Eero Saarinen

Screen Shot 2017-02-25 at 8.28.00 PM "Eero Saarinen: The Architect who Saw the Future", in PBS's American Masters series, provides a well-researched introduction to Saarinen's work, but that is not what makes this movie exceptional. The best documentaries weave a human-interest story into their narrative, and "Eero Saarinen" is no exception.

In fact, it weaves two: the competition between Eero and his father Eliel, also a famous architect (Eero really only came into his own as an architect after Eliel's death in 1950), and the attempt by Eero's son from his first marriage, Eric, who is director of photography of this movie, to better understand this father he knew so little by going to see the buildings Eero built. (Not only did Eero spend most of his time at the office when he was married to Eric's mother, but he then divorced to marry someone else and died in 1961 at age 51 during surgery to remove a brain tumor.) Twice in the movie Eric describes the experience of making the movie as cathartic. He leads the viewer through a chronological exploration of Eero's work.

We are treated to spellbinding analyses of monuments such as the St Louis Arch, the TWA terminal at JFK Airport, a private house (the Miller House), Kresge Auditorium at MIT, Ingall's Rink at Yale, Morse and Stiles College at Yale, the North Christian Church in Columbus, Ind, the Washington Dulles airport, as well as Eero Saarinen's foray into furniture making with Charles Eames. This is an excellent introduction to Saarinen's work with great insights into what made it visionary. The documentary also provides good biographical information on Saarinen, from his work in the shadow of his father until the latter's death to his first marriage to Lilian Swann and his second marriage to Aline Bernstein, an art critic who played a key role promoting his work.

The Kresge Auditorium at MIT was the first modern building I ever saw when I arrived in the United States back in 1999. I was always fond of it as a symbol to human creativity and ingenuity, as well as a place where I listened to many of my friends play in the student orchestras. As a result, I have long been an admirer of Saarinen's work, and I enjoyed this opportunity to put the auditorium in the broader perspective of Saarinen's life and work. One can only wonder what additional marvels Saarinen would have dreamt up if he had not died so young.

Paris: The Luminous Years, Part 2

ParisLuminousThe second half of Paris: The Luminous Years documentary focuses on the exhilarating decade of the 1920s, between the end of the Great War and the Wall Street of 1929. Iconic writers such as Joseph Kessel talk about the euphoria of being alive in those post-war years. This was quickly followed by political protests, social upheavals and new movements such as Dada, led by Andre Breton and Tristan Tzara, which became an overnight sensation in Paris and gave artists permission to break all the rules. After violence escalated, Breton decided something more constructive was needed and wrote The Magnetic Fields (pioneering his style of automatic writing, as if in a dream), thus launching Surrealism.

Surrealism's greatest success was among painters such as Rene Magritte, Frida Kahlo and Joan Miro, whose style evolved remarkably fast from the traditional approach shown in The Farm to embrace the abstract features and strong colors that made him famous. The movie then touches upon Marcel Duchamp and his ready-mades.

MoveableFeastThen, after one hour and twenty minutes, the best part: the segment on the Americans in Paris. We are told that U.S. soldiers returning to America after the Great War found a highly repressive and restricted society, soon to be in the thralls of Prohibition, and could not return to the City of Lights fast enough. Ernest Hemingway arrived in Paris in 1921 with his wife Hadley. His years in Paris were later the focus of his memoir A Moveable Feast. Early on he was close friend with Gertrude Stein, until 1925 when Stein refused to write a positive review of In Our Time

The movie then drifts away to the topic of American women in Paris, who were fleeing the stifling conventions of life in the U.S. where they were expected to marry and take care of the home, and instead flourished in Saint-Germain-des-Pres - women like Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott, Janet Flanner, Romaine Brooks and of course Sylvia Beach, at which point the movie pivots to her bookstore Shakespeare & Company, her relationship with Adrienne Monnier and the controversy surrounding the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses

Continuing on its enumeration of American women in Paris, the movie shows footage of Josephine Baker, and then transitions to Langston Hughes (not a woman, but American), who found himself a job as a bus boy in one of the most famous jazz clubs in Paris, and incorporated jazz rhythms and sounds in his own writing. The movie stays on the jazz theme by touching upon composers such as Darius Milhaud brought together ideas from jazz and classical music, taking La Creation du Monde as an example, with sets by Fernand Leger.

