Welcome To “Who Killed Art?” a Blog by Morris Shapiro

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on September 30, 2010 by Park West Gallery

The age of the “Gatekeeper” is over.

We now live in a time when anyone, anywhere can produce anything and hurl it into the universe of the internet… an anarchist’s dream.

Funny though, how in this new paradigm, everything at first seems to have the same “weight,” no matter how vapid, rabid or misinformed it may be. Ravings and inventions of dilettante lunacy can be positioned right next to the writings of a distinguished historian, and be delivered up in the same gastronomic scoop of Google’s detached information hash.

But also, because of this unprecedented level field, those who used to control the information and determine the “darlings” of the culture are now engaged in a losing struggle to hold on to their power. Now anything can “bubble-up” to the top of the stew and fill our craving (If enough of us deem it delicious). Consider the teenager who becomes an overnight singing “Star” from a YouTube video, or the socialite, absent of any talents, whose every move and whim becomes the obsession of bored Americans everywhere.

Morris Shapiro, Marcel Duchamp, Pompidou Museum, ParisMe with Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” at the Pompidou Museum in Paris.

And what about art? 

The result of all of this, in my view, now heralds the end of the “Age of Conceptualism.” For nearly one hundred years now the “religion” of the conceptual deity, Marcel Duchamp has reigned throughout the lands. The anti-aesthetic “Crusaders” swooped down upon the world’s artistic topography and vanquished all that was once transcendent, illuminating, ecstatic or healing.  Their disdain for beauty, order, sacrifice and the discipline necessary to achieve technical mastery, was manifest in their adulation for “The Emperor’s New Art.”  And the result was the creation of an elitist world: the gallery and the contemporary museum in conjunction with the international auction houses, winking at each other as the river of conceptual flotsam and jetsam flowed by and filled their pails.

The rest of the world (not “enlightened” enough to be invited into the club) at first was outraged back in 1917.  “How can this be art?” they shouted, “Just because someone says it is?” Decades later they became bewildered by the prices being fetched for things that were incomprehensible both artistically and functionally. This was followed by the inevitable apathy and eventual disdain which brings us to where we are today.  Dead art…  a slow and long, agonizing demise of any relationship between the culture and the rarefied expressions of the culture. We are all widows and widowers of what was once our culture’s spearhead.

My writings herein are about a resurrection.

If there is to be only one truism in the rich history of art, it must be that it is a “pendulum,”  swinging back-and-forth between one extreme and another. I’m excited now because there is a world full of gifted and dedicated artists who are pulling hard on it. There are others who are gone too, but their works have kept the flame alive (with very little oxygen, I might add).  Both living and deceased, these artists write the continuing narrative of the quest for the sublime and seek answers to the same age-old questions that were pressed onto the walls of the caves of Altamira, asked in Picasso’s “Guernica,” and seen in the liquid eyes of Albrecht Durer’s self-portrait.

I invite you to let me know what you think about my articles and the thoughts that follow.

Anatole Krasnyansky-Beautiful Paradoxes

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on April 1, 2013 by Park West Gallery

Excerpted from the upcoming new book on Anatole Krasnyansky

kras image for blog

With an entirely mischievous twinkle in his eyes he greets me. I ask how he is, and as usual he responds, “Still alive,” with deadpan seriousness.

I have known this man for more than 15 years and every time I am with him I am again surprised and amused by his paradoxes. He is a walking paradox; a tangle of contradictions and ironies in living color. Spend a few moments contemplating one of the twisting, turning, swirling, multi-colored, multi- textured figures that inhabits his art and what is true about him in reality, becomes symbolically true in pigment.

He walks slowly and carefully and carries a cane, but I have watched him dancing (think Groucho Marx meets Henry Kissinger).  He is intimate with the architecture and the liturgical symbolism of the world’s greatest cathedrals and yet I have seen him irreverently posing for photographs as a “saint” by holding a plate over his head to act as a “halo.” His physical appearance and demeanor both exude sophistication and refinement suited to his classical cultural training, yet the genesis of much of his imagery emerges from something as foreign to classicism as rock and roll and “over the top” American entertainment. He cites the stimulus for creating one of his styles as experiencing the band “Kiss” (while working as a set designer) and how he was traumatized to the point of needing to create a cathartic artistic exorcism to feel normal again.

No surprise then that this duality carries into his extraordinary art. I know of very few artists who have worked simultaneously in multiple disparate styles. Yes, artists almost always pass through transformations in their work which often yield dramatic differences in style, subject and content, but Anotole creates a continuing artistic dichotomy to mirror his paradoxical nature.

His “Cityscapes,” which delight so many viewers reveal his deep experience as a draftsman, his brilliance as an architect and his poetic ability to create a poignant, evocative mood through a facile command of the unforgiving technique of watercolor.

His “figural” imagery, steeped in the groundbreaking theories of visual perception that pass from Cezanne, through Picasso, to the aesthetician, Rudolph Arnheim (Art and Visual Perception, 1974) continually wrestle with the complex visual problems of plastic space, color interaction and orchestration of form. Yet both styles reside harmonically in the creative world of Anatole Krasnyansky. He has also sought ways of “reconciling” the two styles of his art, and fusing them into a unique conception. These works display his figures in architectural interiors, with lavish cityscapes seen from the windows, or figures flying above complex architectural structures beneath them. Most recently, he has begun to populate interiors with modeled figures (akin to a notion of sculpture) in various poses and activities, with elaborate and detailed vistas of architectural designs in the distance.

Regarding the content presented in his works, there is also a fascinating duality. Though his works initially appear to be driven by formal concerns, as they “dance” and entertain the eye in an aesthetic “performance,” he also contemplates carefully and with great detail the messages he intends to present. I have listened to him discuss a painting and describe one-by-one each figure presented. With great precision he illuminates the subtle nuances of expression, position, apparent activity and even the costume worn by the figure and its relationship to his messages. Often they carry political meanings and incipient statements about dictatorship, hypocrisy, guile and manipulation stemming from his experience as a Soviet citizen. It is rare to find an artist so fluid in the formal language of art to be so articulate as well in the meanings of his imagery. Most artists allow the viewer to draw one’s own conclusions. Anatole welcomes these as well, but typical of his paradoxical nature is anxious to reveal his own allusions.

It is also this two-sided artistic coin that makes him so interesting in the early 21st Century world in which we reside; a world which seems to be less and less attuned to beautiful artistic dichotomies. Herein is another irony. In a world where the “elite” art of our time resides in an anti-aesthetic, an obsessive artistic narcissism wherein art continually looks at itself in the “pool” of context and asks itself over and over again, “Am I art, or not?”– Anatole’s art evokes powerful responses from thousands of people all over the world. The enthusiasm for his artwork is often dramatic, certainly passionate, and enduring for his devotees. I know collectors who have dozens of Karasnyanskys. Anatole and I have discussed the history of art many times. We’ve walked museums together and contemplated dynastic Asian sculptures, paintings by Velasquez and “installations” composed of truck mud-flaps and lunch box thermoses.

