Category: Art

Sculpting Space: Ruth Asawa at David Zwirner

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Osman Can Yerebakan reviews the current exhibition of Ruth Asawa’s works at David Zwirner New York for BOMB Magazine

In contrast to her tumultuous biography, Asawa’s art contains a reclusive serenity, shrouding a life spent with struggle due to race and identity. California-born Asawa and her siblings grew up in a Japanese immigrant household that was devastated by a six-year separation from their father as the result of his internment along with many other Japanese Americans during World War II. Asawa herself was interned for a year in California and Arkansas. She later attended Milwaukee State Teachers College in order to realize her dream of becoming an art teacher, an attempt hindered by the systematic aversion for employing teachers of Japanese descent. A visit to Mexico to study art played a key role in the formation of her illustrious career. There, Cuban-born industrial designer Clara Porset introduced her to Black Mountain College, where Asawa eventually worked with Josef Albers, immersing herself in a modernist avant-garde that challenged the artistic norms of the time. For the twenty-year old artist, innovation manifested itself in wire, an everyday, humble material that rarely went beyond utilitarian purpose. In Asawa’s hands, lines of thin copper, brass, or iron transformed into harmony.

The premiere of Asawa’s grand oeuvre at David Zwirner does not disappoint. A generous selection of her wire sculptures suspend from the ceiling often slightly above eye level—just enough to let the viewer absorb their meticulous details and celestial presence. Visually, they separate into two categories: circular and vertical. However, at times Asawa blurs the distinction with upright pieces comprised of multiple spheres. In order to plunge into Asawa’s mystical universe, close inspection is essential. Her intricate braids of wire—a material associated with masculine and industrial labor as opposed to yarn’s pigeonholed femininity—float in the air as effortlessly as bubbles. The in-between aesthetic of knitted wire renders them ghostly, yet salient. The sculptures’ unobtrusive postures allow for transparency and fluidity, and they permeate space similar to a puff of smoke.

“Life is like a line: there is a beginning and there is an end,” explains Jonathan Laib, Director at David Zwirner, in his catalogue essay for Christie’s 2015 exhibition, Ruth Asawa: Line by Line, “and Asawa has shown us another truth, another illustrated concept; the idea that there is no beginning or end, that there is a continuation.” Ceaseless wire compositions—nearly all labeled Untitled with extensively descriptive subtitles—defy logic and labor, stunning the viewer with their unassumingly organic forms that in reality are the product of arduous repetition. Particular sculptures convey resonance with the human silhouette through their voluptuous curves and contours that seamlessly bend inward, as Asawa triumphs over her uncluttered medium, merging ardor with the ethereality of tightly woven wire.

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At Tate Britain

Brian Dillon for London Review of Books
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Brian Dillon reviews the Tate Britain exhibition Queer British Art 1861-1967 (on until 1st of October) for London Review of Books:

On 28 April 1870, Miss Stella Boulton and Mrs Fanny Graham attended the Strand Theatre in London, where they made a spectacle of themselves, catcalling from their box to various men below. As the giddy pair left and approached their carriage, a plain-clothes detective stopped them: ‘I have every reason to believe that you are men in female attire.’ Stella was indeed one Ernest Boulton, music hall artiste and rent boy, and Fanny was Frederick Park, a trainee solicitor. At Bow Street police station they were arrested and charged with sodomy. Stella, it transpired, had been living as the wife of Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton MP, who promptly died of cholera before the case went to trial. In Westminster Hall, before the Lord Chief Justice, a jury acquitted Fanny and Stella: there was no evidence of buggery, and nobody could determine that cross-dressing was a crime.

There are two studio photographs of ‘The Funny He-She Ladies’, as the newspapers called them, in the Tate’s survey of a century and slightly more of queer British art, from 1861 to 1967, the year male homosexuality was decriminalised (the show closes on 1 October). Here is Lord Arthur doted on by curl-headed Ernest and Fred, who are in masculine mufti, and then crinolined Fanny and Stella à deux: all over each other like sentimental sisters. It was just nine years since the death penalty for the crime of sodomy had been abolished in England and Wales, and 25 years before Oscar Wilde’s trial. (The exhibition includes Wilde’s cell door from Reading Gaol.) As Neil McKenna points out in his catalogue essay, Boulton and Park would almost certainly have called their evening get-up ‘drag’; but they would not yet have thought of themselves as ‘queer’ or ‘homosexual’: terms not established till the 1890s. Queer British Art begins at a moment when its theme is both overdetermined – the insistence on anal sex as evidence – and ambiguous, frequently unnoticed or elided.

