Ray and Charles Eames in Oakland

A Sunday afternoon at the Oakland Museum of Art isn’t quite like going to one of the big tourist destination museums in the Bay Area but it should be.

There is a current exhibition devoted to Ray and Charles Eames, the couple who invented Chairs,designed houses, invented splints and stretchers (in WWII), and made films. They have never left the never left the design landscape given how massive their influence has been.

Is it art or is it a splint for an injured leg?

The object on the left, of shaped plywood, was manufactured in the 1000s for the military during WWII. the object on the right is a spin off, a free form figure by Charles based on the splint.

In a Q&A posted on walls of the exhibit, Eames gives one sentence answers to a series of essay questions. Some take up the question of the splint:

Art and usefulness: more than meets the eye

to fulfill a purpose may be to create art

Isn’t a purpose of art, a form of its usefulness, pleasure?

The Eameses, designers by their own admission, remind us that they, like Picasso or Rembrandt, are useful and purposeful but in a more subtle way than an industrial, use-value oriented culture might appreciate. Art and great design affords pleasure. Pleasure is not only useful but essential. It is one of the two great “principles” described by Freud but we don’t need Sigmund to tell us what life without pleasure would be like. That is a purpose fulfilled by great design and great art alike.  Design may also solve industrial problems, problems of commodity production and consumption, but at best, as here, it does more than that.

Consider the Eames chair:

A pricey item today, and a true classic, but also–is it not?–a source of pleasure. It fulfills the need for pleasure by the grace and beauty of its design even as it supports the human body in a seated position. (I confess: I have one. But only one.)

The exhibit includes several of the Eames’s films as well, including the famous Powers of Ten and  Think. They built their films as ensembles, bits and pieces hanging together by the thread of an idea and the form retains its power and beauty to this day.

The exhibit is on for a few more months.

 

Advertisements

Factory Fetishism

The de Young museum has its Cult of the Machine show on. Machines: futurists loved them; Constructivists praised them; Precisionists fetishized them, or, at least, some of them did. Charles Scheeler, Charles Demuth sure did love ’em. The show gives them their due and they deserve it. Scheeler, in particular, reveres the majesty and mystery of machines, industry, power as an alchemist’s brew of transformation. It even transforms humans right out of the picture.  His and most of these guys pictures are of industrial might, not as menacing but majestic, sublime, beyond our capacity to fully appreciated even if we created it.

But the show has an underbelly. They’re the works that fascinated me for having some sense, as some do now, of what lurks beneath the utopian dreams, the ones heard now of a world of communication, connection and Friends(hips).

They saw things a little differently.

ault

Void of humans but abristle with energy and motion, there is an ambiguity at work. Seen from on high, the New York city waterfront runs like a ribbon through a tissue of industry, but one that sends up signals of smoke and steam whose meaning is unclear. Perhaps the ambiguity is what convinced Georgia O’Keefe to move to New Mexico.

And then there’s this:

o'keefe

In this work by George Ault, factory and ship smoke, white and black, obliterates whatever lies beyond it.  And the far shore is entirely grey with waterfront wharves and buildings that seem to emerge from or plunge into the water. Up close it is as if the water swallows the buildings; man has not fully emerged from his watery beginnings.

o'keefe 2

Here, O’Keefe captures two great, black monoliths and a white one beyond, all dwarfing the silvery moon that sneaks out between them all. Boldly bleak, capturing the canyon like enormity of New York, it also lacks warmth or comfort, a far cry from the desert world of flowers she later turned to.

ault 3

Ault didn’t see the rural American of the ’30 as much better. Black, devoid of any enlivening detail, absent humans, a warped and pointless fence, the shapes and geometry that give the city its dynamism appear here more as a sepluchral loss than a rustic retreat.

IMGnham and Twinkie thibaut_073Cunni0

With a little hint of mischief the show also includes this shot of Imogene Cunningham and the model Twinkie where Cunningham appears as if she might be coming upon Susanna before the elders find her. Her camera seems to be the main link to the other works and the humor of the shot is largely absent elsewhere, save for the inevitable clip of Charlie Chaplin caught in the gears and cogs of an assembly line from Modern Times.