In all of this, I feel comforted though by the thought of future generations viewing his impressive and expansive body of work; his paintings, drawings and prints, and seeing his historical position in the pantheon of the champions of beauty. He has “walked the walk.” And he has devoted his life and career to enriching us through his unflagging efforts, often in the face of extraordinary challenges and difficulties.

Dr. Eleanor Hight’s excellent article which follows adroitly sketches the arc of Anatole’s life and career. It is important that his story is told and the details of his accomplishments be recorded in this beautiful book, this record of his life and art at this place in time. But I know much more.

I know the story of how he borrowed the original watercolor paintingsfrom the Soviet institution that had nationalized them, made copies which he replaced in the frames when returned, and walked on the backs of the originals to make them look old and unimportant when the customs officers located them with his belongings as he departed Ukraine. I have seen these paintings as they now hang on the walls of his living room. I know how that when he proclaimed his intent to leave the U.S.S.R, he became a “marked” man and of the fear and uncertainty he and his young family faced, especially as Jews. I know while barely able to speak English he pretended to have experience as a scenic designer to get his first job in Los Angeles so that he would not have to go onto the streets as a beggar to support his family. I know of the widow of a famous Russian painter who lent him her husband’s studio in California without charging a cent, to allow him to work because she believed in him. I know of his insecurity when he first showed his works to the Dalzell Hatfield Galleries in Los Angeles with master paintings on the walls surrounding him and the joy he felt when he was invited to exhibit there. I know of his love for his family, his strong, smart and devoted wife, Nellie, who has stood by him all these years and been his “rock.” I know of his love of Louis Armstrong, and Mozart, of Kandinsky and El Greco. Yin and Yang. Two sides of a coin.

I know too of his uncompromising dedication to his art; his refusal to accept anything that does not meet his standards; the way he labors and studies his imagery and considers carefully the content it conveys, his preliminary drawings, his printing proofs. He knows that his work needs to be uncompromising because every painting and print released to the world by Anatole Krasnyansky is a piece of his soul, a testament of his dedication to his chosen profession, his struggles, his triumphs and his mark on the history of art. It is part of the narrative of a man born and trained in a communist world whose journey has brought him to a world of nearly limitless freedom. This is a story that resembles many artists who have walked a similar path in their quests to find freedom for their art. But, I can’t think of another who has walked as uniquely as Anatole Kranyansky. Or one who has walked it with so many beautiful paradoxes at play.

Yaacov Agam—21st Century Genius

Posted in Artists, Yaacov Agam with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2010 by Park West Gallery

“For twenty years, I tried, and finally I understood, the image must be something that becomes, not something that is.

Where is truth, where is the true order? The only truth is the truth of states of being, and the passage of time which destroys itself.”

—YAACOV AGAM, 1971

Yaacov Agam, At“AT” by Yaacov Agam

“Genius” is a hard word to substantiate, as these days in our transient and disposable culture it is often thrown about in reference to all sorts of people from all walks of life. But too often, sadly, novelty is confused with quality.

In the case of 81-year-old artist Yaacov Agam, the word “genius” only touches the surface. The world is filled with his art. From giant installations found in places as far flung as Taipei, Jerusalem and New York City, to individual objects that grace the collections of his devotees from all over the world, Agam has made his mark, which will not be erased from history.

Born in 1921 as the son of an Orthodox rabbi, Agam’s consciousness was always shrouded in mysticism. Steeped in the Kabbala along with the spiritual writings of Wassily Kandinsky and the conceptual revolutions of form and color developed by Johannes Itten and Josef Albers, Agam emerged with an art form independent from all others. In Agam’s art there is a departure from traditional forms of visual expression. In conventional art, everything is visible. Agam’s art strives to capture the invisible; the possible but not yet experienced, and in this way the infinite.

Agam says, “I am not an abstract artist… Abstract art shows a situation on a canvas. I show a state of being which does not exist, the imperceptible absence of an image… The infinity of possibilities, opposing the chance of a presence, a possibility.”

Yaacov Agam, Colorful SkyColorful Sky View” by Yaacov Agam

When one encounters an Agam work, an indefinable experience occurs. Rather than in the traditional artistic experience—where the viewer passively absorbs what the artist has created—in Agam’s art the viewer and the artwork merge. The artwork cannot appear, or come into being, without the participation of the viewer; the creative process and the aesthetic experienced are mingled, and inseparable from one another. The work of art does not exist unless the viewer is engaged and thereby involved in creating its existence.

Walk past a work of Agam‘s and take in the intricate number of manifestations and visible expressions that appear as you move before it. Slide a moveable element from side to side and watch imagery appear from “nowhere,” suddenly and momentarily visible until another millimeter of movement is induced and it vanishes, only to be replaced by yet another visual surprise. Touch a sculpture by Agam and rearrange its elements into yet another of the infinite number of three-dimensional compositions which may be created. All of these experiences are what defines his art, and his genius.

His colors are of the rainbow, God’s first work of art given to man in a pact with Noah (Agam describes the “phenomenon of light” as “inexplicable.”). His forms and structures are marvels of simplicity and simultaneous complexity. His “polymorphic” paintings and multiples are merely corrugations with color adhered to the sides, and yet their purity and simplicity point to profound and universal mysteries discovered in the appearance and disappearance of things.

Yaacov Agam, Festival Night Dance“Festival Night Dance” by Yaacov Agam

In 1964, Agam wrote his artistic credo. Fully formed and unchanged since that time, it has provided the inexhaustible wellspring of his art and sustained him for nearly 50 years, without limitation. He says in it, “My intention was to create a work of art which would transcend the visible, which cannot be perceived except in stages, with the understanding that it is a partial revelation and not the perpetuation of the existing. My aim is to show what can be seen within the limits of possibility which exists in the midst of coming into being.”

It is through Agam that the aesthetic narrative was re-engaged after having been cast aside by the conceptualists. He has taken up the thread of aesthetic beauty, added the notion of time, space and the infinite, and forged his place in the pantheon of the geniuses of art history.

Park West Gallery is honored to have had a relationship with this contemporary master for over 30 years and to present his artworks to our clients, who continue to enthusiastically embrace his astonishing and unforgettable creations.