Then, after a digression on Erik Satie and his being a mentor to young composers, we move on to Aaron Copland, who came to Paris when he was in his twenties to study composition with Nadia Boulanger, with a short segment on Boulanger's Wednesday classes and salons. Then Serge Diaghilev died in August 1929 in Venice, the Wall Street crisis of October 1929 sent most U.S. expatriate artists home, and that was the end of the luminous years. 

The New York Times review of the documentary, back in 2010 when it first aired on PBS, is certainly right that the documentary is at times plodding and didactic, and my notes above and in my previous post show it meanders a lot, pivoting from one story to the next without much overarching theme in its determination to stuff as much art as possible in the two hours of the movie. It is also a pity that the filmmaker didn't spend any time on Chagall, since his artwork graces the cover of the DVD. To keep the movie interesting there is an attempted focus on the artists who made the art, for instance through the soured friendship between Braque and Picasso, but we never spend enough time on one character to really care for that person. On the other hand, many artists in the Paris of the 1920s led fascinating lives and it is a treat to learn a little about so many. The excellent information the movie provides and the images it offers of Paris in its heyday as well as of groundbreaking art make it well worth a watch.

I'll end with a quote by Marc Chagall that is particularly dear to my heart, since I moved to Paris myself when I was young: If I had not gone to Paris, I would not be who I am.

Paris: The Luminous Years, Part 1

ParisLuminousThis documentary about Paris in the early twentieth century (subtitled: Toward the Making of the Modern) offers outstanding insights into cultural life in the city at a time where it drew artists and intellectuals of all nationalities and held the place in the world that New York has today. The movie lasts two hours and the first time I watched it, it only started holding my interest at the half way point when World War I breaks out: Germans like art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler are suddenly deemed enemies of France, which frightens the Cubist painters he represented and incites many to suddenly adopt a much more traditional style, at least for a few years. From then on, the documentary was spellbinding. I wanted to watch it again and the second time, I found even the beginning about Picasso - who is not a painter I particularly care for, being staunchly on the Matisse and Braque side of that debate - because the filmmakers interview many art scholars whose expertise really sets this documentary apart, and I enjoyed those parts more once I was sure the whole movie was not going to be about Picasso and his friends.

The movie uses many photographs and (for its second half) movies of the times, which vividly capture the atmosphere in Paris when it was an international mecca for the arts. It starts with Paris in the 1900s, with a focus on Montmartre, famous for the bohemian lifestyle and the sense of community among local artists who included Pablo Picasso, Andre Derain and Georges Braque, some of whom lived at the Bateau-Lavoir (Picasso had his studio there from 1904 to 1910). The movie dwells upon the group of friends Picasso had (Andre Salmon, Guillaume Apollinaire), who were all poets except for painter Georges Braque.

Around 1910, the center of Parisian artistic life moved from Montmartre on the Right Bank of the Seine to Montparnasse on the Left Bank, with painter Marc Chagall for instance having a studio in La Ruche. Artists such as Amadeo Modigliani, Diego Rivera, Jacques Lipschitz, Ossip Zadkine assiduously frequented Montparnasse. Those artists, though, didn't identify with a specific -ism (Impressionism, Fauvism) and were disdained by the professors who prepared for the prizes at the very academic (read: traditional) oriented Salon. La Ruche had a striking effect on these young painters' work, as evidenced by many stills of their artwork shown in the movie. 

SylviaBeachWe are also treated to many thoughtful interview segments by Romy Golan, a professor of 20th century European Art at CUNY Graduate Center, and Noel Riley Fitch, who wrote Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation. Riley Fitch explains the importance of the cafe as a gathering spot providing heat, food and restrooms and an opportunity for discussions on culture and politics, to circumvent French laws (at the time) against group meetings. But the most compelling testimonials for me were - through archival footage - of artists who had lived through that period, such as Jean Cocteau and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. 





