Lauren A Kaplan Art Tours



Podcast Interview: 

I was recently interviewed by Michael Shaw, an LA-based artist, for his podcast, The Conversation. To learn more about my approach to museum education, giving tours, and living in New York, listen here!

On Kawara: Killer (and Marker) of Time:

On Kawara’s Guggenheim retrospective was a surprising revelation, far more powerful–and poignant–than I’d previously expected. The artist, who died last year, was born in Japan on December 24, 1932, forcing him to experience the horrific bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when he was a teenager. Though he’d initially wanted to be a scientist, witnessing the dangerous side of scientific advancement changed his mind. After a brief career as a figurative surrealist, Kawara destroyed his early work, left Tokyo for Paris then New York, and landed on a practice that would endure for nearly fifty years. His subject was time, and his goal was to record its passage.

He began by painting austere “date paintings” in 1966, a series which he would later (very aptly) call “Today.” These rectangular canvases were created according to a set of strict rules: 1) each painting must be completed on the date that it depicts; 2) each painting must show the date using the language and date conventions of the country Kawara was in when he made it; 3) each painting must be done in one of eight sizes and in grey, red, or blue; and 4) almost every painting has a matching box lined with newspaper clippings from that date.

These boxes–perhaps the most relatable part of the entire project–had never been exhibited before the Guggenheim show, and they completely change the tone of the “Today” series. The dates are no longer just numbers; instead, they become contextualized. For those who didn’t live through many of the years On Kawara painted (like me), the series is an idiosyncratically edited history book; for visitors who remember the events listed in the newspapers (like my parents), the series induces nostalgic. Over all though, Kawara illustrates how, though specifics may change, the larger issues that we tackle as humans remain largely the same.

Similarly, his paintings evolve ever so slightly over time, demonstrating variation within constraints. As the cultural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once said, “ritual is the killer of time,” and Kawara’s work embodies of this idea. By repeating the same rituals day after day, the artist aimed to prevent major change, but evolution within the work is still visible. 

Kawara continued to explore this dichotomy in the “I Got Up” series, in which he sent two postcards every day for nearly 12 years. Kawara was not one for elusive titles: the postcards say the time he got out of bed each day while traveling all over the world. It appears that he often suffered from jetlag, as the times vary wildly (4:32 p.m., 6:53 a.m., 8:10 p.m.). Simultaneously, Kawara began two other series, “I Met,” and “I went,” in which he recorded the names of everyone he met and traced his route for the day, respectively. All together, these three series read like present-day social media status updates. They provide us with his coordinates–we see the address and an image of the place he’s currently staying on the postcards–as well as the time he rose to begin his day, who he saw and where, but we get no substantive information. After looking at the nearly 1500 postcards dozens of times, I do not know Kawara any better. 

Indeed, the show may tell us more about ourselves than it does about the artist. Sure, we can see that Kawara was maddeningly habit-oriented and likely suffered from some form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Yes, he was an adventurous traveler and a successful gambler (before his paintings began to sell, he financed his lengthy trips with earnings from the Go and Mah Jong tournaments he hosted at his apartment), but I don’t have a sense of his desires, anxieties, interests, or fears. Instead, the exhibition has made me reflect on how I spend my own time, and it has caused many others to reach far back into their memory banks.

Unexpectedly, the appearance of dates that hold significance–birthdays, anniversary, 9/11–engenders spontaneous emotional outpourings. And in this way, the visual representation of time, the most universal subject of all, has become incredibly personal.


Jeff Koons and Nostalgia: 

Who knew that a 1981 Hoover could induce nostalgia? Or, for that matter, a 1986 ad for Frangelico? Jeff Koons, now 59 and still working feverishly, probably did not. Nonetheless, in the many tours that I’ve led through his excellent retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American art, his object choice has proven intoxicating. Last weekend, a woman–Koons’s contemporary– mentioned that a green upright Hoover, encased in plexiglass and illuminated by florescent tubes, triggered feelings of fledgling independence. In 1982, when she had just moved into her own apartment in the East Village, her first major purchase was that vacuum cleaner. “I felt so responsible, so adult,” she mused.

This Hoover upright “convertible” is part of a series called The New, which Koons began exhibiting in 1980 in the New Museum’s storefront window on Fourteenth Street. At the time, this and other vacuums were top-of-the-line products, meant to engender consumer lust and nearly religious devotion. Not one of Koons’s Hoovers has ever been used. Yet now, thirty years later, they embody obsolescence.

The series Luxury and Degradation, which celebrates vice through reprinted liquor advertisements and stainless steel casts of drinking paraphernalia–an ice bucket, a Baccarat crystal set–from the late 1980s, has a similar effect. Though I am too young to recall the ads for Bacardi, Frangelico, and Jameson, many visitors can. “Ads used to be much more subtle, more elegant,” one man remarked as he stared at a 1986 Frangelico ad imploring consumers to “Stay in tonight.” It features a flow of the eponymous hazelnut-flavored liquor shaped like the curve of a woman’s back. Though perhaps not obvious enough for today’s flashy (and slowly dying) print magazines, the image occasions recollections of a simpler, smarter, time.

Many say that Koons’s greatest strength lies in his ability to capture the zeitgeist of the present moment, but perhaps that is because we are used to seeing his work soon after it is completed. In the context of a career-long retrospective beginning in 1978, different interpretations arise. And in fact, one of Koons’s recent series, titled Antiquity, is his most backward-looking.  The most striking piece, Venus, was inspired by Woman of Willendorf, one of the oldest sculptures known to man. Dating to 24,000 BCE, Woman of Willendort is a hand-held fertility charm that experts believe was passed from one woman to another as they tried to conceive. Koons has transformed the small, pregnant figure–with full belly and pendulous breasts–into one of his iconic steel balloon animals. When asked about this series, Koons said, “I’m trying to let people know about narrative. Everyone is interested in narrative, and the narrative that we can trust the most is the biological narrative, the narrative of human history.”

So, what is the narrative of Jeff Koons’s retrospective? Here is an artist who is not, as many of us formerly presumed, obsessed only with “the new,” but someone who wants desperately to insert himself into the long narrative of art history and to help viewers connect the dots. Koons, a father of seven, has said that there are two ways to become immortal: through procreation and art. A third is through memory. In fact, nostalgia may be the superpower behind Koons’s most potent work.