In Pursuit of Nobility—The Art of Robert Kipniss

Posted in Artists, Robert Kipniss with tags , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2010 by Park West Gallery

“The development of an ability to work from memory, to select factors, to take things of certain constructive values and build with them a special thing, your unique vision of nature, the thing you caught in an instant look of a face or the formations of a moment in the sky, will make it possible to state not only that face, that landscape, but make your statement of them as they were when they were most beautiful to you.”

—ROBERT HENRI (1865-1929) / Letter to the class, Art Students League (1915)

Robert Kipniss, Crossings II“Crossings II” by Robert Kipniss

As a young art student in Minneapolis one day in 1974, I experienced an artistic awakening. While wandering through an art display in a bank, I was touched by a singular work; a lithograph in dark tones of brown and green. I stopped, contemplated it for a moment and moved on.

A few minutes later I felt an urge to revisit that same work and see if I could ascertain what it was that had attracted me to it. I studied the work more carefully. In it, were a few small houses, nestled in a deep receding landscape. Trees appeared as well. Their leaves fluttered in a tangible and yet empty space, but there were no branches connecting them. As I viewed the work, I was overcome with a poignant feeling, a mood I could not associate, but felt nevertheless. I moved on to take in the remaining works by other artists in the exhibition, but I continued to feel a tug to return to that work again and experience its remarkable effect on me.

I went back yet a third time. This time, I slowed down and took in the composition, the technique used, the overall balance and order of the work. All these impressed me equally and served to heighten the mood I was experiencing at the same time. I took notice of the artist’s name then, finally. It was Robert Kipniss, American; born 1931. Little did I know at the time, what a profound aesthetic experience I had just encountered and what effect it would have on me for years to come.

Fast forward: years later. I had come to know Kipniss’ works intimately through my association with the Merrill Chase Galleries in Chicago, where I worked as Gallery Director. I had met him on several occasions and had become deeply attracted to his work. I had presented it to hundreds of collectors and observed close hand the remarkable effect his imagery had on people from all walks of life and at all levels of artistic sophistication. I had studied his history and was well aware of his extraordinary credentials, the awards and prizes he had attained and his extensive museum representation throughout the world. All of this made me a deep Kipniss fan, but I had another experience, one of which the teacher, painter and aesthetician, Robert Henri so eloquently spoke in his letter to the Art Student’s League of 1915, quoted above (ironically, where Kipniss studied also in the late 1940’s).

Robert Kipniss, Sentinels II“Sentinels II (first state)” by Robert Kipniss

It was a warm early autumn evening. I was relaxing outdoors sitting with family and friends and as dusk crept in, I was observing the sky through a close-knit group of trees a few feet from me. As I looked up I caught a moment of fleeting, transient beauty. The fading light had created a splash of leaf silhouettes flickering in the gentle wind. All I could see were the silhouettes of the leaves, without branches connecting them to the trees, the fluid dark trunks all set against a deep blue-grey sky.

It was, as I realized, a “living Kipniss moment.”

It occurred to me at that very instant that my experience was a reflection of the finest compliment to an artist that can ever be paid; my perception of nature, my experience, a visual miraculous moment, was enhanced and even attuned by my familiarity of Robert’s work. His “vision” had awakened my experience, allowed it to happen, and implanted more deeply my appreciation for life and the beautiful visual miracles that surround all of us continually, if we are only “in tune” enough to see them.

This phenomenon is not unfamiliar to Robert Kipniss. It is in effect that for which he strives.

He has said, “I may be painting trees and houses, but when I look at them, that’s not what I see. I see an atmosphere, a moment, a quickly passing experience that I’m trying to capture. My art is an art of intensity, of delving, of exploring the soul.”

The experience of viewing a Kipniss work is one which requires a determined engagement and attention on the part of the viewer. As I often say: “You have to go to great art. It doesn’t often come to you.” At first view, a Kipniss work may appear so subtle that one will walk right past it. But those who linger are rewarded.

His images draw us in with a confluence of impressions, personal associations and feelings only hinted at. Feelings which suggest past experiences derived from our own trace memories and perceptions of nature, remembered somewhere deep within us. We may not be conscious of these visual or immersive memories, but Kipniss’ works seem to psychologically engage us and pull these impressions forward into our conscious minds. Some say that the experience is “surreal.” Others call it a form of visual “déjà vu” as if they “remember” a scene, but can’t quite “put their finger on it.” His works have been called “imaginary landscapes,” “surrealist landscapes,” “dream landscapes” and “trance-like.” To Kipniss they are his means to, “grasp that which we can never possess, except for the moment.”

Although every work of art may be perceived and evaluated in terms of both its form and its content, in Kipniss’ work it is difficult to separate them. Much of the dreamlike and captivating quality of his works is derived from the absolutely meticulous compositions he constructs.

Every spatial, proportional, tonal, textural, and formal relationship in a Kipniss work is perfectly calculated and arranged. The eye feels no tension while moving through and into the illusionary spaces he constructs. Every element supports and engages another and another, which creates an overall effect of extreme ease and mystery at the same time. Renaissance painters would often refer to their painting compositions as “machines,” whereby every element would be tightly controlled, and “bolted” down to allow the work to “run” smoothly for the viewer. In Kipniss, they “purr” along in perfect balance and the longer we observe the more we “feel” his mastery in depicting mood and a sense of wonderment.

Robert Kipniss, Appoggiatura“Appoggiatura” by Robert Kipniss

Commenting on Kipniss’ works in a 2007 catalog, Chief Curator of Collections and Exhibitions for the Mississippi Museum of Art, Daniel Piersol observed, “The issues of time and place are subtly but unmistakably invested in every Kipniss image… his captivating images are not merely nostalgic; rather, they are freighted with a haunting reverie. Through his masterful use of subdued color and purposefully structured compositions, the painter controls the viewer’s ability to ‘read’ or comprehend his images, thereby causing one to linger before them.”

These compelling characteristics of his work are well suited to the challenging and highly demanding technique of mezzotint, which Kipniss has mastered and employed for decades. Few ever attempt it.

Briefly described, a metal plate is pitted across its entire surface by either using a “rocker” tool or by machine (which Kipniss prefers for predictability). The plate, if then printed, would produce a rich, velvety and solid black, characteristic qualities which are unique to the “alchemy” of intaglio printing. The artist then works the pitted surface with a burnisher, smoothing out areas so that the more he smooths the area, the less ink will reside in the pitted grooves and indentations and consequently print. The artist therefore, is in essence, working backward from dark to light. This laborious technique creates the broad tonal variations and dramatic contrasts which are important in Kipniss’ works and can be so effectively employed through the mezzotint process.

Kipniss commented as follows about the technique: “The nature of mezzotint is that it is about objects emerging from darkness, catching light and being defined by their shadows as well as by their highlights. If you wanted to do something lighter or airier, you would use a dry-point or lithograph. That’s what happens in mezzotint and is why I really fell so much in love with it. It enables me to achieve the density that frequently eluded me in lithography.”