SteinsCollectThe documentary spends some time on the Salon d'Automne of 1905, with its canvases by Matisse, Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck (showing my favorite painting in all of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, The Seine at Chatou.) We see Matisse's Woman with a Hat, which was on the cover of the exhibition The Steins Collect at the Metropolitan Museum, back in 2012, and took much abuse from outraged salon-goers back in 1905. Georges Braque himself discovered the vibrant colors of Fauvism in 1905 and was soon converted, selling all 6 of his Fauvist paintings at the Spring Salon. The movie then discusses Braque's discovery of Cezanne, the 1907 retrospective of Cezanne's work, which had a definite influence on Matisse's work and in fact any modern artist. There are also mentions and pictures of Gertrude Stein, who bought Matisse's Woman with a Hat and viewed her writing as a literary form of Cubism.

1907 is the year of Matisse's Blue Nude and Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, although that painting won't be shown for four more years. It is also the year where art dealer Kahnweiler introduced Braque to Apollinaire and Apollinaire introduced Braque to Picasso. In 1908, Kahnweiler exhibited Braque's paintings in his gallery and the critic Louis de Vauxcelles, who had already named Impressionism and Fauvism, came up with the name Cubism to characterize his work. Only Picasso could understand Braque's work. They then went their own way and when they got back together, realized their style had evolved the same way. You can judge for yourself if you can find a copy of Braque and Picasso: Pioneering Cubism (I bought my own copy some years ago before it went out of print), which accompanied the landmark 1989 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, described in the New York Times as "the show of the decade." 

42 minutes into the documentary, the focus shifts to Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, which provided a meeting ground for dancers, choreographers, scene designers, painters, musicians. Diaghilev oversaw the elevation of the role of the male dancer in ballet and the creation of roles for Vaslav Nijinsky, his lover, who starred in the controversial Afternoon of a Faun. Picasso himself was linked to the Ballets Russes through the sets and costumes he designed as well as his marrying one of their dancers, Olga Khokhlova. The movie mentions the composers associated with the Ballets Russes (Prokofiev, Ravel, de Falla, Satie, Debussy), the scandal of Rite of Spring, and the falling out between Diaghilev and Nijinsky after the latter gets married, which brought Leonid Massine to the Ballets Russes instead. 

Then, around 57 minutes into the movie, World War I (then called the Great War) breaks out. The footage of war trenches is impressive, and the situation gut-wrenching. Braque and Derail were called up. Many foreign artists volunteered (Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, Ossip Zadkine), but Pablo Picasso did not, which prompted many accusations of cowardice toward him from his former friends. Foreigners became suspect and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler's paintings were confiscated by the French government. Cubist painters were accused of being an instrument of German propaganda and foreign artists hastened to return to a more traditional style to avoid getting in trouble.

In Winter 1915, Jean Cocteau decided to involve Picasso in a project, Parade, for the Ballets Russes, with music composed by Erik Satie. (Cocteau wrote the scenario.) This led to yet another scandal. Guillaume Apollinaire, wounded at the front, attended the premiere and helped protect his friends, but died in November 1918 during the Spanish flu epidemic. 

The first half of the documentary ends after about one hour and five minutes, when the 1920s begin. I liked the first part enough but found the second part fascinating, and it deserves a blog post in its own right. In the meantime, I hope this short summary of the first half of the movie will incite my readers to purchase the DVD. The value of the movie isn't in the facts it relates, which are well-known to anyone who cares about Paris and 20th century modern art, but the actual pictures, movies, testimonials it provides - things that have to be seen and heard first-hand.

Frank Lloyd Wright: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

FrankLloydWrightKen Burns has built a reputation as the best documentary filmmaker in the U.S. today, and this 2005 PBS movie about famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright does not disappoint. FLW was a complex character to say the least - a self-promoter who exaggerated his life story and was unable to live within his means, a genius who abandoned his wife, someone who faced incredible heartbreak when his great love was murdered, an architect whose star dimmed until it rose again so high he became "the greatest architect in the world".

FLW's mother was convinced he was going to be a great man, and after he settled with his first wife in the fashionable neighborhood of Oak Park, he seems to have decided that looking successful would only make success come faster (maybe some twenty-somethings in Dallas have found themselves inspired by his philosophy...), and he acquired a pretty house he could not afford and where his first wife Kitty raised their six children. He collected old books and Japanese prints. Because he lived beyond his means from the start, he began secretly designing houses for wealthy clients to make more money, breaking the trust of his mentor Louis Sullivan, who fired him when he found out. FLW then launched his own practice, where he explored a unique American style. He designed his famous "prairie houses", horizontal to fit in the Midwestern landscape, everything open and flowing, low ceilings, using colors of the harvest and exuding a serenity and sense of belonging.

