Warhol’s America at the Whitney

By Sarah Balcombe

“Everybody has their own America, and then they have the pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there but they can’t see…And you live in your dream America that you’ve custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one.” — Andy Warhol, America, 1985

mustard race riot

Flowers, soup cans and Brillo boxes are most commonly associated with Warhol and it is these ironic silkscreens, paintings and sculptures for which he is best known. Yet it is Warhol’s narrative of modern culture which is truly engaging and paradoxical. A product of the establishment and anti-establishment, Warhol strove to portray celebrity icons, and also those less celebrated.

With his effectual re-posting of Charles Moore’s photograph of Birmingham Alabama’s riots in Mustard Race Riot, 1963 above, his Ladies and Gentlemen series, 1975, below,


featuring trans-rights activists and his Jean-Michel Basquiat collaborations, see Paramount, 1984-5, below, Warhol acknowledged the less acknowledged, and fringe communities whilst continuing a preoccupation with capitalism and Hollywood.



Although Warhol continued to use repetition as an aesthetic device and a commentary on monetary value, he introduced a further element of abstraction, as shown in his Sixty-Three White Mona Lisa’s, 1979, above, a sophisticated adaption of his earlier Thirty Are Better Than One, 1963, below, utilizing pattern and paint to obscure content.


In Camouflage Last Supper 1986, below, 


Warhol similarly obscures another Leonardo da Vinci iconic painting, with the stronger fatigue pattern almost completely overwhelming the content. This obscurification can be seen as a more poignant expression of loss during the height of the AIDS crisis and shows a continuation of his fascination  with pattern, abstraction and material as demonstrated in his experimental Shadow (Diamond Dust) and Oxidation Paintings in the late 1970s. 


Shadow (Diamond Dust), 1979-9, above.

Oxidation Painting, 1978, Gold, metallic, pigment and urine on linen, below.


Visit Andy Warhol- From A to B and Back Again at the Whitney, before its closing on Sunday, to see another side of the artist. His work is so compelling and progressive that it bizarrely renders subsequent works by artists such as YBA’s Damien Hirst obsolete. The post-Warhol detached series of dots, butterflies, formaldehyde sharks and diamond encrusted skulls of the 1990s are a poor substitute to Warhol’s profound, yet obscured, expression of self, both in society and out of it.


Summer Days Drifting Away


Nothing truly says summer like an Alex Katz exhibition and it is only fitting that “Brand New and Terrific” at the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, NY, should end as the cold snap begins. Goodbye to the casual style of slung jackets and white tennis shoes in “After Softball”, 1953 and the relaxed mode of “Lincolnville Beach”, 1956.

ballgame.jpgAfter Softball, 1953

Image result for lincolnville beach alex katzLincolnville Beach, 1956

Though this exhibition concentrates on his early work and precedes his more well-known  Blue Umbrella and crisp, bolder palettes, it confidently displays the evolution of Alex Katz’s style. And style, it seems, is everything to Katz.

Influenced by the advertising posters of the fifties and sixties, there is something iconic about Katz’s work, despite it not fitting in exactly to any genre. “I never fit in,” he told The New Yorker,  “I’m not a Pop artist, and people can’t see my work as realistic, either.” Like Warhol, Katz is fascinated by fashion and many of his paintings reflect a seemingly country club set though Katz states “Most of my paintings are of poor poets and painters. So why the perception that he paints only privilege and prosperity? He shrugs. “I record whatever’s in front of me,” he replies. “It’s the style that’s fancy” and he mentions that his fashion interest derives from memories of his immaculately dressed father.

The flatness of his work suggests a certain confidence and detachment, as well as an abstraction. Here these early works are presented as an exercise in reduction. Despite his work bridging modernism and the dominating Abstract Expressionism of the period, it can also be seen as one of the precursors of Pop Art. Indeed, in an interview Katz proclaims  ” Warhol ripped me off”. Despite Warhol focusing on everyday objects, Katz’s subjects were objectified in their detachment.


By depicting two figures in Clamdiggers at Ducktrap (1956), above, and a repeated figure in Double Portrait of Rauschenberg (1959), below, Katz paid homage to choreographed composition, possibly referencing their contemporary, John Cage, who choreographed installations and dance happenings with Rauschenberg. This introduction of a repeated image is experimental in that it precedes the work of Andy Warhol and David Hockney.


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Although Katz’s fascination with Matisse, can be seen in his collages and some of his paintings, particularly 10 AM, 1959, above,  it is hard to ignore the orangey yellow of Ives Field, 1956, below, which adds a distinctive Van Gogh palette.

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One is reminded of Van Gogh’s letter to Emile Barnard in 1888 in which he writes, “There is no blue without yellow and without orange, and if you put in blue, then you must put in yellow, and orange too, mustn’t you?” It is also unlikely that the naming of Alex Katz’s only child, Vincent was coincidental. At a time when the work of Jackson Pollock and de Kooning defined an era, it is interesting to see not only the influence of these European artists in Katz’s work but also validation of the roots of Katz’s modernist abstract style.

Although this exhibit does not display Katz’s later more well known work, it does successfully demonstrate the early beginnings of his interest in blocks of color and composition. It also significantly introduces his wide-smiled wife and muse Ada, Bather, 1959, below, who has been the subject of more than 200 of his works.