And for a finale,

c carter

Charles Holbrook Carter’s War Bride, faceless and alone before the altar, or machinery (of the church?), with pews that look like aircraft hangars and two gear works on either side that could be totems from another era. Who gets to marry the machine? Who is left behind? Can anyone survive the marriage of heaven and hell, or man and machine–questions we seem to ask in one form or another every day.

Monet’s Early Years, as seen in San Francisco

What Monet did to get rolling isn’t all that different from what he did later on. But it is already powerful and raw in a way his later, more contemplative images aren’t always.

The streaky strokes that build the water contrast sharply with the dabs he uses for reflections elsewhere

the streaky strokes that build the water contrast sharply with the dabs he uses for reflections elsewhere

He did this image from memory obviously; otherwise he’d have no doubt drowned. And it’s powerful; you worry about the sailors and wonder about their fate.
He surely loved water and the artistic challenge it presented. Social status and labor were of far less interest than nature, but this was so for most of the Impressionist work.

The water ripples center on the raft and its well dressed population of "bathers." This is just part of the painting.

The water ripples center on the raft and its well dressed population of “bathers.” This is just part of the painting.

Compare the “finished” work above with the sketch quality of the one below. He manages to depict a crowd of folk in the water with almost no delineation at all; and the water ripples have an amazing power.

Here is repose compared to the storm at sea and yet his ability to give character to his three figures on the quai demonstrates a love of specificity, as do those incredible ripples.

Here is repose compared to the storm at sea and yet his ability to give character to his three figures on the quai demonstrates a love of specificity, as do those incredible ripples.

Copies don’t go justice but Monet’s painting, Boats at the Port of Honfleur, can give you chills. Just dabs of paint tossed onto the canvas, these reflections of boats and trees are only that; but their weight, coloration, proportion and placement render the rightside up world of what floats perfectly in its upside down world of reflection. It’s an amazing work and possesses, and exudes, a vitality that the great later works of waterlilies and the like do not (despite their rhapsodic beauty). it has to be seen in person. It is a perfect painting.
Then there’s dad. Dad didn’t approve of son becoming a painter. The placard says this is a calm, respectful portrait of dad in the park, with no hint of the familial tension. Nope. Look, if the reproduction allows, at dad’s posture. Stiff as a rifle, jaw jutting forward, left leg almost levitating as he “reads.” Monet captures a tight, strict figure of black and white that contrasts sharply with the painting of his wife that follows.

He's not only tense but totally alone, Monet's Moses with the commandments the son will disobey.

He’s not only tense but totally alone, Monet’s Moses with the commandments the son will disobey.

This “shot” of his wife on a cold day outside the house, passing the glass panelled door, imbues her with a melancholy look that may relate to the enforced poverty his not yet successful painting career and his lack of paternal support imposed. A look of sadness, fleeting, perhaps, and yet the room is large, the glass clear, the day bright and Monet pays homage to the woman who endures what must be endured with and because of the very work that honors her.

Note how little facial detail Monet needs to paint to capture her expression. He possesses an economy few achieve.

Note how little facial detail Monet needs to paint to capture her expression. He possesses an economy few achieve.

Some paintings capture another maturing style in the early work: smoother, softer, with less obvious traces of brush strokes and paint dabs. This painting, done, I believe, in the Netherlands, is representative and feels “nice” to me in a more familiar and comfortable way. Yet the reflections–those perfect gestural reflections–are there to remind us of the degree to which Monet’s early work possessed a rawness and perfection, a magic and defiance that slowly gained recognition and acclaim, enough to erase the poverty of these early years.

Compare this work to the boats at Honfleur; the tonality and gentleness here seems closer to Renoir than some his more dramatic early work

Compare this work to the boats at Honfleur; the tonality and gentleness here seems closer to Renoir than some his more dramatic early work

Snowden the fiction film

We’ve had Citizenfour, the documentary film, and now Oliver Stone gives us the true story as a dramatic fiction.  Laura Poitras is there, as a character, filming Snowden in Hong Kong, and it is from this scene that we flashback over his life.  That concept works well; between his own recollections and what Laura draws out (which is everything of interest about his transition from gung ho CIA operative to whistle blower; the Guardian reporter and Glenn Greenwald are only interested in The Big Story, not in Snowden’s story), we get a well developed portrait of what it takes to induce repugnance and indignation in someone who wants to serve his country.