But public buildings, not houses, are the buildings that make an architect's career, and FLW longed for large-scale commissions. He had a building commission in Buffalo, NY for a mail-order company, the Larkin Company. Of course he went way over budget (as usual with him) but the executives loved their building. Critics, yet, were not impressed, dubbing it a "monster of awkwardness". In 1905 he got a contract to rebuild the Unitarian Church of Oak Park after it burnt to the ground.

At that point his practice was flourishing but he still had no large-scale commission prospects and he felt he had done everything he could with the prairie style. There was trouble at home, because he resented the devotion of his wife Kitty to the children rather than to him. Edwin Cheney and Mamah Cheney lived nearby, in a house Wright had designed for them. Mamah was artistic, vivacious, dissatisfied with a traditional wife role, and all for FLW. Kitty refused to divorce. In October 1909, at age 42, FLW closed his studio, abandoned Kitty and the children (leaving Kitty stuck with a $900 grocery bill), and ran off to Europe with Mamah. He did exactly the same as his father, who had walked on his mother and him when he was a child.

Needless to say, the scandal was enormous. FLW and Mamah stayed abroad for about a year. When they returned to the US, FLW began building a house in Spring Green, WI, named Taliesin. They lived there for 3 years in spite of gossip. In August 1914, Mamah was murdered, alongside with just about everyone in her lunch party, by the butler who was supposed to be dismissed. He locked all the exits but one, set fire to the house and then hacked to death the people who tried to escape.

FLW buried himself in work in Japan for a monumental hotel in Tokyo, the Imperial Hotel, which luckily withstood the 1923 earthquake. He spent 8 contentious years with Miriam Noel, who appeared cultivated, intelligent and infatuated with Wright, but was really violent, unstable and addicted to morphine. He married her after Kitty granted him a divorce. This was a mistake: Miriam made FLW absolutely miserable. 

In 1924, Miriam finally stormed out of the house. FLW had found another woman: Olgivanna Ivanova Milanov Hinzenburg, age 2, a disciple of G.I. Gurdjieff and a devote to mystic philosophy. Olgivanna moved into the rebuilt Taliesin, which enraged Miriam, who is said to have stalked FLW and Olgivanna for 3 or 4 years. In 1925, a fire destroyed the second Taliesin and the bank foreclosed on the mortgage. FLW received commissions in the Sierra Madre Mountains, a summer colony at Lake Tahoe, a steel cathedral in NYC, but none of them was ever built. In 1927 Miriam granted him a divorce but since FLW was penniless, friends had to pay his alimony for him. He married Olgivanna in 1928. The crash of 1929 destroyed his own hope that his one remaining commission in the Arizona desert would ever be built. By then FLW was 62 and his career had hit rock bottom. This concludes Part 1 of the documentary.

Part 2 starts where we left off at the end of Part 1, with FLW "washed out" but refusing to admit defeat. Olgivanna was a driven, disciplined woman. She calmed FLW down and urged him to lecture and to write his autobiography. In 1932, she suggested they start an apprenticeship program, modeled on Gurdjieff's teachings. Apprentices paid $650/year for the privilege and had to spend 4 hours a day in manual labor. (Digression: I first learned about FLW when I read the book The Fellowship, which describes the events of Part 2 in the DVD so well. I remember buying it in hardcover in New York City in the fall of 2006... I had just become a NYC regular back then. He seems to have severely exploited young people who had come to him eager to learn, and I remember being distinctly unimpressed by him, all genius that he was, after I finished reading the book.) The apprentices, though, seem to have at first found the atmosphere of intellectual fellowship thrilling. Later, perhaps less so. FLW and Olgivanna ate on a dais a little above everybody else. Olgivanna controlled everything, including the apprentices' personal lives, going as far as arranging marriages and negotiating divorces. 

