Thursday, November 29, 2007

Neue Heimat at Berlinische Galerie

While in Berlin, I had a chance to see a marvelous exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie ( It was a mixed media show comprised of artists who currently make their home in Berlin. The title of the show, "Neue Heimat", had a triple message. The first was that these artists had made a new home in Berlin. The second was that much of the work explored questions of homeland, nationality, and the meaning of a home. The third and least obvious was pointed out to me that much of Germany's public housing projects were called Neue Heimat by the government. I love multi-layered exhibitions like this where there is so much to be read into every work. Of course, the theme of the show rises and falls on the quality of the work included, so it was high tide with the wealth of intriguing art on display.

Tea Mäkipää started things off in grand fashion with a to-scale re-creation of an apartment building stripped to the bone of all but its outer frame and interior plumbing. It recalled the triumph of Monica Sosnowska's installation at the Polish pavilion at Venice this summer.

Miguel Rothschild built a geometric tour-de-force in a Dürer inspired polyhedron made entirely from colored plastic straws.

Michael Sailstorfer had another to-scale piece representing an inflatable battle tank. It would take about 30 seconds to puff up to its full phallic mightiness, then, turret first, it would de-tumesce in a most satisfying fashion. If only actual battles could be fought with this work.

Florian Slotawa had a marvelous idea to question the idea of home-ness combined with the questions of what it means to live with art. He was commissioned to photograph the collection of a museum. Rather than go on site, he had the museum deliver all of the art to his home for him to photograph there over the course of a few weeks. Then the photographs of the objects were displayed in the museum along with an installation sculpture comprised of all the packing materials that were used to bring the art to his apartment. Witty, fun, and full of good questions, I loved this piece.

Maria Vedder did a video work that placed her camera under opaque Plexiglas flooring in a public space. The upward-looking rhythms and geometries of the people as they passed over the camera were beautiful though vertiginous. The video display was placed above a door adding to the disorientation, since it was a place where it was just possible there could be a window. The light of the video was believable as daylight streaming in. First-rate video work.

Last and not at all least were the drawings of Jorinde Voigt. This is an artist I suspect is not so well known yet in the US. Her complex, layered, and text/number based work is not easy to parse, yet yields pleasures of both the intellectual and visual kind. Reproductions here would not read well enough to do her work justice. Check out her website and begin o explore this remarkable artist.

There was yet more to see in this rich, varied show. After the Berlin in Lights show this Fall at Carnegie Hall, perhaps one of the NYC museums would find it an interesting parallel to mount this show here as well. It is further documentation that Berlin is one of the true centers of creativity happening now world-wide.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Gee whiz in Berlin

Nothing brings out the little boy in me like a cool machine. And I walked around the Martin-Gropius-Bau show called "From Sparks to Pixels" like a wide-eyed 6th grader. Neat!

All kinds of toys and contraptions and whooziwuzzits were on display. I can't say all of them had me thinking of art, but the show certainly held my attention from start to finish (and we know how short the attention span of a sixth-grader is!). The best of them were remarkable.

The first work to really catch my eye was Gregory Barsamian's "The Scream". The press release for the show describes, "Gregory Barsamian combines his love of animation, sculpture and mechanics together with his strangest dreams. He avoids the heaviness of the zoetrope drum – that ancient forerunner of cinema – thanks to a stroboscope that is synchronized to the circular rotation of his sculptures. In this way, for each flash of the stroboscope, one sculpture representing a stage of the metamorphosis follows after the other, giving the impression of a constant transformation of its shape, the film being replaced by the material. " On a spinning wheel, Barsamian places a sculpture that is in a progression like a series of gels in a cartoon or a series of stills in a movie. In this sense the work is perfectly photographic and cinematic, yet it's turned on its head by being 3 dimensional and 100% sculptural. I sat and watched, and watched , and watched.

Christian Partos of Sweden had three works that seduced. The first was a maquette of a proscenium of a burlesque show. On the stage, the shadow of a dancer was limned by two criss-crossing spotlights. Only there was no dancer there. We had the undulating shadow of a woman as she strips onstage, yet there was no body or representation of a body to be seen. Talk about a tease. It was fun.