Consider the range of male artists and male bodies that opens the exhibition. When Simeon Solomon’s painting Bacchus – doe eyes, ringlets, Cupid’s-bow lips parted – was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1867, it caused no critical stir. But a year later, at the Dudley Gallery, Solomon’s watercolour of the same subject was thought by the Art Journal to depict ‘a sentimentalist of rather weak constitution’. Such euphemism was common enough, but critical reaction sometimes more direct: in 1869, the Times noted that Frederic Leighton’s smooth and golden Icarus, who is billowed about by luscious drapery, also seemed to be showing ‘the soft rounded contour of a feminine breast’. The ‘subtler threads of temperament’ that Walter Pater had adduced in Winckelmann’s Hellenism were more than hinted at in works like Walter Crane’s The Renaissance of Venus (1877), where the goddess is in most physical respects, as writer and artist W. Graham Robertson put it, ‘a fine, upstanding slip of a boy’.

There are considerably fewer female artists, and women’s bodies, in this show than there are men – a fact the Tate curators acknowledge, along with the infrequency of non-white faces: ‘We have been constantly frustrated by the comparative scarcity of material.’ In a section somewhat dutifully titled ‘Defying Convention’, we find John Singer Sargent’s 1881 portrait of an austerely boyish Vernon Lee, and Alvaro Guevara’s Dame Edith Sitwell from 1916. Laura Knight, three years earlier, had been condemned by the Telegraph for a self-portrait with a nude model that lacked ‘the higher charm of the “eternal feminine”’. A few such notable nudes aside, there is a tendency to allegorise lesbian desire in objects and interiors: as in Ethel Sands’s The Chintz Couchof 1911, or the frothy Lilac and Guelder Rose by Gluck (born Hannah Gluckstein) from 1937. Even Claude Cahun – who here counts as British for having lived on Jersey – is represented not by her shaven-headed self-portraits but by photographs of her delicately Surrealist sculptural assemblages under glass bell-jars.

Such displacements, whether on the part of curators or artists themselves, might seem timid, but they have the fortunate effect of posing the question, more frankly than the Victorian male nudes, what a queer aesthetic might look like, as distinct from mere subject matter. The answers are in some ways predictable: there is a room at Tate Britain given over to theatre, in which one may view Noël Coward’s monogrammed scarlet dressing gown and Oliver Messel’s designs for the 1959 film of Suddenly Last Summer. Style, poise, extravagance: these we might expect. (Consider Glyn Philpot’s 1935 painting of Glen Byam Shaw, who is playing Laertes but looks as though he’s stepped off the set of a New Romantic music video fifty years later.) But it’s a certain texture that seems to signify most, as for example in the theatrical photographs of Angus McBean, who was jailed during the Second World War for his homosexuality. McBean’s 1937 portrait of Beatrix Lehmann twins the actress’s face with incongruous block and tackle, and frames this ‘surrealised’ arrangement with silk drapery. His 1941 study of Quentin Crisp is an astonishing instance of the retoucher’s art, the subject’s burnished flesh so perfect it is hardly there at all.

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Standing Up for Cinema

Martin Scorsese writing for TLS
Martin Scorsese - The Shining - TLS

Martin Scorsese writing about his view of cinema as an art form for TLS.

I am neither a writer nor a theorist. I’m a filmmaker. I saw something extraordinary and inspiring in the art of cinema when I was very young. The images that I saw thrilled me but they also illuminated something within me. The cinema gave me a means of understanding and eventually expressing what was precious and fragile in the world around me. This recognition, this spark that leads from appreciation to creation: it happens almost without knowing. For some, it leads to poetry, or dance, or music. In my case, it was the cinema.