Reconsidering Futurism: 

Italian Futurism is often considered a hawkish movement that was, for many years, in cahoots with Fascism. This impression is not wholly unwarranted, though it does deserve some careful parsing. Futurism lasted for thirty-five years, from 1909-1944, and throughout this long tenure, it passed through many phases, some more bellicose than others.

In his founding manifesto of 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti–a writer by training, and a brilliant organizer and publicist– declared: “No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece…We will glorify war–the world’s only hygiene–militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women.”

Indeed, much of the movement’s early work, made in the years leading up to and during the First World War, had the ‘aggressive character’ and intensity that Marinetti called for. Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) shows a steely, ironman-like figure striding forward. He is a perfect soldier, resembling an armored knight rather than a vulnerable man. Similarly, Giacomo Balla’s abstract compositions, which show the interpenetration of light and color, answer Marinetti’s call to depict speed and the direct sensation of dynamism. In sum, the Futurists initially aimed to “reconstruct the universe” by making it more joyful, more energized, and more modern. Never once did their early manifestos–or the art that acted as the visual demonstration of these writings–aim to express emotion or sentimentality.

Then came the war, and for a brief moment, things shifted. Two of the movement’s most creative minds, Boccioni and an architect named Antonio Sant’Elia were killed. Marinetti and others survived, but they were softened–temporarily–by the experience. Though he never stopped advocating for war (he volunteered twice more, in the conflict against Ethiopia in 1936, then for World War II in the 1940s), Marinetti underwent a streak of empathy. In 1921, he announced his First Manifesto of Tactilism. In it, he calls for artists to heal the “illness of the post-war period, giving humanity new and nutritious joys. … Destroy the distances and the barriers that separate [humanity] in love and friendship.”

In an effort to strengthen human connections, Marinetti invented portable panels covered with variously textured materials meant to be felt with open hands and impotent eyes (either covered with a blindfold of blinded by bright light). Only a handful of these panels remain. The most famous one, titled Sudan-Paris, is comprised of rough sandpaper, sponges, wire brushes, and slick oil paint, all of which Marinetti felt to be suggestive of one locale or the other. The “viewer” was meant to experience those places by touching the panel.

Why this sudden concern for “love and friendship,” and more specifically, for tactile awareness? How can we square this sensitive experiment with Marinetti’s earlier truculence? The reasons are multiple. Perhaps this shift can be attributed to Marinetti’s recent encounter with Benedetta Cappa, a woman twenty years his junior, who had won his heart and collaborated with him on Sudan-Paris. Or perhaps it is linked to the then (and still) popular teachings of Maria Montessori, who used touch exercises as a way to teach mentally disabled children. But most likely, it can be traced back to Marinetti’s time in the army. “It was precisely with giving myself over to this exercise [of touching] in the underground darkness of a trench in Gorizia, in 1917, that I made my first tactile experiments,” he claims in the 1921 manifesto. During the war, Marinetti was faced with temporary blindness, while also seeing others become permanently sightless. As a way to rehabilitate these wounded Italian men, he generated a form of art that did not depend upon vision.

Herein lies the thread of continuity. Marinetti’s goal in 1909 was to strengthen Italy and make its men more virile; his goal remained the same in 1921, though he adapted his methods to meet the needs of a maimed populace. When, only three years later, Marinetti rejoined the Fascist party (he briefly defected in 1921) and wrote a new manifesto, “Futurism and Fascism,” he returned to his prewar rhetoric, arguing once again for man to be a fighting machine ready for another military encounter. Unfortunately, this is the Marinetti–and the version of Futurism–that history remembers.

To unpack the myriad phases of this multifaceted movement, join my class on Futurism at the Guggenheim!


Feminine Mystique:

I don’t consider myself an ardent feminist, but I’ve spent the last few months thinking about how gender affects one’s identity, particularly when it comes to power relations. Perhaps my favorite show of the winter attempts to answer this question, albeit from a very specific perspective.

Wangechi Mutu: Fantastic Journey is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through March 9. Mutu, a female artist, was born in Kenya in 1972 and is now based in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Mutu identifies not only as a woman, but as an African woman living in the United States. She grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in suburban Nairobi; her father, a paper importer, supplied her with drawing materials from an early age, and her mother was a midwife. At seventeen, she left Africa for international adventures: she journeyed first to Wales for high school, then Cooper Union for college, and finally, Yale for graduate school. Now, having been in New York for roughly twenty years, she feels that she belongs in neither Kenya nor the United States, but somewhere in between. Ultimately, the boundaries we use to define places and cultures–boundaries that Mutu interrogates–have become so slippery as to be nearly irrelevant. “These conservative demarcations of nation and state and culture are soon going to be archaic,” she argues, and she uses her art to prove this point.

In her large-scale collages constructed out of clippings that she “harvests” from sources as diverse as National Geographic, Vogue, Cycle World, medical texts, and pornographic magazines, she creates ultimate hybrids. Her figures are part woman, part animal, and part machine, with glistening multi-colored skin. Each character titillates the viewer with sex-appeal–they have large lips and breasts, and are often adorned with glitter–but upon closer inspection, they become monstrous and blood-splattered. In Yo Mama (2003), one of the earliest works in the show, a squatting woman has decapitated a snake and punctured its head with her stiletto. This female may be a stand-in for Eve, and in Mutu’s version of the biblical tale, she destroys the snake rather than falling for its chicanery. Far from responsible for the spiritual downfall of mankind, Mutu’s Eve is strong, seductive, formidable.  The snake that she holds connects two continents across a pink ocean, perhaps representing the African diaspora.

In this work and others, Mutu aims to challenge and (literally) deconstruct prevailing notions of both femininity and “Africanness.” She explains “When I say I’m an African artist, I mean it’s a part of my practice, part of who I am because I was born and raised there. But often, when people say I’m an African artist, it’s reductive–it’s exotic, it comes from a world that’s in the past. Even broaching the idea of race is very complicated because Africans have a different historical experience to those who were abducted and brought here to the U.S.A. … I always say I was racialised in America…We don’t break things down in terms of black and white, but we do have the colonial issue. My work relates to the forced creation story that the colonialists invented for us.” These constructed power dynamics are explored in Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies (2005), in which three composite creatures form a totem, and it’s difficult to ascertain who dominates whom.

