Thursday, December 27, 2007

Diego Rivera’s Fame Lives On in Mexico City

It’s easy to forget that at the height of Diego Rivera’s fame, in the 1920s and ’30s, he had star power. A Communist who painted murals for the great capitalists of his day, he offered an epic view of history and a cosmic vision of human potential. But in the last few decades here, his reputation has been vastly eclipsed by Fridamania, the cult status of his third wife, Frida Kahlo.

“It’s ironic that this artist who painted miles and miles of frescoes is not as well known as his wife, who painted almost miniatures,” said Linda Downs, an expert on Rivera’s American murals.

Yet on the 50th anniversary of his death, this city is in the midst of a series of exhibitions celebrating his work, a tribute that shows his wide range, including not just frescoes, but also paintings, watercolors, sketches and even magazine covers. (The Kahlo worship, though, continues unabated: A retrospective this summer at the museum of the Palacio de Bellas Artes here drew about double the number of visitors as the recent Rivera show there.)

Rivera is best known, of course, for his Mexican murals, particularly in the National Palace and the Ministry of Education. If these seem rather earnest today, it is worth remembering, as Juan Coronel Rivera, an art historian and a grandson of Rivera, points out in one exhibition catalog, that Rivera and the Mexican muralists created the first major Modern art movement on the American continent.

“Diego was looking for knowledge first, the great knowledge of the human being, the notions of space and time,” he said. “What hurts Diego the most is first, the vision that’s imposed on him from the United States as a Communist, and second, Mexico’s own centralist vision that made him a historical painter.”

The sheer volume of work on display in the commemoration rescues Rivera from easy classification. The national homage, as it is billed, involves five exhibitions in Mexico City (including the Bellas Artes show, which ended last week) and one in Rivera’s birthplace, Guanajuato.

“Diego was a deluge of work,” said Raquel Tibol, a prominent art critic and historian who organized one of the shows. “He was too dynamic, and so many cultural themes opened his interest in a very vibrant way.”

There are the huge works: Rivera produced part of a giant mosaic to adorn the city’s Olympic Stadium, murals for hospitals, government buildings and even hotel bars. The Bellas Artes exhibition showed portable murals from private collections as well as sketches and cartoons of the larger murals.

At the National Museum of Art, the first comprehensive show of Rivera’s illustrations reveals an unexpected diversity in style and subject matter over 50 years.

He produced simple line drawings for primers published by the education ministry in Mexico’s post-revolutionary government of the 1920s. He illustrated Yiddish poems by an immigrant Jewish poet, Isaac Berliner, in a vivid Expressionist style; drew for André Breton’s Surrealist review Minotaure; and put the hammer and sickle on a Fortune magazine cover commissioned in 1932.

He also used pre-Hispanic motifs in drawing covers for the magazine Mexican Folkways, and created illustrations for the Mayan sacred book, the Popol Vuh, that drew elements from Mayan inscriptions. “Rivera didn’t conserve his own style,” said Ms. Tibol, who oversaw the exhibition. “He put it at the service of the text.”

At the Dolores Olmedo Museum in southern Mexico City, a collection of some 50 portraits begins with a pencil drawing of Rivera’s mother that he did when he was 10. Rivera painted Mexican movie stars and members of high society, but it is his simple portraits of Indian peasant women that are the strongest. A painting of his second wife, Guadalupe Marín, stands out for its vitality.

Ms. Downs, the author of several books on Rivera’s American murals, contends that there is a renewed interest in studying the politically charged realism of the 1920s and ’30s. “It’s being re-evaluated as a legitimate aesthetic movement, where before it was written off, especially by those critics who were promoting Abstract Expressionism and Modernism.”

Rivera’s emblematic looks at Mexico’s distant Indian past and its recent (for him) revolutionary history endure as defining images both inside and outside the country. But for an artist so linked in the popular imagination with Mexico, the exhibitions are also a reminder of his ties to Europe and the United States. He lived overseas, mostly in Paris, from 1907 to 1921, where he experimented with Cubism.

It was only after he returned to Mexico at the end of a bloody decade of fighting that he began to create the work that made him famous. As he turned frescoes on public buildings to universal themes, he melded elements from European masters and Modernists with pre-Hispanic forms and designs to create his own pictorial language.