Quite often, when people discuss the cinema, they talk about single images. The baby carriage rolling down the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin, for instance. Peter O’Toole blowing out the match in Lawrence of Arabia. John Wayne lifting Natalie Wood in his arms near the end of The Searchers. The blood gushing from the elevator in The Shining. The exploding oil derrick in There Will Be Blood. These are all absolutely extraordinary passages in the history of our art form. Extraordinary images, to be sure. But what happens when you take these images away from those that come before and after? What happens when you lift them out of the worlds to which they belong? You’re left with records of craftsmanship and care, but something essential is lost: the momentum behind and ahead of them, the earlier moments that they echo and the later moments for which they prepare the way, and the thousand subtleties and counterpoints and accidents of behaviour and chance that make them integral to the life of the picture. Now, in the case of the blood-gushing elevator from The Shining, you do have an image that can exist on its own – really, it can stand as a movie on its own. In fact, I believe it was the first teaser trailer for the movie.

But that image on its own is one thing and how and what it is within the world of Stanley Kubrick’s film is something else again. The same goes for each of the examples I’ve mentioned above, all of which have been excerpted in countless clip reels. As artfully put together as some of those reels are, I find them disconcerting, because they usually amount to a series of official “great moments” pulled away from their contexts.

It’s also important to remember that most of these images are actually sequences of images: Peter O’Toole blowing out the match followed by the sun rising over the desert, the baby carriage rolling down the steps amid the chaos and brutality of the attack by the Cossacks. And beyond that, each separate cinematic image is comprised of a succession of still frames that creates the impression of motion. They are recordings of instants in time. But the moment you put them together, something else happens. Every time I get back into the editing room, I feel the wonder of it. One image is joined with another image, and a third phantom event happens in the mind’s eye – perhaps an image, perhaps a thought, perhaps a sensation. Something occurs, something absolutely unique to this particular combination or collision of moving images. And if you take a frame away from one or add a couple of frames to the other, the image in the mind’s eye changes. It’s a wonder to me, and I’m far from alone. Sergei Eisenstein talked about it on a theoretical level, and the Czech filmmaker František Vlácil discusses it in an interview included on the Criterion edition of his great medieval epic Marketa Lazarová(1967). The film critic Manny Farber understood it as elemental to art in general – that’s why he named his collection of writings Negative Space. This “principle”, if that’s what you could call it, is just as applicable to the juxtaposition of words in poetry or forms and colours in painting. It is, I think, fundamental to the art of cinema. This is where the act of creation meets the act of viewing and engaging, where the common life of the filmmaker and the viewer exists, in those intervals of time between the filmed images that last a fraction of a fraction of a second but that can be vast and endless. This is where a good film comes alive as something more than a succession of beautifully composed renderings of a script. This is film-making. Does this “phantom image” exist for casual viewers without an awareness of how films are put together? I believe it does. I don’t know how to read music and neither do most people I know, but we all “feel” the progression from one chord to another in music that affects us, and by implication some kind of awareness that a different progression would be a different experience.

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At Tate Britain

Nicholas Penny for the London Review of Books
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Nicholas Penny on Ford Maddox Brown and some of the little-known masterpieces at the Tate Britain. 

Roger Fry, when comparing the Pre-Raphaelites with the Impressionists, described the artistic innovations of the former as an insurrection in a convent, whereas the latter were real revolutionaries. The simile may have been unconsciously prompted by an elaborate and highly finished drawing of hysterical nuns entangled with fanatical Huguenots who are disentombing the body of Queen Matilda. This drawing by the young Millais is currently on display in an exhibition at Tate Britain of Pre-Raphaelite works on paper (until 7 May). The calculated confusion of rigid and angular figures, although it owes something to the medieval art cherished by the nuns (some examples of which feature in the background), can’t simply be dismissed as revivalism. Such a thorough determination to avoid being in any way easy on the eye or the mind may once have seemed a peculiar by-product of the reactionary antiquarian ecclesiology of the late 1840s but it now seems to anticipate (although it clearly didn’t influence) the daring aesthetic discomforts devised by ‘Modern British’ artists, even the wiry, tortured sculptures of a hundred years later by Lynn Chadwick or Reg Butler.