In an age where so much of art has become concerned with creating something “new,” something “novel” and something which focuses more on definitions of what is and isn’t art, Robert Kipniss is an artist of immense rarity. It is refreshing to see his work so embraced by museums, galleries and collectors all over the world and a testament to the quality of his artwork and his enduring message.

To once again quote the words of Robert Henri, a legendary hero to those who devote their lives to the pursuit of aesthetic beauty, often at great struggle and personal cost:

“It is not too much to say that art is the noting of the existence of order throughout the world, and so, order stirs imagination and inspires one to reproduce this beautiful relationship existing in the universe, as best one can. Everywhere I find that the moment order in nature is understood and freely shown, the result is nobility.”

I invite you to take some time and enter into the world of Robert Kipniss’ art. I believe once therein, you will also be one who discovers “nobility.”

Leslie Lew’s Red Shoes

Posted in Artists, Leslie Lew with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2010 by Park West Gallery

Comic books and Albrecht Durer. They formed the Alpha and Omega of my visual world as an only child immersed in the mysteries of art. In both I found superheroes.

Every now and then we encounter the ineffable, indescribable and unmistakable phenomenon known as “charisma,” a quality upon which the idea of the superhero was hatched. Whether we happen upon charisma in the physical presence of another human being or discover it in the fruits of their labors, their life’s work, it is undeniable. It may be something that “slipped in” from the “other side,” or came from another planet like Superman, as there is no explanation for it in this tangible world.

Leslie Lew has it in spades.

Leslie Lew, Morris ShapiroMe and Leslie Lew (notice her shoes).

My first encounter with the charisma of Leslie Lew was through her work itself. Funny thing about that… So many practicing artists reveal similar degrees of technical skill and render imagery of a similar nature, but few posses that immutable quality which resonates for viewers open to the aesthetic experience. The “it” factor. For me and Leslie’s work, it was a complete “no contest.”

When I first viewed one of her paintings, my eyes drank in voluptuous surfaces, and lavish, luscious colors, augmented by a textural relief technique (which Leslie invented, called “Sculpted Oils”) which was at once irresistible and formidable. The subject was “Wonder Woman,” and she appeared from the cover of a vintage 1960’s D.C. comic book (complete with a ten cent price button), leaping into action to save the day. Now most men my age, who grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s and succumbed to the lure of the “picture novel” (often to the overt distaste of our parents), and who are forthcoming enough to admit it, will agree that Wonder Woman was hot. Leslie’s “WW” is way hotter.

The contemplation of one of her paintings is a multifaceted experience. It’s difficult to discern which parts are most pleasurable as equally fascinating qualities of form and content compete for attention. For me (and many of her devotees) it begins with the reinterpreted nostalgia of her world. As represented to us through the unique prism of her own cumulative life and cultural experiences growing up as a child born in the early 1950’s, raised in the ‘60’s, artistically forged in the ‘70’s, paying her dues in the ‘80’s and emerging fully formed as a mature fine artist into the ‘90’s and beyond. This appeal appears to be without any boundaries and her work is savored by people from all walks of life, all ages and degrees of artistic sophistication. She seems to have that indefinable quality of the “great ones,” and certainly the enduring ones, of being instantly accessible and as “deep” as you care to go.

When I finally met Leslie, I encountered the other kind of charisma: the human kind; the kind of which everyone dreams and few posses. She is electric, magnetic and radiates an energy, enthusiasm and honest passion for her work and her life impossible to forbear.

Strike two for me.

Leslie Lew, Action #1 (Superman)“Action #1 (Superman)” (2010) by Leslie Lew

In my many years of discourse and interaction with artists of all cultures and ages, I’m hard pressed to think of another who was so comfortable in her skin, openly speaking of her art with an eloquence and insight that ran parallel to her artwork (as do the titles of her paintings). So many artists (no fault of their own) prefer communication to be visual. They are often uncomfortable speaking, especially to groups, about their work. To Leslie, it’s all “flow,” an opportunity to add another dimension to her already multi-dimensional artwork.

At an event that we both attended I watched her, for the first time, from a distance in her black and white designer blouse and red shoes. She spoke to our mutual clients of her life and work with a diffidence and approachability belied by her prowess as a painter and her extensive credentials. She invited the guests to come up and “paint” onto one of her mixed-media canvasses. I watched as they queued up, one by one, and saw the delight in their eyes and faces as they spun and twirled the brushes, and contributed their own impasto applications of color to areas and surfaces of the image, leaving their own mark on a slice of 21st Century art history. I couldn’t resist, had to partake, and that same night I got a healthy dollop of white paint on the sleeve of my black dinner jacket. Leslie had left her mark on me.

When I was able to finally spend some time with her, I was most intrigued by her “story.” For me as a dealer with an insatiable appetite for art history, it’s all about people, the tangible and concrete, the real lives of those who eschew the world of the “day job” and forge fearlessly ahead to conquer the problems of aesthetics.

Leslie is the eldest of four daughters of the legendary Chicago advertising executive Les Hopkins (she is “Leslie Jr.”), who was responsible for some of the most enduring ad campaigns of Baby Boom culture including, “Alka Seltzer” and “Sugar Smacks” cereal (he invented the Sugar Smacks Brothers) among others. Raised in New Jersey and Chicago, and inheriting many of her father’s gifts, she recognized at an early age her destiny to become an artist in the form of an epiphany while sketching Lake Michigan. Later, her father turned his back on his successful, but stress-ridden career, divorced, checked-out of the business world and moved the family to Oregon, where Leslie and her three sisters lived a frugal “hippie-esque” life. This in some ways prepared her for the hardships she herself would endure in years to come. She returned to Chicago and attended the prestigious school of the Chicago Art Institute to receive her BFA and MFA degrees. There she became part of one of most esoteric, but simultaneously unique and distinctive movements in the narrative of late 20th Century painting, the “Hairy Who.”

Leslie Lew, Sugar Smacks“Sugar Smacks Box” (2009) by Leslie Lew

As a young art student growing up in Chicago (Leslie and I are the same age), I was also heavily into the Hairy Who. I adored the “twisted” but riveting imagery of Jim Nut (think George Grosz meets R. Crumb), and Roger Brown (who remains one of Leslie’s heroes), whose stylized imagery takes the naïve approach of someone like Grandma Moses and launches into a completely new realm of urban sophisticated-primitivism. Leslie knew both of these artists, exhibited with them and studied under another heavyweight of the movement, Ray Yoshida. During these years she honed her drawing skills (which are striking), and minored in art history, a passion which still deeply absorbs her.