But by 1929, as revolutionary fervor veered toward authoritarianism, and Rivera fell out with the Mexican Communist Party, he accepted an offer to paint in San Francisco. He spent four years in the United States. After California, Rivera and Kahlo went to Detroit. There his patron Edsel B. Ford opened the doors of the largest Ford plant, and Rivera carried out the research for his landmark mural cycle at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a series celebrating the auto industry and the capitalist worker at its heart.

After that debacle, he created a series of portable murals, “Portrait of America,” for the New Workers School in New York. Several were in the Bellas Artes show: intense, knotted pictures of injustice, greed and the dehumanizing power of technology. But even in those critical works, Rivera found something exalted in America, in the innovations of its scientists and the nobility of its working people.

The centerpiece of the show was “Glorious Victory,” a mural Rivera painted at the end of his life, after the American-backed coup that brought down the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954. It is pure propaganda, almost caricature, as Mr. Coronel says. The piece, on loan from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, will remain in Mexico at the Dolores Olmedo Museum for eight more months.

There are also exhibitions dedicated to Rivera’s watercolors, his very early work, his writings and his collections of pre-Hispanic art. A documentary at the National Museum of Art features silent footage of Rivera at work that was shot by the Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa.

At the end the film shows Rivera standing on a river bank, sketching Indian women as they bathe. Staged or not, the image is a reminder of what moved him first.

By . . . Elisabeth Malkin

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Anant Joshi

Navel one and the many
Drawings & sculptural installations
13 March - 4 April, 2007

Anant Joshi has often arrived at his drawings and paintings from forms and spaces that he sculpts or constructs. He uses carefully selected toys that he breaks apart, paints over and re-contextualizes (a process of de-construction and then re-construction within his own space and context.) At times he creates mini-dioramas using packing materials like thermocol, crates and boxes. He throws light off of these staged "backdrops", casting shadows and silhouettes, which have on occasion worked to induce ideas for paintings and drawings.

gallery Chemould Prescott Road Mumbai

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Erik van Lieshout+Kelley Walker

US-born Kelley Walker (Columbus, Georgia, 1969) and Dutch artist Erik van Lieshout(Deurne, 1968) share a common interest in the mechanisms of the mass media. Working from different perspectives, both artists make work in which imagery from popular culture forms a central theme. The current exhibition shows a joint installation made by the two that fills the entire space with a combination of videos, painting, drawings, sculpture and screen prints. This will be Kelley Walker’s first presentation in the Netherlands.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Tim Monaghan

new series of paintings:



Saturday, December 22, 2007

Thomas Zipp

65 Peckham Road
November 16–January 13

With a focus on conflicting worldviews and a professed fascination with the “weirdness of mankind,” Berlin-based artist Thomas Zipp has created an overwhelming room-filling installation that takes viewers on a bizarre tour through the history of ideas. Working across a wide range of media and examining topics including astronomy and religion, Zipp brings together influential characters as diverse as astronomer Tycho Brahe, religious reformer Martin Luther, and members of the British heavy-metal band Black Sabbath (whose 1970 song “Planet Caravan” was the inspiration for the installation’s eccentric title) to make a profound statement on both our ongoing search for universal truths and its often-absurd outcome. The usually spacious gallery has been turned into a cluttered labyrinth of surreal constructions, paintings, and sculptures. Narrow pathways are created by gray display panels, which also host Zipp’s darkly humorous takes on historical and contemporary models of human existence. Images of scientists and religious thinkers, with shiny thumbtacks stuck into their eyes, stare down blindly from panels or poles, while a wide-eyed Martin Luther looks suspiciously at wooden sculptures of Newton’s apple displayed nearby on black plinths. Across the room, a panel with a rough drawing of Brahe’s model of the universe is juxtaposed with an assemblage on a neighboring panel, representing the Copernican alternative, in which a chair, whose legs have been altered to splay outward, symbolizes the sun. In the heart of Zipp’s labyrinth, viewers encounter a wooden chapel housing a stone baptistry that holds not water but mushrooms, drawing attention to an altogether different kind of truth, reached with the help of certain recreational substances. Back outside, four large-scale abstract animal sculptures graze on the gallery floor. Their striking resemblance to Henry Moore’s organic shapes may be a coincidence, but placed within the proximity of this mysterious place of worship, they may just as well be an ironic sideswipe at the sacrosanct, quasi-religious status accorded to modern art.

