Archive for August, 2012

Art | Alex Katz: Immediate, Present

Friday, August 31st, 2012

Alex Katz
Timothy Taylor Gallery
London, UK
5th September – 5th October, 2012

American painter Alex Katz, admires David Hockney’s public graciousness and sense of self. Qualities that Katz in an interview with Martin Clark, artistic director of Tate St Ives for Tate Etc. magazine, the text reproduced in the Timothy Taylor Gallery’s elegantly-designed catalogue, reveals himself to possess by the bucketload. (See the Tate Shots live interview here)

What struck me in September 2010, when I first saw his work – yes, I know: how could I not have been aware of it before, when 2012 marks his 85th birthday, his paintings are in at least 98 public collections throughout the world, he has had countless solo exhibitions, globally, and been included in an endless series of mixed shows – stumbling across his National Portrait Gallery show, was its supreme stylishness. After all, here was an artists who had painted a huge close-up portrait of Anna Wintour – incidentally, the first portrait she has ever consented to sit for – without her, up until about then, omnipresent dark sunglasses. Although Katz admits to being interested in style and fashion I felt a sense of this portrait having being produced by a painter obsessed with neither: someone who knows all about style but is not of the style cogniscenti. During the interview, Katz tells Clark that to him ‘the surface is the whole thing’, however, as I’ve learned, there is nothing superficial about the processes he goes through and the history of the development of his approach to his paintings and subjects that could, in any way, be interpreted as shallow.

In my ignorance of who Katz was, my first impressions had been that here was someone who had seen Hockney, whose work at various stages has a similar, primitive feel about it – and had applied techniques possibly borrowed from illustration for his own purposes. I thought he might be British and perhaps one of the generation of the illustrator/artists who emerged, post-Hockney, from London’s Royal College of Art that included figurative draughtsnman Adrian George, brilliant colourist Glynn Boyd Hart (1948-2003) and maybe even Paul Leith. Instantly drawn to Katz’s work, I couldn’t have been more mistaken about its provenance.

In fact, Katz, whose parents were of Russian origin, and who grew up in Queen’s, emerged in 1950 from art school where he had produced detailed drawings of classical sculpture and painted from life, into a hysterical New York where the new heroes of abstract expression, Jackson Pollock and Barnet Newman, were throwing everything up in the air and riding a wave of popularity. Enjoying the parties and the jazz, Katz nevertheless had no inclination to err from the figurative direction he was set on that earned him an early popularity with the pop artists, who were just starting to appear. Instead Katz, who had nevertheless begun exploring the properties of flatness in representational painting turned to Mark Rothko and Yves Klein for inspiration and through the consequent reduction processes he applied to his own work, discovered a profound depth comparable to Pollock’s seemingly endless, multi-layered distance.

Alex Katz: Give Me Tomorrow is running until 23rd September at Tate St Ives, before transferring to Turner Contemporary in Margate in October, and shows a cross section of work spanning the artist’s six-decade career. Katz’s most recent, large-scale intimate portraits of family, friends and still lifes of flowers purchased from street vendors near his New York studio, are self-evident of the artist’s mastery of his medium. Seventeen of these have been selected for London’s Timothy Taylor Gallery show. In them can be detected traces of Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keefe and perhaps Andrew Wyeth, but Katz’s influences have often been strongly European: Picasso, Miro, Matisse – some of the same artists Hockney looked and may still look at – as well as earlier painters such as Watteau and Rembrandt, for gesture and composition. The big painting was an American idea, asserts Katz – perhaps unconsciously ignoring Monet’s great Waterliles triptych, measuring 2.1m x 13m (7ft x 42ft) in total, which had so inspired the New York abstract expressionists. Physically demanding for one so advanced in age, Katz’s works, though often huge in proportions – he was at the time of the Tate Etc. interview preparing to produce a 6.1m (20ft) wide, white on white, painting – are all done in a single day, all preparatory drawings and paint mixes having been finalised beforehand. His paintings could never be called impressionist but he likes to capture the immediate present, which this series of UK exhibitions are certainly doing for him.