FLW resented his own eclipse and the rise of the modernist Europeans, and then he remade himself. In 1934, the father of a former apprentice asked him to build a house near Bear Run in Fallingwater, PA. (There is a funny anecdote in the movie where the man calls from 140 miles away, saying he's on his way to see the plans for the house. FLW had done nothing. He sat down and drew everything on the spot, finishing just as the man was walking through the door.) Fallingwater, drawn in less than 3 hours, became the most famous modern house in the world. I visited it in August 2013, and it is as beautiful as people say. 

Then FLW built the so-called Usonian houses, which were supposed to be mass-marketed at a cost of $5,000 but failed to arise the enthusiasm of the public because they ended up being more expensive than planned - as usual with FLW - and because they required few possessions, since FLW controlled all the details. That made his vision quite impractical. 

The Johnson Wax Building in Racine, WI proved to be for FLW the equivalent of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Innovations included special Pyrex glass tubings for skylights and hollow reinforced columns of stunning slenderness to bear the weight of the great ceilings. Although glass tubings on the roof could not be sealed properly, meaning that there were leaks whenever it rained, FLW's career was finally reborn. He was 70. 

In December 1937, FLW and Olgivanna led their first (of many) pilgrimage to the Arizona desert because of FLW's health. This is where FLW built Taliesin West. FLW entered the most productive phase of his life after the war, drawing plans for over 350 buildings: twin suspension bridges in Pittsburgh, a synagogue in Philly, a skyscraper in Chicago, the Civic Center for Marin County, CA. Then he was asked to design a building for the art collection of Solomon Guggenheim in NYC, which would prove the most commission of his life, launching a 13-year battle with Guggenheim and his heirs. After the zoning board rejected his plan, FLW had to turn to Robert Moses to make the board members change their mind. In April 1959, the building of the Guggenheim was almost complete when FLW, supervising construction from Taliesin West, complained of stomach pains and underwent surgery. He died April 9, 1959. His disciples drove his body back to Wisconsin.

On October 21, 1959, the Guggenheim museum opened to the public on Manhattan's Upper East Side, ensuring FLW's legacy.

Review of documentary "Our City Dreams"

OurCityDreamsThis documentary was underwhelming and superficial but not bad. Five women artists are presented in sequences of 15-20min each, without introduction, without explaining why them (although the documentary shows them installing solo shows and similar and their art is related to gender, so it does become clear why), without bringing them together. The women are, in order of appearance: Swoon, Ghada Amer, Kiki Smith, Marina Abramovic, Nancy Spero. They do talk a little bit about New York City in very abstract ways, which they all moved to from elsewhere, and what home means to them. Some also touch upon the topic of relationship - Swoon and Amer both mention, in different words, that they felt the degree of involvement in their art precluded a long-term relationship. I learned separately that Smith lives alone and Abramovic had two short-lived marriages. Spero also felt she didn't have time for marriage when she was a young artist but she got married at 25 and ended up in a very happy and solid marriage to fellow artist Leon Golub, who died in 2004, some 50 years later. (She died in 2009.) We see their art. We also see them at openings of exhibitions about their art, which is how the viewer knows they are recognized artists, since there is no voice-over and no context given.

My favorite artists profiled were Ghada Amer and Kiki Smith, following by Nancy Spero. (I liked Swoon's art and she seemed personable but I didn't feel she wasn't very articulate about her art and so maybe she wasn't the best choice to open the documentary with. As for Abramovic... let's just say other people like her work more than I do.)

A good quote by Ghada Amer (slightly edited): "At first I wanted to fit in. And then I realized it's ok not to fit in. I fit in with people who are like me: people who don't fit in, people who have left their home and they've traveled and keep on traveling." The segment about her parents in Egypt and what they think about her art (you have to see the images of her art to understand why they're asked) was priceless. Their pride in their daughter's success is obvious. Interestingly, her father was the driving force who encouraged her to become who she wanted and go away and travel.

A good quote by Kiki Smith: "I’m much more comfortable with myself now than when I was 20-something and I think my work reflects that. Whether it makes for better art, I don't know."

There are a lot of good tidbits, for instance when Spero finally moved to NYC in a loft that wasn't meant for residential use like fellow artists, people had A.I.R. (Artist In Residence) painted on their doors to let the firefighters know there were people living there, in case of fire. Later that was the name given to the all-women's gallery she co-founded, and she mentions many women artists were reluctant to be associated with an all-women gallery.

