Italian Pop art, a master speaks

The Italians are back again — this is the third exhibition of contemporary Italian art being held in the city in a little less than a decade — this time with a show titled Dadaumpop: From Dada to Italian Neo-Pop, curated by Igor Zanti. The exhibition opened on Friday at the Rabindranath Tagore Centre, ICCR, like last time, and it has 27 participants, most of whom, save two of advanced years, are in the age group between 30 and 40.
Zanti, who was present at the opening, said it showcased the new languages in Italian art of our times and was meant to dispel popular notions about Italian art, pushing it back to times past. With globalisation there are no barriers dividing nations, and the exhibition was meant to explore the relationship of new Italian art and Marcel Duchamp, whose urinal ushered in a radical change in our perceptions of art. This exhibition contends that it was Duchamp and not Andy Warhol who had triggered off Pop art, and many of the works inspired by manga, TV shows for children, Alice in Wonderland, comic strips and the inescapable Bollywood — Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan in the garb of superheroes.
Quite inevitably, works based on gender identity and reversal of one’s “assigned sex” creep in, and while the painting titled Transgenic is witty, the resin sculpture of the cross-dressed individual is cold and almost menacing. The show travels from here to Delhi on February 18.
Premonition, a Raqs Media Collective exhibition, opened at Experimenter on Friday. The Collective is based in Delhi, and they make short work of geographical and mental boundaries that still perhaps exist in certain individuals. Our perception of reality is also one of their concerns, as is clear from their video of the man who goes through various stages of transformation, the photographs that leave a sense of uncertainty in the viewer, the prints and finally, the video of the jute mill smoke stack separated from the viewer by several transparent plastic rectangles. If you take the trouble of going close enough to the screen, the vegetal parasites on the chimney suddenly begin to stir and shake, as if it had started spewing smoke, although in reality, the mill has been closed for aeons. One does not need the rather elaborate artists’ statement to explain this simple truth to the simplest of viewers. But then we are afraid of simplicity.
We finally got to see and hear William Kentridge, the renowned artist from Johannesburg, whom many people in this city had earlier had the pleasure of “discovering” at his exhibition of prints and films at the Seagull Arts and Media Resource Centre.
He was in conversation with Rosalind C. Morris at Max Mueller Bhavan, explaining how the use of a medium like charcoal enabled him to set off the chain of metamorphoses in his films. The manmade “hills” of the city where he works, created by the famous gold mines, disappear as they are recycled with the price of the noble metal soaring in the international market. Known for its dry winters and bright summers, vegetation there turns into combustible peat, which is charcoal, after all. Thus the literal and the metaphorical merge. Inevitably, the coffee pot — a central image in his work — occupied centre stage. A clip from his latest film ended the talk. A field full of folk came alive.