—Sandra Rehme

Monday, December 10, 2007


December 17, 2007

The complex world of Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Peter Schjeldahl

Is it just me, or have the Old Masters got younger lately? If so, it may be because present anxieties about the state and the fate of Western civilization echo past ones, when artists were energized around big issues, such as clashes of modernizing and medievalist mind-sets, which may never have been completely settled. Consider a rousing retrospective of the German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), which has opened at the Städel Museum, in Frankfurt, and will travel in the spring to the Royal Academy, in London. There are contemporary tangs to this most bewildering paragon of a cohort which included the Leonardoesque Albrecht Dürer and the dazzling Hans Holbein the Younger. Cranach was a sometime religious revolutionary and a full-time entrepreneur. In his work, early strains of late-Gothic blood and guts give way first to courtly high styles, then to pictorial propagandizing for the new theology of his friend Martin Luther—even as, strangely, Cranach continued to oblige Roman Catholic clients. (Those were intricate times.) He rivalled Dürer and Holbein in portraiture, and he developed product lines of delirious erotica and hilarious genre scenes. Buyers seemingly couldn’t get enough of his “ill-matched couples”: fatuous geezers or crones acuddle with gold-digging babes or young bucks. With a prolific workshop, so well coached that its authorship can be hard to distinguish from his own, and with businesses in real estate, publishing, and a liquor-licensed pharmacy, Cranach became one of the richest men in the Lutheran stronghold of Saxony. He was three times the mayor of Wittenberg. As an artist, he siphoned his era’s chaotic energies into wonderments of style. His re-visionings of humanity are philosophically resonant and lots of fun.

Cranach was born the son of a painter, in Kronach, in Upper Franconia. Almost nothing else is known of him until around 1500, when, in his late twenties, he showed up in Vienna as a convulsively expressionistic painter of gnarled, gory Crucifixions, often with one of the flanking thieves ingeniously pretzeled on a tree-trunk cross, and with dogs gnawing human remains below. He was an originator of what came to be called the Danube school, a painting movement influenced by humanist intellectuals, which vivified religious motifs with realistic landscape settings and raking light. Eloquent primary colors in Cranach’s early work bespeak exposure to Central Italian paintings by Perugino and perhaps by Perugino’s likely student the young Raphael. (It’s not known whether Cranach visited Italy, but a trip north, in 1508, brought him up to date with Netherlandish innovations.) In 1505, he was hired as the court painter and decorator to the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise. Cranach tamed his drawing, though not his color, in such works as a breathtaking “Beheading of St. Catherine” (1515), in which the thuggish executioner, prior to decapitating the elegant saint, seems tenderly fascinated by the locks of hair he lifts from her neck. She looks scared. Cranach made radiantly personable portraits of court figures and sweet nudes—both Biblical (Eve) and mythological (Venus, Diana, the Three Graces)—featuring girlish, impossibly long-waisted bodies and generic expressions whose repetition somehow doesn’t spoil the freshness of each image. The nudes’ appeal to prurient gazes is patent in depictions of the noble Roman suicide Lucretia, made cruelly delectable by the pointy dagger poised to enter her pale flesh.

Then along came a certain disaffected Augustinian monk. Cranach was already friends with Luther in 1517, when the Reformer nailed—or perhaps didn’t; the tale is disputed—his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, denouncing a public sale of indulgences, by which purchasers could shorten their time in Purgatory, to finance the renovation of St. Peter’s in Rome. Cranach and his workshop were soon issuing a stream of movie-star-charismatic Luther portraits, conveying the subject’s vigor and humor, absent his explosive temper. The painter introduced Luther to the renegade nun Katharina of Bora, whom he married. The men were godfathers of each other’s children. Cranach’s enchanting double portraits of the Luthers countered Catholic characterizations of the match as demonic. As the Reformation blazed through German realms, Cranach stoked it with satirical woodcuts that pictured, for example, the Pope and his cronies spilling from a witch’s womb. (Less ribald but likewise vicious Catholic broadsides against Luther papered cities to the south.)