Alex Katz paintings from top
White Roses 8 (large), 2012
Vivien, 2012
Gavin, 2012
All paintings © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, USA.
Courtesy, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London

Alex Katz photographed in 2004 by Vivien Bittencourt
©Vivien Bittencourt

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Design | Swarovski Goes Digital at Design Museum

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Digital Crystal: Swarovski at the Design Museum
The Design Museum, London, UK
5th September – 13th January, 2013

When, in 1989, Terence Conran whose concept it was to create ‘the first museum of modern design’, in London, and whose company converted a 1940s banana warehouse into the Design Museum, his involvement may have had a little to do with personal vanity but probably wasn’t an exercise in brand awareness for his then-burgeoning string of high-quality retail outlets and smart restaurants. Along with Conran, the project was funded by many companies, designers and benefactors whose aim was to raise design awareness and the general standard of British design.

Its founding principles being to make works of art available to all, to educate working people and to inspire British designers and manufacturers, it was royal patronage that provided the driving force behind the Victoria & Albert Museum, set up in 1852 in the wake of the enormous success of the Great Exhibition the previous year. In a boom time for British industry, generous Victorian benefactors and a less competitive art market than today’s meant that the young museum was able to make many very important acquisitions and quickly build up the most astonishing collections. Although it set out to acquire the best examples of metalwork, furniture, textiles and all other forms of decorative art from all periods, it also acquired fine art – paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture – in order to tell a more complete history of art and design but recognising, and this is key, that there was a significant difference between the two. Commercial sponsorship of design would follow in the 1890s when Arthur Lasenby Liberty built strong relationships with many leading English designers who were prominent figures in the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements. Liberty himself, through his commissions, became instrumental in the development of Art Nouveau and in consequence his shop, Liberty, became one of the most prestigious in London.

Everyone is getting in on the relationship/benefactor/sponsor/collaborator act these days, and in particular there’s an ever growing crossover between luxury goods brands, architecture, design and the arts. It’s difficult to see where it will all end up. On the one hand, if fashion companies flirt with fine artists, inviting them to collaborate – as, notably, Marc Jacobs did at Louis Vuitton in 2002 with one Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami (who had already worked with Issey Miyake) and more recently with another, Yayoi Kusama – they blur the line between fine art and commerce. On the other hand, it can be said that in modern times the practice has been going on since the 1960s, when Pop art turned commercialism on its head, Op art visual illusions were applied to fabrics that were turned into dresses and Yves St Laurent designed his 1965 Mondrian dress. Taking hold of the baton in 2003, milliner Philip Treacy put Andy Warhol images on to his hats.

Selfridges and Primark owner the Canadian, Weston family claimed the top fashion spot in The Sunday Times Rich List, 2012. No strangers to art sponsorship, through the Garfield Weston Foundation, they are among the most generous supporters of the arts in Britain. Selfridges’ creative director Alannah Weston is quoted as having said: ‘My goal is to make Selfridges a destination where people can have an extraordinary experience. I have to surprise, amaze and amuse them.’ And by transforming and opening up the store’s interiors, establishing a gallery in the basement and by inviting well-known artists and young hopefuls to create cutting edge window displays, since she took on the role in 2003, she has certainly done that. And, if that wasn’t enough, she’s appointed The Shard’s architect Renzo Piano to redesign the entire store.

We’re in the middle of a confusing time when architects – Rem Koolhaas, 2009, United Nude – launch fashion footwear collections and design the stores they are sold in; when designers of the Olympic Torch, Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby have shown non-functional designed objects at the Haunch of Venison gallery and Farrow & Ball are the official paint sponsor of Manchester City Galleries. Last year Swarovski, collaborators with the Museum of the forthcoming exhibition Digital Crystal: Swarovski at the Design Museum, worked with the Hello Kitty brand and Manhattan-based, Taiwanese Canadian Jason Wu’s Resort 2013 fashion collection, will contain hundreds of Swarovski crystals. Shared core values: artfulness, simplicity, creativity and beauty, apparently make it a safe bet to presume that Hello Kitty and Jason Wu customers will appreciate Swarovski’s creations and vice versa. Maybe, in the post-analogue era ‘when our relationship with objects and even with time is changing’ these same reasons are behind Swarovski and the Design Museum’s joint project, because  with these sorts of temporary partnerships it’s always a quid pro quo situation – nobody’s in it for nothing.