The women of Pop/ Revelatory Tufts show gives underseen ’60s artists their due

 International in scope but nicely focused (there are 67 works by 24 artists), “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968’’ is the sort of smart, engaging, and revelatory exhibition we should see more of around here — and probably would, were it not for the innate conservatism of many of our major art institutions.
 The show, at Tufts University Art Gallery, is the first modern thematic exhibition of any real ambition in these parts for ages. It features the work of artists — most of whose names won’t register with the wider public — who worked within the fairly porous parameters of the Pop Art movement in the socially, politically, and aesthetically convulsive 1960s.
The exhibition was conceived and organized by Sid Sachs, director of exhibitions at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. It has been garnering plaudits in its two subsequent venues, first the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, Neb., and then the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York. It was recently named “Best Thematic Show Nationally’’ by the US section of the International Art Critics Association.
Pop art’s heyday came before the onset of feminism’s second wave. As such, it was perhaps the last major art movement to systematically exclude or downplay the contributions of women (although many would say subsequent movements fared only marginally better).
Deliberately revisionist, this exhibition brings to our attention at least a dozen artists who deserve to be better known. This in itself is exciting. Niki de Saint Phalle, Vija Celmins, and Yayoi Kusama all have established reputations. But there’s no good reason such artists as Kiki Kogelnik, Rosalyn Drexler, Jann Haworth, Idelle Weber, Chryssa, and Dorothy Grebenak, and Marisol are not better known.
Marisol, in particular, is a bona fide star. She’s hardly unknown in the art world, but she ought to be a household name along with Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Claes Oldenburg. Here, unfortunately, she’s represented by just one work: a splendidly uncouth mixed media sculpture of a boxy John Wayne riding a wooden horse. Those who are keen to see more will have to wait for a Marisol retrospective slated to open at the Memphis Brooks Museum in 2014. (If the folks at the Museum of Fine Arts or the Institute of Contemporary Art have their wits about them, they will be pulling out all stops to bring it to Boston.)
I first saw “Seductive Subversion’’ in Philadelphia, where it was shambolically displayed across three separate venues, and can vouch for the superiority of the display at Tufts. Around 20 works have been added, and Amy Schlegel, director of galleries and collections at Tufts, has provided a helpful thematic overlay, grouping the works according to four common-sense themes.Continued
Still, the result is by no means a perfect show. Much of the work cries out for conservation, and some of it makes you think its neglect was not entirely unwarranted. Unwittingly, the show reminds us that, for all its verve, much of the art produced under the rubric of Pop, by both men and women, was technically flimsy, politically naive, intellectually frivolous.
Pop always wanted to have it both ways. Just as such male Pop artists as Warhol and Britain’s Richard Hamilton seemed to waver between, on the one hand, mocking or critiquing mass culture and, on the other, reveling in it, female pop artists fell into a similar bind. The first part of the show conforms to type, gathering together works that seem to revel in seductive images of the female body, only to upend sexist preconceptions through exaggeration or sly shifts in context.
The show’s first work is a case in point. It’s a collage of hundreds of soft-core images of naked young women all looking directly out at the camera by Martha Rosler, the most overtly political artist in the show. Called “Hot House, or Harem,’’ the effect is reminiscent of Ingres’s “The Turkish Bath’’ and a zillion other male fantasies of limitless female availability.
Rosler is clearly attempting to convert the preposterousness of pornographic overload into accusation. But I’m not sure how well she succeeds. The tactic has something crudely obvious about it. And the women, after four decades of aggressive escalation in the pornographic stakes, look strangely innocent (at least of surgical enhancement) and, dare I say it, adorable.
More fun — and more effective in its deadpan wit — is Marjorie Strider’s “Triptych II, Beach Girl’’ of 1963. This playful parody of the girlie pinup ticks all the boxes of Pop: simplified and enlarged mass-media imagery, serial repetition, and, more obscurely, a fashion for “shaped’’ canvases — in this case, bikini-covered breasts made from sharply faceted wood that jut out from the canvas.
Converting only the girl’s breasts from two dimensions to three (they really do “pop’’) is a brilliant burlesque, at once absurdly broad and just subtle enough (one can imagine formalist critics of the day discussing the breasts’ cubist faceting) to create palpable unease.
Much of the best work in the show, however, transcends preoccupations with gender politics, coming from places more immediately personal, experimental, and urgently felt. Sweden’s Barbro Östlihn is a particularly interesting case. Her painting “Sunflower’’ hits the eye with the mysterious force and abstract sophistication of a mandala merged with a commercial logo. Its presence is as strong — and seductive — as anything else in the show.
But Östlihn was overshadowed by her artist and performer husband, Öyvind Fahlström (whose work she collaborated on), and by other prominent male Pop artists (she was friends with Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein, among others). “Sunflower’’ is presented here in a context that tries to link its flower petals with female genitalia and with the sexualized flower paintings of feminist icon Georgia O’Keeffe. But her work was not, in fact, much related to the body, as the Swedish art historian Annika Öhrner confirms in a catalog essay. Rather, she was interested in architectural facades, patterning, optical illusions, and photography.
Thus we see the danger of revisionist exercises like this one. Individual artists are often rescued from years of neglect only to be stuffed into boxes they do not really fit.
Luckily, most of the artists here escape such a fate. Kiki Kogelnik’s two paintings, inspired by space travel, X-rays, and science fiction, are hauntingly dematerialized arrangements of silhouetted human forms and ’60s-style patterning. They’re knockouts. Dorothy Grebenak’s hooked rugs reproducing baseball cards and banknotes are hilariously deadpan.
And Idelle Weber’s painting and related sculpture parodying the standard-issue urban professional man are brilliant. They hint at something dark and complex beneath the laminated glamour of workaday conformity — exactly the sort of thing “Mad Men’’ has been trying to explore on TV.
To reiterate: This show is smart, it looks great, and it’s got plenty of surprises. A better show on the same theme is easy to imagine, and it might come along one day. But don’t hold your breath.

