instrument that is used in concert music, in gold and white. “Craig’s Mello and Accordion” (2012) shows a green-and-white squeeze box and a silvery brass instrument that is known as a mellophone and used in marching bands.

I still love two old favorites, one showing the shiny clear plastic encasing golden tropical fruit of “Oranges in a Bag” (2008), and the other, “NYT Recycling” (2008).

This last presents the cool grays and stiff whites of that worthy newspaper, the New York Times, bundled up and waiting for its final trip atop the warm grays and curlicues of an ornate tablecloth.

I see it as a contemporary version of a “vanitas,” a type of 17th century Dutch still life depicting skulls, withered musical scores, battered books and other reminders that life is fragile and death is just around the corner.

It’s like the artist was telling people who write art criticism for the Times (and maybe also other publications) that however many Pulitzer Prizes they may win, they will soon become -- yesterday’s newspapers.

Or, as Shakespeare put it, “Golden lads and girls all must/ As chimney sweepers come to dust…”


3) On September 11, I traveled north to East Alstead, New Hampshire, to attend a very special birthday of an old friend (her100th). I rode an Amtrak train, “The Vermonter,” and read their on-board magazine, Arrive (I guess they picked up the idea of an onboard magazine from the airlines, but who’s to complain?).

In the September/October issue of Arrive, I found an article by Michael Cannell, “The Millennial Museum: Art Institutions Are Finding New Ways to Engage Young Professionals, Their Future Patrons – and Donors.”

It contained what for me was some surprising information.

For years, I have been assuming that the art business – and in particular, museum attendance -- were growth industries. But it seems that I’ve been lingering asleep in some lotus grove or other. Times have changed.

True, museums were a growth industry back in the ‘60s, when I was on Time, and this was also the case in 1979, when I researched the situation for an article on New York museums that appeared in Arts Magazine in early 1980.

The reasons for this growth, as I analyzed it, were that art was a pastime that particularly attracted students, college graduates and white-collar workers, and all these segments of the population were growing, too.

But now, according to this article in Arrive, museum attendance is falling—and has, in fact, been falling for the past decade (other sources I consulted, in preparation for this report, put the beginnings of the decline back to the 1990s).

Thinking about it, and checking on my facts, I came to realize that, at least in part, this decline can be explained by the decline in the percentage of teenagers entering college.

However, this phenomenon has only become apparent in the last five years or so—and therefore won’t begin to result in a decline in the percentage of the population with college degrees for a while yet.

More to the point, at least according to Cannell’s article, is that the percentage of younger adults – the millennials -- who go to museums is declining.

Evidently too many of these young people (to suit the museums, anyway) prefer to let their entertainment come to them, over their smart phones and/or Netflix – or maybe they are simply more interested in hanging out in sports bars and watching football, soccer or basketball games on TV.

Whatever it is, the museums – as this article partially indicated – are bending over backwards to make their museum visits FUN for all these recalcitrant young visitors.

They stage gossipy tours where the leaders talk about the prices of the art on view, they offer intimate private parties, concerts and/or elaborate computerized ways to educate visitors inside and outside the actual galleries.

What the article doesn’t talk about – but what to me is far more obvious and far more exasperating – is the ever-increasing emphasis on “fun” types of art.

Here I mean paintings with little flashing lights, monster installations that visitors can clamber around in, haute couture shows, videos (like movies) and performance art (like school plays or rock concerts), naked human bodies and rooms that rain water on all four sides of the visitor.

It’s all fun, fun, fun, but not very good preparation for looking at and learning to respond to the best contemporary painting, prints, photography, drawings or sculpture.

Not, in other words, much of an education in seeing—or much of an introduction to the great art of the past.

I guess I haven’t been aware of the underlying reasons why museums – even the Met -- go in for this type of audience hype because I’ve never been aware that there was a problem here in New York.

Every year, I get a press release from the Met telling me their attendance has set new records.

I see predominantly younger adults lined up along Fifty-Fourth Street clear back to Fifth Avenue in order to get into MoMA’s free Friday nights, and further lines of people of all ages waiting to get into the Guggenheim and the Neue Galerie, especially around the holidays.

But the research I’ve done on the web in preparation for this post indicates variations in museum attendance from state to state—and New York seems to be far from the most typical, and among the most blest.

Higher museum attendance among adults correlates with the fact that parents and/or schools in that state are more likely to bring their children to museums -- and I do see lots of kids in and around the Met, as well as the occasional school group at the Guggenheim.

Another factor must be that New York is a big tourist town, and many American visitors will go to museums here even if they don’t get to their own home museums often—if at all.

As for all those disgustingly cultivated foreigners (noted elsewhere in FMD recently) they are even more likely to want to visit New York’s museums.

Finally, as the art capital of the country & maybe even the world, New York probably has the highest concentration of artists, wannabe artists, auctioneers, art critics and editors, curators, gallerists, and maybe even collectors in the U.S..

For all these people, art is business as well as pleasure (even the collectors, who in my experience are almost always aware of the financial prospects for their possessions and possible acquisitions).

So – not only do these people want to keep up; they may even feel that they have to.

On the other hand, I also see how a lot of your perhaps more typical millennials deal with permanent collections, even in this culturally-vibrant city and especially at MoMA.

Sure, some of them will take the time to look at the art and maybe even pause long enough to read the label.

Some go for that invention of the devil known as the recorded tour, but the ones I find most perplexing are those lovely young ladies who pause in front of a painting, hold up their smart phone, snap a picture of the painting – and move on.

They don’t spare even seconds to look at the painting for its own sake. They don’t seem to care about responding to its scale, its surface, or even its true color (none of which will appear in the smart phone image).

But that little image of the painting enables its owner to show (as well as say) that she was in MoMA, in the Big Apple itself.

It creates a souvenir that is cheaper, more personalized and more easily stored than any of the tacky little tchotchkes sold on the street carts outside the museums and especially in midtown.

The digital image of an artwork also seems to enable its maker to take a sort of possession of the artwork itself – and it may be that this sensation of ownership is what these millennials covet, more than the way the artwork itself looks.

Does the acquisitive urge truly precede the appreciative one—am I seeing tomorrow’s collectors here? And, if so, what kind of taste can we expect them to develop from such “esthetic” experiences? I wish I knew.

(PS: I wonder if the Michael Cannell who wrote this article in Arrive is the same Michael Cannell whose review in Arts Magazine of Friedel Dzubas at Knoedler’s back in 1983 sparked my desire to go to Washington and see the great Dzubas retrospective at the Hirshhorn?

This experience in turn brought forth “Abstract Painting in General; Friedel Dzubas in Particular” with my (ground-breaking) theory of multireferential imagery introduced in it, so I may have not one but two wake-up articles to thank Cannell for -- if indeed it is the same Michael Cannell.

According to Richard Martin, editor of Arts in ’83, Cannell was then “very young.” It’s only 32 years later, so he could still be in the prime of life).
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