In M.O.M. - Multi Oriented Mirror, five thousand slanted mirrors reflect the illuminated wall on the opposite side of the room. By using micro gradations of slanting angle, each reflection has a different shade of gray. The reflections create a portrait of his deceased mother. It is trompe l'oeil at it's most beguiling - creepy and transient. It seemed the very essence of a ghostly visage.

Visp, is a light installation full of playful and hypnotic references.The piece is a continuously changing shape made of 5 light-wires, 30 feet long, spinning like skipping-ropes (imagine the playground game with 2 girls spinning multiple jump ropes for a third to skip in and out of). A computer, which also revolves, switches LEDs on and off to create animated patterns on the revolving surface. This was full-on gee whiz cool. The only thing that could have made it cooler for 6th grade eyes would be if someone could have gotten hurt by watching it.

Last on my list, and very much for adult eyes was Thomas McIntosh's Ondulation. The wall text states, "Ondulation created by Thomas McIntosh in collaboration with Mikko Hynninen and Emmanuel Madan is a composition for water, sound and light. McIntosh plays with the reflection of light on the surface of the water, which is set into motion by sound. The pool becomes a liquid mirror, visualising these motions and reflections." The piece is a huge installation in an even larger open room. In the center is a pool approximately 20x10 feet. Various lights are set around the room. Sound is directed into the pool creating patterns and textures on the water. As the sound changes (in very slow, minimalist sections), so does the light. We see white raking light, blue light from above, flashing lights - each of them interacting at that moment with whatever pattern is in the water to make a reflection on the back wall of the room. Think Turrell in 3-D with sound. This was great. I sat for long minutes to see what the next wave would bring. It was meditative in the best sense (I guess you could say meditation inspiring). It also made me want to keep looking and coming back to see again like the best art does. It also had a photographic slant to me in that it seemed that the light was being used to "print" on the surface of the water. Not permanent like a gelatin emulsion, but somehow photographic.

I hope the whole show comes to New York. It would be a big hit if we could find someplace that could house the scale of it. If it came, I would be a kid in a candy store.....

Friday, November 16, 2007

Less worried at Paris Photo

I am happy to report that Paris Photo seems to be undeterred despite all of the labor problems in the French capitol. On a selfish note, I got a cab at the airport with no delays, and my lodgings are just a few blocks from the fair. My informal sample of exhibitors and attendees yielded a few stories of long walks and frustrating waits for cabs. But overall, the stories I heard from people were positive and hassle-free.

The fair today was not elbow-to-elbow crowded, but there was a good, solid crowd all day. Many booths were quite busy and clearly there were sales happening. I asked about the professional preview, which I had missed. One gallerist said that it had been very busy, possibly because only the most serious collectors had made it a point to come. He said that the opening in the evening had been less well-attended, but the preview had made up for it. Combine that with a busy day today and I think it's safe to say that Paris Photo is alive and well. That's good news in my book. I had to miss a fun sounding collection visit/dinner this evening because there were simply no cabs to be had. I suspect there will be other stories of difficulties getting to less central satellite events, but at least the fair itself is thriving and humming with activity.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A magical evening in Lausanne (Ray K. Metzker at Musee d'Elysee)

William Ewing introducing Ray K. Metzker, "Mrs. Metzker" Ruth Thorne-Thompson, Laurence Miller, Ann Tucker, and Nathalie Herschdorfer

Mr. Metzker giving his remarks

A few installation views

Sometimes I just get lucky.

I won't claim luck in discovering the pleasures of the photography of Ray K. Metzker. I found it on my own and I've worked to learn more about and become familiar with his opus. It isn't really luck that I'm here in Lausanne for the opening of his new retrospective at the Musée d'Elysee. I mean, it was planned to coincide with the opening of Paris Photo, so I knew I'd be in the neighborhood, so to speak. It certainly isn't luck that Bill Ewing put together a great show. He's a top-notch curator who's deeply knowledgeable about Mr. Metzker's work, and the work is spectacular. It would be strange if that combination produced a bad show.