Saudi artist takes pop art to a whole new level

Sultan Idress Al-Nasser is a 39-year-old artist who is on a mission to educate Saudis art and culture.
“I believe that art is immortal and infinite in which a culture can be based on. Take for example the Greeks and Pharaohs, these are nations that died but left behind their art and history. People should learn how to leave their mark in history by leaving behind an art symbol that represents their culture,” said Al-Nasser who studied fine art and majoring in graphic design at South West Texas State University in the US.
To encourage aspiring Saudi artists, he shares his experiences through a weekly column in a Saudi newspaper. “I learn so much about art through reading, researching and looking deeply to find out the secrets behind successful artists,” he said. “I can never find the right words to explain art, but I keep writing to try to simplify things to readers. I write because I want to help raise awareness about art,” he said.
Before heading to the US, Al-Nasser was studying business in the Kingdom. “I was following what society expected a Saudi man to be: A businessman,” he said.
His passion for art soon took hold of him, however, and he ended up dropping out of business school to pursue fine art. He further developed his skills by taking several world culture and civilization classes, self-development courses in people skills as well as English literature courses in poetry and fiction.
Al-Nasser’s work sets him apart from other artists. “When I was studying, I would draw different things that didn’t go together such as abstracts and Arabic calligraphy. My professors were very impressed by our Arabic letters as they have a lot of curves and bends, and they encouraged me to join a number of exhibitions within the college,” he said.
The artist admits that Jackson Pollock is his role model. He sees him as an emperor of abstract. “I tried to learn from him by spending a lot of time staring at his pieces,” he said. “I think he is a mastermind when it comes to mixing colors and lines. I love how his paintings are sometimes unexplainable don’t make sense, but they give a certain feeling that makes you curious.”
Because he studied world culture, Al-Nasser mixes between international and local cultures through his pieces, unlike other Saudi artists. As a result, he finds that he is struggling to fit in with other Saudi artists since he’s been back.
“Most Saudi artists focus on drawing horses and other Saudi items only. Because of that, I couldn’t get people to accept my work immediately. They are used to having the same concept repeated in every exhibition,” he said.
The artist confessed that he discovered his love for art at an early age. “I realized that I was skilled back in middle school when I found it really easy to draw and memorize country maps in geography courses. Then, I started sketching and drawing graffiti using different colors and methods in my free time. I also liked to draw buildings and imaginary homes even blending houses together in an artistic way,” he added.
However, he did face some disappointments. He recalls a time when his father arranged a meeting for his son with a famous Saudi artist. “I remember being all excited and optimistic when I gathered all my drawings and sketches and went to my father to meet that well-known artist. The man said that I was good, but I needed to see his son who would help me out and direct me. I was then taken to a room and to my horror I found a five-year-old child playing with crayons — this is who was supposed to teach me about art! That was a big insult to me and I stopped drawing until I went to art school.”
According to Al-Nasser, art is a form of therapy. “Art pieces and painting is soothing as it takes the person to a different world and have a powerful effect on people,” he explained.
Al-Nasser claims that he is not emotionally attached to his paintings, except for one. “In a charity event, I had some of my paintings exhibited. When my painting was sold, I couldn’t sleep at night. I had to go to the buyer the next day and buy it back from him. This is weird, even to me, because I don’t usually get attached to my artworks, but I guess this one was different,” he admitted.
For his recent art collection, the artist chose verses from the Qur’an to form his art pieces and added pictures of famous Qur’an readers in pop art shapes. “I wanted to celebrate those readers for their beautiful voices, which they dedicated to reading the Holy book for people to listen to and enjoy. The readers were mostly all Saudi, except for two Egyptians and one Kuwaiti. Those people are almost forgotten, so I dedicated this collection to keep reminding people of them,” he explained.
Al-Nasser’s collection consisted of 15 paintings and was sold out in Jeddah after being exhibited at Teatro mall for a month. “I mixed between three elements in my collection: Pop art, Arabic personality and Arabic writing to show off my culture and my religion,” he said.