As far as I can make out, the only real justification for the surveillance is that the enema is everywhere, security is paramount, and secrecy is vital to security, hence spying on everyone all the time. That’s what Snowden’s CIA mentor tells us and it feels like a half-baked half-truth; in  other words, as Stone tells it the whole program is a fantasmatic effort to find needles in haystacks that could be better spent pursuing specific leads and launching counter-offensives.  There is no discussion of how to promote democracy or how to build democratic institutions  among our middle east “allies,” or how to rely on “good” Muslims to help feret out the bad, etc.  There is a “hide inside the fortress” mentality to the CIA and NSA that makes effective action almost inconceivable.

All in all, an excellent complement to Poitras’s portrait of Snowden and a film with more suspense than I would have imagined.

Women in Abstract Painting

 

The King Is Dead (Hamilton?)

Grace Hartigan, The King Is Dead [Hartigan said The King is Picasso]

The Denver Art Museum hosts this show of over a dozen women artists, from San Francisco and New York, primarily.  Some are quite well known (Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner), others less so (Perle Fine, Mary Abbott) but all are impressive. Each gets a space of her own. Each has 4-6 paintings judiciously selected.  The placards downplay, if they mention at all, their connections with male abstract expressionists, rightly so, since the work clearly stands on its own, and may, in fact, in cases such as Frankenthaler’s Color Field paintings, have influenced other women, and men, as much as Rothko or Still influenced the women.

Of course there is a publication with all the paintings and there is a quite good 15 minute film that has interviews with the women in the show or those who knew them. The candid photos the women in their studios and at play suggest that were  “out there”: smoking, partying, working hard and having clear, engaging thoughts about their work and the work of others.  Several state that San Francisco was a far less macho, discriminatory work for women than New York City.

Perle Fine 2

Perle Fine’s small abstraction. Most of the work in the show is quite large.

It may not be possible to “pop” over to Denver but if you find yourself here, it is a terrific show. And right next store, in the Clyfford Still Museum, is a room dedicated to work he made in San Francisco while a teach at the San Francisco Institute of Art where he served as a mentor for some of the women in the show, someone to learn from but hardly imitate as these women artists found voices of their own.

Budapest Daze

2016-04-06 09.15.01

The roots of the city

Exploring and discovering. I’m mainly in a little, hot classroom in an old building with 25 other people discussing documentary but the films we see are taking us around the world and then there’s the wandering in Budapest too.

2016-04-06 08.54.46

Once upon a time, craft displayed itself more openly, as in the manhole covers that dot the city streets

The main streets bustle like main streets everywhere but the small side streets outnumber them and one can wander the city away from cars for the most part and discover things like:  Music

2016-04-06 00.51.27

Or: Decorative friezes four stories in the air

2016-04-06 09.32.19

2016-04-06 09.07.37

And Street Artists too, along the Danube in this case

Speaking of which, here it is: the Danube, the Buda side Castle that tourists flock to, the #2 tram that runs along the river, and the sun in late afternoon.

2016-04-06 08.59.53

There is also loss. This used to be Cafe Alibi, a wonderful little cafe/restaurant with delicious food and a lot of classic atmosphere, with piano music and tables for about 20. Now, it’s something else entirely:

Former home of terrific bistro

BYE BYE ALIBI, HELLO STARBUCKS

2016-04-06 09.40.11

The language of signs: “The Ministry of Human Capacity” has a limited capacity for the handicapped; they have to enter around the corner.

And the people. I always wonder what their stories are: where do they live, what do they do, where are they going?

2016-04-06 08.56.40

Some announce what they are doing now, but what will they do later tonight? And what are they guarding?

2016-04-06 09.29.25

This is what they guard: Parliament, on the Danube. No assaults from the river are anticipated…

2016-04-06 09.28.11.jpg

That’s the almost fairy tale part of an old city.

Meanwhile, there’s today and dinner. And I return to a restaurant I visited four years ago, as good now as it was then:

2016-04-06 09.46.28

Salaam Bombay from my table: the gems beneath the glass and the view of the front of the restaurant, but the food’s about to arrive, so it’s time to step back out of the Daze… for now.