What was lucky was my experience of it. By New York standards, it was not crowded at all. I was able to really view the show, top to bottom. It's laid out on three floors in roughly chronological order: 1956-2007. I was lucky to hear Mr. Metzker's emotional and humble remarks of thanks to the curators and to his gallerist(of 25 years) Larry Miller. Larry Miller gave a heartfelt tribute to his friend and gallery artist. He said that one of the pleasures of Metzker's work is that, no matter how many times you look at it (and he's been looking at it intimately for over a quarter century), new connections, questions, and pleasures can be found every time you look. That idea led to where I started to get really lucky.

As I began to tour the show, Larry joined me and added his deeply informed views on this picture and that. He always has a perspective on the work that comes from a place that I wouldn't have found on my own. Later, I ran into Ann Tucker, curator of the Houston Museum of Fine Art who had mounted her own exhibit of Metzker 20 years ago. Eventually, Larry, Ann, and I spent almost an hour in the last third of show discussing Mr. Metzker, his peers and photography in general. If there is a better way to see a show of work you love, I've not found it; looking at and talking about the work with two people who love it as much as me and know much, much more than me. It was an impromptu graduate seminar in Metzker with me as the sole student. Lucky!

Wall text at the museum informs us that Mr Metzker sometimes views his photography through a metaphor of music. He has themes, variations, tones, and rhythms. Seeing his work in a retrospective context, I couldn't agree more. While the various series of his career show tremendous variety, creativity and breadth, there is a thread that runs through. Just as it is fascinating to view the work year by year and decade by decade, it would be equally illustrative to see the work mounted as a set of themes and variations.

It's a treat to link work from disparate periods who are clearly soul brothers separated by decades. We see Mr Metzker's radical use of large spaces of pure white. Sometimes these spaces bleed out to the edge of the frame and into the white of the photo paper. It seems like some content has been ripped out of the photograph, literally torn like a constructivist collage. Yet on examination, the print is a straight photograph constructed purely in Metzker's camera and darkroom. We see these white spaces in work from every decade: early city views, City Whispers, Landscapes, and most notably in the prints from New Mexico.

The blacks, too, are remarkable. Sometimes there are fields of black so inky deep and dark, one can only get lost in them. Other times, further examination reveals the subtlest shadows in what at first seemed to be just blackness. That Mr Metzker's tonal range goes from white the color of undeveloped photo paper to a black that seems to absorb color shows what a virtuosic printer this artist is.

How Mr. Metzker organizes space is manifested in a multitude of materials that crop up decade after decade. We see chain link fences, stairs, bricks, and the geometry of dozens of city views rendered again and again into an abstract cohesion in his viewfinder. It seemed that one could organize a show just of his use of chain link fencing. Examples from every series except the landscapes come to mind. I posited to Ann Tucker that a difference between Harry Callahan and Metzker is that Callahan is almost always more in close and tight; the figure is more personal, while Metzker takes the more distant, objective view. She replied that she thought that Callahan was about the figure represented in a cityscape, while Metzker was more about a cityscape with a figure or figures included in this view. A subtle but important distinction, I think, especially since even now people conflate the student with the teacher.

Continuing the musical metaphor, I am reminded of a quote by the french conductor and composer, Pierre Boulez. He said after twenty years, he was finally beginning to be spontaneous. This is not a comment on stiffness and lack of inspiration, it's a paean to the creativity that comes from discipline. If you work and work and work, you become so entwined with the material that real improvisation is possible. It's fashionable to just "let it all go", or "just go up and jam", but this approach rarely yields true creative fruit. The best jazz artists, indeed artists in general in my view, find spontaneity from a rigorous work ethic and a strict intellectual foundation. I see this in every Metzker photograph. He is a WORKING photographer. That he can riff on his blacks, or his whites, or fences, or cityscapes comes from the foundation of a language rooted in visual philosophy. By taking pictures and working in the darkroom non-stop he anneals this language into a body of work that speaks in every picture of inspiration and freedom.

