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People Persons

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, May 29, 2019

People Persons

A review of “The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology” at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery , Through July 7

New York

Cultural anthropology has lately been buried in politics. Critics have blasted its study of non-Western societies as patronizing if not far worse. But anthropology’s record of cross-cultural exchange deserves to be dusted off and put on display. Its history can be deeply humanizing, offering groundbreaking ways of understanding a people’s art and customs on their own terms.

This point is vividly made in “The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology,” an exhibition now at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery. George Hunt and Franz Boas were the odd couple of American anthropology. Hunt (1854-1933) was an English-Tlingit guide who married into the Kwakwaka’wakw (pronounced KWOK-wok-ya-wokw) people of British Columbia. Boas (1858-1942) was a German-Jewish scholar living among the university people of New York. Over 40 years their collaboration and friendship faced down Canadian injustice toward the Kwakwaka’wakw to lay the foundations of a modern anthropology, one that truly valued the richness of indigenous cultures and societies.

Before founding the anthropology department at Columbia University, Boas headed field studies among the peoples of the Pacific Northwest that not only collected objects but also recorded intricate social customs. This research went on to advance a new understanding of indigenous cultures. While the reigning theory of social evolution mistook non-Western cultures as mere examples of primitive development, Boas argued for the equality of indigenous art and practice. This novel approach informed the creation of the American Museum of Natural History’s Northwest Coast Hall, which Boas opened in 1899. The institution’s oldest surviving gallery, now closed for renovation, was radical for first considering tribal art on its own terms.

Franz Boas and George Hunt holding a cloth background while a Kwakiutl woman is photographed.

Franz Boas and George Hunt holding a cloth background while a Kwakiutl woman is photographed.

Known as the father of American anthropology, Boas went on to shape his discipline the world over. The structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss credited an early visit to Boas’s hall with inspiring his own methodology. Zora Neale Hurston was a disciple of Boas whose groundbreaking work preserved key figures and folkways of the black South.

In his own fieldwork, Boas was never alone. Hunt was an equal partner in both writing and research. Their work culminated in “The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians,” their extensive 1897 monograph of Kwakwaka’wakw culture that remains a case study in its thorough documentation of ceremonies, songs, language, stories and artifacts.

The Kwakwaka’wakw, meaning those who speak the language of Kwak’wala, comprise 18 independent village groups residing on the central coast of British Columbia, one among several nations that developed along the resource-rich coastline of the Pacific Northwest. “The Story Box” takes its title from a letter that Boas wrote to Kwakwaka’wakw chiefs in 1897. “It is good that you should have a box in which your laws and stories are kept,” he said of the cedar boxes used to store ceremonial regalia, which he considered akin to his book. “My friend, George Hunt, will show you a box in which some of your stories will be kept…. Now they will not be forgotten.”

Lion-type mask by an unknown Kwakwaka’wakw (1820) PHOTO: ©TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM

Lion-type mask by an unknown Kwakwaka’wakw (1820) PHOTO: ©TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM

Several examples of the artifacts, notes, recordings and photographs the two used in their research are gathered in this exhibition, enhanced with superb descriptions and digital displays. These include Hunt’s personally annotated edition of “The Social Organization,” comparisons of book illustrations with Boas’s own source photography of initiation dances, artifacts such as the serpent-decorated settee that Boas first documented in the field, and digitized sound recordings originally created on wax cylinders that feature the voice of Hunt himself.

The importance of such remembering is more than just academic. The Kwakwaka’wakw practices that Boas and Hunt recorded were already illegal at the time of their fieldwork under Canada’s 1884 “potlatch ban,” which sought to force assimilation by depriving indigenous peoples of their ritual artifacts and cultural legacy. This infamous law wasn’t overturned until 1951.

As a consequence of the potlatch ban, much of Boas’s fieldwork actually took place during the seven months in 1893 that Hunt and his extended family lived in an ethnographic display organized by Boas as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This unusual stateside residency allowed Hunt to perform his rituals in safety outside of Canadian jurisdiction.