Luther seems to have been unfazed by his ally’s occasional projects for the enemy camp, which included heroic allegorical paintings of the indulgence-sponsor Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg as St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin. (Luther’s German translation was the Reformation’s battering ram.) It is less surprising that Cranach continued to paint nudes. Sex was O.K. with Luther—whose related soft spot for babies is reflected in a Cranach painting, from the late fifteen-thirties, of Jesus happily being mobbed by little ones and their mothers. However, as religious dispute descended into religious war, a baleful ideological pressure grew in Cranach’s work for churches. In close consultation with Luther, he initiated a practice that, enslaving imagination to didactic programs, is all but oxymoronic: Protestant art.

Protestant mobs destroyed untold amounts of church art in the early years of the Reformation. Luther, returning to Wittenberg in 1522, after a period in hiding, found the city’s sanctuaries ravaged by zealots who deemed images of the divine idolatrous. He objected, deciding that, if anyone saw too much in such creations, it was the wreckers themselves. But Luther narrowed his defense of ecclesiastical art to its use for catechismal instruction, chiefly in advancing his doctrine that salvation comes per solam fidem—by personal faith alone, without saintly or clerical intercession. No more miracles were to be countenanced, except those warrantied by Scripture. A brilliant book by the art historian Joseph Leo Koerner, “The Reformation of the Image” (2004), expatiates on a work that is not in the Frankfurt show, Cranach’s “Wittenberg Altarpiece” (1547), which couches scenes of down-to-earth preaching and religious community in a novel language of discursive signs and gestures. Koerner treats this as a paradigm of recurrent anti-aestheticism in Western art, including that of political correctness. The altarpiece was dedicated on the day of the Battle of Mühlberg, a decisive military defeat of faction-crippled Lutheran forces by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Cranach lost his court position and, in 1550, joined the Elector John Frederick in exile, ending up in Weimar, where he died three years later. After Cranach’s death, his workshop was taken over by his son Lucas the Younger—whose works in the show include a startlingly vivacious portrait of Luther’s intellectual collaborator Philipp Melanchthon, which, like some Cranach nudes, might almost be the work of our contemporary John Currin. The Cranach family’s genealogy is still traced in Germany, where descendants have included Goethe and Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron.Melanchthon, doubling as an art critic, graded his day’s leading painters on their styles, from high to low: Dürer at the top, Matthias Grünewald in the middle, and Cranach the Elder at the bottom. There is indeed an over-all rambunctious crudity to Cranach, except in portraits, where he exercised self-forgetfully fine observation. He is careless of composition, often dumping figures into the pictorial rectangle almost at random. But Koerner notes that St. Augustine had “extolled a low style for ‘instruction and exegesis’—precisely the jobs that Reformation art was engineered to do.” Besides, Cranach’s willful romanticism, not Dürer’s classical restraint, has been the signature quality of Germanness in art for five centuries since, down to Sigmar Polke, Georg Baselitz, and Anselm Kiefer. (The ever-deliberate Gerhard Richter is an important exception.)

Certain tastes of today dominate climactic sections of the Frankfurt show, which ends in a fiesta of bare flesh and genre comedy. The emphasis makes historical sense in that it points up a career course, of relying on bourgeois markets, that became common for Northern European artists in the following century. These are works whose only reason for being, the odd perfunctory moral notwithstanding, is that people liked them. Pure pleasure is both the subject and the content of “The Golden Age” (1530), a big picture of handsome men and pretty women dancing, lolling, and bathing naked—but for gold necklaces on some of the women—in a walled garden, among peaceable deer, lions, rabbits, fox, and birds, with castles and mountains in the blue distance. A ring of dancers anticipates Henri Matisse’s “La Danse” in their abandoned mood as well as their gaily lurching form. The sidelong gaze of a female dancer invites us to join in. A woman about to splash water on a playfully cringing man is laugh-out-loud cute. Schematic renderings of grass and foliage, in two or three overlapped greens, typify the artist’s indifference to Renaissance realism; but you can just about feel and smell the moist verdure. Cranach had a penchant for joy, undimmed in an age that turned the world upside down. What were the secrets of his fortitude? These days, it would be salutary to know. ♦

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Mark Wallinger, Turner prize winner 2007

Charlotte Higgins
Monday December 3, 2007

It was the man in the bear suit who won it: Mark Wallinger, 48, has been awarded this year's Turner prize, 12 years after his first nomination, when he lost out to Damien Hirst. His film Sleeper, 154 minutes of footage of the artist wandering around a deserted German gallery disguised as a bear (but recognisable by his very particular gait), has baffled and entranced visitors to the Turner prize exhibition by turns.

