Tuesday, October 13, 2015

James Hyde

James Hyde

Volume Gallery is a small space in one of the westside  gallery buildings that I frequent. It specializes in decorative objects - like the above - which looks a bit too cute and uncomfortable to me. (but then,,, you would never want  to see how we decorate ourl living space!)

James Hyde

I'm also not  thrilled by these home furnishings that seem to practice the  'uglification" trending in certain corners of the contemporary artworld.

James Hyde

But now, this Brooklyn artist has  got my attention - with this conglomeration of glass and paint that reminds me of a muddy, trashy riverbank -- but much more beautiful.

James Hyde

And then there's  this set of paintings executed over ink-jet printings of spacious Western landscapes.

His colorful markings are so perfect for the deep, dry canyons that recede behind them.

It's exactly how I feel when visiting such places -- with my gangly, temporary human nonsense silhouetted against the eternity of natural forces. 


This work gives me too much delight to be called 'merely' decorative.

It makes me happy to be alive.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Robert Natkin

Robert Natkin (1930-2010)
Untitled, 1957 (74" X 86")

It's hard for me to believe that the heroic painting shown above remained unsold and stashed away in the artist's studio until now.

It's also hard for me to believe that the artist was 27 when he painted it.

But the world of art is full of surprises.

Not that I am recommending its dismemberment, but it could be cut down into about a dozen wonderful paintings.

Every area seems to open up endless vistas of  delight.- much like Kandinsky's Campbell panels, painted 40 years earlier.

And it seems like an exhaustive catalog of what kinds of things look good with each other.

Most amazing, of course, is that all these wonderful details fit together into a very large space.

How did the painter sustain so much focus?

Apparently he would soon require psychotherapy -- possibly to recover from the expense of so much manic energy.

Willem De Kooning's Excavation was installed in the Art Institute in 1952, and apparently this large piece (81" X 100")  was an important influence on this Chicago artist.

But Natkin's painting seems driven by the thrill of beauty rather than anxiety and compulsion.  Unfortunately, that must not have appealed to buyers of contemporary art, in either Chicago or New York, during that period.

This is a work from the early 1950's - when the artist had just graduated from the Art Institute..

I would not have minded if he continued to bring Matisse to the Midwest - but he soon abandoned that project.

Here's another piece from the mid to late fifties. There is a greater feeling of effort and struggle.  It appears that the artist was trying not to do the same painting twice.

Here's another large one from 1957 (102" X 80")

I don't know which large painting was done before the other - but some large shapes in this one seem to be looming - as if to suggest impending trouble.

It's hard to be an impecunious young person with big dreams.

Here's the artist standing beside it.

What a fine young man!

1958 - pastel

I love how the emptiness of  that big lasso shape sets off the entire design.

There seems to be an endless - and successful - experimentation with varieties of mark making.


All it needs is a few figures to become a mythopoetic scene.


This is the kind of  show that makes me appreciate the gallery that presented it even more.

If Thomas McCormick did not have a gallery -- not only this show, but this entire genre of mid-century ABX would likely not be shown in Chicago  today - just as early 20th C. Chicago landscape painting disappeared from view when R.H. Love Gallery closed its doors.

Friday, October 09, 2015

If I ran the Art Institute

The upcoming retirement of the museum's current director has got me thinking about how it might be run  differently.

Here is my discussion of that Director when he first took office four years ago  As he said in an interview at the beginning of his term:

 I want to strategically grow our collections. Collection growth is terribly important, and I'm speaking now with the curators. Maybe now is the time to ask, "Are we thinking strategically enough about acquisitions? Should we be trying to make some of the more transformative types of acquisitions as we've made recently, like with the (Kazimir) Malevich and the (Robert) Rauschenberg?

Here is my discussion of that acquisition; while here is my discussion of the pieces  sold to raise cash to buy it.

He would probably consider the subsequent acquisition of the $400 million  Edlis-Neeson collection as  the highlight of his career, but I would call it an even worse disaster.  It commits significant museum wall space for the next 50 years to specific pieces of Post-Modern art, a genre that would appear to deny the significance of anything for longer than 15 minutes.

I would prefer that art museums went in precisely the opposite direction:   emphasizing temporary or rotational display over permanent  installation; and allowing a wider variety of genres to be displayed as contemporary.