This drawing, and the finished study by Millais for Christ in the House of His Parents (also of 1849) which hangs beside it, are familiar enough to students of British art, but the exhibition, which has been very little publicised and is rather hidden away at the east end of the Clore Galleries, includes several little-known masterpieces. The most startling of these is Ford Madox Brown’s watercolour of 1863, entitled Mauvais Sujet, of a young teenage girl who is not so much engagingly naughty as alarmingly bad. The tight format derives from Rossetti’s early oil paintings of female heads and shoulders, such as Bocca Baciata of 1859, paintings of a frank sensuality free of the narcotic eroticism and religiosity that make so much of his later painting seem repellent. But Brown’s schoolgirl subject hasn’t yet led any artist into temptation. She is seated at a high desk with names and doodles scratched on its hinged top. We see the lines she has been made to copy with her quill, black lines which rhyme with the disorder of her hair. Her teeth – brighter than the white of her collar, the plume, the paper or the enamel inkwell – are biting into a brilliantly green apple. Fruit would certainly not have been allowed in the classroom and this young Eve, whose dress is also green, eats it with resentful defiance. The picture has the compositional ingenuity and thrilling compression of Brown’s great circular painting The Last of England – a compression, here greatly enhanced by the original double frame, that we miss in his later work, although he was always attracted both by defiance and by teeth.

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Interview: James Little by LeRonn P. Brooks

Part of BOMB's Oral History Project, documenting the life stories of New York City's African American artists
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James Little has worked nearly half a century at mastering the craft of painting. While our conversation here delves into his painterly “alchemy”—he makes all his own paints and mixes beeswax and varnish into it—it also documents a life in painting. Born into a family of artisans with high expectations in a segregated Memphis, the artist learned the value of hard work, creativity, and persistence. His experimentation with the transformative properties of his materials reflects these emphases, and his search for excellence mirrors the work ethic of the community that raised him. This is to say that memory has its textures and its colors—their own connotative ends; Little’s paintings demonstrate a quest for the perfection of craft, but do not covet certainty despite the precision with which they are ordered. His paintings are guided by intuitive responses to form, color, and feeling. This approach is not overly calculated, though its complexity may suggest so. His expression is personal—visceral exchanges between memory and its hues, between emotion and the logistics of its use, between logic’s place in the fog of the human heart, and the ways that rationale can be envisioned as painterly “surface.” Here, to speak solely of order is to imply, in some way, process, but this implication does not necessarily suggest the course of a method as the ends of his labor’s purpose. Little’s “purpose” cannot be narrowly defined by his methods nor is it all a simple matter of procedure.The imagination has its own speculative ends and its interchanges with the world are, in Little’s paintings, as vibrant and curiously bedecked as any prism thread with light. What follows is a conversation about artistic vision, practice, and the importance of perseverance. It is a document concerned with valuing painting as of form of experiential evidence, and the imagination as a vivid context for human worth, history’s propositions, and a life’s purpose. 

— LeRonn P. Brooks

LeRonn P. Brooks So James, I’d like to start by speaking about your childhood in Memphis, before you became an artist. What was the South like when you were a child?  

James Little Memphis was a very segregated city when I was growing up in the ’60s. It’s just north of the Mississippi border. My family is from Mississippi. My father, Rogers Little, his family migrated from Georgia. There were a lot of Irish, Native American, and black people in his family. My mother’s family came out of the Carolinas and the West Indies. Somehow, she ended up in Mississippi. That’s where my mother was born along with a lot of her siblings. When I was growing up we were very poor. And my father worked very hard, so did my mother. But we weren’t as poor as the majority of the people around us. You know, we actually lived pretty well. My mother was a great cook. Both my parents grew up growing their own food. They knew how to survive. They were very efficient, hard-working, and God-fearing people. But you know, that was kind of the way it was. 

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Raucous, Disorderly Downtown

Richard Hell for The New York Review of Books
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Richard Hell writes on artist-run galleries in New York during the 50s and 60s

Following the mid-twentieth-century triumph of New York’s Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and their cohort of Abstract Expressionists and Color Field painters, what could the next generation of American artists do? New York had become the new capital of art after a hundred years of Parisian dominance: Could we sustain? “Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965,” an exhibition at NYU’s Grey Gallery (through April 1), captures the fertile tumult of this period.