Sometimes Mutu and the viewer become part of this complicated power play. In Eat Cake (2012), the artist squats like a predator gorging herself. Though the film is a metaphor for excessive consumption in Western society, it also generates an uncomfortable voyeuristic experience. Viewers stare down at the film–which is projected onto a packing crate on the floor–and watch Mutu as she uses long, acrylic nails to devour an ungodly amount of chocolate cake. Race relations are hinted at in the contrast of the dark cake with the bright, white dress she wears, and as in her collages, the female figure (in this case Mutu herself) is both attractive and repulsive.

Here I must break in to state that Wangechi Mutu is gorgeous. Willowy and stylish, she looks like many of the models in the magazines that she cuts to bits. This makes one wonder: How would the work– and Mutu’s own view of the world as a woman–be different if she herself were not so attractive?

In a class I recently taught on this exhibition, one of the participants disputed the notion that Mutu critiques gender stereotypes at all; rather, he contended, she presents them yet again, and in some cases, she even embodies them. I don’t completely disagree: Mutu often uses the traditional markers of feminine beauty to draw us into her work, then she shows us the danger of trusting those markers. In the end, her oeuvre doesn’t have one unified message (even if it does have consistent overarching themes). Her visual stunners affect each of us differently depending upon our own ideas about sex, identity, gender, race, and relationships. She raises more questions than she answers, not only about herself, but also about her audience.

To learn more about Wangechi Mutu’s retrospective, contact me to set up a private tour!


Border Crossings

Over the past century, many artists, architects, and designers have crossed international borders–or entire oceans–to launch, bolster, inspire, or save their careers. I am currently teaching a class entitled Border Crossings at Parsons the New School for Design. In it, my students and I are investigating how lengthy sojourns, and sometimes permanent migrations, affected the output and identities of many creative minds. Similarly, we are considering how transplanted trailblazers have acted as significant conduits for cultural exchange. Moving in a roughly chronological manner, we are focusing on four paradigms of border crossing: 1) Individuals moving within Europe for inspiration and career advancement before World War I; 2) North and South Americans migrating to European capitals for training; 3) European innovators fleeing to the Americas during and following the Second World War; and 4) contemporary stars who are simultaneously based in multiple countries, thus illustrating the permeability of geographic boundaries today.

We are nearly half way through the course, and our overarching question remains:  How does travel shape creative development, and how has its role changed over time?  Answers are continually evolving.

For many artists, the most visible changes relate to color choice. In the case of Vincent Van Gogh, his travels to Provence in 1888-89–first to Arles then Saint Remy–dramatically altered his palette. What had previously been dark and muddy–likely influenced by the dreary weather of Holland and Brussels–grew bright and explosive when confronted with “a stronger sun.” When writing to his brother Theo from Arles, he claimed that “all true colorists must … admit that there is another kind of color than that of the North.”

Henri Matisse was similarly impacted by his trips to Saint Tropez and Collioure throughout 1904-6, where he attempted to reproduce the phenomenon of being blinded by sunlight, and aimed to “use color like sticks of dynamite.” As the critic Maurice Denis put it, “What Matisse and his disciples restore to us in the retinal trouble, the optical trembling, the painful sensation of dazzling, the vertigo that a white wall or esplanade causes at high noon in the summer.” Matisse, who spent his first 25 years living in Bohain-en-Vermandois, a small town near the French-Belgian border, only came to experience that sensation firsthand when he packed up and headed south.

Pablo Picasso decamped for Paris in 1904 and became a permanent exile. Yet, even after  six decades in France, he continued to self-identify as Spanish and sought inspiration in the masters of his homeland. In so doing, he frequently returned to a restrained palette of black, white, and grey,  the hues most frequently used by three of his predecessors: El Greco, Goya, and Velázquez. “If you don’t know what color to choose, choose black,” the artist declared, “color weakens.” To this day, Picasso’s daughter Maya claims that his compositions look best when reproduced in grey-scale rather than full color.

While Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso expressed the power of migration through color choices, other artists hint at it with iconography and nostalgia. Wassily Kandinsky left  Russia for Europe in 1896 and returned for a short yet fateful trip home in 1913. Following this voyage, he completed a series of paintings that include a city on a hill, referencing Moscow’s Kremlim, as well as three black lines, which represent a troika (a sled or carriage pulled by a trio of horses). Similarly, Marc Chagall included small villages, alluding to his hometown of Vitebsk, Russia, in many of his paintings done in Paris in the early 1910s. Giorgio de Chirico–whose father’s work as a locomotive engineer required the family to move often–includes trains in his compositions to reference both his father’s profession and his nomadic upbringing.

Finally, Marcel Duchamp changed his style,  medium, and theoretical framework upon visiting New York in 1913. While here,  he began to experimenting with the idea of ‘readymades,’ a concept that supposedly arose from seeing the abundance of industrially produced clothing and goods in the city. When he moved to New York for roughly ten years in 1915, he wrote: “The readymade would appear to encapsulate the unsettling effects of displacement and memory of place. The readymade object is an expression of transition and expatriation. When an object is relocated from one context to another, its identity becomes unfixed in the process—it is not at home when it is made into art, nor is it ever comfortable again when returned to its usual environment.”

Each of these artists was an outsider at one point or another, and that experience of dislocation ultimately spurred the act of creation. If you are interested in learning more, take my abbreviated version of this course, which is being taught in museums throughout the city. Learn more here.


James Turrell’s Light Show

It took a few weeks for Aten Reign–James Turrell’s soaring piéce de résistance, now on view at the Guggenheim–to win me over. The pre-opening hype had been immense, and when I finally saw the work, alone on a day when the museum was closed, I found myself mystified and groping for proper language. On a purely physical level, the work is impressive, ambitious, and uplifting. It is likely the most complex exhibition the Guggenheim has ever undertaken: after nearly seven years of planning, off-site construction took over three months, and on-site installation lasted five weeks. Aten Reign’s shape and dimensions correspond with Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling void, and after September 23, it will never be shown again.

Given its highly site-specific nature, it is strange that Aten Reign seems so at odds with Wright’s unique and challenging architecture. In its natural state, one of the building’s strengths is its openness and fluidity. Wright once explained the museum as a three-dimensional rendering of time–as visitors traverse the spiraling ramps, they look up, down and across to see where they’ve been and where they are going. Turrell chose to enclose the museum’s central void with temporary walls, thus separating the ramps from the inner space and blocking the sort of rambling vision that Wright promoted. This is not incidental; Turrell recently disclosed that he objects to how certain architects (i.e. Wright) have made modern museums difficult for artists to hang their work. “This is an art museum, and I don’t care who made it,” he proclaimed, almost angrily. “It’s made for art, we’re going to put art in it, end of story.”