The next phase of her life took her to New York, where she bore extraordinary hardship and sacrifices for her art, raising her young son Sean (now, a practicing musician and songwriter) as a single mother and supporting her small family solely as an artist. This was a defining time in her life, eventually materializing artistically in Leslie’s use of “Wonder Woman,” as a symbol for the superheroes women often become to deal with the challenges in their own lives. Her entry into the emerging, “East Village” scene in the 1980’s brought her early recognition, and formed the launching platform for her impressive reputation and the extensive art world credentials she possesses today.

Leslie is no lightweight. Her works have toured in museum exhibitions sponsored by the Carnegie Mellon Museum and the Guggenheim (upon whose walls her paintings have hung). She’s shown in the best “high end” New York galleries next to works by Warhol, Lichtenstein and Man Ray. Her works have been reviewed by untold magazines, art journals and newspapers, along with art professors (NYU amongst them) and museum curators. She is featured in the recently published coffee-table tome on the Martin Z. Margulies Collection. Mr. Margulies’ legendary collection is one of America’s premier collections of modern and contemporary works in all media. Being featured and reviewed in this collection (destined for an exclusive museum residence) is a benchmark for any contemporary artist, as it positions them alongside masterworks by Picasso, Miro, Pollack, Rothko and Calder, among many others. Her works have been collected world-wide by a “who’s who” of celebrities and luminaries.

And yet with all of these “legit” achievements in an unbelievably competitive art world, Leslie seeks not to remain rarified. She told me, “I have always felt that art should be for the masses not for just a few of the ‘elite.’ I have worked and established myself…for over twenty-five years. Now is the time to have fun and do what I was meant to do…share my work with the world…and the masses…”

And the masses love it, from what I can tell.

Leslie Lew, Still Life with Fruit“Still Life with Fruit” (2009) by Leslie Lew

Leslie defines three artists as prime influences. She begins with Peter Max. Max is the consummate media master. He has seamlessly bridged the division between “fine” and “commercial” art. In Max’s world, no limit exists on the expression or manifestation of his art. He believes the artist can use the media of our times fluidly. He can create imagery which may be reinterpreted into a limitless number of incarnations and expressions. From the most sophisticated (paintings on the White House lawn) to the most common (ice tea bottles), he sees no separation in his quest to bring his art to the world. Leslie completely agrees. It is only a matter of time, in my opinion, until her work reaches a similar degree of exposure. For now, she creates paintings, monotypes (a lavish combination of painting and digital printmaking), deeply embossed cast paper multiples (also heavily hand-painted), prints, and even extravagant series of tiny matchbook covers, with hand-painted collages affixed. For the future, who knows? I can only imagine what her fertile mind will envision as the next outlet for her imagery.

Next is of course: Andy Warhol. There is an irony in Leslie’s admiration for Warhol, and it deals with the subversive contributions he made to the definitions of what is and isn’t art. Distinguished art historian and Professor, Arthur C. Danto viewed Warhol as the ultimate apostle of Duchamp, and saw his Brillo Box sculpture (1964) as the extension of Duchamp’s “ready-mades,” but positioned in a contemporary American cultural context, which was ultimately responsible for the creation of the “Pop Art” movement. Leslie has inoculated this “art for art’s sake” virus in her work (more on this later), but embraces the notion from Warhol (and many of the most permeated artists of the movement) of the appropriation of imagery from our culture. But the notion of discovering something (often pedestrian or banal) that exists in one cultural context and “elevating” it to fine art through the artist’s identification, isolation, ascension and frequent disparagement so common in the “Pop” idiom, has virtually no place in her canon. Leslie’s pursuit attracts her to subjects from our culture with the intention to elevate us and to remind us of an enhanced quality of life which her cultural signposts embody. She prefers to present the uplifting qualities and values of American culture. It is clear these endorsements often reveal an unembarrassed nostalgic view, but her perspective is focused on messages of optimism and hope. And this is where her third articulated influence appears (surprisingly to many): Norman Rockwell.

Few American artists have been (or will probably ever be) as polarizing as Rockwell amongst fine artists. To his champions he achieved the highest degree of capturing his milieu, his culture, his time and the “spirit” of his generation (in my mind, among the ultimate achievements of any artist–consider Toulouse-Lautrec). To his detractors, he was nothing more than an “illustrator,” whose accessible, often sentimental, and unabashedly narrative imagery reached too broad an audience to enter the realm of “real art.”

Setting aside the arguments on both sides (as time will be the ultimate arbiter) there is no denying Rockwell’s ability to tell a story and to hold up a mirror to American life. Leslie has embraced this idea with a new vision, a new timeframe and a new zeal. Her milieu is a different America–one that emerges from Rockwell’s pre and post-war periods to the next generation’s cultural touchstones, and the personal experiences which shaped her own idiomatic iconography.

Leslie Lew, Animal Crackers“Animal Crackers” (2009) by Leslie Lew

Leslie’s imagery is fertile and apparently unlimited just like her energy. Her comic book themes (which along with superheroes) feature subjects like, Felix the Cat, Blondie, Popeye, Dick Tracy, Lil’ Abner, Little Lulu, Barney Google, True Love and Boy Meets Girl comics. Early childhood memories emerge in Dick and Jane kindergarten readers; breakfast cereal box covers, amusement parks and other family memories and holidays. She’s also struck a strong chord through her use of circa 1960’s “comfort foods (Leslie’s interpretation of the “Animal Crackers” box cover has been a subject of numerous media reviews) and familiar locations of interest in New York, Chicago and other locales etched in her memory. She includes supermarket and toy store interiors (displaying their products in the glory of fluorescent lighting splendor); and her own interpretations of singular places she’s remembered including her ex-boyfriend’s mother’s apartment and her art school supplies store. She has written and illustrated a children’s book which focuses on building esteem for children and celebrating each child’s unique differences. This is the stuff of her generation’s fabric, and it resonates deeply with her audiences.

Another aspect of her work (which appeals to me personally) is her integration of great artist’s works into her own vision, a by-product of her deep knowledge of art history. Works of the masters often inhabit her imagery. Van Gogh appears in a bedroom scene (a visual pun) among other artists occupying interiors, along with a moving interpretation of his “Irises” painting in the Chicago Art Institute. But in particularly powerful manifestations during the years 1988-1995, she created a series of four and five paneled screens (some as large as 60” x 120”) reinterpreting, in her alluring “sculpted oil” technique, the works of Gauguin, Henri Rousseau, Japanese woodcuts, Kandinsky, Breughel and an unparalleled version of Picasso’s Guernica (which she told me she’ll never sell). Picasso has and will always be the paragon for me… So I’m “out”… strike three for me.