Roy Lichtenstein: Pop Art's Most Popular

His Whimsical Paintings Once Evoked the "Shock of the New"; Now They Evoke Record Prices on the Auction Block

 In life, Roy Lichtenstein was one of the biggest names in pop art. Now, more than a decade after his death, his paintings still get double takes. Here's Erin Moriarty of "48 Hours":
Whimsical paintings based on cartoons … witty sculptures … prints that remind us of famous paintings, with a commercial twist.
Images so familiar to us today it's nearly impossible to believe that they were once considered quite shocking.
So shocking that in 1964 Life Magazine wondered if the artist who created them, Roy Lichtenstein, was quite possibly the worst artist in the U.S.
That's not a question anymore.
When the dust settled at Christies' auction house last November, one of Lichtenstein's pieces named "Ohhh...Alright..."did more than "all right": It sold for nearly $43 million.
A record, beating out even Warhol's Campbell's soup can.
Lichtenstein himself would find that shocking.
"He used to say that he was amazed that people would actually pay for what he called 'used canvases,'" said Mitchell Lichtenstein, Roy's youngest son.
But, in fact, Roy Lichtenstein may be more popular today than ever, says his youngest son, Mitchell, who walked us through the sculpture garden on the roof of his father's old N.Y. studio, pointing to one piece Mitchell's mother had called "her giant Chia Pet."
"I think people appreciate his humor," Mitchell said, "and I think they see more in it as time goes by."
Mitchell, an actor and movie director, admits he didn't always appreciate his father's work, either.
"Kids talked about what their father did," he told Moriarty, "and I thought, 'Well, my father doesn't really have a job!'" And it was weird to say 'artist' because that wasn't a really a job."
Which also meant he was around more often than a lot of dads!
"There was always something fun to do in the studio," Mitchell recalled.
Mitchell says his father worked every day, stopping for lunch promptly at 1, and never suffered for his art.
"He didn't have demons that kept him from working, like many artists. He just loved what he did and felt very grateful to be able to do," he said.
When Lichtenstein burst onto the New York scene back in the early 1960s, tough guy abstract expressionists like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, splattering their emotions all over the canvas, were the rage.
Lichtenstein replaced their heat with cool.
"Those who had a negative reaction to his art, their main argument was, 'This is not art,'" said Isabelle Dervaux, curator of an exhibit of Lichtenstein's early drawings, which originated at the Morgan Library in New York this fall, and moves to Vienna, Austria at the end of the month.
She says that Lichtenstein, along with artists Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, turned images from popular culture into art. Its name: "Pop art."
"Throughout the art history, when an artist brings something so radically new, some people don't see it," Dervaux said.
Well, taking a look at some of Lichtenstein's earliest work, you can see their point. A couch? A BB gun? Not traditional subjects for art.
"There's different levels of humor," Mitchell Lichtenstein said. "There's the humor of just making a Donald Duck, or a Mickey Mouse, and lifting it into another realm of art."
Take his very simple drawing of a hand tracing the outline of a foot, inspired (says Dervaux) by a diagram from a mail order catalogue for shoes. "It's a very practical kind of drawing."
"And nobody thinks of that as 'art,'" said Moriarty.
"Exactly," said Dervaux.
Lichtenstein's work became more complex over the years, says his son, as he continued to question how we see the world.
For example, says Mitchell, why would we accept two simple lines - which could be a parenthesis and an apostrophe - as a nose?
While his art today is worth millions, you don't have to have a lot of money to appreciate it.
There are Lichtensteins at the airport in Columbus, Ohio . . . in Miami . . . and beneath Times Square, in the subway of New York. All you have to do is look up.
The mural right below 42nd Street was a gift from Roy Lichtenstein to the city's Arts for Transit program.
"Do you know how many times I've walked by this and never really thought about it?" said Moriarty.
"You're always just trying to not bump into people and get to your destination," said Mitchell.
So like his father, says Mitchell, to use clean futuristic images to gently poke fun at the swirling chaos below.
"I think people see the joy that is really behind his work," he said. "I think you feel his humanity, his humor and his kindness in his work, and people really respond to that, I think."
"Do you notice that whenever you talk about your father or your father's work, you just smile? You naturally smile?" Moriarty said.
"It makes me smile," he said. "I think it makes people smile."