It’s tempting, when writing about modern art, to devote more attention than is useful to the kinds of market forces that bestow, say, Jeff Koons ’s totalitarian visions or Damien Hirst’s intellectual posturing with the imprimatur of respectability. After all, so much modern art has become uniformly perverse, which is to say boring, that it leaves little of interest to be discussed except the prices the pieces command at Art Basel Miami Beach.
Recently, price again became the focal point of the art world with the sale of Gauguin’s 1892 painting Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) to (rumor has it) representatives of the Qatari royal family. The cost came to $300 million, making the sale one of the dearest in history. This is not the primary reason to visit the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., between now and January 10th, but if it is sufficiently attractive to pull you into the Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland exhibit, give way to materialism just this once!
Image courtesy of the Phillips Collection
The origins of Gauguin to Picasso lie in Basel, Switzerland, where two friends, Rudolf Staechelin (1881-1946) and Karl Im Obersteg (1883-1969), developed a life-long interest in supporting both Swiss artists and collecting what they considered the best in Impressionist, Post Impressionist, Expressionist, and School of Paris artwork. Their “sister collections” resulted in 61 pieces by 22 artists that ended up housed in the Kunstmuseum Basel. At exactly the same time, Staechelin and Obersteg were busy supporting local pals Marc Chagall and Alexj von Jawlensky, another art enthusiast, Duncan Phillips (1886-1966), was following similar collecting habits in America.
Image courtesy of the Phillips Collection
Since our natural gravitation is always toward individual pieces in a gallery, we overlook those factors that account for the cohesiveness of a collection. This is akin to the contemporary disposition to create “mixes” using disparate recording artists rather than purchasing whole albums by a single artist. Collections, like albums, have their narratives, which can sometimes be more interesting than the work on display. What we temporarily see here in Washington are the twin storylines of two Swiss collectors, whose themes happened to be shared—unbeknownst to all—by an American across the Atlantic. Thus, what ultimately emerges is a conversation between Gauguin to Picasso and the Phillips Collection, which is chief among the reasons to pay a visit to both collections this winter.
Right now, in New York, the big news is the Broadway opening of a musical biography of Alexander Hamilton told in hip-hop. Such a deliberately anachronistic retelling of American history is automatic grounds for deep skepticism. And yet the chorus of raves for Hamilton—which extend from Barack Obama to the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout, and even to Brian Anderson, the brilliant editor of the conservative Manhattan Institute’s City Journal—has generated a kind of cultural excitement that itself seems anachronistic.
Renzo Piano is too good an architect for his new Whitney Museum, in Manhattan’s meatpacking district, to be a total failure. The interior is, in general, quite good and surely a vast improvement over Marcel Breuer’s nuclear bunker on Madison Avenue, which housed the museum for half-a-century. And even aspects of the exterior of Piano’s building, taken piecemeal, are quite dexterously done. But seen from the outside and taken as a whole, the new Whitney is somewhat awful.
It's been a full week since The Scrapbook inveighed against the assault on free speech, so we have a new parade of horribles to shake our head at. The precipitating event this time was the killing of two armed assailants at an event in Garland, Texas, that was displaying Muhammad cartoons. It should go without saying that free speech means supporting the right of people you don’t like to say things you don’t like.
Years after the National Mall was torn up and blocked off to re-grow grass as part of the stimulus package, the bulldozers are back to clear a ten by six acre parcel, located adjacent to the reflection pool, between the Lincoln Memorial and the World War Two Memorial.
The "busiest land port of entry in the Western Hemisphere" is getting an upgrade, and according to the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), about a half a million dollars worth of new artwork will be part of the package.
I live in Connecticut, and I don’t travel much outside of the Northeast corridor. But through a few strokes of luck, and some happy happenstance, I’ve been in Florence five times in the last seven years.
From the moment Detroit filed for bankruptcy last summer, comparisons to the 2009 Chrysler and General Motors bailouts have abounded. Most highlight the differences, noting that the federal government is unlikely to pump billions of dollars into Detroit. But although the differences are real, the restructuring plan that Detroit has recently proposed suggests that the city’s bankruptcy may have more in common with the car bailouts than anyone imagined. Unfortunately, it’s the abuses of the latter that could be replicated—and even extended—if Detroit’s plan is upheld in its current form.
When it became known last year that George W. Bush had taken up painting, The Scrapbook took note of the fact, commenting on a couple of random examples that they were “better than you would expect, show imagination, and are certainly evidence of Bush’s well-developed sense of humor. . . . The paintings—in their awkward simplicity, bright colors, and irregular perspective—strike The Scrapbook as delightful. We would like to see more.”
The Art in Embassies program of the U.S. State Department just turned 50 last year, but its growth in the last decade has been particularly dramatic if the insured value of the artwork is any indication. Although Art in Embassies purchases original works, such as the $1 million sculpture for the new U.S. Embassy in London, much of the artwork on display at various State Department installations throughout the world is in fact borrowed. In 2002, the State Department maintained a $20 million policy for artwork. By 2010, it had grown to $65 million. This year, the agency is looking to renew its current level of coverage, informing interested providers that "[i]nsurance must cover all items in any location in a Department of State facility abroad up to a value of $200,000,000." Last year, the $200 million policy cost the government $86,932.
If this painting isn’t iconic, the term should be banished from the vocabulary of art. Forget, for a moment, Mona Lisa’s smile and the Sistine Creator transmitting the spark of life to Adam. Set aside what was to come, including Picasso’s LesDemoiselles d’Avignon (1907). They, obviously, have their claims.