And yet, despite this somewhat aggressive intervention, the living artist and the late architect share much in common (as Turrell freely admits). Both seek inspiration in nature; both bring the outside world in; both use pure geometric forms to create modern versions of ancient temples. In the end, these similarities indelibly link Aten Reign to Wright’s 1959 masterpiece. The sculpture, built like a giant hoop skirt, has five elliptical rings, each one suspended from Wrights’s steel girders and parallel to one of Wright’s concrete ramps. And though the building’s normally large oculus is mostly obstructed, natural light still seeps through its nucleus, blending with digitally manipulated LEDs, just as the organic and the man-made merge in the architecture itself.

Turrell has said that he’s interested in “empowering” the museum’s usually empty cavity. He wants to create a “feeling of the light inhabiting this space,” and to help viewers see the atmosphere, rather than the walls. Indeed, his works often dematerialize architecture and focus on intangible volumes rather than the hard boundaries that contain them. Throughout his forty-year-long career, Turrell’s primary goal has been to help people perceive themselves seeing the world around them.  “What interests me is having the viewer make discoveries just like the artist,” he explains. “[Aten Reign] is a product of my vision, but it’s about your seeing.” Perception, he says, is his medium, and though he is alternately linked to Land Art, the Light and Space Movement, and Conceptual Art, he prefers to call himself a “perceptualist.”

In the Guggenheim, Turrell–who was raised Quaker and is still deeply spiritual– aimed to create something meditative and transcendent, a controlled experience that facilitates individual acts of revelation. When the artist first beheld the completed work, he placed a spinning office chair in the center of  the rotunda and dizzily lost himself in his towering sculpture. This solitary, whirling figure is not what you’ll find if you visit the Guggenheim now. Instead, you will encounter the equivalent of an indoor beach, with scores of people sprawled out on the museum’s circle-laden floor, snapping illegal photos (photography is prohibited, but almost everyone sneaks a few pictures), and poking each other when Turrell’s colors reach a moment of peak intensity. Though Wright’s ever-gurgling fountain adds an element of serenity, the overall tone is not one of solitary contemplation, but rather, a fashionable happening.

My many visits to Aten Reign have taught me that sitting with the work is as much about togetherness and people-watching–and pointing out the neon glow of my neighbor’s orange shoes–as it is about looking at the sculpture itself. Perhaps this is because one doesn’t merely look at Aten Reign’s mutating hues of blue, purple, and red; one is washed in those colors, along with everyone else. In the vein of younger artists like Olafur Eliasson and Carsten Höller, Turrell has engineered a shared aesthetic adventure. In fact, the crowds generated by the work’s popularity–a by-product of placing the sculpture in Manhattan as opposed to a remote locale, where Turrell’s works are often sited–have only made it stronger.


Heavy Metal:

Exactly six years ago, the Ghanaian-born artist El Anatsui shimmered into the international spotlight when two of his  works were shown at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Today, critics, curators and art historians still struggle to come up with a term that aptly describes his most successful and alluring compositions–stiff, colorful sheets of discarded metal bottle tops, linked together and suspended from the wall or ceiling. These singular compositions exist somewhere between painting and sculpture, and as Robert Storr explained in 2011, a full ten years after Anatsui began making these hanging pieces, “It is a measure of El Anatsui’s originality that there remains even now no accepted term to describe the artist’s signature works.” Many art-world professionals discuss Anatsui’s oeuvre not on its own terms by in relation to the works of other artists who recycle materials or use ready-made objects (i.e. Marcel Duchamp or Kurt Schwitters).

Most viewers approach El Anatsui’s art with little concern for categories or terminology; instead, they are struck by their sheer beauty and overwhelming scale. “I think the most important thing is that one is able to reach or communicate,” Anatsui explains. “People at times see my works without any prior knowledge of their context or even their titles, and they create their own meanings out of them.” In a way, that pure, unadulterated experience is what the artist desires.

Indeed, Anatsui’s work needs to be experienced firsthand. On my recent trip to his current retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El AnatsuiI was– perhaps predictably–blown away, both optically and physically. His towering metal tapestries (my favorite term for them) are visually stunning from a distance. They are draped elegantly in the Museum’s fifth floor atrium, glittering in the natural light, and turning, almost imperceptibly, like diaphanous Calder mobiles. In the ensuing white-walled galleries, works are hung from the walls and sometimes crawling on the floor, creating a piercingly gorgeous, twinkling environment. However, upon closer inspection, the soft folds of the tapestries become sharp, jagged contours, and solid blocks of blue and yellow resolve into brand names and logos printed on metal.

Anatsui argues that “context is both an aid and a hindrance” to understanding his work, but a bit of information about his background and artistic evolution  offers valuable insight. The artist was born in Anyako, Ghana in 1944. His mother died when he was young, and he was raised by his uncle, a reverend, in the nearby town of Anloga. Occasionally he would return to Anyako to visit his father–who had thirty-one other children by five wives–and he would see men weaving traditional kente textiles. He became interested in art early on, and at twenty, Anatsui left home to study fine arts at the Kumasi University of Science and Technology, where he received classical European training.

In 1975, soon after adopting the name “El,”  he moved to Nkussa, Nigeria to join the faculty at the national university. When he arrived,  the curriculum stressed indigenous inspirations rather than Western ones as a way of helping to form a newly-independent Nigeria’s cultural identity. Though the faculty was initially quite international, by the mid-1980s, Anatsui was one of the only non-Nigerian teachers at the university. In between semesters of instruction, he began traveling abroad through to participate in residency programs, which  that allowed him to live in England, Brazil, and Denmark, among other place. Despite these lengthy sojourns, he never relocated permanently. In fact, he remains one of the only African artists who did not spend an extensive period outside of Africa before becoming a world- renowned star.

Anatsui  continues to stress his heritage through his choice of medium. His early works were made of standard materials like wood or ceramic, but he began using discarded metal in 1998. Anatsui started with abandoned cassava graters. Though he valued these rough, punctured rectangles for their physical qualities, he also appreciated them as signifiers of international trade:  they were constructed from retired galvanized-iron drums, brought to Africa by European importers of oil and chemicals, then converted into graters by Nigerian processors of cassava, a food staple imported from Brazil by sixteenth-century Portuguese merchants. In sum, the graters allude to colonialism, migration, and global connectedness.