The focus of “Inventing Downtown” is not on a type or trend of art-making, but rather on an inclusive range of galleries, fourteen of them, formed by artists for themselves in storefronts, lofts, and church basements. The galleries were downtown, mostly in the Lower East Side, because that’s where rents were cheap and where the artists lived. (Commercial galleries were in midtown.) Most of the artists were young. Some of them would become famous, most not. Melissa Rachleff, the show’s curator and author of its exceptional catalog, gives us a rare presentation of the robust roots of art-making, rather than only the flowers.

The Grey Gallery rooms are a patchwork miscellany of wildly various works, but Rachleff has adeptly organized the disorder. She divides the fourteen galleries into five categories. The first, “Leaving Midtown,” focuses on three galleries, two of them among the earliest and longest-lived, the Tanager (1952–1962) on East Fourth Street, and later East Tenth Street; the Hansa (1952–1959), named for influential Abstract Expressionist teacher Hans Hoffman, on East Twelfth Street and later Central Park South; and the Brata (1957–1962) on Tenth Street—all of which were pure artist run co-ops, financed by dues-paying member artists, which showed their members’ work and that of others they deemed interesting. The artists—such as Lois Dodd, Philip Pearlstein, Jean Follett, Allan Kaprow, Ed Clark—range widely in both aesthetic aims and levels of eventual renown. Most show the influence of de Kooning and, to a lesser extent, Pollock.

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One Take: Incoming

Christy Lange for Frieze
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Writing for frieze, Christy Lange takes a look at Richard Mosse’s latest video installation that peers at the refugee crisis through an alien lens.

There are a few scenes in Richard Mosse’s new video installation, Incoming (2017), where you can see photo-journalists or news camerapeople chasing down the unfolding action or holding their lenses steady to catch the decisive moment. Mosse, on the other hand, spent two years filming the same events with a camera that was too large to hold, had no aperture to see through and was difficult to focus. Designed by a weapons manufacturer, the thermal camera Mosse used to document the migrant crisis for Incoming is built to capture heat signatures – in black, white and shades of grey. It weighs 23 kilogrammes, and is meant to be operated remotely by a laptop. As Mosse puts it: ‘The camera is designed to stand on a sentry pole in the middle of the desert,’ detecting a human body’s heat from up to 30 kilometres away for surveillance or targeting. Together with his cameraman, Trevor Tweeten, and the camera’s original designer, Mosse adapted an Xbox controller to operate it and an old Steadicam mechanism as support. As an apparatus designed for surveillance, the thermal camera represents part of the spectrum the human eye cannot see and, as such, is an apt metaphor for the vast and ungraspable refugee crisis – the lives that ‘register’ but are not ‘seen’.

The 52 minutes of footage that comprise Incoming, slowed down from the camera’s 60 frames per second to 24 frames per second, is by turns lyrical and vivid, harrowing and violent. The action unfolds across three large screens – from one screen at a time to two, then all three simul-taneously. Much like his previous endeavour, The Enclave (2013), which Mosse filmed in the eastern Congo with outdated infrared film, originally designed for military use, the photographic technology presents inherent challenges and unintentional aesthetic call backs. In The Enclave, the infrared film responded to chlorophyll in plants to make the jungle’s green foliage look bright pink. In Incoming, the thermal camera also works an extra-sensory tool to perceive thermal radiation, rendering it black on white or white on black. It allowed Mosse and his team to detect missiles landing in Aleppo from the other side of the Turkish border, ships sinking in the Aegean Sea miles offshore, and gunmen and refugees being smuggled at night. The otherworldly footage evokes the sense that we are watching the action covertly, as if through night-vision goggles; it’s a rare glimpse through the mechanized tools of surveillance used by states and militaries to view us. When we do see close-ups of faces, noses appear like indistinct white blobs and eyes are dark pits. Humans become fleshy targets susceptible to the camera’s weaponized gaze. It’s a representational device that draws powerful parallels between the act of documentation and surveillance.

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David Hockney reveals what life is like in his Los Angeles studio

Martin Gayford in conversation with David Hockney in It's Nice That
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With only a week to go until the opening of David Hockney’s show at the Tate Britain, we look back to Martin Gayford’s conversation with the artist in It’s Nice That.