The prize was officially given, in fact, not for Sleeper, but for State Britain, his meticulous re-creation of peace campaigner Brian Haw's anti-war protest in Parliament Square. The work was praised by the judges for its "immediacy, visceral intensity and historic importance" combining "a bold political statement with art's ability to articulate fundamental human truths".

The £25,000 prize was awarded tonight at a ceremony at Tate Liverpool - the first time the prize has been based outside London in its 23-year history - by actor, director and Easy Rider star, Dennis Hopper. Wallinger was the bookies' and art world favourite to win in an uneven contest that saw two fairly senior artists - Wallinger and Mike Nelson, who has also been nominated before, in 2001 - pitched against photographer and film-maker Zarina Bhimji and Glasgow-based sculptor Nathan Coley.

State Britain, on show between January and September 2007 at Tate Britain's Duveen Galleries in London, was by far the most overtly political work in contention for the prize. In it, Wallinger remade Haw's famous peace camp, precise in every detail: from the tea-making area to the numerous banners, flags, photographs and posters amassed by Haw and his supporters. It took 14 people six months to source the materials and carefully weather and age them to a state of complete authenticity in Wallinger's studio in London. It cost him around £90,000 to make, and the commission paid £3,000, so in a curious irony the £25,000 Turner prize money will help him recoup at least a fraction of the cost of making the work, which is currently in storage.

The work had particular piquancy as Haw's protest, which had begun in June 2001, was largely dismantled on May 23 2006, following the passing by parliament of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act that forbade unauthorised demonstrations within a kilometre of Parliament Square. That exclusion zone, taken literally, bisected Tate Britain, and part of Wallinger's installation fell within its border.

Wallinger's best-known work to date is perhaps his Ecce Homo, a statue of Christ that occupied Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth in London in 1999. Other memorable works include Angel, in which Wallinger ascended and descended the escalator at Angel Underground station, London, reciting parts of the Bible, backwards.

For the Turner prize exhibition at Tate Liverpool he chose Sleeper, first seen at the 2005 Venice Biennale. There was some controversy about his decision to show a single work filmed in 2004, rather than create a new piece for the exhibition: but Sleeper has never been seen before in the UK. The film shows Wallinger, dressed in a bear suit, wandering around in a darkened space in the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

Filmed on three cameras during the night of October 16 2004, it is a funny, perplexing and oddly affecting piece. Sometimes the bear disappears. Sometimes it paces around. Sometimes it leaps out and frightens passers-by in the streets outside. Wallinger made multiple references in the work: the bear is the symbol of Berlin, but he also alluded to the city's cold war past and the history of "sleeper" spies.

Wallinger was born in 1959 in Chigwell, Essex, the son of a fishmonger who later worked in life insurance. He studied at Chelsea School of Art and later at Goldsmiths, and continues to lives in London. He has said: "I think art needs to engage the viewer and has to have a hook that isn't entirely cerebral... I like Velázquez, Manet, Warhol - realists that held up a mirror to their society that was radical, but not pedantic."

The prize is awarded for the best exhibition given by a British or Britain-based artist in the 12 months preceding the May nominations: the judging is not officially based on the Turner prize exhibition itself, which is simply meant to show a sample of each artist's work to the public.

Each of the shortlisted artists receives £5,000. Zarina Bhimji showed photographs taken in East Africa and India, and a film, Waiting, shot in a sisal factory. Nathan Coley showed sculpture including his piece made from light bulbs mounted on scaffolding, originally seen on Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute, with the words: "There will be no miracles here" picked out in light. Mike Nelson showed an intricate new installation, a labyrinthine set of rooms with peepholes hewn out of the walls. Viewers can peek through to what look like miraculous desert landscapes beyond.