Overall I felt there was a missed opportunity for an in-depth documentary about being a woman artist in NYC (you can't draw any generalization from the cases of those five, although at least a variety of ages are represented), but it was interesting nonetheless.

Rating: three starts out of five.

Movie review: "Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter"

JoanMitchell"Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter" does little more than showing us the (beautiful) paintings of Abstract Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell and film her, shortly before her death, making obscure pronouncements about her work that don't hide the fact that she doesn't want to talk about her art.

She is the first one to say she doesn't think when she paints - she feels instead. We are told almost nothing about her life, except for the fact that her father seems to have been a difficult man. She mentions depression five or six times throughout the hour-long documentary, but the issue of why she is depressed is only broached once, at the very beginning, when she relates that once, she stopped painting for about two weeks, after Big Joan told Little Joan that if painting gave her so much pain, then she should stop. I wondered what that comment suggested about her mental health, since she was clear the two were parts of herself. She doesn't say if painting was the reason she was depressed the many other times.

Of her private life we only learned that she moved to Paris out of love for a French-Canadian artist, and she laughs that it's what women are supposed to do: follow the man (I paraphrase), and given the stature of Mitchell in the art world I had a hard time believing that. She wanted to move to Paris. That was her choice. She doesn't have to put herself down. At first she didn't want to give the interviewer his name, because the man had been married. Apparently the man left her for the dog-sitter (that's what she said). Why he made that choice would have been an interesting issue to explore: how was Mitchell in her everyday life?

And we are told nothing about any friendships she had. Did she have none? A French art connoisseur talks about her vulnerability and hypersensitivity and Brice Marden talks about the light in her paintings, but we never know whether to believe them. The one real piece of information we get about Mitchell is that she had, apparently, this condition that makes one see letters as colors. I did find the comment about the connection of her work to van Gogh, Cezanne and particularly Claude Monet valuable. To give an idea of the scope of the movie's indifference to Mitchell's life, it doesn't even say she was born in Chicago. When it briefly touches upon her early years, we do see a picture of the river and hear a mention of the Art Institute, so people who have traveled there will recognize it. 

Mitchell had been a heavy drinker and smoker and died in 1992 when she was 67. She did seem to have her own set of demons to struggle with, but they're never explored. The movie does have good shots of Mitchell's paintings, but again, it offers little insight into her work - it sounds more speculation by other people. There is also no discussion of how her style evolved over the years.

Contrast this sedate documentary with this 2002 New Yorker article by Peter Schjeldahl, full of life, describing an argument between Mitchell and her long-time partner (that French-Canadian artist) and published at the occasion of Mitchell's retrospective at the Whitney. There, Mitchell really comes to life. We learn a lot more about Mitchell in a few paragraphs than in this movie. As for her paintings, you can learn a lot more about them by consulting the catalogue of that 2002 Whitney exhibition, available here

Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5.

Movie review: "Hans Hofmann: Artist/Teacher, Teacher/Artist"

Screen Shot 2017-02-05 at 10.41.39 PMThis is a movie I grew fonder of after the half-point, once I realized that the filmmakers were indeed going to talk at length about Hofmann's art and not just his teaching style and school in Provincetown. (Over the first 30 minutes, I grew really worried we would never be told anything about Hofmann outside his classroom.)

I first learned about Hans Hofmann in the opening pages of New Art City by Jed Perl, and his paintings on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art have long been among my favorites because of their geometrical shapes and bright colors. I was thrilled to find a documentary about Hofmann on Amazon. It is divided roughly in two parts, the first part about how he taught and the second part about his work. Since he died in 1966, the only footage of him is archival and shows him painting one of his canvases, but many of his former students provide valuable insights into his teaching and painting style.

(He liked students to have lots of paint on their palette, although students at the time were quite impoverished and paint costs a lot of money. One of his favorite tricks to make students view the world differently was to tear one of their drawings into two and shift the two parts every so slightly so that they would not be quite aligned with each other any more. Also, how he got his students to paint abstract art while staring at a real model or a still-life was quite striking.)