In Los Angeles, the studio is the centre of Hockney’s world. It is the place where he spends most of his waking hours. The structure, built higher up than the house and at a slight angle, is much smaller than the one in Bridlington, but still a big room, high and spacious, with an upper gallery at one end and comfortable chairs disposed on the floor.

On most days Hockney goes there after breakfast, stays until lunch, and usually returns in the afternoon following a rest. For him it is as much a place for thinking as for working. On the walls are hung pictures in progress and also finished ones, in arrangements that frequently change. It is a private exhibition of very recent work, out of which the next pictures, yet to be made, will grow.

DH: I sit in the studio a lot, just taking in the pictures. I like being in here. A bed in the studio would suit me. It would be great. You need to do an awful lot of looking. I think unless you do that, you’re not going to “get” a lot of things.

MG: A studio is a place for looking, and also a place for thinking about looking. And there is a tradition of paintings about studios, which are therefore pictures about the act of making pictures and in a way about what pictures are.

DH: Yes, for example, Vermeer’s Art of Painting is a painting about sitting in the studio and looking. It shows Vermeer at an easel in front of you, painting it. There are paintings of studios by Braque, Matisse, Picasso, and many others.

In the early summer of 2014, Hockney’s interest metamorphosed again. By that stage, he had produced over fifty portraits in the Comédie humaine series. Then, he began to paint groups of people in his studio, who were also the sitters for some of the portraits, gazing at the paintings on the wall (which of course were created in this same space).

MG: The new series started as pictures of people looking at pictures, which suggests that they are paintings about looking and pictures about pictures.

DH: Yes, they are. The earlier groups are people in conversation, or just contemplating something. I had them all posing simultaneously at the start. The largest group is of eleven people. So I’m putting the people in the space, and then looking at them.

MG: It is actually very unusual, historically, to paint multi-figure compositions like this from life in that way. The normal procedure from the Renaissance onwards has been to study each figure separately, then fit them into a space. You are doing it all at once.

DH: Yes, I am. Rodrigo Moynihan did a large figure composition of the Penguin editors at a supposed cocktail party After the Conference, 1955]. But because there was a large number of people involved, he filmed it, then took stills. That was a terrible idea. A filmed picture – like any photograph – will only have one perspective. In real life when you are looking at ten people in a room there are a thousand. Because the moment the eye moves, it changes. That’s what real life is. The eye moves all the time. When my eye moves in one direction, the perspective goes that way. So it’s constantly changing with my eye.

MG: In a sense, what you are doing with these group paintings is putting yourself in the picture. Everything is seen from your viewpoint, which is inside the picture space, not outside it, as a normal photograph or single-point perspective picture would be.

DH Yes. There’s a weird spatial thing going on which seems to me to be about the centre of the picture, not the edges. In these groups, there’s a general perspective for the room but also for each person, because I’m looking at them. In fact, they may have several. If a figure is close to me, I am seeing his face head on, but also looking down at his feet. So you are moving in to view just that one individual. Then, you have to turn to look at another person, if he is close too. You cannot actually see both at the same time. In moving, you see another figure, then another. You make space through time, I think. And the space between where you end and I begin is the most interesting space of all. It’s far more interesting than outer space.

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Carsten Höller in Kinshasa – Democratic Republic of the Congo

Carsten Höller in Purple Magazine
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In 2014, Belgian Artist Carsten Höller premiered Fara Fara, a 13 minute film on a double screen exploring and reimagining Kinshasa’s vibrant music and dance scene. Later a 2015 Venice Biennale favourite, he remembers his travels to the Democratic Republic of Congo in Purple Magazine:

I’m on the plane to Kinshasa with four Europeans, none of whom has ever been to sub-Saharan Africa before. N’Djili Airport has been poshed up since I was there last, in 2011. To my disappointment, the little tourist information kiosk, where all they had was one postcard with some lounging bonobos, has disappeared. Same for the chair that was screwed to a wall because it lacked hind legs. We say hello to Papa Wemba in the lounge — our father of the rumba, Notre Père Rumba, as one of his albums is called. He came on the same Air France flight as us. There used to be huge crowds outside the airport when he came back from Europe, but not anymore.

