Sunday, November 30, 2014

(No. 277) William Glackens, Walker Evans, Julian Schnabel & others: 3 exhibtions

"William Glackens, Walker Evans, Julian Schnabel and 
other artists: three major exhibitions"

by Alastair Rickard

We were in Fort Lauderdale, Florida recently after a cruise and made a point of visiting a place we had missed previously: the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale. It is currently featuring three large special exhibitions.

The Museum is located in a modern building  just off East Las Olas, an area of precious shops and cafe/restaurants heavily promoted to tourists. The space devoted to galleries on two floors of the Museum is large and forms an appealing setting for visitors to view a trio of exhibitions all of which feature a large number of works.

I have written previously about the marvellous Barnes Collection now relocated in its new Philadelphia home ( see RickardsRead No.214, Sept. 8, 2012).  Albert Barnes as a key part of his ongoing effort from 1912 to 1951 to form a major collection of paintings sent American artist William Glackens to Paris in 1912 to buy paintings for him.

Glackens, himself attracted to and influenced by Impressionist art, played a major role in Barnes accumulating what is today one of the world's great collections of Impressionist amd post-Impressionist-era paintings. It contains, for example, 309 paintings by Renoir, Cezanne and Matisse alone.

William Glackens' own paintings have not received the attention they deserve. Today more than 500 of his works have found a home in the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale. Currently the Glackens Wing is displaying a selection of 85 works he painted between the late 1800s and the 1930s. Glackens died in 1938.

Glackens has been called the American Renoir. I would not rate him that highly but he had a considerable talent which he used over the decades to display an impressive range of styles and subjects. While influenced by Impressionism his efforts were far from being slavish imitations.

His range was extensive: from family portraits (e.g., "the artist's wife and son", 1911) to still lifes such as "White Rose and other flowers"(1937) to French landscapes like "Along the Marne"(1925) and Renoir-esque paintings like "Lenna at one year"(1919).

This exhibition's selection from among Glackens' own paintings is enhanced by the inclusion of works painted by several American painters associated with him such as Marjorie Organ, John Sloan and Florence Scovel Shinn. Also adding to the exhibition is a gallery with a furnished sitting room as a setting in which to hang several of Glackens' paintings.

As Pat and I toured the Glackens exhibition I was struck by the similarity of Glackens (1860 -1938) as a painter to a contemporary: the Canadian painter  William Blair Bruce (1859-1906) the subject of a fine retrospective at the Art Gallery of Hamilton (Ontario) earlier this year.

Bruce too spent much time in France, was influenced in his style and and subjects by French Impressionism, Monet particularly and painted during his career an interesting range of subjects and styles (see RickardsRead column No.269, posted July 24, 2014).

Last year I purchased a newly published book written by James Agee (1909-1955) with photos by Walker Evans (1903-1975): "Cotton Tenants: Three Families" (Melville House, 2013).

In 1936 they went on assignment for Fortune magazine to Hale County, Alabama to report a story about white tenant farming families and their lives. Fortune never published the article, perhaps because its verisimilitude was too ideologically incorrect for the editors of Henry Luce's magazine. In 1941 Agee and Evans published a 400 page book inspired by their trip entitled "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men".

For fifty years the original unpublished report was presumed lost but a copy of the 30,000 word article turned up among Agee's papers. It was this article that was published in 2013 as "Cotton Tenants" and the volume includes 30 of Evans' photos. The article and especially the photographs depict effectively and with great impact the sort of American Depression era poverty and oppressive lives of the working poor.

This brings me to the second of the Museum of Art's three current major exhibitions: "American Scene Photography: Martin Z. Margulies Collection".

It is a very large display of dozens of photographs  by a number of important American photographers whose work Margulies collected such as William Jenkins, Dorothy Lange and Arthur Rothstein. For me the photographs in the exhibition with the most impact are by a wide margin Walker Evans' pictures of the depression poor and their lives including some taken during his Alabama trip with Agee.

The Margulies Collection of American photographs from the early 1900s to the present are the basis for an impressive exhibition.

The third of the Museum of Art's current trio of major exhibitions has in my view a title that is more interesting than much of the featured content: "Cafe Dolly: Picabia, Schnabel, Willumsen: Hybrid Painting".

One theme of the exhibition which (had I been asked) I would likely have called "A dog's breakfast of works drawn from the work of three artists" is apparently the presentation of 75 paintings "depicting narrative scenes". Some of the works are interesting, some are guaranteed to attract enthusiasm among the trendy and others are simply risible. Indeed Pat's impression, and her interest in art is broader and taste more liberal than mine, was that all three artists (to put it charitably) exhibited certain personal psychological problems in their art.

The trio of artists from whose bodies of work paintings have been drawn are the French painter Francis Picabia (1879-1953), a some time leading light of the Dada movement; the Danish painter J.F. Willumsen  (1863--1958), an artistic rebel who spent most of his career in France; and the American Julian Schnabel (b.1951) who it has been argued -- rather pretentiously --  destroyed the barrier between figurative and abstract art.

That isn't how I would rate Schnabel's work. But then these days we are too often dealing with artistic sensitivity and marketing reality that embrace, for example,  the payment of millions of dollars for Andy Warhol's colour tinting of celebrity photographs taken by somebody else. So, chacun a son gout.