Beyond the unexpected impression Leslie’s physical presence and art has had upon me, I am fortunate to also know and to have known many world-class artists. In every case, when given the opportunity, I have spoken to them about the current state of the art world, and the vacuum that exist in the consciousness of our contemporary culture toward visual art. At a time when music, film, theatre, literature and dance remain ubiquitous in our society, and are publicly consumed at startling levels forming multi-billion dollar industries, we have to ask the question, “Where did art go?” It’s not hard to figure it out. When “artists” starve animals in public, slice up sharks and install them in formaldehyde-filled glass boxes, and affix dead flies to canvas in the name of “art,” there is little reason to wonder. Former Christies’ executive, Phillip Hook summed up this contemporary phenomenon succinctly in his book, The Ultimate Trophy (Prestel, 2009): “We live in an era which, more than ever before, equates novelty (emphasis mine) with quality.”

Leslie Lew, Art in America“Art in America” (2008) by Leslie Lew

In almost every case, I can attest that the artists to whom I speak, the “Aesthetic Olympians” like Leslie, sense a “collective consciousness” transformation occurring right now. It is found in the imperative to return to beauty, in the resistance and diminution of “art for art’s sake” and reflected in an awareness of the true hunger in the world once again, for the ideals that can inspire and enrich us, and amplify our lives and experiences. These artists identify with that searching, questing restlessness to answer the same age-old mysteries: “Why are we here? Why do we as homo-sapiens exist as the only species that can create, and what do our creations reveal?”

I was excited when Leslie informed me, as we discussed these issues, that she had chosen to align herself with Park West Gallery for these very same reasons, and had declined requests from some of the “heavy weight” New York galleries who had been vying for a contract with her. I asked her if she had taken any “heat” for it. She laughed and responded, “I love to push the edge…I have been tormenting my ‘fine art/museum crowd’ for years… but not with ‘anti-art, scary art’…but with making gorgeous surfaces, colors—but somehow using relevant concepts. Boy does this confuse them!”

I am certainly grateful to her for choosing Park West Gallery as her conduit to bring a new, expansive audience and greater exposure to her than she has previously experienced, but my elation was quickly tempered by a sense of heavy responsibility. Would we do her justice?

I was comforted however; when she relayed a childhood story to me (It could easily have appeared in a Dick and Jane reader).

Leslie Lew, Once Upon a Time“Once Upon a Time” (2004) by Leslie Lew

As a child Leslie was “pigeon-toed.” Her mother rejected the urging of doctors who recommended surgery. Instead, she proclaimed that she would study ballet, and conquer her affliction. She was enrolled in a ballet class only to be refused by the instructor (a woman who trained Maria Tallchief, renowned American dancer who performed with the Paris Opera Ballet, Ballet Russe and Balanchine) who told her parents that she had no talent, and would never become a dancer at any level. Undeterred, Leslie herself (even at such a young age), refused to accept this assessment and began a painstaking practice routine (for as many as eight hours a day) for more than a year, at the ballet barre she had asked her parents to install in their home. As an incentive, her mother bought Leslie some very “cool” red dancing shoes, in which to practice and ultimately perform. They were a joyful motivation amidst a formidable and serious challenge. A year later in a live recital, she performed a flawless Nutcracker, to the delight and approval of her previously unimpressed teacher and her parents with (it goes without saying) perfectly positioned feet. To this day Leslie often wears red shoes when she desires a shamanistic and symbolic “power source.” She was wearing some when I watched her for the first time.

When I heard that story, I knew I had nothing to fear. Leslie’s conquering of the Park West Gallery world and her determination and commitment was a “done deal.” We just needed to get out of the way. I’ve learned that contrary to popular belief, our childhood does often prepare us for whatever life throws our way.

Leslie Lew, Morris Shapiro, Park West Gallery, Wonder Woman“Wonder Woman-Making a Splash” (2002) by Leslie Lew

I finally asked Leslie who were her artistic idols. I needed to know. We all have them, those of us who can’t get enough of the glories of art. Those who savor and pursue the inscrutable mysteries of that “thing” that serves no purpose other than to thrill us, to inspire us, and to keep us moving toward revelations which can only be described as “charismatic.” She told me of her four artistic superheroes:

Fra Filippo Lipi (1406-1469), Florentine master and teacher of Botticelli, whose technical mastery at his time was unparalleled (Leslie studied in Florence during summers for three years as a student, where she fell under his spell).

Rembrandt van Rijn, Master of the Baroque, who’s depiction of the quintessential dramatic mood in painting is still without peer. Rembrandt’s experimentation with the qualities of painting and his delight in the nature of applying paint to canvas is still the stuff of legend.

Vincent Van Gogh, the “Father of Expressionism” and an artist who believed art was for everyone and never to be withheld for any reason, from any person. Van Gogh’s tactile application of paint, his textures, and surfaces, luminosity of color and sheer power of visual impact has surely been the “seed” of Leslie’s astonishing techniques.

And, ironically… Albrecht Durer, arguably the greatest draftsman of all time, and for whom I share the same admiration as Leslie…

…and for “Comic books and Superheroes…”

…oh, and by the way, Wonder Woman wears “red shoes” too.

Csaba Markus, Aesthetic Olympian

Posted in Art Videos, Artists, Csaba Markus with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2010 by Park West Gallery

In the contemporary world of art a battle is currently raging. As the 20th Century clicked over to the 21st, it provided a convenient demarcation point for this struggle, but it has really been ongoing for at least 90 years. The conflict is about the search by artists of our time for the fundamentals of aesthetics which have long ago been “thrown under the bus.”

Csaba Markus, Veritas“Veritas” (2006) by Csaba Markus

The word “aesthetic” is derived from the Greek word “aesthesis,” which means “perception with feeling,” and in so simple a joining of two phenomena, the entire history of western art criticism has rested. Perception of course deals with the sensorial response to art: what we perceive and experience through our limited senses as we take in what exists before us for contemplation. Feeling, results in what we take from that contemplation and from whatever “information” our senses provide. That is, how the information affects the perspective we bring to the contemplation of an artwork. That perspective is made up of our emotions, our experiences, our education, our dispositions, our passions, our prejudices and the myriad other qualities that define who we are each individually.

All through the storied evolution of aesthetic philosophy two halves have formed the whole of the aesthetic experience. They are the “yin and yang” of art and their measure must each be taken to develop a true analysis of any work of art in any medium. “Form” is the physical body, the manifestation in concrete reality of the work of art before us. In the visual arts (for which we will confine our discussion here) form may include the medium employed, the size or format of the work, the use of line, color, texture, contrast, the composition of the work, or any number of other “physical’ attributes. “Content,” on the other hand, is what the work of art is communicating to us as we experience it during contemplation. All art has something to communicate, even if the communication is about the absence of communication.