This year's panel of judges was writer Michael Bracewell, gallery director Fiona Bradley, curator Thelma Golden and writer Miranda Sawyer. The chair was Christoph Grunenberg, director of Tate Liverpool, taking over that position from Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, who usually commands the proceedings.

The Turner Prize exhibition continues at Tate Liverpool until January 13 2008. A retrospective of the previous prizes is at Tate Britain, London, until January 6 2008.

Monday, December 03, 2007


Jan Tumlir

JAN TUMLIR: Hearing about your background and your childhood experiences with your grandfather, who was a wellknown local psychoanalyst, and together with whom you drew some of your earliest pictures, makes me look at your work a little bit differently. When one learns that you are actually reproducing some of your grandfather’s pictures in your own, that would seem to make the connection between art and psychiatry overt. On the one hand you have this psychiatrist who is indulging his aesthetic side, and on the other, an artist who is indulging an interest in psychoanalysis; it’s like you’re closing a generational circle. Mark Grotjahn: I think that maybe for me it’s more about going into my own personal history than finding a relationship between the work and psychoanalysis.
JT: But then there are these hints of something foreign in your work. I’ve always understood what you do as a negotiation between an autonomous modernist aesthetic and something else, like folk art, primitivism, outsider art…
MG: I think it’s true that some elements in the work, perhaps as a starting point, have come from things that would not necessarily be considered art. But these are things that interest me. And whatever form the art takes, it’s always something that’s interesting to me, whether it’s signs or people or the drawings my grandfather did or color or line or oil paint or whatever it is. These are things I’m interested in.

JT: Well, you do take on a variety of subjects and you do work them out in different ways, but what strikes me is that, as opposed to the example of painters like Martin Kippenberger or, better even, Mark Bidlo, who
reformulate their stylistic approach for each show or each work, your repertoire is actually quite limited. You keep coming back to the same three or four subjects and styles as if to insist on the relation between them.
MG: I guess they were involved in deconstructing style, which is not really something I’m interested in pursuing.
JT: Those painters from the ’80s switched styles so often that they rendered the relation of self to style almost arbitrary — or, at least, that was the intent — whereas in your case, that relation seems much more
motivated. When you switch from the relatively streamlined formalism of your “Butterfly Paintings,” for instance, to the “Face Paintings” or the “Masks,” it seems like a deliberate regression. And when one follows your moves in this way, something like a narrative arc begins to take shape…
MG: There are four simultaneous styles going on, that’s true, but what is taking precedence right now is the “Butterfly Paintings.” That’s where my current interest lies. Perhaps some of the other work is not ‘hard-edged’ and is closer to what would traditionally be considered ‘expressive,’ but I’m not sure that it is literally more expressive… I think that way of working fits the thing I am making. The form follows function.
JT: Even if one style takes precedence, then the others still remain relevant as part of your history. Also, although there was a majority of “Butterfly Paintings” in your show at Blum and Poe last year, you still included a very unhinged “Face.” It was maybe to remind the viewer that there is more to your practice than, say, ‘straight’ formalism.
MG: That’s true. And even in the “Butterflies” there’s still always an ‘out.’ If you wanted to dismiss them as ego-driven or something like that, the signatures made that available to you. But I’m not so sure I’m interested in presenting that anymore, at least not like that, not as an ‘out.’ Possibly more as an ‘in.’
JT: You could look at those very rough “Masks,” for instance, as bearing some sort of relation to a pre-aesthetic, maybe even pre-subjective sort of experience. Then you have the “Face Paintings” that begin to suggest the formation of a selfimage. And then, that thing that might be called expression is dissolved into the abstract, non-objective view of the “Butterfly Paintings.” That’s one narrative arc you could latch onto if you wanted to, but I don’t think you’re proposing anything quite so straightforward. They’re simultaneous, as you say; these various practices never cease to inform each other.
MG: The “Face Paintings” allow me to express myself in a way that the “Butterflies” don’t. I have an idea as to what sort of face is going to happen when I do a “Face Painting,” but I don’t exactly know what color it will take, or how many eyes it’s going to have, whereas the “Butterflies” are fairly planned out. They’re still intuitive, but I generally know where they’re going. It’s a different kind of freedom, a different kind of expressionism. It’s personal without being overly personal.

