Three Great Summer Shows (Back East)
The New York Guggenheim Museum’s exhibition Italian Futurism 1909—1944 (until September 1st 2014) covers the entire Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda. In 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published the first Futurist Manifesto in Paris’ Le Figaro and thus another Modernist movement permeated Europe.
Futurism was Italy announcing it wanted to play with the big boys of French Cubism. These Roman Modernists also flattened shapes, used industrial colors, and continued to facet forms on two-dimensional picture planes as well as when making sculpture. But there were differences; their whirling dervish line quality pushed technological and political tropes further into abstraction.
Marinetti was a Sorbonne graduate and a poet. He loved fast cars and a near death accident outside Milan apparently made him a warmonger. According to Marinetti, “we will destroy museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.” This doesn’t sound like someone promoting art. And it’s certainly not what you think came from Italy, the place where E.M. Forster’s Victorians went to capture the light or where Winkelmann lauded Greece’s classical art.
Marinetti glorified the machine age by saying, “we will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth fighting for, and scorn for woman.”
Admiring Mussolini, Marinetti joined the Italian Fascist Party, and tried to make Futuristic art a state concern. Apparently Mussolini only supported art because his mistress Margherita Sarfatti was an aficionado. By the ’30s, Italian right-wing Fascists condemned Futurism as ‘degenerate art.’ Futurism ended with Martinetti’s 1944 death.
But when it stuck to aesthetics, Futurism advanced usages of photography and cinema, depicting how time and space had skewed the home team’s perspectival effects. Futurism, with its attention to youth culture, urbanization and focus on economic disparities, lost momentum after WWI. But its iconic graphic designs and admiration for science, while celebrating the cleansing effects of war, live on in books and exhibitions as a visual about Mussolini’s Italy.
Umberto Boccioni, one of the original Futurist artists, was inspired by Picasso and Braque. In 1916, he died after being thrown from a horse during cavalry exercises. Boccioni’s Dynamism of a Cyclist, (1913) is an example of a Futuristic artist employing faceted planes, monochromatic hues and angled line to depict the speed of a cyclist—a close look reveals a body on a bike.
The Sigmar Polke Retrospective 1963-2010, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (until August 3rd 2014), chronicles Germany’s defeat in World War II, moving onward to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Polke then pushes out globally, addressing the aftermath of the atomic bomb, Russia’s Chernobyl disaster and subsequent protests against nuclear power.
Since alchemy versus science fascinated him, naturally Polke owned a chunk of uranium and a Geiger counter. As MoMA’s Polke catalogue states– nuclear physics no longer promised any miraculous alkahest, only radiation poisoning.
Polke was born in 1941 in Oels, Silesia, formerly Eastern Germany, now in Poland. Escaping the Communist regime, his family fled to West Germany. Polke attended the Dusseldorf academy, was influenced by teacher Joseph Beuys and was a friend of now renowned artist Gerhard Richter. Like many sixties artists worldwide, he gravitated to commercial (Pop) themes executed in photography, film and paint.
Postwar German artists inherited the guilt of their parents’ generation. Themes of arriving in the backwash of Hitler’s insanity surface in their work. Not surprising, Polke’s work is also politically charged, expanding from the parochial, Nazi soldiers becoming civilians, to the global, with a focus on September 11, 2001.
The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Quaeda (2002) is a blown-up newspaper diagram about hunting terrorists with drones in Afghanistan that morphs into chic art served up with wine and brie in some tony gallery. Cocktails accompanied by ‘War on Terror,’ produces strange bedfellows; somewhat ironic as this is a US map printed in German. Then again, art has been criticized of late, avoiding political reality for kitsch.
Special thanks to my German friend Gisela Höhle. Both of us were WWII post-war babies, volunteering in Hoxton, England at a community center during the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.
The National Portrait Gallery Washington DC’s Face Value, Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction (until January 11, 2015) celebrates America becoming the world’s art mecca following World War II. Today, twenty-first century portraiture is so concerned with mimicking what can be printed off a computer, it’s a pleasure to revisit painterly imagery and to rethink the artist as genius.
In the fifties, Jackson Pollock was the ‘Marlboro man’ of Abstract-Expressionism, along with czar-art critic Clement Greenberg who preached formalism or line and color speaking without content.
But things began to change in the sixties with angst over the Vietnam War and women wishing that ‘Rosie the Riveter’ hadn’t been forced to retire to New Rochelle. The artists appearing in Face Value loosened portraiture’s tight representational reins, adding abstraction to their version of Modernism. Flat forms, high-key colors, imagery up-front on the picture surface subtly bring out political and cultural content using lush paint and dynamic stroke work.
San Francisco artist Joan Brown’s Self-Portrait with Fish and Cat (1970), stares out at the viewer much the same way Manet’s courtesan, Olympia, looks out at her next john. Brown has retained Manet’s black cat who suggests female independence or mystery also found in Brown’s facial expression. Unlike Manet’s prostitute, Brown is not bedecked in jewelry nor does she have a maid-servant. Instead she wears a paint splattered man’s shirt and jeans while sporting an industrial loaded paint brush. And instead of the accepting flowers from a client, Brown substitutes a fish.
Fish traditionally have symbolized Christianity, which was torn asunder by Nietzsche who helped usher in the modern age of secular and aesthetic thinking. The fish may also suggest the working woman who traditionally cleaned fish– slime lines on beaches or in canneries; now she has the chance to go to sea as a deck hand or maybe a trawler captain– is liberation always an improvement?
Grids in paintings can allude to breaking away from the past. Here Brown attempts to jump out of her tessellated flooring as the autonomous post-war feminist, but inevitably continues to be stuck to her tiling as is the reflection of her legs–change is gradual and not always easily accomplished.
Alex Katz’s, Ada and Vincent in the Car (1972), portrays the stay-at-home mom driving her son–note the ubiquitous post-war American Chevy/Ford steering wheel. Typical when routinely transporting teens, Ada and Vincent don’t converse. Vincent has his hand outside the vehicle suggesting his desire for independence. Ada has her left arm outside the driver’s side window pointing to other obligations beyond chauffeuring a teen.
Perhaps mom desires to expand her horizons as suggested by Katz’s rendering of green pastures beyond the crank- down window. The post-modern French philosopher Jacques Derrida believed that the framed image had strong connections to its picture frame, a/k/a the car frame, and what was beyond.
All three exhibitions reveal insightful twentieth/twenty-first century aesthetic evolutions with war as backstory. Exhibition catalogues of Italian Futurism 1909-1944, Sigmar Polke 1963—2010, and Face Value Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction available on Amazon.
About Jean Bundy