Saturday, December 31, 2011



The big Gerhard Richter retrospective called Panorama ends at Tate Modern in London on January 8th. After that it will move first to Berlin and then to Paris. Richter will turn 80 on the 9th of February.


In winter 2002 a similar Richter retrospective went on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. That show first made me aware not only of Richter's range, but of the power of German painting at the end of the 20th century, as proved by his peers  Neo Rauch, Sigmar Polke, Tomma Abst, Dieter Roth, Albert Oehlen, Thomas Eggerer, Blinky Palermo, Imi Knoebel, and many others.


The three pictures on view here were included in that San Francisco show (Lesende, immediately above, is owned by SFMOMA) and are included in the current London show.

In the Panorama catalog Richter is quoted concerning his own creative relationship with Vermeer 

"The fact that his paintings are good, better than most others, has nothing to do with his special way of painting  it's connected with another quality entirely, a mysterious something. It's not about skill, the so-called craft. That's a given, and virtuosity alone has nothing to do with art. I don't know how I can describe the quality that is only found in art (be it music, literature, painting, or whatever). This quality, it's just there, and it endures."

Friday, December 30, 2011

Windowsill Tchotchkes

When I visited Mabel Watson Payne this afternoon she and her mother and father showed me this seasonal tableau of wind-up dinosaurs and wind-up Santas, a mechanical snowman (powered by sunlight) and several thematic Pez dispensers. Much of this represents booty from Christmas stockings.

Mabel has been playing daily with the graduated set of plastic mixing bowls that came for Christmas. She has a tiny whisk and a tiny wooden spoon and likes to use them both at the same time. Just visible in this picture (and better to be admired in the pictures below) is one of the pair of new shoes, in proud wear for the first time today.

The contents of my wallet are examined on every visit. Today my daughter was persuaded to collaborate in this mysteriously enjoyable ritual.

Just since I last saw Mabel on Christmas five days ago a language explosion has occurred and she has begun to speak frequent words out loud, apparently determined to get this accomplishment registered (along with so many others) before the end of the calendar year. Below is a partial list of words I can distinctly remember hearing pronounced during Friday's visit:

all done
bye bye

Russian Faces

Vladimir Borovikovsky (1757-1825) painted about 500 portraits of Russian aristocrats at the end of the 18th century and the start of the 19th. This was the generation Tolstoy wrote about in War and Peace. Maybe the vividness of that story (packed away in memory like personal experience) partly accounts for the weird vividness of Borovikovsky's long-forgotten individual sitters.

Borovikovsky painted an uncountable number of religious pictures as well. They seem to have been uniformly terrible – stiff and cold, when compared to the portraits – though his Jesus (above) has a touch of the same unsettling intimacy as the nubile princesses who provided the painter with his bread and butter. You can tell at a glance that Borovikovsky's Jesus spoke excellent French, like all good upper-class Russians of the period.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Few, The Brave

Today was not a gardening day in the East Bay. Today was take-down-the-tree day. This yuletide deconstruction requires a certain investment of time, but there is a pleasing & venerable system in place for the whole reverse-routine.

Nobody pretends the roses have had any attention since sometime around Thanksgiving, poor things. They are enjoying themselves as holiday slobs, but are destined for clean-up soon.

There are these odd patches on a couple of the bushes (as below) where the sap is still evidently flowing freely. The relatively warm and constant coastal weather seems to be a permanent source of confusion. Several other climates are known to suit them better, yet still they soldier on here, these few brave roses.

Amours imaginaires

Xavier Dolan (center, above) is the French-Canadian boy-moviemaker whose second film, Amours imaginaires, received a special "youth award" at Cannes last year. I read several reviews after watching the DVD and they were all pretty bad.

The reviewers seemed to want more of a story and could certainly see no point in devoting two whole hours of their own busy lives to a romantic triangle where nobody ever scores. To tell the truth, I was happy enough with the shifting color values. But then style (all by itself) is often enough of a story for me. I am a simple person.

All the same, the movie had enough of a plot to make me curious about a question of influence. Nowhere in the articles I read or in the film's own endless rolling credits was there any mention of a short story by Tennessee Williams called Two on a Party (from a collection called Hard Candy, still currently in print though originally published in 1959). Two on a Party like Amours imaginaires features a pair of friends (gay man, straight woman) who operate as an uneasy team in pursuit of what they call "the lyric quarry" (meaning the beautiful young men they both hope to seduce). The disappointments of Marie and Francis on film so nearly resemble those of Cora and Billy in print that one cannot avoid suspecting Xavier Dolan of at least a passing familiarity with what Williams conceived and set down on paper fifty years earlier.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Stage Couture 1896

Reproduction of an 1896 postcard of Victorian actress Ellen Terry (1847-1928) as the Shakespearean heroine Imogen. Dame Ellen wears a costume designed by British painter Laurence Alma Tadema (1836-1912) for a production of Cymbeline at the Lyceum in London by Henry Irving (1838-1905).

Alma Tadema's signature style of romantic-classical genre-scenes (examples below) fell completely out of fashion by the middle of the twentieth century. There came a point where dealers could honestly say the ornate gilt frames were worth more than the paintings they protected. Eventually of course this sort of fantasy-image surged back into the mainstream with a vengeance. Individual canvases now sell for many millions, the fresh momentum due as much as anything (in my opinion) to the old man's fashion sense, if the term can be taken to mean both the way he represents fabrics themselves and the way he imagines them draping his pretty mannequins.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Top Ten Lists

Pantone : The 20th Century in Color is appearing on many Top Ten lists of books published this year in the field of Art & Design. My daughter, who edited the book, wrote about that happy fact here.

Looking at other people's Top Ten book lists for 2011, I started thinking about making one myself 

Iphigenia in Forest Hills : anatomy of a murder trial / Janet Malcolm

Sempre Susan : a memoir of Susan Sontag / Sigrid Nunez

From drawing to painting : Poussin, Watteau, Fragonard, David, & Ingres / Pierre Rosenberg

A gambling man : Charles II's Restoration game / Jenny Uglow

My mother's lover / Urs Widmer ; translated by Donal McLaughlin

A summer of drowning / John Burnside

The privileges : a novel / Jonathan Dee

The pen friend / Ciaran Carson

The curious incident of the dog in the night-time / Mark Haddon

Portrait jewels : opulence and intimacy from the Medici to the Romanovs / Diana Scarisbrick