Swarovski, the world’s leading manufacturer of cut crystal was established in Austria in 1895 and has a long tradition of links with the fashion and jewellery industry, collaborating in the 1950s with Christian Dior and Coco Chanel to create avant-garde crystal jewellery. 42-year-old Nadja Swarovski, vice-president of international communications at the company began her career at the Gagosian Gallery, which probably explains a lot about her interests and the areas she’s taken the company into.

Now in its tenth year, the Swarovski Crystal Palace project – one of Nadia’s initiatives – has commissioned some of the world’s foremost  designers including Zaha Hadid, Yvés Behar, Studio Job, Ross Lovegrove, Tom Dixon and more. Initially, the idea was to reinterpret crystal chandeliers but the project has evolved into an experimental design platform allowing designers to conceptualise, develop and share their most radical works. In 2009 Nigel Coates, Professor of Architecture at the Royal College of Art designed 43 Swarovski ‘Cloudeliers’ for the restaurant at Glyndebourne and in 2011, St Paul’s Perspectives, was created by architect John Pawson, who used a precision-made Swarovski Optik lens and a suspended spherical steel mirror to reflect a new vision of the Geometric Staircase of St Paul’s Cathedral. As well as others, Ron Arad, Yves Béhar, Paul Cocksedge, Troika and Fredrikson Stallard – who actually include a section called Sculpture on their website – have been asked to take part in the Design Museum exhibition, reworking existing pieces commissioned from them by Swarovski, in response to the exhibition brief.

At the end of the analogue era Digital Crystal is intended as a catalyst for debate about the changing nature of memory in the digital world but may also force us to reassess our ideas about the role of designers and architects, and especially the role of fine artists in relation to the commercial world. And certainly there are questions to be asked. There’s something uneasy about design masquerading as art, but is that what it’s doing? Are designers and architects capable of producing great art? Is it all just business as usual? The sponsorship of design and architecture can certainly be said to usefully contribute to innovation when it provides the necessary funds to accomplish experimental projects, large and small, that otherwise might only be dreamt of, and while it can be seen to have democratised art – which must be a good thing – if it also leads to art’s total commoditisation, it remains to be seen whether it will be to art’s long term benefit.

Images from top
Ron Arad, Lolita, originally commissioned in 2004
Redesigned to receive tweets and text messages that can be displayed
on its spiral form

Paul Cocksedge, Crystallize, originally commissioned in 2005
Via single crystals mounted onto a tubular glass frame, trajectory
beams fill the room as light cascades from each crystal

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Poster Design | The Magic of Things

Friday, August 17th, 2012

The Magic of Things
Museum für Gestaltung Zürich
Zürich, Switzerland
29th August, 2012 – 6th January, 2013

Accounts vary but one version of the story is that, in the year 1900, when Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec were at work in Paris, Picasso was entering his Blue Period and Edvard Munch was painting The Girls on the Bridge, Emil Kahn (1883–1972), just seventeen years old – an autodidact who never went to art school – had an argument with his parents, left his family home in Stuttgart and moved to Berlin. He bummed around doing odd jobs and on a whim entered a poster competition organised by the Priester Match Company. He won first prize. His son Karl explained later that Kahn, who changed his name to Lucian Bernhard, believed that the actual facts of his youth had little relevance to his adult work and that he enjoyed toying with the details of his life, revising his stories to suit a particular audience. What is certain and unambiguous is that, at a time when posters were dominated by flowery Art Nouveau and Jugenstil decoration, Bernhard’s bold, stripped down, elegant design signalled the beginning of the modern commercial poster and marked the start of his legendary career.