Later the same year, Anatsui discovered a bag of castaway Peak (a brand of Nigerian powdered milk) can lids hidden in a bush and stitched them together to form a long, malleable wave. From there, he moved on to alcohol bottle tops, an emblem of the transatlantic slave trade.   Alcohol was produced by African slaves on plantations in the Caribbean, then was ultimately brought back to Africa and traded for other natural resources. After months of deliberation, Anatsui decided to stitch these tops together, only to realize that they resembled the kente cloths he saw during his childhood.

It wasn’t until 2002 that he publicly exhibited these works, first at the October Gallery in London. The gallery director, Elisabeth Lalouschek, began hanging the tapestries before Anatsui arrived, thus setting an important precedent: the curator, not the artist, decides how they are installed. Though each of these works is the result of months–or years– of labor and careful reflection, they are not fixed forms. In fact, they appear differently in each exhibition.

The current iteration at the Brooklyn Museum is remarkable, not only because of its potent visual appeal but also because it is accompanied by illuminating videos of Anatsui telling his story. To learn more, join my class based around the exhibition on July 18!


Turning Heads:

When did artists start paying attention to fashion? The Metropolitan Museum’s fantastic exhibition Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity makes the argument that the marriage of art and fashion peaked in the late nineteenth century, but the relationship dates back much further.

One starting point may be the “Fashion Revolution” of the 1330s, which gave rise to the inset sleeve (earlier garments were T-shaped), allowing for greater variation in dress and shirt design. Look closely at illuminated manuscripts from the 14th-16th centuriesand you can track the movement of waste-lines, the tightening of sleeves, and an increase in cleavage over time.  In fact, fashion historians often date manuscripts by looking at the clothing rather than the other way around.

Later, in the early nineteenth century, Jean-Dominique Ingres became the artist most associated with elaborate portrayals of folds and patterns. His wife was a milliner, and his wildly popular female portraits were often reduced to “a face, a pose and a dress.” When he created preparatory sketches for his works, he studied the clothing, not the sitter herself. Rendering lace, diaphanous silk organza, or complex ornamentation was a way for Ingres–a self-conscious artist who yearned to be a “history painter” but was relegated to society portraitist–to showcase his technical expertise.

In the aforementioned examples, clothing and fashion mattered, but the person was still the supposed focal point of the image. This changed in the 1860s. In the works of Manet, Monet, and Renoir, fashion became not just a status symbol and a way for an artist to demonstrate his skill, but an important “expression of society” at that particular moment in time.  According to the writer Émile Zola, “fashion is, all at once, a science, an art, a custom, a sentiment….Painters who love their era with all their hearts and minds…reproduce us on their canvases, just as we are, with our costumes and customs.”When these artists painted a stylish young woman in contemporary dress, it was a way for them to show their own modernity, their awareness of up-to-date trends, and not the model herself. The Parisienne became a symbol of recent inventions and modes of consumption–the first department store, the personal Singer sewing machine, the rib-breaking corset. Though she quickly replaced all other subjects, the woman mattered less than what she represented.

In works like Luncheon on the Grass (1865/66),  in the MET’s exhibition, Monet took on one of his largest challenges: “putting life-size figures into a landscape.” He headed to Fontainebleau and arranged his wife and friends in poses that he took from fashion magazines, so as to highlight their clothing. Women’s dresses are fanned out in front or behind their bodies, men are slightly turned so the viewer can glimpse their suits and hats, and faces become almost negligible. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Monet was a clotheshorse himself; he was constantly in debt to his tailor. Renoir was the son of a tailor himself, which may explain his own fascination with fashion. For instance, in Danse à la ville (1883), Renoir focuses on the bustled train of his model’s silk dress, which reflects the light, turning it slightly orange and blue in places. We see the woman’s face in profile, but her features are far less interesting than her elegant gown, and the man’s insignificance is made clear by the fact that his face is eclipsed by the woman’s hair. The dress makes the painting.

What is perhaps most interesting about these images from the 1860s-80s is that they show the remarkable lack of personality that modern fashion allowed. Though women were encouraged to dress however they liked at home, when they went out into the world, the goal was generally to blend in. Men were taught to value “greater uniformity and greater simplification” in clothing. By and large, fashion in the late nineteenth century was not about individual expression; it was a way to be “of the moment,” and to express an certain awareness of fads.

Fashion has captivated artists and audiences for centuries, and it will continue to dominate our visual culture as we move forward. To learn more about this theme, take a tour of Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity with meLearn more here.


Self  Exposure:

The Indian-born artist Zarina Hashmi–known simply as Zarina–is exceptionally brave. Though her small works on paper are technically excellent, she impresses me most as an artist who is unafraid of exposing her secrets and personal losses.  Recently, while leading a group of fifth graders through Zarina: Paper Like Skinthe artist’s current retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, one student said to me, “It seems like she doesn’t want her memories, like she is trying to cover them up with black ink.” He had no idea how apt this comment was. Zarina herself has stated, “Memory is a burden. I tried to get rid of my memories, but it didn’t work, so I decided to use them.”

In Home is a Foreign Place (1999), a centerpiece of the Guggenheim retrospective,  both good and bad memories come to the fore. This work, comprised of thirty-six woodblock prints, was created in 1999, when Zarina was being evicted from her apartment. She decided to take her landlord to court, and while she was fighting to keep her small living quarters, she began thinking about the meaning of home, a complicated concept for an artist who has lived outside her country of origin for over fifty years. After generating a list of thirty-six words that relate to her notion of home, she illustrated these words with images that are largely schematic. Though the words are written in Urdu–Zarina’s native language, which few people still know how to read–the imagery is universal.

Zarina was born in 1937 in Aligarh, a university town in northern Indian close to the current border with Pakistan. When she was ten, the country was partitioned, an event that displaced millions of people and resulted in violence and sectarianism. The consequences of the partition continue to reverberate within Zarina and her work. The last image in this series is titled border,” depicting a shrunken, jagged version of the geographical boundary between the two aforementioned countries.

When Zarina was twenty-one, she married a diplomat and began traveling: first to Thailand, where she learned traditional printmaking, then to Japan, Germany, and eventually the United States. She moved to New York in 1975, and has since spent time living in both lower Manhattan and Santa Monica, California. “Human beings are supposed to travel,” she argues, “I think of stillness as death.” Though she has not lived near her family in decades, and though she says her “identity is that of an exile,” in a very basic sense, she still considers Aligarh home.