Together these three substantial exhbitions comprise a rewarding experience and are an excellent reason to visit the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale.

[For details visit the Museum's website]




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Monday, November 10, 2014

(No.276) "Feckless politics"

"Feckless politics"

by Alastair Rickard

The American Centers For Disease Control and Prevention say that 32,000 people are killed each year in the U.S. by guns, 60% of them being suicides.

In this context consider that the latest study of mass shootings in the U.S. (defined as those in which the shooter did not generally know the victims and in which at least 4 people were killed) shows that they have tripled just since 2011.

Over the past 3 years a mass shooting has occurred on average every 64 days while over the previous 29 years a mass shooting happened every 200 days.

Yet following the latest school shooting on Oct.24th there was almost no discussion during a feckless American political campaign leading up to the Nov.4 mid-term elections of need for any new gun control measures.

This reality is all the more pathetic given that these mid-term congressional elections had the lowest voter turnout since 1943 (36%) while at the same time setting records for campaign spending by and on behalf of Republican and Democratic candidates for the House and Senate: $4 billion plus an estimated $200 million in 'dark' (i.e., unreported) money. More than $1 billion of this election spending went to pay for TV ads.

The 2014 American election results reinforce the concerns held by many that the buying of elections (e.g., the cost per vote cast in Alaska measured by election spending was $120) by those with the most money to contribute: 94% of successful House of Representative candidates were those who spent the most; for the other chamber it was 82% of elected senators.

As a Canadian I am grateful, not withstanding further reform needed of our electoral system, for this country's formal limitations on election finances and campaign length.


Canadians are into another flu season. Yet 49% do not intend to get a flu shot.

While 35% of these give as a reason for not getting a flu shot the fact that they "never get the flu",
they seem either blissfully unaware of or indifferent to relevant facts.

These include the reality that 10-20% of Canadians will get the flu during each flu season and that the flu kills 4,000 Canadians a year and hospitalizes 20,000.


Less than a year from now Canadians will have another federal election.

During the recent Oct. 27 municipal elections in Ontario the voter turnout was an average 42% across the province. Even that low average turnout doubtless was increased by the unusually high 60% of voters participating in the GTA's Rob and Doug Ford animated election for mayor of Toronto.

The 2011 federal election produced the second lowest turnout in Canadian federal election history -- 54%.  Mr. Harper formed a government with a comfortable majority of seats having won with slightly less than 40% of the vote. Since then we have been cursed with endless references by both the Conservatives and various political pundits to Harper's "mandate".

I refuse to accept in other than a narrow legalistic sense that a government 60% of Canadian voters refused to support received any sort of meaningful 'mandate from the people'.

Rather, the federal Tories and many other governments of various political stripes ( as an example think of Bob Rae's 1990 NDP majority government in Ontario: 74 out of 130 seats based on 37.6% of the total vote) are the beneficiaries of a first-past-the-post parliamentary system so often unsuited to an electoral system with more than 2 parties.

Not that provincial elections always or even mostly produce results any more generally satisfying to the interests of the will of the majority than does the federal parliamentary system.

 I recall the Quebec Liberals losing in 1990 to the PQ although having received a greater share of the popular vote -- 43.5% & 48 seats vs 42.9% & 76 seats for the PQ. Indeed the PQ won 5 elections and 4 majorities in Quebec without ever receiving a majority of the votes cast. (That too has been the common pattern for decades in Ontario.)

How did this happen in Quebec?

Partly because the 125 Quebec seats are based on widely unequal populations. While it requires 63 seats to win a majority in the Quebec National Assembly, 45% of the electorate can win 63 rural seats while 55% wins the same number in urban areas.

The Jean Charest Liberal government after it first gained power set about studying the implementation of some form of proportional representation to address Quebec's electoral anomalies. After a time, like other Canadian politicians and parties who have expressed interest in fixing our first-past-the-post system, once in office the Quebec Liberal government's interest quietly receded.  


The new U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has given speeches pointing out certain realities that Republicans in particular are not keen to discuss. In a recent Boston speech she talked about income inequality in the U.S. about which, she said, "the extent and continuing increase ... greatly concern me".

She cited, for example, the fact that 5% of American households have seen their share of wealth increase to 63% of the national total in 2013 from 54% in 1989 while the bottom 50% have seen their share decrease from 3% to 1% [sic].

The average net worth of the bottom half of U.S. households (62 million) was only $11,000 in 2013, 50% lower than the average in 1989 adjusting for inflation and 1/4 of them had zero wealth or negative net worth.

The American political system is self-evidently broken. Many if not the majority in its political class -- elected and unelected -- seem to be living in cloud cuckoo land. Apparently they believe not only that this extreme degree of economic imbalance in American society and the continuing growth in an American underclass can continue without being addressed but also that the U.S. will not ultimately face very serious disruption if it isn't.

Many of those who regularly view (and believe in) the self-constructed reality conveyed by FOX News, the de facto broadcasting arm of the Republican Party and its Tea Party wing in particular, disagree with the need for meaningful action. For the sake of American society's future stability, it is to be hoped that many more Americans will not be so gormless.



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