So precious is their collection of vintage posters – it was started in 1875 – that it can only be viewed by prior appointment, however, the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, Switzerland’s leading design and visual communication museum, has delved into its phenomenal archive – roughly 350,000 posters, one of the most comprehensive and important of its kind in the world – and put together The Magic of Things, a celebration of product posters.

Lucien Bernhard, whose work figures prominently in the exhibition had recognised how effective advertising that used a compact blend of product and brand name could be. In a world of unprecedented, booming economies, as yet untouched by the harsh realities of the First World War, his posters pioneered selling to a burgeoning consumer society. During the next two decades he became well-known throughout Europe.

Understandably, in the inter-war period when only the well-off had the means to buy, product posters were aimed predominately at the middle and upper classes. In the 1940s Switzerland experienced a rapid economic upswing which resulted in the dawning of a golden age of the Swiss product poster. Now, with improved printing techniques, Swiss designers – among them, Niklaus Stoecklin, Peter Birkhäuser, Donald Brun and Otto Baumberger – building on Bernhard’s flat style, introduced mood lighting and highlights to lend beguiling sensuality, as well as tactile qualities to illustrations of objects as unglamorous as household cleaning fluid to spark plugs. By introducing additional complementary items – props – the brand name products were made to emanate a seductive emotional draw. Perfect for a country with four national languages – which may have been the underlying reason for the object poster’s prolonged success in Switzerland – copy was practically non-existent. Stoecklin’s posters in particular, included no other copy than that which appeared on the products themselves. The Bauhaus and all the various early modern movements had happened, however, the style of these Swiss poster artists, who absorbed some influences from Art Deco and surrealism, was in essence a continuation of an earlier one and represents a period before strict grids and the Helvetica font become synonymous with Swiss design. More radical and rationalist, his early poster work was entirely different to Bernhard’s, the latter’s influence remains evident in the employment of reduced resources to maximum effect in the output of Josef Müller-Brockmann, whose international reputation would eclipse all those above.

With the democratisation of consumption in the 1960s, the emergence of global products and brands and the general growth of wealth in the western world leading to far greater competition, changes in advertising strategy became necessary. The focus on the product and its brand name no longer sufficed.

Eighty product posters have been selected for the exhibition and will be juxtaposed against photographs of objects, which, in the way they concentrate on the essential aspects of things, accentuate qualities similar to those the poster images project.

Posters from top
Eric de Coulon, Revue, 1941
Museum für Gestaltung Zurich
© The Artist

Lucian Bernhard, Galoschen – die besten Begleiter auf der Welt, 1913
Museum für Gestaltung Zurich, Plakatsammlung
© The Artist

Nicklaus Stoecklin, Sonnenschutz Bi-Oro, 1941
Museum für Gestaltung Zurich, Plakatsammlung
© The Artist

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Photography | Viviane Sassen’s Parasomnia

Friday, August 10th, 2012

Viviane Sassen: Parasomnia
Text by Moses Isegawa
First published, 2011
Second printing, 2012

Award-winning Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen’s monograph features photographs taken during her journeys throughout West and East Africa. The images however, which she has grouped under the title Parasomnia – the name of a sleep disorder involving strange movements, sleep-walking, talking, emotions and terror – are far more than mere travel pictures.

Sassen’s work is the result of an entirely personal, original approach to her subjects. She sees shape and form with the eye of a sculptor; shadow played off against strong light as an abstract artist sees and considers it. Invariably intriguing and remarkable, sometimes her images, though patently tangible, have a surreal quality and appear mysterious, otherworldly.

This exquisitely-produced large-format book, designed by Antwerp-based -SYB- in cooperation with the photographer, might be the catalogue for a show of fine art photography; it could be reportage, but just as easily some of its stark and hauntingly elegant images could illustrate fashion. Indeed, Sassen’s stamping ground is all of these areas and more. Having previously been awarded the Prix de Rome in 2007, last year she won an ICP Infinity Award in the Applied/Fashion/Advertising Photography section. Her phenomenal list of clients has included: Aquascutum, Missoni, Adidas/Stella McCartney, Diesel, Miu Miu, Louis Vuitton and also Vodaphone, Siemens and Vitra. She has had fashion and portrait commissions from, among others, 10 Magazine, Another Magazine, Dazed & Confused, Wallpaper, Vogue France, as well as newspapers Le Monde and the left-wing, progressive Libération.