Among the Kwakwaka’wakw of today, Hunt is a revered ancestor. His work with Boas preserved objects and customs that would otherwise have been lost to the potlatch ban. Their research has allowed contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw to reclaim cultural practices and artistic forms by reconnecting heraldic symbols with ancestral lines. This task of reconstruction began under Hunt and Boas themselves. The two spent decades after the publication of “The Social Organization” correcting and updating their field observations. The work continues today, as Aaron Glass, the curator of “The Story Box,” is developing an annotated digital edition of the book that will bring its documentation up to the present day.

On a morning I visited the show, the multimedia artist Corrine Hunt, a great-granddaughter of George Hunt and an exhibition consultant, was on hand to put the finishing touches on her re-creation of a “Transformation Mask,” a ritual headdress in the form of a killer whale that she made with Kwakwaka’wakw carver David Mungo Knox based on Hunt and Boas’s research. Such contemporary connections to Hunt, Boas and the people they documented over a century ago add poignancy to this small but compelling show, which will next go on view at the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, British Columbia. “The Story Box” tells a story across time and cultures that is out of the box and urgent.

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Mit Schlag

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Mit Schlag

Mit schlag

On Whipped Cream at American Ballet Theatre.

The story is almost too sweet to be savored. In the early 1920s, Richard Strauss wrote an extravagant ballet to mark his sixtieth birthday. Engaging the full resources of the Vienna State Opera, this “billionaire’s ballet,” called Schlagobers or “whipped cream,” was meant to reverse the fortunes of the opera house, where he was the co-director, and offer a sumptuous escape from the austerity measures of post-war Vienna. But faced with such abundance, the hungry audiences of Austro-Hungary did not bite. Another confection famously went on to take its place on the plate as the beloved ballet of the hungry billions.

There are more than a few sweet similarities between Schlagobers and The Nutcracker. Both have Divertissements of dancing chocolates, coffees, and teas. Even though The Nutcracker, with its endless delights beginning with its sublime score, cracked the nut of a ballet for children, it was not performed in the West until some five years after the Vienna premiere of Schlagobers on May 9, 1924.

A scene from Whipped Cream at American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

A scene from Whipped Cream at American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Yet Tchaikovsky’s creation—made even more famous through Balanchine’s New York City Ballet adaptation—is now Strauss’s inevitable comparison. Performed next door to the home of City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre’s giddy new production of Whipped Cream is both an homage to that Christmastime spectacle and a cream pie to the face of wholesome family entertainment. If NYCB'’s Nutcracker is a ballet for the ages, ABT’s Whipped Cream is a ballet for our current age of punishing extremes.

With choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, Ballet Theatre’s artist-in-residence, and sets and costumes by the painter Mark Ryden, Whipped Cream stays true to the plot of Schlagobers, in which a boy eats too much whipped cream after his First Communion. But this new production, which premiered in 2017 and has returned to Lincoln Center for the second time, slathers on the froth in a sickly coating of contemporary corn syrup.

In many ways the ballet now belongs to its new designer. A West Coast pop artist, Ryden traffics in a popsicle aesthetic that mixes furry fandom, steampunk collage, and Japanese kawaii, or “cute,” culture. In Whipped Cream, he maniacally translates this sticky palette to a ballet of overindulgence. His set design tempts the senses like a Good Humor truck on an express ride to a very bad place. Towering Furby-like creatures abound, ably danced by company members, who should get hazard pay for performing in such giant costumes. Since this is a story ostensibly featuring children, the grown-up dancers are also scaled down by being surrounded by figures with enormous costume heads (one of which nearly tipped off a dancer’s shoulders during the evening performance I attended).

A scene from Whipped Cream at American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

A scene from Whipped Cream at American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Much of Ryden’s artistic iconography has been translated verbatim to the Ballet Theatre stage, with little loss of strange effect. This is why even an image of Abraham Lincoln, from Ryden’s series The Meat Show, peers out from an upper story window of what is meant to be a Viennese street. Furry yaks and oversized bees make multiple appearances, as do the single all-seeing eye and other quasi-Masonic symbols. But it’s not all children and candies dancing in the sweets shop or up in the creamy clouds. In one scene, the overserved Boy lands in the hospital bed of a drunk doctor with a bevy of sadistic nurses, each of whom injects the Boy with oversized hypodermic needles.

