Category Archives: Contemporary Art

Black on Black? Soulages!

Lithograph, 67 by 52 cm

Who’d ever guess that painting black on black would get you a million dollars and more? The miracle – because it is another Contemporary Art miracle – is called Soulages, a 94 year-old, 6 foot tall Frenchman who still paints everyday, spreading his favorite color, black, searching for the perfect point of black. His earlier paintings, dating back to the 1950s-60s, can fetch up to $4 million.

He’s probably the most famous living artist in France, he’s in the greatest museums, the Guggenheim, the Tate, he’s exhibited in the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. His work has even inspired fashion collections (see article below). And now he’s coming to New York, in two galleries, Emmanuel Perrotin and Dominique Levy (in the same building, 909 Madison Avenue and 73rd Street). 

Personally, I am not fond of abstract art but I can see the point (and the pleasure) you can derive from his works. They are solidly structured, and the restrained use of a bright color here and there brings out the mysterious darkness of the black that permeates all his paintings. A perfect black that leaves no doubt about the color – or, if you prefer, the non-color. Look at that blue in the lithograph shown here. It makes the black bars all the more striking, even threatening.

If you’re lucky enough to be in New York and can make it to the show, you’ll see a lot of his work dating back to the 1950s and 60s. For example, this one:

This is a very large painting (ca. 130cm x 162 cm ), so what you see on your digital device doesn’t really do justice to it.

In the more recent works, Soulages has wholly gone black on black, with variations only in the texture, allowing for reflections of light that play off differently depending on where you look at them, like in this painting dated 2013:

People have read into this symbolism and memories of World War II and all sorts of other interpretations that the painter himself does not subscribe to. My personal opinion is that the best way to enjoy this kind of art is to stick to what you see and let your eyes play with the light, full stop. But that’s just my opinion, what’s yours?

Soulages (source: Photo AP, UK Guardian article)

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The Artist Who Stalked Death and Couldn’t Capture It

Sophie Calle is a French contemporary artist with the reputation of a “stalker”, a term used by Stuart Jeffries on the UK Guardian (see here)

Source: From UK Guardian’s article “Stalker,stripper, sleeper and spy”

Whatever the right term, she is famous for being extremely intrusive in other people’s lives – for example, introducing herself in a hotel room and photographing the mess left by the guests, turning the set of photos into a work of art.  In 2006, she trained a video camera on a dying woman, filming her for days and nights, throughout her agony (she was dying from cancer). She extracted from this film footage a video lasting some 11 minutes – the video isn’t about anyone. 

It was her mother dying. 

Why did she do it? Because, she says, she was afraid she wouldn’t be there at the exact moment her mother passed away. Eventually, she  created a multi-media installation (with photos, text, memorabilia etc) where the edited video remained the central piece. 

Here is an excerpt of the video:

You can hear the noise of conversations and see people touching her, yet there is no sense of the precise moment when her mother died. The face in profile never moves, as if it were a still photograph.

Starting in 2007, the installation-cum-video toured across Europe and now, seven years later, it has reached America and is shown at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest in upper Manhattan while the Frieze New York art fair is ongoing on Randall Island (for info, see here).

Why would anyone film the dying? Professor Emma Wilson (University of Cambridge) who has published a book  on the matter, titled “Love, Mortality and the Moving Image“, notes in an article (here) that such filmmaking can be “palliative” – a way to “organize” death, “giving a sense of control in the face of brute, annihilating emotions”. 

No doubt, that was Sophie Calle’s objective.

I remain however with an uncomfortable sense that, while this may well have considerable therapeutic value for the persons directly concerned by the death, it cannot be considered art – just because an artist sets up a camera trained on a deathbed and gets it running. I know that in contemporary art it is enough for a piece to be declared “art” if the artist says so. But it seems to me that art is about communication, sharing something together as humans, and therefore the audience should also have a say in the matter, before a “piece” can become “art”.

The video here, as I’m sure you’ve noticed yourself, is extremely “rough and raw”. No efforts were made to change the viewpoint or do any manipulation. The video fails in one major aspect: it doesn’t catch the “decisive moment” (the moment of death) as Henri Cartier-Bresson would have it. 

The video floats indecisively on the screen, it comes out in cold colors that could suggest either serenity or melancholy. The dying woman is so still that, if it weren’t for someone taking her pulse, you’d wonder whether she’s alive at all. The only movements and noise come from the people around her. The woman’s total immobility has been interpreted by some as a striking symbol of Death (for example, see Anneleen Masschelein’s paper, here). 

That the exact moment of death couldn’t be “captured” on tape – hence the title of the installation – is viewed as a deep philosophical comment on Death and on the fact that we cannot “understand” it.

Overall, the effect can be eerie, I don’t doubt it, but is it art? 

Does it “say” something to you?

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