The pictures shown of his art are superb, and the movie also benefits from many black-and-white pictures of his teaching days at his school in Provincetown, MA. I wish at least one critical voice had been included - Louise Nevelson, for instance, was told by Hofmann she was wasting her time when she went to Germany to study with him in the early 1930s. That didn't prevent her from studying with him when he moved to the U.S., where he had no control over which students enrolled in his course at the Arts Students League. And Nevelson is long dead but this is just to make the point that no every student thrived with Hofmann as mentor, and so perhaps a counterbalancing voice or the mention of a particularly stinging criticism would have been helpful in positioning the man with respect to his fellow artists and his times.

Ultimately, the movie does have profound deficiencies regarding Hofmann's biography - we never learn how he met his first wife, how they married, did they get along, did they have friends. In fact when she is first mentioned, half an hour into the movie, she is named "Mrs Hofmann" and no one bothers giving her a first name until the filmmakers announce she has died and Hofmann has remarried. But the movie isn't really about Hofmann the man: as its title indicates, it is about the precarious balance he tried to maintain between his work as a teacher and his work as an artist. It is repeatedly multiple times during the 55-min documentary that the assumption in the NYC art world of the time, and perhaps still today, was that one could not be a good artist if one were also a teacher. It is to Hofmann's credit that he pursued both and left his mark in both. 

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5.

Review of "Rothko's Rooms"

RothkosRoomsDon't be fooled by the opening sequence: "Rothko's Rooms" is a fascinating documentary with much more ambition and scope than its avowed goal of telling us how a set of nine Rothko murals found their way to the Tate Gallery. Those murals do provide a unifying theme for the movie, beyond the obvious idea of making a documentary about Rothko, and help keep it focused on the concept of “Rothko place” or “Rothko environment” that was so dear to Rothko in his lifetime.

Rothko had very specific ideas about how his works should be exhibited, and the idea of showing them as a group was extremely dear to him. The paintings shown first at the Tate Gallery and later at Tate Modern were part of a set of thirty Rothko had originally painted for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York City, before he backed out of the commission and returned the money. (We are told that Rothko, who leaned toward Socialism, thought the restaurant’s workers would be able to see his murals from their canteen or on their way to it, and he was incensed when he learned they would hang in the upper level of the restaurant itself, above the heads of wealthy patrons.)

The movie shows us many stills of Rothko’s paintings throughout his career, allowing us to take stock of the evolution he underwent from his figurative painting phase to his surrealist one to more abstract works that meld into those of the multi-form period, to the focus on color of the mid-1940s to the late-1940s, until the rectangular forms Rothko is best known for, which he painted from about 1949 onwards.

The movie also benefits from many testimonials of key members of the art world such as Sean Scully, Phyllis Lambert and Philip Johnson who had commissioned the murals for the Seagram building, and the director of the Tate Gallery when Rothko gave his paintings, Sir Norman Reid (he has a wonderful anecdote regarding why Rothko, who was famously indecisive, finally agreed in November 1969 to donate his paintings to the Tate after six years of negotiation – I’ll give you a hint: it has something to do with a tax change), Rothko’s friends and collaborators, and finally Rothko’s two children, who speak thoughtfully and convincingly about their father and his art.

The first half of this 60-minute documentary are spent on general yet highly informative considerations about Rothko’s life, his working habits as an artist and his paintings, such as the contrast of the New York urban landscape and the immensity of Rothko’s best-known paintings, as well as the influence of the Southwest on the colors he used. The movie changes focus at the halfway mark when it starts delving in more detail into the Seagram murals, Rothko’s continued efforts to create a “Rothko environment”, how nine of the thirty Seagram murals found their way to the Tate Gallery, and Rothko’s suicide.

The thread of “the sense of a Rothko place” is convincingly weaved through the narrative, not only for the Seagram building but also for the Rothko Room in the Phillips Collection in DC, which came about shortly after the Seagram commission fell through, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, and the New York City studio where Rothko painted those murals, which has become a Japanese teahouse. I found it particularly poignant that the people at the Tate Gallery heard of Rothko’s passing the day the paintings finally arrived.

This is a must-own for anyone interested in Rothko.