Paired with Ryden’s sugary costumes, Ratmansky’s choreography distinguishes its various dancing treats. An ensemble of “Whipped Cream” dancers twirl into a diaphanous airy mixture. Prince Cocoa (Joseph Gorak, in my evening) comes off as haughty and aristocratic, while Don Zucchero (Arron Scott) plays his role flat-footed and dim. Prince Coffee (Thomas Forster) displays upstanding chivalry, while Princess Tea Flower, danced in my production by the sparkling Devon Teuscher, who took the cake, displays signs of caffeinated energy mixed with occasional weariness. A whimsical trio of liquors, led by Mademoiselle Marianne Chartreuse (Katherine Williams), also deliver plenty of the adult treats, toppling over the tippling nurses as these dancing bottles saunter on to the next party.

This rich serving of Whipped Cream can both satisfy and delight. As the lights went up on the opening scene of a cartoonish priest and oversized carriage driver—not to mention a white horse danced by two performers—my nine-year-old seatmate whispered, “I would never miss this.” For those young balletomanes who have seen it all, the phantasmagoria of Whipped Cream offers something new.

Nevertheless, for all of its family fun, the two of us agreed that the juvenile characters here were the least satisfying aspects of the show. Unlike The Nutcracker, in which real children are transformed into adults onstage and then wake up in Christmas Day apotheosis, “The Boy” of Whipped Cream (Jonathan Klein) is merely adult camp. Here is a character with hairy legs in knickers who merely transforms into something like the golden star of A Chorus Line. A show all about saccharine surfaces would taste even sweeter with some genuine depth of flavor. In this adult fancy, it still wouldn’t hurt to sprinkle in some genuine childhood innocence.

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Gallery Chronicle (June 2019)

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Gallery Chronicle (June 2019)

THE NEW CRITERION, June 2019

Gallery chronicle

On “Picasso’s Women: Fernande to Jacqueline” at Gagosian, “De Kooning: Five Decades” at Mnuchin Gallery, and “Lucian Freud: Monumental” at Acquavella Galleries.

Pablo Picasso once joked that he had an eye at the end of his penis. In his multivolume Life of Picasso, the late John Richardson, Picasso’s ribald biographer, excelled at writing from this point of view. Richardson followed his subject from the studio to the bedroom and back again as the priapic Andalusian cycled through his various models, muses, and mistresses. Now at Gagosian on New York’s Upper East Side, the exhibition “Picasso’s Women: Fernande to Jacqueline” is offered up as tribute to Richardson, who died in March. The show tracks Picasso’s conquests in paint and in bed, beginning with Fernande Olivier and continuing on through his portraits of Olga Khokhlova, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot, Sylvette David, and Jacqueline Roque.1

Picasso’s brush ranged as widely as that famous eye. One feature of modern art is the active erosion of divisions: between realism and abstraction; figure and ground; painting and sculpture; and among portraiture, still life, and landscape. Picasso’s protean modes could be as seductive and shape shifting as his Cubist facets, endlessly folding in on their reflected selves in glimmers of recognition.

Spanning some seven decades, the thirty-five works in “Picasso’s Women,” from Cubist to classical and back again, variously drawn, painted, and sculpted, seem to share little more than the common subject of “Picasso’s women.” Without a knowledge of Picasso’s unpredictable stylistic turns, especially his classical phase following World War I, one might mistake this selection for a thematic group show of deliberately diversified talent.

“Fernande to Jacqueline,” the subtitle of the exhibition, adds little to inform the visitor, since Picasso’s women were Picasso’s before they were Women. They were muses to be ground up into his artistic medium. At first they were celebrated as deities, with soft lines and swirling colors. Then, inevitably, they would be cast aside as demons, with distorted eyes, twisted breasts, and mouths cracked open in choruses of vaginae dentatae. Picasso made sure to destroy his women pictorially as well as emotionally. There is little biography here save for Picasso’s own.

Pablo Picasso , Femme aux jambes croisées,  1955 ,  Oil on canvas ,  © 2019 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artist Rights Society (ARS) ,  New York ,  Courtesy Gagosian .

Pablo Picasso, Femme aux jambes croisées, 1955Oil on canvas© 2019 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artist Rights Society (ARS)New YorkCourtesy Gagosian.