We head straight to Zamba Playa, where Werrason is playing in front of a few hundred people. The five-lane highway to the city is brand new. It’s Chinese, but well done. They give us plastic chairs, placed in front of the stage, first row. Of course, no other whities. I wonder how my co-continentals feel about that. Finally, Primus. Werrason addresses the crowd, asking which of the two versions of the same song they like better. This is Congolese democracy. Madness. At the parliament, he says, “People, sit down,” to cool down the frenetically excited. He’s the only musician I’ve ever seen trying to calm down his public.

More Primus. Bellou drinks Turbo King, which is a strong dark beer. He’s our “cultural manager,” as he puts it. He is with Carlos, our driver and LeBrun and Maître Bola, who are here for our security. The music promoter Steve — with whom I organized Werrason (2004) and Koffi Olomidé (2005) concerts in Stockholm — also shows up. I am with Elin, George, Giovanna, and Pierre, and even at 11 PM, it’s very hot indeed.

Bercy Muana, the animateur with a third eye tattooed on his forehead, jumps and shouts like a psychotic wildebeest. Werrason is still trying to appease, but by now this seems more like an attitude, and he smiles. I am told that Bercy, whom they call “Goosebumps,” is coming from Ferre Gola. They call Werrason “King of the Forest.” And they call Bellou “Hakuna Matata” and “The Banker From Paris.” We finally make it to Chez Ntemba, my favorite nightclub in the world. The Primus is like machine oil. We all get dédicaces — shout-outs — from DJ Frank. No extra names for us, though. Over the years, Carlos has called me “Mopao,” but that’s an exaggeration because it means “big boss.” Koffi Olomidé is called that. My four fellow travelers have already lost all connection to spaceship Europe.

We are here to work on a book about a film that has not yet been made. Maybe it never will be, like an endless project, or like Synecdoche, New York, with Philip Seymour Hoffmann. The book can be the script for the film. Elin will write the text. George is the cutter. Giovanna is the editor and photographer. Pierre is the photographer; I told him I want old-style paparazzi pictures, with the camera in one hand and the flash in the other. That’s why we are here: they need to see and hear this.

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Looking at the world through the eyes of Barbara Hepworth

Ali Smith in the New Statesman
Portrait of Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-75) seated in her garden next to one of her sculptures (photo)

Where Ali Smith finds a ‘universe of meaning’ in the work of Barbara Hepworth, the Financial Times deduces that ‘female artists tend to assimilate and adapt radicality pioneered by men’. So here’s an extract from infinitely more valuable Smith piece.

It was a rainy sunny cloudy bright dark calm blustery day in May at the Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire and I was in a room full of forms between which I’d been ricocheting for an hour like a delighted pinball. “A Greater Freedom: Hepworth 1965-1975” displays pieces Barbara Hepworth made in the last decade of her life, full of the excitement of new technology and space exploration, lined all along one wall with her rarely shown Aegean Suite lithographs, startlingly vibrant sun, moon and planet abstracts like colourful constellations. It’s a room of works so dually modern and ancient-seeming that they make time irrelevant.

They were made when Hepworth was in her sixties and seventies and they are openly concerned with aesthetic and planetary genesis, the making of life and art out of matter. About them she said: “I don’t think anyone realises how much the last ten years has been a fulfilment of my youth.” A small bronze maquette, Three Hemispheres (1967), sat next to a photo of the Goonhilly satellite dishes. It looked quite feasible that the designers of those dishes might’ve borrowed directly from Hepworth in the making. “It so happened that I was invited to go on board the first one when it began to go round, and it was so magical and strange,” Hepworth is quoted saying on a wall-card next to both.

Imagine her, in her seventies, aboard a satellite dish. Eleanor Clayton, the curator of the two new exhibitions at the Hepworth Wakefield, explained about the creamy-silvery breeze blocks on which the exhibits were mounted, a direct reference to the 1968 retrospective of Hepworth’s work at the Tate in London, where she chose the beautiful utilitarian bricks herself and also arranged for the gallery to place plant life next to the exhibits in an effort to democratise the gallery experience and make it more organic. But the bricks had been difficult to source and Hepworth had had to spend quite a lot of her own money – £43, to be exact – finding the right ones. Clayton, too, had quite a time half a century later finding bricks to match. It costs, to be utilitarian.