In 1917, when French artist Marcel Duchamp created the first “Readymade” by signing with a fictitious name an inverted urinal and titling it Fountain, the true iconoclastic struggle of aesthetic “life and death” began. By proclaiming that something was art, because the artist claimed it to be, the aesthetic experience was transformed into a kind of artistic narcissism, a constant contextual rumination by art asking itself, “Am I art, or am I not art?”

For nearly one hundred years now, artists, historians, museums, art educational institutions, galleries, auction houses and collectors have embraced and legitimized these types of artistic creations and conceptualizations. It serves no purpose here to dwell on the embodiment of these “artworks.” We are all familiar with the dirty ashtrays, the sharks in formaldehyde, the crucifixes in urine, the Plexiglas boxes of trash and the thousands of other manifestations of what author Donald Kuspit in his book, The End of Art (2004, Cambridge University Press), has aptly named, “postart.”

“Post-artworks” have been included in exhibitions with great fanfare and have fetched in the auction and gallery markets dramatically high prices, especially when compared to works by artistic masters of the past. To some extent, these “works” have been derided and ridiculed in the popular press and have caused their fair share of controversy, but essentially they have continued to flourish unimpeded in their own elitist milieu, where they focus on lifting up those things which were once considered banal, meager, ordinary and even repulsive into the highest realms of “Fine Art.”

Csaba Markus, Dance and ConquestCsaba Markus “Dance and Conquest” (2008)

The Pendulum

A comprehensive investigation into the history of art ultimately reveals that if only one thing can be counted on, it is that artists (and consequently their creations) will react strongly to the art of their time. Often this reaction will be in the form of pushing back against the grain of the accepted art of the times, i.e. the art that is seen as respected, legitimate, important, and valid.

Even deeper investigation will often reveal that the polar opposites that drive the pendulum of art history from one side to the other are grounded in the artistic ideals found in form and content and these in turn can be seen as the overarching characteristics of the pendulum’s extreme positions. A good example of this can be found in the distinction between classical art, which is grounded in the principles of purity and adherence to nature’s forms, and romantic art, which is about imagination, myth, and mannerism. Again, this is not the appropriate place for a long discussion of these historical observations, but suffice it to say that the difference between Caravaggio (classical) and El Greco (romantic), is a good example. These artists existed in nearly the same time and yet Caravaggio, by embracing the notion of a kind of painting that was focused on a depiction of true reality (right down to the dirt under the fingernails of the subject), created a new form of art in direct opposition to El Greco’s flamboyant and mystical interpretations of another world that existed beyond the tangible one.

“So what does any of this have to do with Csaba Markus?” you might ask. Well, I have had the good fortune to have many discussions with Csaba about these very subjects. And Csaba is a true student of art history. Just by looking at his art one assumes this. And like every great artist I have met (and the great ones from the past that I have only read about), being well steeped in the history of art, and understanding their place in its context, is of paramount concern to them.

I am fortunate to have a life immersed in art. It surrounds me every day. I research it, buy it, sell it, talk to people about it, and teach others to speak of it. I hear the questions, comments and concerns of collectors, both novice and seasoned. And when I speak of these contemporary issues, of art which causes the viewer to scratch his head and say, “So what?” after contemplating the “postart” that has besieged our world, I get more often than not, the same response: “Please teach me something. Enrich my experience. Enlighten me through the labors of your art. Show me something about life and the world in which I live that I did not know before I experienced your creative spirit. Help me to walk away from the contemplation of your art and feel enhanced.” Sadly, in most cases none of these questions are answered or desires fulfilled. Here it once again appears (after 3,000 years of human artistic consideration): the cry for a true aesthetic experience, “perception with feeling”—and people are indeed crying out for it. They are deprived and starved for it.

Enter Csaba Markus. An aesthetic Olympian, a man whose entire existence is driven to create an art which elevates, amplifies and exhilarates those who encounter it. Csaba, through his art and his complete emersion in its creative processes, is at the forefront of this battle for aesthetic supremacy in an art world which has mostly turned its back on the ideals of beauty.

Csaba knows this. He sees the big picture. He senses that something big is happening now. He understands his place in the history of our time, and he is positioning himself and his art now to be experienced far into the future. He talks to other artists when he is brought together with them through the events sponsored by Park West Gallery. He sees a new way in which art is being brought to the world. A new way in which people who would never have previously had any inclination or disposition to even contemplate experiencing and collecting art, are now engaged and even passionate about the change in their lives brought to them through these experiences. When Csaba speaks of these things his eyes widen, his gestures become broad, his voice booms and he communicates in a bold and vivid manner that runs parallel to his art. A manner that makes him instantly recognizable as a champion, a gladiator for the ideals that formed millennia of masterpieces but are often eschewed and ridiculed today. The quest for beauty: Csaba sees the pendulum beginning to swing back the other way, and he is pulling on it hard.

Stand before a painting by Csaba Markus. At once you know it’s the “real deal.” Before your eyes is a work of art that immediately communicates to the viewer the technical mastery possessed by this artist. Csaba has “chops.” He has studied the techniques of Leonardo, Durer, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt and one hundred other old masters. Likewise, he commands the compositional devices and nuances of the abstract painters and the expressionists. His intention, he has told me, is to create a work that bridges centuries of artistic stylization. And one that is beyond any categorization, any label or generality.

When you look at a painting by Csaba he wants you to bring your own experience to the work. He wants it to be the point of departure for your imagination as your eyes drink in the face of a gorgeous, timeless woman; an airy iconic space full of floating images, symbols and visual touchstones for poetic association; gestures of pure shape and pigment, tonal flourishes, fields of color, ribbons of linear arabesques dancing across the surface. Csaba’s works introduce an artistic world that is fully formed. They present an ideal and harmonic blend of form and content. They are rigorous in their artistic vocabulary and express themselves effortlessly, and yet they are also full of stories to tell, as long as our intuition, spirit and imaginations are willing to listen. To Csaba, the act of creating beauty is once again paramount. To leave the viewer with a sense of wonder and awe that the human imagination can be so potent, that miraculously from nothing but a blank canvas and some pigments, a work of art so evocative and powerful can be born. This is Csaba’s goal. To bring back aesthetic beauty into the art of our times is the reason why he was put on this earth.