For better or worse, Picasso never shied away from telling the story of himself through the lives of others, borrowing what he couldn’t steal from the various innovations of fellow artists and making them his own. The exhibition opens with a pair of works that highlight this range of form. Nue endormie, a charcoal on gessoed canvas from 1932, offers a minimum of drawn arabesques of hand, nose, and nipple. Meanwhile a Portrait de femme from 1923, in an unusual media of oil and sand on canvas, could be a Botticelli goddess crossed with a mural from a Greek diner.

There are a handful of sculptures in the mix, several of them quite good, all adding to the formal complexities of the exhibition. One of the revelations of “Picasso Sculpture,” the landmark exhibition that was at the Museum of Modern Art in 2015–16, was that this famous painter who sculpted might better be regarded, in fact, as a sculptor who painted. Whether in his Cubist or classical phases, or somewhere in between, Picasso was a plastic artist by and large who unfolded three-dimensional forms in two dimensions, relying on tonal gradient rather than colored form to build his compositions.

In painted sheet metal or cast bronze, his sculptural work seems to flow effortlessly, informing his paintings in turn. The expression of the painting Tête de femme au chignon (Fernande) (1906) is flash-frozen in the bronze head of the same year, while Cubist Head (Portrait of Fernande) (1909–10) makes more pictorial sense when processed through the matching bronze of 1909. Monochrome paintings such as La Femme-fleur (1946) and Portrait de femme à la queue de cheval, Sylvette(1954) likewise convey the metallic sheen of Tête de femme (1931), on loan from the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, and the rubbed bronze belly of the pregnant Femme enceinte I (1950).

For all of his musing on his muses, Picasso largely took his subjects out of his portraits and rendered them as nameless still lifes. His figures do not come alive on the canvas so much as become hunted, ensnared, starved, and field-dressed in Picassoid symbols and forms. Femme aux jambes croisées (1955) is a woman flayed on the Cubist drying rack. The face of Buste de femme (Dora Maar) (1940) looks like it busted up in the business end of a nutcracker, which may be just the point. Even in such a tender portrait as the famous La Rêve (Marie-Thérèse) (1932), some critics have pointed out that the artist inserted a phallus above the upturned profile.

While merely listed as belonging to a “private collection,” most observers will recognize this last work as the painting purchased by Steven A. Cohen in 2013 for $155 million, then the highest price ever paid for a work of art by an American collector. The transaction occurred even after the former owner Steve Wynn mistakenly knocked his elbow through the canvas, later claiming he suffers from peripheral blindness. What record prices and blind collectors say about the art market, and the enduring value of Picasso, we may only speculate. In any case, this painting is now firmly behind glass, as is Picasso’s titanic reputation.

Willem de Kooning , Woman as Landscape,  1952–53 ,  Oil on canvas ,  Private collection ,  Courtesy Mnuchin Gallery ,  New York. Artwork © 2019 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS) ,  New York .

Willem de Kooning, Woman as Landscape, 1952–53Oil on canvasPrivate collectionCourtesy Mnuchin GalleryNew York. Artwork © 2019 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS)New York.

A clash of the titans rages on the Upper East Side. Now at Mnuchin Gallery, “De Kooning: Five Decades” continues the titanomachy of the twentieth-century art gods—and the mortal women who loved them.2

In our hypersensitive age, de Kooning’s mid-century “women” paintings can seem like windows onto a prehistoric era, when subjects could become objects and artists were not just allowed, but encouraged, to do anything and anyone. De Kooning was himself a genre-bending modernist, a supremely gifted and classically trained draftsman who became a conjurer in paint as well as a philanderer in the sack. As de Kooning said of Picasso, “He’s the guy to beat.” Indeed. While Picasso drowned his women in the depths of abstraction, de Kooning wiped away the abstract froth to reveal the women hidden just below his surfaces.

I have always been partial to that moment just before de Kooning’s seismic revelation, when his figures were active but still sublimated in mysterious forms, such as in moma’s famous black-and-white Painting of 1948 and the Art Institute of Chicago’s Excavation of 1950. The women that came forward in de Kooning’s compositions for a brief, furious period in the 1950s receded just as quickly as they appeared. In the 1960s they were diving deep into the waves of increasingly aqueous abstractions. By the 1980s they had dissolved into the gentle fog of de Kooning’s diminishing mental acuity.