The photographer’s pictures of mostly young, urban Africans, still life and buildings in Parasomnia evoke a new Africa emerging from the old, struggling to find an identity and a direction in the 21st century, the nightmares of its dark past and often still violent present still causes for general concern, and of many a sleepless night for its inhabitants. They possess a carefully-crafted, consistent ambiguity that challenges the viewer to invent a narrative. Chameleone, a short, lyrical story by novelist Moses Isegawa – who went to live in the Netherlands for 15 years, before returning to his native Uganda in 2006 – written in Uganda in 2011, is included as an introduction to the book and functions as an emotive scene-setter.

Born in Amsterdam in 1972, Sassen lives and works in the city. She has produced a wide variety of memorable images, many of which were made in Africa, the continent in which she spent part of her youth. Libraryman Sweden recently published her photobook Die Son Sien Alles – first and second editions are already sold out – a series of photographs of interiors in the townships of Cape Town. Earlier this year, the images from Parasomnia were exhibited in the Pauza Gallery in Krakow, Poland, however her work has appeared internationally in some 60 solo and group shows since 2000. Viviane Sassen / Laboratorium, 17 years in and out of fashion will run at Museum Huis Voor Fotographie, Marseille, France from 15th December, 2012, to 2nd March, 2013.

Parasomnia, 2010
©Viviane Sassen

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Books | Tree House Architecture

Friday, August 3rd, 2012
Tree Houses. Fairy Tale Castles in the Air
By Philip Jodidio,
Taschen, September 2012

The Baron in the Trees (Il Barone Rampante) by the Italian author, Italo Calvino was published in 1957. Set in 18th century Liguria, it has been described as a philosophical fiction and a metaphor for independence. It relates the adventures of twelve-year-old Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò who, in a rebellious fit, after refusing to eat a dinner of snails prepared by his sadistic sister, climbs up a tree and decides never to set foot on the ground again. I don’t have the book any more but having read it six years or so ago, seem to remember that the baron never got around to building a treehouse. ‘The idea of climbing a tree for shelter, or just to see the earth from another perspective, is probably as old as humanity,’ the Taschen blurb for Tree Houses. Fairy Tale Castles in the Air tells us, describing the phenomena as, ‘Childhood fantasy meets grown-up savoir faire’.

At Disneyland in California, where nothing is philosophical and everything fiction, you can take a tour of Tarzan’s Treehouse set high in an 80-foot-tall (24.4m) artificial Disneydendron semperflorens grandis, or Large Ever-blooming Disney Tree to you and me, on which we are told 450 – presumably, also artificial – branches and over 6,000 leaves grow – fake too, I would have thought. Hideouts like Tarzan’s jungle abode and Peter Pan’s Hangman’s Tree may come to mind when we think of treehouses but there’s a lot more to them than all the make believe.

Tree houses have a long and rich history in the real world and, as described in internationally-renowned author Philip Jodido’s forthcoming publication, building and designing them is still as popular as ever. Jodido, who studied art history and economics at Harvard has a long and rich history himself, especially with Taschen, for which his books include the Architecture Now! series and monographs on a list of prominent contemporary architects, among them, Tadao Ando, Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid.

The book offers a tour of the best tree houses around the globe covering all styles – a
lthough all the images released for press purposes are modern, contemporary – from romantic to modern, some designed by architects, others the work of anonymous craftsmen. Rather than relying  just on good photographs, each house is accompanied by one of new, young, LA-based illustrator Patrick Hruby’s charmingly primitive representations.

Images from top
Iwan Baan’s Go Hasegawa
Pilotis in a Forest
Kita-Karuizawa, Gunma, Japan
©Iwan Baan

Andreas Wenning of
Jungle House
©Baumraum/Andreas Wenning

Tom Chudleigh’s
Free Spirit Spheres
Qualicum Bay, British Columbia,
©Tom Chudleigh

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