But I've also read that museum leadership is talking about adding yet another building for additional galleries of contemporary and Asian art.  Hopefully that will take their East-Asian displays beyond Japan, and expand the contemporary displays to include work that is lyrical and maybe even beautiful.

Would it be too shocking for the museum to display a contemporary landscape that applies rather than deconstructs the tradition?

The search for a new director has begun, and the Tribune reports that the board is looking for another professional scholar.  But as with the current director,  what interests a scholar is not necessarily what looks very good.   Scholarship looks for  intellectual context, but I want museum directors who just want to look at art - the kind that demands endless viewing. 

Scholars should not run art museums any more than they should run opera companies.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Death of a Critic

This passage from his last review   exemplifies what set  Michael  Weinstein apart  from most of his colleagues at New City:

"The work is one of profound visual poetry that intensely personalizes one of the great themes of existence."

I doubt this photograph would affect me the same way. (the self dramatization in the reproduction feels stiff and frivolous). But the reviewer hazards to speak authoritatively about  "one of the great themes of existence".  He's not just writing about art.

His review of the Paul D'Amato exhibit at the  DePaul Art Museum was his most significant contribution over the ten years that I followed him.  Contradicting gallery signage, he confronted the politically correct "Black-is-beautiful" genre of photography.  That drew the ire of many concerned parties, producing the best online debate about a Chicago artist that I have ever read

So I appreciated the many eulogies and especially how his passing lead right into the art editor's discussion of the "death of art criticism".

 “In the last three or four decades, critics have begun to avoid judgments altogether, preferring to describe or evoke the art rather than say what they think of it.”  As an art critic who is also an editor, I admit that this descriptive mode is the most common and the most dangerous pitfall I encounter in my own writing and in the writing of the critics with whom I work.(Elliot Reichert)

Yes!  Even if the language, focus, and subjects of description are the consequence of prior judgments, it's the rare critic who owns and proclaims them.  Though, I would not call it a "pitfall".  It's more like an unwillingness  to climb the mountain of understanding to get a higher view. And I question whether those who exclusively apply the "descriptive mode" could offer a good discussion of judgment even if they wanted to.

Perhaps judgment is shunned by an  awareness of self limitation and the challenges faced by the artists being judged.  But time and money are not limitless. Everyone has to judge where to spend them. Some  kind of  art criticism is the unavoidable result.

In part, this move from judgment toward evocative description is predicated on larger shifts in the intellectual and political economies in which art has come to circulate in our time. Once the arbiter of good taste, the critic’s claim to expertise has been hastily discredited in the frantic rush to dismantle the hierarchies of power that became broadly perceived as the defensive barriers of art’s elitism. Criticism, a voice that was once conceived of as an independent mediator between public spheres and avant-garde cultures, is increasingly regarded as a quasi-contracted tool of the institutions and markets that exercise real power. (Elliot Reichert)

The need to arbitrate good taste disappeared with aristocratic culture, while avant-garde culture has been institutionalized within a global educational system.  It has been so successful at eliminating any kind of standard or expectation, it has rendered itself obsolete except for the inexperienced. Dada is now a hundred years old, though it is still presented as contemporary.

 The institutional theory of art best accounts for the cultural life of our age, and its voice can only be descriptive. Likewise, Science,   the most authoritative voice in the modern age,  basing it's assertions on reason and impersonal evidence,  can only speak of art descriptively.  There is no  credible ground from which market value can be challenged.

As a curator, I have witnessed firsthand how the available “knowledge” around an artwork is ossified in the various institutional apparatuses that craft the language of object labels, wall texts, elevator pitches and press releases. At the institutional level, the meaning of art is increasingly shaped by mechanisms that more closely resemble marketing schemes than scholarship, or even good taste. (Elliot Reichert)

An interesting testimonial.

An autonomous,  non-descriptive art criticism can be based on nothing more than personal  resources  and experiences with life, art, and other critical thinkers in a variety of disciplines. It is too flagrantly subjective to serve either academia or the marketplace. It will  always be inadequate and un-verifiable.

Without arbitration or explication, criticism is nothing more than a one-way conversation among art  lovers. Depending on the critic,  that can be enough.  Though I hardly ever find art criticism that reflects a wealth of experience, and much less that convinces me that something important was at stake. Blair Kamin, the local architecture critic, is a frequent exception.