Up came the subject of Barbara Hepworth’s chances of being chosen in the campaign for putting a visual artist on the new £20 note. Ah, but which Hepworth? One of us wanted Hepworth from the 1953 film by Dudley Shaw Ashton, Figures in a Landscape, smoking and carving in a most elegant evening gown. One of us favoured the glamorous Hepworth, in a big fur coat. One of us chose her standing in her headscarf and work-jacket, dwarfed by one of her own gigantic bronzes, looking up at it as if it’s sprung fully formed out of her head just moments ago. One of us chose a passport photo of her as a very young adult, beautiful, full of potential, already recognisably the self she would become.

That youthful picture is on show for the first time in the other new exhibition here, “Hepworth in Yorkshire”, whose focus is her formative years and whose display of photos, early plasterwork, drawings and paintings gives an intimate insight into both the early life and the work of the girl who cried out, when her mother took her to see the Albert Memorial in London, oh how frightful!; the girl who, aged 15, made a relief of some cousins using plaster from her uncle’s GP practice; the girl who won a scholarship to the Art College in Leeds at the age of 16, then transferred a year later to the Royal College of Art in London along with fellow students including Henry Moore, the others five years older than she was; even in her seventies she was inclined to say, when they were compared, “I’m younger than Henry . . . more in touch with the young people.”

Then we talked about slogans that might help with that £20 note campaign.

Burn a hole in your pocket, one of us said.

I love an art gallery you can laugh out loud in, and those Hepworth holes, the piercings through artworks we’ve come to associate with her, have always been a source of delight to many people. They were to Hepworth, too. She made the first one in 1931 or thereabouts, through a thick and curvy amorphous stonework. The original is long lost but in the photos that survive it’s as if you’re literally witnessing a piece of stone shifting its bulk to reach for its form. She talked, over the decades, about the “intense pleasure” this act gave her, especially because of its abstract nature, “quite a different sensation from that of doing it for the purpose of realism”. It was the start of her interest in what she would later term the “underlying principle of abstract form in human beings”. She called that first holey piece Sculpture, renamed it Pierced Form – a work that, simply by existing, could reframe the world it inhabited, make it possible to see through form and simultaneously see differently via form.

She is known for these holes, and for strings – at a certain point she began using strings over the hollows and holes of some of her abstract works, as if gesturing towards some mythical Orphean instrument, or conjuring a reminder of gut membrane. “The strings were the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind and the hills,” she wrote, both matter of fact and ­romantic. Henry Moore was dismissive, “a matter of ingenuity rather than a fundamental human experience”, he said of the stringing – as if ingenuity weren’t pretty fundamental to the human experience. “If every artist could truly, and with dedication, pull the string with which he was born – to the end – then a new concept could evolve,” Hepworth said in 1966, recalling her friendship with Piet Mondrian in a London full of cross-fertilisation between artists living and working together in the 1930s, London vibrant with pople who had left Europe in the rise of totalitarianism, all working in the face of the oncoming war. Those strings are somehow about such connecting, and also about stamina.

It is hard not to quote Hepworth’s own words about her art. She was an elegant articulator of her own and others’ work (keen in any case to represent herself: she usually took the official photographs of her work, and work by her second husband, Ben Nicholson, too, when they were together, for publicity and showing purposes; she happens also to have been a very good photographer). It’s going to get even harder soon not to quote her, since to coincide with the Wakefield shows and the big new Hepworth retrospective about to open at Tate Britain, the art historian Sophie Bowness, Hepworth’s granddaughter and trustee of her estate, has edited the first full collection of her writing, including transcriptions of her film commentaries and interviews. Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations (Tate Publishing) is a witty and satisfying read.

“Your work is very organic,” an interviewer says to her in the 1970s. “It’s meant to be,” she replies. “I’m organic myself.” The book is full of small, brilliant revelations, such as her interest when she visited Brancusi’s studio in 1933 in how he used “great millstones” as the bases for his classical forms – maybe a source of her own penchant for breeze blocks? On a larger scale the collection prompts a rethink of any clichés to which we might have settled, over the years, about Hepworth and her work. “I think of landscape in a far broader sense,” says the artist it’s easy wholly to associate with the real landscapes of Yorkshire or St Ives; “I extend its meaning to include the whole universe.”

Fitz Carraldo Editions