A famous french actor once said that to be a great performer one must have a cool head and a hot heart. Mr. Metzker's photos reveal him to be a performer at the highest levels of his art.

If you're lucky, you'll see this show. In any case, explore this artist's work. It is its own reward.

Musings from a trip to Japan (III) Kikai

How important is it for an artist to stake out new visual territory? Arnold Schoenberg once said that there's a lot of great music left to be written in C major. I would transpose that quote to photography by saying that there are a lot of great portraits left to be taken in black and white.

I bow again to Christopher Phillips for introducing me to the work of Hiroh Kikai (for a really good Kikai overview, go to Wikipedia site - ). I was immediately drawn to the work, but I discounted it because it was presented in the nostalgic vernacular of silver/gelatin, black & white prints. I had this argument with myself throughout the Japan trip. I saw many Japanese "versions" of Aaron Siskind, William Klein, Harry Callahan, etc, etc. Certainly Mr. Kikai's work is in, at worst, a strong artistic legacy that starts with August Sander and stretches through Lisette Model to Diane Arbus. During my internal argument, I was reminded of a conversation I had years ago with a musician as we listened to the jazz violinist, Stuff Smith. Smith had maybe the most nasty sound and questionable technique you could imagine a violinist could have. He made the violin sound like a cross between a saxophone and a trombone. Yet, he was irresistible. After a few moments of listening she said, "It really has nothing to do with technique, does it? You can hear in an instant if someone is talking through their instrument or not". Clearly, Mr. Kikai is talking to us. (And please don't confuse my analogy with any hint that Mr. Kikai's work is less than technically wonderful. His silver/gelatin prints are luminous, tonally sophisticated objects that seduce even without their complex subjects). If these portraits share a vocabulary with earlier masters, it's still clear that Mr. Kikai's personal voice rings through loud and clear. There is inspiration from the past, but no slavish homage. The work communicates directly and honestly with a perspective that is purely from the artist.

I remember speaking with a curator from a major NYC museum photo department about what attracted her to this artist or that. She offered that one characteristic she often looked for was an obsessional approach to a certain subject or process. She felt that this single-mindedness frequently yielded high quality work. This is nowhere more true than the Asakusa portraits of Hiroh Kikai. He has been going to the same temple in the same district of Tokyo for the last 30 years photographing the denizens of this particular neighborhood. I would compare it to perhaps going to Washington Square park over a similar period. While the population is not at all homogeneous, there still is a distinctive stamp to who one might find there. The artist has created a typology that doesn't pretend to be taxonomic, scientific, or objective. He finds subjects that appeal to him, asks them if they are willing to pose, then takes just a few shots over the 5-15 minutes he has to capture the picture. The results, often in front of the same backdrop of the temple, communicate a delight in humanity in all of its diversity and perversity. Though the subjects have often seen better days, there is no condescension, pity, or cliché. We are presented with portraits of men and women who are just seen as an individual in front of the camera. We are not asked to judge and Mr. Kikai doesn't judge. They are who they are - fellow humans.

As I mentioned earlier, the prints themselves are gorgeous. Part of Mr. Kikai's apprenticeship was working in a commercial darkroom. Clearly he learned his craft well. The photographs have a tonal sophistication and subtle light that is mostly not captured in the book reproductions. (I understand that there is a Steidl book in the works that I have no doubt will be a stunner.)

Like some other photographers with a single-minded approach - Friedlander, Winogrand, Sander, Bechers - these photos work exceptionally well as a group. Each photo is a strong individual, but when seen as a community, their power is synergistic. I'm eager to see a large professional installation of these portraits. I can imagine that it would be unforgettable.

So I guess this has been a long, long way around saying that my internal argument has been resolved. I believe the portraits of Hiroh Kikai are an important, unique, and deeply personal body of work. Like a beautifully dressed woman, they catch one's attention. But once you look past the clothes to look into her eyes, it's very hard to look away.