JT: Maybe you’re more interested in talking about things at the level of process, but even there, I think, there’s this openly rational side to the “Butterfly Paintings,” the way you divide the canvas into radiating sections and then systematically fill it out, moving from one section to the next almost like the hand of a clock. Then there are the open-ended “Faces”…
MG: But there’s a process for both… They’re different processes.
JT: I’d say that the “Butterfly Paintings” follow a rational line of development that is easily grasped; they communicate their process in a relatively straightforward manner. Whereas the “Faces” suggest an intuitive grappling with the materiality of the paint as well as with the image of self — maybe even a grappling with representation as such. And, for their part, the “Masks” could be seen to emerge from an even more primitive part of oneself. As the different products of the same person, they bespeak the sub-division of the self into these different compartments.
MG: So you’re seeing it as compartmentalizing the self as opposed to integrating?
JT: I would say both. As a viewer I am struck by the disjuncture between these modes of paintings, these very different propositions included in the space of the same show…
MG: …I ran up against that a lot when I did my first shows, where I was working in a whole bunch of different ways, and it was really surprising to me that that this was even a discussion. In a post-Richter world, it seemed to make sense; I couldn’t see why the audience didn’t get it… But in my case it isn’t to show an audience all the things that are now possible; I’m doing it because this thing is interesting, and this other thing is interesting. And I think that it’s worth looking at. It’s worth making art about.

JT: These ‘things’ might be related in various complicated ways.
MG: The “Butterflies” started out as threetiered perspectives, but at the same time I wasn’t particularly interested in perspective. And I’m not particularly interested in masks per se. I don’t see them as “masks” in the metaphorical sense; it’s more just a way to categorize them. Art always seemed like it could be anything, and when I started trading the signs (with the “Sign Paintings”) it went beyond an intellectual process, actually. It became more than just about what the signs themselves meant. It became a way to enter a different place, which would literally be in the back of a liquor store, talking to the owners about making a trade, seeing how they operate.
JT: I’m also interested in the way that the signs you traded, and also the paintings you copied from the sides of these stores, might suggest a kind of immigrant experience. There is that theory that American abstraction came out of a process of uprooting. When artists — Gorky is the case in point — were more integrated within their original cultures, they had specific things to paint, and then they wind up in these big American cities and, to some extent, abstraction is a way of acclimatizing to this new open condition.
MG: I don’t know. The sense that everything’s possible, for me, that’s kind of a given. I don’t feel restricted, or I don’t want to feel restricted, by any rules.
JT: Yes, but then what do you do with the freedom?
MG: Well, I do the things that I want to do. I paint abstract paintings because I like abstract paintings. I paint faces because I paint faces. I made abstract paintings and drawings when I was a kid; they were a kind of design. In high school I had a teacher that showed me Kandinsky, and then I read The Spiritual in Art, and that helped bring me to a point where I thought the designs I did were art.
JT: You’re saying that you always bring it back to some private, early experience?
MG: Not always. When you look at the “Flowers” and the “Faces,” would you know that they were personal? Would you know that they were based on pictures originally drawn by my grandfather who was a psychiatrist? I don’t think that this information is readily available. I guess it is out there. It comes out in interviews like this, or if you talk to the gallerist, you can get it that way. But, in terms of the actual exhibition, I’m not sure how much this information really matters.