Some of the images in Home is a Foreign Place are concrete and recognizable. The first, “home,” depicts a miniature floor plan of her father’s house, in which she grew up. “Afternoon” shows a ceiling fan, referring to Zarina’s memories of lying on the bed under whirring propellors to avoid the afternoon heat. Other images are more suggestive or metaphorical: “silence” is a series of rest notes on a musical score, alluding to Urdu’s slow demise as people stop using it.

Zarina always works with organic materials–paper, pulp, wood, and plants. She likes the idea that her art will decompose if left untreated. But there is also a more symbolic reason she chooses paper. “Paper,” she says “is very close to skin, because skin ages and stains and keep secrets. So does paper.” By putting her delicate works on display for a wide audience, she has also revealed herself.

To learn more about Zarina and other exhibitions now on view at the Guggenheim, join my class at the museum on Saturday, April 6. See here for more details.


Color Saturation;

In my ongoing class on Henri Matisse, we recently discussed Michel-Eugéne Chevreul’s role in Matisse’s development as an outstanding colorist. Chevreul (1786-1889) was trained as a chemist, but he became a surprisingly influential figure in the fields of art and design.  In 1824, he was hired by Gobelins, a Paris-based tapestry manufacturer, and he quickly became head of the dyeing department. Chevreul was immediately tasked with eliminating any existing color deviations in Gobelins’ dyes. While working towards this goal, he found that the dyes were, indeed, reliable and consistent, but colors appeared altered depending what they were placed beside.

As he began to investigate why this was happening, Chevreul realized that the brain  has  a  tendency  to  exaggerate color differences  in  order  to  better  perceive  shapes  along  the   borders  where  two  hues  are  juxtaposed.  As he dug deeper, he stumbled upon the work of an earlier French scientist, Buffon, who discovered something strange in the 1740s: If one stares at a dot of red long enough, he/she will start to see a green halo around it, and then, when eventually turning away, he/she will notice a green circle transposed. Buffon called the green spot an “accidental color.” Test it out today and you will find that this law holds true: gaze at a red or green traffic light for the amount of time that it takes to change and you will see a faint circle of the complimentary color (red for green; green for red) hovering in your field of vision when you look away.

In 1839, Chevreul used Buffon’s research as a springboard for his still-important text,  On the Law of Simultaneous Contrast of Colors and its Applications to Art. In this text, he addressed the question: If juxtaposed colors always increase each otherʼs intensity, why not use colors which are already as far apart on the color spectrum as possible? He wrote, “What happens when two adjacent hues are complimentary, like green and red? According to the law of simultaneous colors the green will be tinted by the red and the red will be tinted by green. As a consequence, the green will be perceived as greener and the red will be perceived as redder.” This would become crucial to artists who sought to increase the potency of their already vivid compositions.

The scientist’s theories became most important to Matisse when he started experimenting with color in Collioure–a coral-hued French fishing town on the Spanish border–during the summer of 1905. Matisse soon invited André Derain to stay with him there for a few months, and the two began using neighboring patches of brilliant complimentary colors that bear little relation to nature but work like “sticks of dynamite” on the viewer’s rentinae. These two men, along with Maurice de Vlaminck, would be dubbed the Fauves, or wild beasts, by the critic Louis Vauxcelles, in 1905.

According to another critic, Maurice Denis, what Matisse did in Collioure was akin to the blinding nature of the sun on a very bright day. He argued that Matisseʼs paintings from 1905-8 recreate “the retinal trouble, the optical trembling, the painful sensation of dazzling… that a white wall or esplanade causes at high noon in the summer. Their aesthetic permits them to attempt to blind us.” Instead of capturing light directly, Matisse did it through intense color combinations.

Matisse claimed that he intended not to blind but to create harmony. In his 1908 Notes of a Painter, he writes, “A work must be harmonious in its entirety. If upon a white canvas I set down some sensations of blue, green, red, each new stroke diminishes the importance of the preced ones….The marks I use must be balanced so they do not destroy each other.”

Of course, Matisse was hardly the first or the last artist to become preoccupied with color relations. Georges Seurat and Paul Signac were perhaps even more invested in the use of complimentaries in the decades preceding Matisse’s Fauvist breakthroughs, and Vasily Kandinsky began writing about the spiritual values of color in 1911.  Other artists are still playing around with with these theories today, forcing our overstimulated eyes to quiver and open wide.



I just began teaching a class on Henri Matisse. In our first meeting, we investigated his practice of copying other artists’ work and techniques. A few questions arose: What is the value in doing so? And how can an artist who is so intent on being a trailblazer get to a point of originality through imitation?

Artists have been copying each other–either out of deference or defiance–for over 2,000 years. When the Romans conquered Greece, they melted down gorgeous bronze statues and turned them into weapons, but first, they copied them out of marble.  Later, Renaissance artists copied these copies; they studied their perfect proportions then created works all’antica, in the style of the ancients. In the Baroque period, artists copied Renaissance masters, and in the nineteenth century, painters went to the Louvre and copied works in the collection.  In fact, most Modern masters–now famous for breaking away from Academic traditions–learned how to subvert tradition by mimicking it first.

Matisse (1869-1954) is an interesting example. He didn’t start painting until twenty-two, quite a late start in the 1890s. Matisse’s initial teacher was William-Adolphe Bouguereau, a successful Salon artist working at the Academie Julienne, but the relationship didn’t last long. His first true mentor was Gustave Moreau, an ardent Classicist who instructed his students to copy paintings in the Louvre.  Matisse copied somber still lifes by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, dynamic compositions by Eugene Delacroix, fine lines by Jean-Dominique Ingres, and balanced landscapes by Nicolas Poussin. The goal was always to parrot the older artist’s technique, and Matisse grew quite skilled at this.

Even after leaving Moreau’s studio in 1898, Matisse continued to copy; however, his models changed to more contemporary masters.  He also no longer recreated paintings verbatim, but instead started working “in the manner of” various figures.  First he looked to Vincent Van Gogh, with whom he reportedly “entered into a dialogue” when he traveled to Corsica. The Dutch painter had been dead for nine years, yet Matisse was channeling him when suddenly bright blues and yellows burst forth in his landscapes. Next, he posed as Paul Cézanne, whose Three Bathers (1882) he purchased in 1899 and stared at every morning. According to Matisse’s biography Hillary Spurling, “Matisse seemed to absorb Cézanne into his bloodstream at such a deep level” that it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact connections. That same year, he read Paul Signac’s “From Delacroix to Neoimpressionism,” which advocates a more rigorous approach to Impressionism by placing separate, complimentary colors adjacent to one another. In 1904, Signac and Matisse spent the summer together in St. Tropez, and Matisse tried out Signac’s “Neoimpressionist” idiom in his now famous Luxe, calme, et volupte (1904), which Signac bought and hung in his dining room.