Paris Photo worries

I'm sitting in a hotel room in Geneva wondering whther I'll be able to get back to Paris on Wednesday for Paris Photo. I'm in Switzerland to attend the opening of a Ray K. Metzker show at Bill Ewing's Musee d'Elysee tomorrow(more on that in a dedicated post), but it is a question mark whether I'll be able to get back to France. The reason is a threatened general strike in France that has been completely under or un-reported in english language news sources. It threatens to grind Paris to a standstill if the rail and metro workers walk off their jobs tomorrow as promised. A similar event last month lasted only a day and yet took 3-4 days to untangle.

I'm worried for the success of Paris Photo and all my friends who have come here to sell, exhibit, or look at photography. Fingers crossed. The art world doesn't need another underperforming fair right now. I wonder how many collectors and art professionals are travelling to France unaware that they will meet a sea of stranded people at the airport all trying to get into the city?

I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Musings from a trip to Japan(II) Naoshima

I had never heard of Naoshima. Most of the art lovers I know have never heard of Naoshima. When I heard that the ICP trip was going to include a multi-leg, expensive trip to the site as part of its Japan trip, I said, "where?".

Well, there is definitely there there in Naoshima. (For a broader overview, go to It is simply the most remarkable synthesis of art, architecture, and nature I am likely to see. Broadly, one can break down the components of Naoshima into 4 categories: traditional Japanese houses given over to installations, outdoor installations, custom museums, and the hotel/spa/museum combo of Benesse House.

The most amazing one of these for me was the Tadao Ando-designed Chichu Museum. One walks up a small hill to enter a museum that is built almost entirely below ground. You enter at ground level at the crest of the hill after walking past Monet-like water lily ponds. These ponds are no accident for one discovers a room of late Monet water lily paintings set in a room that has been lit entirely with deflected daylight. One realizes that you have never seen paintings like these in natural light unless you are a billionaire collector. They hardly seemed real. But what made this place unforgettable was the synthesis of the architecture to the art of James Turrell and Walter de Maria. Mr Ando had created spaces in this maze-like cavern specifically to house and show these specific works. I've never been in a structure that was built to show half a dozen art works that are permanent and never meant to be rotated. It's a kind of commitment that I found awe-inspiring.

At every turn, Mr. Ando found a way to show you the art in some kind of optimal view, give you a feeling of spaciousness and contact with nature, and at the same time utterly controlling every view and angle. It's an experiential orgy. The building is built in such a way that there is no clear plumb line. You walk up or down a set of stairs and feel yourself to be on level ground, yet every thing you see tells your mind that the real world could be canted this way or that. You know which way is up since there are abundant sky views cut into the structure (including a prayer inspiring room for a Turrell sky painting), but other than that you are in M.C. Escher territory.

There is some debate about whether the architecture is the real star; whether the building so overshadows the art, that one only sees the building. For me this was not the case. I was stunned at how integrated the building and art were. I couldn't imagine one without the other. They seemed perfectly balanced. I've often said that DIA Foundation in Beacon, NY is the perfect place to see certain art. If you don't enjoy Sandback and Serra at DIA, then these artists will probably never speak to you. I felt the same way here. Turrell and de Maria will never have stronger advocates than the experience of this place. It shows their art to best possible effect and even makes it more than you thought it was.

There is so much more to report on about Naoshima, but I'll cut it a bit short here. I could fuss about the hotel rooms, I could extol the beauty of the George Ricky outdoor installations, I could swoon over the Miyajima and Turrell japanese house installations, and I could testify about the Hiroshi Sugimoto temple construction. But I won't. Naoshima is there to be seen and lived in. Describing it diminishes it somehow. It is a place art lovers should really try to just go to. It's a lot of work and bother, and it's not cheap, but it's a place like no other. In an art world that is always under threat of homogenization and global blandness, it's great to see a place that celebrates its sui generis status while being a forum for international art. Check it out.