JT: But it is, at least, implied… You brought up perspectivalism, which is traditionally understood as a systematic means of situating the subject with respect to the object of vision. When you forcibly warp that system, like you do in your most recent suite of drawings which is up right now at the Whitney Museum in New York, that has direct psychological repercussions. So, again, I wonder: If everything is possible, but if you don’t want to do everything, like Richter does, then what do you do? It sounds like you’re saying that what you do is what you’ve always done, which takes us back to your earliest experiences and your earliest happiness in art-making.
MG: I’m talking about what I do. All I can say is that this is what I’ve chosen to do with my art.
JT: But if you answer that question solipsistically, then all those biographical details do start to matter to a viewer. And this is just as true at the level of process: The fact that you actually copied your grandfather’s drawing, that you used an opaque projector, this suggests to me that it was important to get it right, let’s say, in an historical sense. Your insistence on the particular quality of his line, on keeping it from becoming completely absorbed into your own production, and even the way you’ve tended the archive of your grandfather’s drawings, each one carefully sealed away in its protective envelope, leads me to believe that it does matter. You’re clearly attaching some sort of importance to these things-in-themselves.
MG: My grandfather’s drawings are very important to me; they have a lot of personal significance. I also find them very beautiful. The flowers, which comprise the main body of his work that I’ve chosen to appropriate, are probably the most beautiful and at the same time, they are the least autobiographical when you consider that the majority of his drawings were actually cartoons of himself and his family and his life. So I guess part of the reason I chose to copy his flowers over, say, the drawings he made of his family, is to keep the personal a little bit at bay… At the time, I was copying the signs; I’d make a sign, then I’d trade for it, and then I’d bring the other sign in too. So I was doing this appropriation work, and then I wanted to make the appropriation a little bit more personal, like appropriation for personal expression.
JT: Right…
MG: And so I started doing the funny “Faces” in the spirit of my grandfather, in the same way that when I trace his drawings, I know the sounds he made with every movement. I know what it sounds like, and I know what it looks like, when he drew them… The “Faces” came out in the spirit of him, although I don’t know that he would actually like the work, and maybe he would feel I was ripping him off, but, for what it’s worth, it’s still in the spirit of him. And, recently, among the last few “Flower Faces,” I did a portrait of myself and then a portrait of my wife… Maybe I captured something; if not the likeness, then maybe something else…
JT: It sounds like you want to personalize a type of practice that is, historically at least, opposed to the personal. That is definitely one answer to the question of what do you do when everything is allowed. You can actually start dealing with your own personal history in a more intimate or meaningful way. But then you’re also talking about wanting to keep a part of the personal ‘at bay.’
MG: That’s true. It’s funny because the two parts of me and my wife come together when I do the “Butterflies,” now that I’ve actually taken out the name. And before that, before taking out my signature, I put in “Big Nose Baby and The Moose,” which is something that a friend of mine used to call me when I came out of the pool. He thought I looked like a baby moose.
JT: These sorts of personal anecdotes are important in generating some aspects of the work, but then you seem to be ambivalent about the relationship between these and the finished product.
MG: I don’t know if it’s that I’m ambivalent. I believe there are relationships; it’s just that I’m not sure how concerned I am with being able to verbally exact them. There was a time when I really believed that if you were going to put out work in the public, as a responsible artist you should really know exactly what it is that you’re doing and be able to speak about it. Well, I definitely don’t think that you have to. Let’s just leave it at that.

Jan Tumlir is an art critic based in Los Angeles.
Mark Grotjahn was born in Pasadena, CA, in 1968. He lives and works in Los Angeles.


New Show Celebrates Otto Dix

Otto Dix was one of Weimar Germany's most important artists, ruthlessly depicting both bourgeois society and the seedy underclass. Now a musuem in Stuttgart will show a comprehensive exhibition of his portraits alongside those of other important artists.

The seedy underworld of Berlin in the 1920s may have been brought to the big screen with the Oscar-winning movie "Cabaret," but the blueprint for its depiction of Weimar Germany's red-light underbelly was first created by German painter Otto Dix.

His merciless pictures depicted war, bourgeois society and the bleaker side of urban life, including sexual violence and prostitution. Dix's experiences in World War I made him a ruthless realist. But he was best known for his impressionist portraits, which attempted to get under the skin of the sitter rather than merely reproduce an exact likeness.

He was influenced by Dada and became a leading member of the Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity movement, along with Georg Grosz and Max Beckmann.

Predictably, his scathing and often grotesque art did not appeal to the Nazis. When they came to power in 1933, Dix was labelled a "degenerate" artist and lost his teaching job.

Now the Kunstmuseum in Stuttgart, southern Germany, which has one of the biggest collections of Dix's work, has organized a comprehensive exhibition of 65 of his portraits, many on loan from other galleries.

The exhibition, entitled "Match: Otto Dix and the Art of Portraiture," will also show 88 portraits by other artists spanning the centuries, from Lucas Cranach and Andy Warhol. "It is only by seeing his works alongside the works of other artists that the timeless importance of Otto Dix the portraitist becomes clear," the exhibition curator Daniel Spanke told the Tagesspiegel newspaper.

The show starts on Dec. 1 and runs through to April 6, 2008.