Who can say how his work will be viewed in one hundred, two hundred, five hundred years? God willing that there are still people on this planet. And if so, I know that art will still be here. I know that people will still look at a Rembrandt painting and weep. I know that future generations will still be moved by the spiritual purity and sacrifices made by Van Gogh to create his art. I know that people will still attempt to grasp the protean genius of Picasso. I also know (or perhaps believe is more appropriate), that the pendulum will have swung back sometime in our 21st Century. And future historians my scratch their heads and wonder, “What were they thinking?” when they look back in the history books at the remnants of paintings made of spaghetti, sculptures made of old shoes lying in a sled, and “artist shit” in cans (Piero Manzoni). They may very well then set the book down and glance over at their two hundred-year-old Csaba Markus painting hanging on the wall, and be grateful for the artistic crusaders of the early 21st Century who brought back the love of beauty and set humankind and art back on the path of aesthetic glory.
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Click the player below to join me on a private tour of Csaba Markus’ atelier in Mission Viejo, California. During this segment, Csaba and I discuss the old masters who continue to so greatly influence his personal aesthetic.

Yaacov Agam and the Mystical Number “9”

Posted in Artists, Yaacov Agam with tags , , , , , , on October 14, 2010 by Park West Gallery

I am often asked about the significance of the number “9″ in Yaacov Agam’s art.

Yaacov Agam, as the son of an Orthodox Rabbi, possesses a deep interest in Hebrew mysticism. The study of the most mystical aspect of Hebrew beliefs is called “Kabbala.” Kabbala is millennia old and extremely esoteric, secretive and illusive to grasp. Students of Kabbala spend their entire lifetimes attempting to penetrate the hidden meanings and interpretations of the subject.

Yaacov Agam, Emerging (1985)“Emerging” (1985) by Yaacov Agam

In the language of Hebrew (one of the world’s most ancient still in use) every letter of the alphabet has a hidden meaning found in each letter, vowel and accent. Each letter in Hebrew also represents a number. Hebrew, unlike many other languages, never developed separate numerical symbols. The ancient Hebrews also believed that God’s “language” could be perceived in mathematics. When contemplating the perfection of mathematics, formulae, its indefiniteness (microcosm/macrocosm) and man’s need for mathematics to create our physical existence, it is easy to see a “metaphysical” aspect to numbers as well. This is the basis for the pursuit and penetration into the mysticism of numbers and mathematics in Kabbala.

The Hebrew word for “life” is “chai.” The word chai is composed of two letters (two numbers) which add up to the number “18.” So in “life” we find a factor of “9.” Now “9” is also a “magical” number. Perhaps you’ve noticed that for each factor of 9: 18, 27, 36, 45, 54, 63, 72, 81, 90… when the numbers are added together equal 9 (18…1 + 8 = 9, etc.). This continues: 108, 117, 126, 135, 144, etc.

As Agam considers his works of art to be “visual prayers” or creations which each reflect upon the metaphysical, he chooses to incorporate factors of 9 into each work to “resonate” this purpose. Therefore, in an Agam “prismograph” for example, there are 9 prisms used. The edition size (180) is a factor of 9. The number of colors used in the print is divisible by 9 (I don’t know how many there are, but trust me). If you measure the distance between the prisms, the length, width and depth of the prisms, the sizes of each rectangular space used, the distance from the edge of the frame (white acrylic) to the image, the thickness of the frame, etc. these dimensions will all be divisible by 9 in centimeters. Agam incorporates his Kabbalistic beliefs directly into the physicality (form) of the art he creates.

This is only a single aspect of the layers of meaning in Agam’s work. In particular, I find the things he says about his own work most illuminating. Remember, he created his concept, his “credo,” more than 60 years ago and it has never changed. It has continued to sustain his limitless creativity and to be a template for the creation of his art which has filled the world. There is not (nor has there ever been) anyone like him as an artist in the world history. This is one of many reasons why I personally believe he can arguably be considered the most important artist alive in our time. We are indeed honored to have his art and his enduring relationship to Park West Gallery with us each day.

A Gavel Falls…is the Pendulum of Art History Swinging Back?

Posted in Alberto Giacometti, Art Auctions, Artists with tags , , , , , on October 14, 2010 by Park West Gallery

The art and financial worlds were all abuzz about the vigorous buying surge witnessed on the evening of February 3, 2010 at Sotheby’s London, when a bronze sculpture by Swiss modern master Alberto Giacometti fetched the highest price in art auction history. Phillip Hook, the London-based Sotheby’s specialist in Impressionist art afterward commented about the supply and demand dynamics involved: “Throughout 2009, we could see plenty of demand for works but not enough supply. This sale confirmed there is more supply and, if anything, demand is even greater.”

Alberto Giacometti, L'Homme qui marche I (Walking Man I)“L’Homme Qui Marche I (Walking Man I)” by Alberto Giacometti

After the most significant world-wide economic downturn in more than 70 years, it’s not hard to understand the confusion, consternation and in some cases anger displayed by people wondering how a piece of metal could be worth 65 million pounds (104.3 million dollars). Add to this newest “shocking” price phenomenon the unprecedented prices fetched at the Sotheby’s London auction in September 2008, of the works of British artist Damien Hirst. This sale which contained dead animals encased in formaldehyde filled boxes, cigarette butts arranged on medicine cabinets, dead flies shellacked onto canvasses, and other prime examples of Hirst’s aesthetic ephemera, in total fetched an astonishing $200,700,000 the highest price in history at auction for a single artist (eclipsing even Picasso’s record of 1993).

The same Phillip Hook in his 2009 book, The Ultimate Trophy: How Impressionist Painting Conquered the World (Prestel), perfectly captured another aspect of the public’s mystification of art’s perceived value. “We live in an era, which more than ever before, equates novelty with quality,” he stated. I fear (and fervently hope) that this comment by Mr. Hook, may be no longer the case and that due to the confluence of economic, sociopolitical, and even spiritual realities our shrunken world is experiencing today the big pendulum of art history as evidenced by the Giacometti sculpture may finally be swinging back.

The financial realities everyone the world over is experiencing today have shifted the paradigm. The age of conspicuous consumerism if not over, is today like a cubist painting, offering multiple and fragmented views of reality. To me, it’s no wonder that a work of art can emerge as a symbol of our times, a touchstone for something that still reveals the glory and hope of human creativity. Like a Haiku, wherein great wisdom may be discerned in myriad ways by those who read it, the dramatic demonstration of the value of a work of art amidst times of uncertainty and even iconoclastic worldwide financial transformation still bodes well for us all.

Since the days when men first made markings on stone, stepped back and contemplated the mysteries of human consciousness found in the residue of those markings, art has been the beacon, the spearhead of human achievement. Why not now to once again affirm its enduring meaning in our lives and watch the pendulum move back again toward those same aspirations of form and content that created the narrative of art for 60,000 years? Seems like a perfectly fitting and beautiful irony to me.

The Ancient Greeks believed that sculpture was the purest and highest art form. I suspect they (and Giacometti) knew something we didn’t, until now.

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