Musings from a trip to Japan (I) Hatakeyama

Entrance to the Takahashi Collection

Up the stairs in an industrial building

Ritzy view from entrance of Takahashi Collection building

My reward for navigating and climbing. Complete "Slow Glass"

My first exposure to the work of Naoya Hatakeyama was at a Christies auction about two years ago. There were two prints from his "Slow Glass" series that attracted my eye and had a $4000-6000 estimate. I didn't know anything about what was behind the work. When the pair of photographs more than doubled their low estimate at the sale, I wondered who is this guy?

The next chapter in my Hatakeyama saga comes from Christopher Phillips, curator at ICP and well-known Asian photography scholar. We went through a number of Hatakeyama's books together. Christopher explained some of the underpinnings of the work, and took time to map out the inter-connectedness of of many of the series. I was hooked, but I had seen the majority of his opus only in book form.

Fast forward to a trip I took last month with ICP led by Christopher. I had the opportunity to see much of Mr. Hatakeyama's work first-hand. The photographs did not disappoint. What a marvelous, complex, and varied artist this man is. And combined with that, the physical reality of the prints is sumptuous and luxurious to the eye; something the books only hint at.

My first view of Hatakeyama on the trip was at the Obiyashi Collection. This is a private collection compiled by the owner of an international construction firm. He commissioned Tadao Ando to build a guest house/private museum space in a quiet, upscale residential neighborhood in Tokyo. When we were there, the installation was 100% Hatakeyama. The extra treat was that Hatakeyama-san was there to meet us and to talk a bit about his work.

Mr. Obiyashi clearly understands this art in that much of it is serial in nature. Where possible, he has collected and exhibited entire series. It was wonderful to see complete "River Series", "River Series Shadow", and "Bird". Also on view were examples of "Slow Glass", "Underground", and "Blast Series". My favorite was a small room dedicated to a collection of small "Light box/Maquettes". Mr. Hatakeyama explained that he had wanted to do an architectural project where the lights of the building were illuminated from the inside. However, when he tried to make his first attempts, he found that the light box made the black areas too gray. He experimented until he found a solution in binding a negative and a postive together. The light still emanates through the "light" areas but the blacks are dense and dark. It's dramatic work that needs to be seen first-hand.

A later stop on the trip was to Taka Ishii Gallery, which represents Hatakeyama. We saw new work from Brazil(I can't wait to see more of this), examples from the "Lime Works" series, and a few from the "Underground" series. While Hatakeyama is virtually unknown in the US, his presence in Japan and Europe is well-established. There just isn't that much work to be found on the market, so it was a pleasure to see a small trove at Taka Ishii.

On my own after the group had headed back to the states, I ventured to see the Takahashi Collection. They had an installation of the complete "Slow Glass" series. The gallery scene in Tokyo is not what Americans are used to seeing. There is no real gallery district like Chelsea, and often gallery spaces are in rather remote areas of the city in buildings that make west Chelsea look ritzy. There are also more private collections on view in private museum spaces than a US visitor would expect. While the trappings of these spaces aren't always luxurious, the art inside can be fatntastic.

This was the case here. After struggling to find the place with GPS-equipped cab driver, I wandered up a truly industrial stairwell that led me to a stunning array of Hatakeyama "Slow Glass". The introduction to the exhibit was a transcription of a talk on the work that Hatakeyama gave in Germany. I had never read such a complete and clear overview of the substance of this work. Its basis is a sci-fi short story in which a new glass is invented that absorbs time. An image or light goes in one side of the glass and is "read" on the other side seconds, minutes, or years later. Hatakeyama takes this as a metaphor for photography but adds a complexity that seduces. He was in residence in an English town that had been the subject/victim of intense urban planning. While the roads had been planned to make for total ease of driving without jams, it also made almost no space for pedestrian traffic. Hatakeyama used this layout to drive in a car and photograph desolate, people-less landscapes through rain streaked windsheilds; the slow glass. The images are haunting, beautiful, expressive, and intellectually engaging. I love them. I wish more Americans could see them like this.