Review of "Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict"

Images-2I saw Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict by Lisa Immordino Vreeland at the Lincoln Center Film Society a few weeks back. I read her bio Mistress of Modernism by Mary Dearborn some time ago so I was already familiar with her life, and I found the movie visually compelling but a little superficial, especially in the way it dealt with her last years (my recollection from Mistress of Modernism is that she didn't age particularly gracefully and drank too much alcohol) but that weakness of the movie was more due to length constraints than an error in the filmmaker's perspective. Every word in the movie's voice-over is important: if you daydream and miss one sentence, you might miss an important bit of information to understand Guggenheim's life and it's not going to come back in some other way five minutes later. But if you want to learn more about Peggy Guggenheim's life in one hour and a half, you can't go wrong with the Art Addict movie.

One thing that caught my attention was how artists seemed not to take Peggy Guggenheim very seriously. She craved to belong in that circle and they were happy to take her money but they appeared to view her as a lightweight. That brought to mind the issues donors face when they try to do the right thing and support artists but do it so obviously to fulfill their own need for significance that they lose the respect of the people who owe them most. (There is the scene in the otherwise mediocre series Flesh & Bone where the ballerinas poke fun at the donors who want to feel "touched by angels" by the proximity to the dancers when they attend the dance company's gala. The art world can get very complicated when artists resent the people that make their work possible.) She was also used by Max Ernst, it seems, whom she married in 1941 (this allowed him to escape the Nazis and move to the U.S. with her) but divorced in 1946. He left her for Dorothea Tanning (ironically, an artist in a show of 31 women artists Peggy had organized in one of her galleries, which is how Max Ernst met her) in 1946 and remained married to Dorothea until his death in 1976, or thirty years.

Digression: Dorothea Tanning only died recently, in 2012 at age 101. You can read her obituary in The New York Times here. While she was initially best known for her surrealist paintings, after reaching age 80 she wrote an autobiography and poems that were published in The New Yorker, The Yale Review and The Paris Review.  

My favorite parts of the movie focused on her galleries, both in London and New York, and her villa full of art in Venice - now a highly-visited museum. The museum also has a good professional bio of her on its website, which you can read here. The highlights of her career include the opening of her gallery Guggenheim Jeune in London in January 1938, Art of the Century in New York City in October 1942, (the gallery hosted Jackson Pollock's first show ever in 1943 and Peggy commissioned his largest painting, Mural), and her donation of her palace in Venice and works of art to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which operates her museum today.

Funnily enough, Peggy Guggenheim's insecurities were highlighted by her tendency to slightly show her tongue when she was confused or perplexed. There is a light-hearted moment in the movie where we are shown about ten excerpts of her doing just that in short succession. She was also very self-conscious because of her bulby nose, for which she got a botched operation. Later when she had moved to Venice she seemed to have enjoyed drooling over the young Italian workers who were doing construction in her villa (the only hint in the movie that she didn't age very well, with no motion of the alcohol that Dearborn writes about in her book.) The suicide of her daughter Pegeen is glossed over, but at least it is mentioned.

I admit I had forgotten about the love story with John Holms, who died during minor surgery. The movie states he was her big love, which I can't remember. The impression I had from reading her bio was that she didn't have a lot of true love in her life (her beloved father died in the Titanic, on which he was traveling with his mistress, who was saved), although she was said to be quite promiscuous in an attempt to compensate for her looks. Yet, in spite of or perhaps because of her deep loneliness, her contributions to modern art are enormous. In fact, it is hard to think of someone who impacted modern art of the 1940s-1950s more than she did. I wonder who, if anyone, will be her equivalent in the twenty-first century.  

Here is the movie trailer.

#BlogOctober Finished painting!

IMG_2824Here is what my new painting "Akhmatova 2: To the Muse (Muse of Fire)" looks like (24x36 acrylics). You can read a detailed explanation of it here, and compare the color changes I've made in some of the colors. I like it enough, although I do have to learn how to take good-quality pictures of my artwork... Something to look forward to in 2016, perhaps. I wasted a lot of paint but I have some good ideas on how to improve for next time and, more importantly, I find the colors uplifting. There is an unpainted rectangle at the very bottom edge that is supposed to represent the never-ending creative process. In the end I am quite proud of my Akhmatova 2.