How did this chameleon-like behavior eventually lead to Matisse’s invention of something intensely new? He himself answered, “I have never avoided the influence of others… I believe that the personality of the artists develops and asserts itself through the struggles it has to go through when pitted against other personalities.”

In 1905, Matisse painted his first major break-through: Woman in a Hat, a portrait of his wife Amelie, in which her face is simultaneously chartreuse, violet, and orange. He had combined the rough color patches and solidity of Cézanne, with the expressiveness of Van Gogh and the use of complimentary hues of Signac and Seurat.  But he had surpassed them all in liberating color from subject. His colors no longer related to anything in the observable world; instead, he used color’s force “like sticks of dynamite.” Most viewers were horrified and could not believe Amelie would let her husband paint her in such a sickly, unflattering manner. But a prescient Leo Stein purchased the painting for 500 francs, or roughly $100. Needless to say, this was an excellent investment.


Lo Real Maravilloso:

Mexico City, from which I returned last week, is an underrated metropolis. It is full of provocative paradoxes and surprising juxtapositions. These inconsistencies at first seem jarring, but upon closer inspection, they meld together to create a pervasive air of fascinating strangeness.

Modern and ancient calmly coexist in the historic center. While eating lunch near the Zocalo, the city’s largest plaza, I simultaneously ogled excavated ruins of the Templo Mayor–a 700-year-old Aztec temple discovered in 1978 by telephone repairmen–and took advantage of the free WiFi provided in many of the capital’s public spaces. Cultural commingling is highlighted by street and district names: Our apartment was at the intersection of  Chilpancingo (meaning wasp or bee in Nahuatl, one of Mexico’s indigenous languages)  and Amsterdam, in the heart of the chic Colonia Condesa, sandwiched between the neighboring zones of Roma and Tacubaya. Condesa’s avenues are lined with Art Nouveau and Deco architecture, which provides a pretty, if incongruous, backdrop for rows of enthusiastic tamale and taco vendors (Side note: the street food is amazing).

This unusual melting pot of Aztec, colonial, and modern Mexican culture is perhaps best symbolized by the national flag, flying high all over the city. Its central coat of arms is an eagle perched on top of a cactus with a snake in its mouth, referring to the sign Aztec leaders were told they would encounter upon reaching the spot where they should construct the seat of their empire, Tenochtitlán. When Hernán Cortés arrived in 1519, Tenochtitlán was razed to build New Spain, and three centuries later, it became the capital of independent Mexico. Yet the emblem at the center of the flag remains that of an Aztec prophecy, situated in the middle of a traditionally European tricolor pattern.

Europe has left its imprint on the modern architecture and art of the city as well, not least because many Europeans escaped to the capital in the first half of the century. In the 1940s and 50s, Mexico City became a haven for displaced Surrealists. Painters like Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington used the  city’s bizarre hybridity as artistic fodder. Their compositions combine disparate objects into meticulously rendered scenes, making the impossible believable.

In 1949, the literary critic Alejo Carpentier wrote an article titled “On the Marvelous Real in America.” In it, he contends that Surrealism is inherently Latin American, since the strange marriages diligently contrived by European Surrealists are naturally part of the landscape in this part of the world. “After all,” he asked, “what is the entire history of America if not a chronicle of the marvelous real? Here the strange is commonplace and always [has been.]”

This notion of the “marvelous real,” a Latin American variant of Surrealism, is one of the many threads explored in the exhibition Drawing Surrealism, now on view at the Morgan Library & Museum through April 21. This groundbreaking and carefully curated show examines how drawing allowed Surrealists to unlock their subconscious desires and play around with chance. The works included are full of beautiful twists and unexpected details, and they offer a glimpse of the magic that abounds in Mexico’s sprawling capital.


Happy Anniversary:

Call me a traditionalist, but I think the world’s most radical art was created a century ago. As we all look forward to 2013, I’ve been looking back at 1913–a revolutionary year in visual art, music, dance, and literature.

1913 was the year of the inaugural Armory Show, an artist-organized exhibition in the cavernous, 26,000-square-foot armory that still stands on 25th Street and Lexington Avenue. I walk by this site often and am reminded of its important place in art history:  this is where Picasso and Braque’s Cubist paintings and Kandinsky’s abstract compositions were first revealed to the American public. The audience was scandalized. Similarly, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), which depicts a mechanomorphic woman slowly gliding down and across the canvas, shocked viewers. Many were disquieted by the fact that the woman was part machine and even more concerned by her so-called nudity (though she actually appears more armored than undressed). Nudes were meant to recline, bathe, or stand, but never descend a staircase. Then again, this work looked tame in comparison to Duchamp’s first readymades like Bicycle Wheel (1913), in which the artist mounted a bicycle wheel on a stool, rendering both objects useless, and called it “art.”

Various exhibitions and programs are now trying to explain the breakthroughs of and around 1913. The NPR special, Culture Shock 1913, which aired earlier this month, puts all of the aforementioned events in context. But if you’re like me, you want to experience this avant-garde art firsthand.  Head to see Matisse: In Search of True Painting, now at the Met through March 17. The exhibition begins around 1900 and documents the artist’s painstaking process and enduring quest to “push further and deeper into painting.” Matisse’s bright color palette, which today seems joyful and exuberant, was,  in the first decade of the 20th Century,  considered confrontational and violent.  In fact, when he first became famous in 1906, Matisse was the leader of a group that the critic Louis Vauxcelles dubbed the fauves, or wild beasts, due to their extreme palette. To learn more about this story, take my four-session class on Matisse, beginning in February (see classes).

I’m also eagerly awaiting MoMA’s upcoming exhibition Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925, which opens on December 23. It will chronicle the simultaneous birth of abstraction in Russia, Germany, France, and the Netherlands right around 1913. Similarly, Kandinsky 1911-13 , on view at the Guggenheim through April 17, charts the beginnings of abstraction in Germany, where artists were exploring the spiritual value of color before World War 1.