There are several smaller works on paper here, many of them on loan from the Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Maryland, that locate de Kooning’s “woman” breakthrough between 1948 and 1954. They reveal how de Kooning was working through the tension between figuration and abstraction even before he began to extract the breasts and teeth of his women from his abstract forms.

Among the painters of the New York School, de Kooning was especially sensitive to surface treatment. His wet-on-wet application conveys a sensuously felt form. In paintings such as Woman III(1952–53) and Woman as Landscape (1954–55), the apparent manhandling of his crude female forms, up close, can seem like an embrace of color-rich oils and enamels. Once revealed, it may be impossible to see these abstractions any other way.

The waters off Long Island helped de Kooning cool these heated works. Following his move to East Hampton in 1963, both his palette and his paint handling began to chill. Two Women (1964) and Woman and Child (1967) have loosened their grip on de Kooning’s abstract surfaces. The “Untitled” paintings here from the 1970s feel like a refreshing swim in the hot Hampton sun.

Further bending his creative focus, de Kooning produced during this period a suite of watery clay figures, cast in bronze, most famously his Clamdigger (1972). As sculptures that seem to defy solid form, these are powerful works, crude from afar, like those “women,” but supremely tactile up close, imbued with the artist’s hand in their squished and pinched material. These are wet, sun-drenched visions, at the same time intimately felt and distantly perceived across the tidal flats.

For de Kooning, these figures may signal a long withdrawal into the recesses of cognition. A victim of Alzheimer’s who died at age ninety-two in 1997, de Kooning continued to paint into the 1980s, even as his compositions became more simple. There is long debate as to what exactly de Kooning painted himself during this period, and which compositions were driven by assistants. Nevertheless, forms from decades before remain as vestigial visions. Untitled III (1983) reads like a memory of 1950’s Excavation, with its evocations of lips and eyes, while Untitled XLII (1983) is mere ribbons of red and blue paint over light ground. As de Kooning’s forms dissolve into light, all that remains is the whiff of feeling.

Lucian Freud , Naked Man, Back View,  1991–92 ,  Oil on canvas ,  The Metropolitan Museum of Art ,  New York. Photo: © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images.

Lucian Freud, Naked Man, Back View, 1991–92Oil on canvasThe Metropolitan Museum of ArtNew York. Photo: © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images.

Not since Rubens has a painter been so focused on the amplitude of the nude as Lucian Freud. The English grandson of Sigmund, Lucian made a fetish out of flesh, surveying the landscapes of his mottled figures through a favorite selection of subjects. Last month at Acquavella, a loan exhibition brought together thirteen of Freud’s major paintings, curated by the artist’s studio assistant, David Dawson.3

There is, of course, a long tradition of English landscape painting, and Lucian Freud is not the only English modernist to treat the figure as another landscape view. The focus of landscape, especially in the English mode, is all-over, taking it all in, with a predilection for Saxon fact over Gallic fancy. Freud was a precocious draftsman. In 1943, just in his early twenties, he made a drawing of Loch Ness from Drumnadrochit that seems to account for every leaf and stone in pen and ink. His landscape drawings remain a high point in their astonishing detail.

As he turned to the figure, Freud applied this same precision, increasingly recording the marshlands and bogs of the flesh with unsentimental determination. By the time we get to the “monumental,” with the well-known portraits painted from the 1990s to Freud’s death at age eighty-eight in 2011, which were on display at Acquavella, this mode has become a manner. Going for the monumental in both the scale of his canvases and the size of his chosen subjects, most notably Leigh Bowery and “Big Sue,” Freud indulged in the landscapes of the flesh and exaggerated their ample vistas in paint. In Leigh Bowery (Seated) (1990), the perspective begins at groin level before turning to survey Bowery’s hills and dales in widening angles of view. There may be truths in these unflattering figures, but photographs reveal how Freud packed on the pounds and roughed up the flesh. In Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995), he added his own crags and mudslides to the human landscape for dramatic effect. These paintings may shock, but the results replace English fact with modernist fiction.

1 “Picasso’s Women: Fernande to Jacqueline” opened at Gagosian, New York, on May 3 and remains on view through June 22, 2019.

2 “De Kooning: Five Decades” opened at Mnuchin Gallery, New York, on April 19 and remains on view through June 15, 2019.

3 “Lucian Freud: Monumental” was on view at Acquavella Galleries, New York, from April 5 through May 24, 2019.

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