Today it is difficult to comprehend how truly outrageous this art was, but all of these exhibitions offer insight. As these shows make clear, the artistic revolutions of 1913–coupled with the recent inventions of electricity, the automobile, and flight–caused many to think that the world as they knew it was coming to an end.  No year in the past century has caused so many jaws to drop in the halls of high culture.


Art and Biography:

The discipline of art history often frowns upon reading an artist’s work through a biographical lens. Many scholars consider it deterministic and an easy way out (i.e. Van Gogh was depressed when he painted Starry Night, so he used a dark color palette dominated by cool blue tones). However, biography is an important factor, and it should not be ignored. In certain cases, learning more about an artist’s personal life can prove enlightening, especially when the information is used in a responsible way. These two portraits by Pablo Picasso provide a case in point. Done only five years apart, each image depicts one of Picasso’s lovers, yet they vary greatly in style and tone. How might we account for their noticeable discrepancies? 

The first image, Sculpture of a Head (1932) is a drawing based on a 1931 sculpture of Marie-Thérèse Walter, Picasso’s alluring mistress who was twenty-eight years his junior.  Even five years into their covert affair, he remained intensely attracted to her athleticism, youth, and positive energy. Here, her nose is turned into a protruding phallus, and the rest of her face is comprised of curving orbs and crevices. Picasso’s love for Marie-Thérèse was always more intensely erotic than rational or cerebral, and this portrait makes that plainly obvious. 

Dora Maar, the woman pictured in Weeping Woman  (1937), was another of Picasso’s muses, beginning in 1936. An accomplished Surrealist photographer and poet, she was fiercely intelligent, witty and Picasso’s intellectual equal. She also spoke Spanish–in which Picasso preferred to converse even after thirty years of living in France–allowing her to communicate with the artist in ways that Marie-Thérèse could not.  An ardent leftist, she was instrumental in Picasso’s eventual political turn and the painting of Guernica, completed the same year as this portrait. Here, we see Dora as the opposite of Marie-Thérèse: where the younger mistress is all serene curves and pursed lips, Dora is prickly, wailing, and literally broken by cubist faceting. She seems to cry not only over the Spanish Civil War, but also over Picasso’s callousness. 

To fully understand these portraits, a bit more backstory is necessary. In 1927, when Picasso met Marie-Thérèse, she was 17 and he 45. Partly because of her youth, and also because he was unhappily married to the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, the relationship was initially kept secret. However, in 1935, Marie-Thérèse gave birth to Maya, Picasso’s first daughter, and this forced them to go public. A year later, while undergoing a rough separation from Olga and spending time with his young child, Picasso’s embarked on yet another relationship with Dora. 

The complexities of these romantic entanglements proved artistically fruitful but also emotionally wrenching for all involved parties.  As Maya, who remembers all three women from her early childhood, explains: “My father took everything he could from each one of them so that he could make them into pictures.” And even Dora admitted, “He used me till there was nothing left of me, nothing but the hundreds of portraits he painted.” 

Of course, there are many factors that account for Picasso’s stylistic changes throughout the 1930s: He was deeply affected by the violence of the Spanish Civil War, he was engaged with the findings of the Surrealists as well as long-time friends like Henri Matisse, and he was dealing with extreme tumult in his personal life. Biography is not the only lens through which to understand these portraits, but it is an important one. Picasso came into contact with Dora as Francisco Franco was violently taking over Spain, and his shift to a more angular, emotionally intense style is partly a product of these two events.  

These issues have been at the heart of a class I recently taught on different ways of interpreting Picasso work. See here to learn more about this course and others.



Stroller Tours:

A friend and colleague of mine recently started a business offering art and architecture tours for parents and their babies. It’s called Bottle Rocket Stroller Tours, and it’s a great opportunity for new parents in the city to meet and learn something together.

Last week, I led an architecture tour of Lower Manhattan for a group of moms and one dad, and it was written up in the Wall Street Journal. The article is about the business and its founders, and I’m mentioned a few paragraphs down as the guide. The whole experience was a bit chaotic, but extremely memorable and fun. Read about it here!



Recently, I returned from a month-long trip to Buenos Aires. My central aim was to gather primary sources for my dissertation, which investigates the role that the Italian immigrant community played in the rise of modern Argentine art. I spent many hours in archives, libraries, and parillas (traditional steakhouses). The overall experience was productive and a lot of fun.

Unlike other Latin American nations, Argentina is comprised largely of European immigrants and their offspring. The largest immigrant group is Italian, and today, approximately 60% of Argentina’s population is either Italian-born or of Italian descent. This is reflected in the country’s Spanish, which shares many of the rhythmic peculiarities of Italian, in the addictive and ubiquitous pizza, which has far more cheese and thicker crust than any pie in New York, and in the architecture, which often includes Renaissance  or Romanesque elements. Most importantly for my interests, much of the art created between 1920-40, especially by Italian immigrant artists who traveled to Europe for training, bears a strong resemblance to Italian Futurism, French Cubism, and German expressionism.

I have long been intrigued by cross-cultural exchange and the way that artists carry ideas around the globe as they travel or move. If you are interested in learning more about this, I’ll be teaching a class at MoMA this fall entitled Border Crossings: Artistic Travels, Migrations, and Diasporas. The class meets on Thursday evenings throughout November-December, and I’d love for you to join!  For more information, click here.


Dijkstra’s Gaze:

Now that summer is underway, I can safely disclose my favorite show of the season: Rineke Dijkstra’s mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. Dijkstra, a 53-year-old Dutch photographer, is scarily adept at getting beneath the skin of her sitters to reveal their deepest insecurities. Though her portraits are often of children or adolescents at the height of vulnerability, she occasionally photographs adults who have recently undergone harrowing and/or revelatory experiences. Her most successful adult series include blood-splattered bullfighters who have momentarily escaped death in the ring, women just emerging from childbirth, and Israeli soldiers directly following target practice.

Alongside Dijkstra’s impressive body of still photographs, the exhibition also highlights her recent forays into video. For The Krazyhouse series of 2009, Dijkstra invited dancers to move to music of their choice before her camera. Over the course of a single song, each dancer slowly loosens up (some more than others), and witnessing this release feels at once naughty, voyeuristic, and liberating. The work creates a kinship between dancer and audience, allowing both to let go simultaneously.

One of Dijkstra’s greatest strengths is her ability to turn her specific subjects into universal representations of raw human emotion. The immediacy of her work leaves a powerful imprint upon viewers of all ages. It is a must-see if you find yourself in New York between now and October 8 when it closes.