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It is the image of her in Ada (Oval) 1959, below, that gives a glimpse into the style that his future art will take. Gone are the tentative pastels. The bolder colors and lines become synonymous with Katz’s later glorious work and hint at the impact that his murals and large canvases will have and continue to have. Rooted in time and yet timeless, it is his representation of this New York easy sensibility and feminine strength that makes Katz’s work  so universally appealling and relevant.

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Shaken, But Not Stirred


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Hot on the heels of the news that Saarinen’s TWA terminal at JFK, defunct for the past 16 years, is successfully embracing its jet-set past and being transformed into a hotel complete with martini bar and that 1960s vibe, above, reports that Marcel Breuer’s Pirelli building, below, in New Haven, Connecticut, may be  similarly developed, is good news indeed. In a throw-away society, when buildings are often considered as disposable as the products by the IKEA store that owns the Breuer building, it is refreshing to see that there is a growing movement towards adaptable re-use of our modernist heritage.

Marcel Breuer’s legacy is still evident in this part of Connecticut with  surviving homes such as Donald N. Clarke House in Orange and  628 West Rd in New Canaan, that was actually Marcel Breuer’s own home. His non-residential, less-local buildings include UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris and Atlanta Central Library (1980) GeorgiaWhilst Breuer’s most well-know building is probably the granite-clad striking Manhattan’s Met Breuer, below, (originally the Whitney Museum, completed in 1966), the fact that he was teaching at Harvard and one of the members of the Harvard Five, asserts his rightful place in architectural history.

A muscular concrete stack amidst the stately homes of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the Whitney imposes itself on the neighborhood, an architectural statement as challenging as the work housed inside. The granite exterior, ascending edges and upside-down windows, initially seen as pushy and gauche, are now recognized as inspired and grandiose.  Photo 10 of 12 in Design Icon: 10 Buildings by Marcel Breuer



Ironically, Breuer may be better remembered as the teacher of Philip Johnson, whose Glass House, below, brought European modernism to the US , heralding the introduction of the International Style architecture to the Connecticut residential vernacular.


Despite the  inspiration for the Glass House, above, being credited to Mies Van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, Johnson’s iconic home is rapidly approaching its 70 year anniversary and is still considered one of the finest examples of  modern architecture, with its innovative use of glass and steel and its integration into the landscape. Though it has the privileged distinction of being designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997 and is now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, many of Breuer’s buildings lack that protection. Let us hope that his Pirelli building will avoid demolition by joining the ranks of these other modernist masterpieces, recognised for their architectural integrity, ingenuity and for some, adaptability.

(Photo credits From top: David Mitchell, via Quartzy, Max Touhey, Mackenzie Goldberg, Patrick Sisson, Sarah Balcombe, Sarah Balcombe,  Blaine Brownell)

Celebrating Rosa Parks

Yesterday was not just the last day of the Modigliani exhibition at the Jewish Museum, it was also the 105th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Parks (1913-2005). Additionally, it is Black History Month 2018 and artists such as Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, have received a lot of welcome attention lately. I’d like to post an image by a lesser known Nigerian-Canadian neo-pop artist, painter, sculptor, and product designer, Lanre Adefioye as a tribute to Rosa Parks and the initiation of the civil rights movement in the United States. Enjoy and celebrate.

(Rosa Parks by Lanre Adefioye)

An Englishman in New York

By Sarah Balcombe

A visitor to the David Hockney at New York City’s Met in Central Park, would be forgiven for breezing past Hockney’s early works and making a bee-line for the seductive pinks, aquas and yellows of his more familiar California pool paintings, as in A Bigger Splash, 1967 (below).

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When presented with these images of sun-drenched California it is easy to forget Hockney’s British roots. Yet his early paintings (below) tell a narrative of homophobic Britain before the Sexual Offences Act in 1967 ironically alluding to taboo practices deemed imprisonable offences at that time.

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Referencing  Andy Warhol’s celebration of everyday objects, in Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10pm) W11, 1962  (above right) these experiments in Abstract Expressionism are important references of a not-so disguised pre-Stonewall era.  Hockney’s Shame, 1960 (above left) depicts his post Royal College of Arts period, displaying Francis Bacon- influenced contorted raw angst.

Not so in his more confident Domestic Scene, Los Angeles, 1963 (below left)

hockney14  Man in Shower in Beverly Hills 1964 by David Hockney born 1937  and Man In Shower In Beverly Hills, 1964 (above right).

Gone is the angst, replaced by a perceived nirvana of tolerance and thriving, located in his anticipated homeland of Los Angeles, where scenes of male domesticity and casual intimacy were more acceptable. These paintings also depict the technical development of Hockney’s portrayal of water and splashes, a theme to which he later returns and refines.

However it is the unbridled optimism that triumphs and floods the remainder of this exhibition.  Even though the subjects of these initial paintings were conjured up from magazines prior to Hockney’s move to the US,  the paintings begin to be informed by the seductive pinks, aquas and yellows of his subsequent Los Angeles relocation.

And what a celebration he conveyed upon his arrival in LA in 1964. With explosions of color augmenting the modernist Neutra-like villas of art collectors and acquaintances, we have a glimpse of 1960s and 70s LA through Hockney’s exuberant lens.

Image result for american collectors (fred and marcia weisman) American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman), 1968, above.

California Art Collector, 1964, below left.

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As we peered through The Graduate‘s distorted pool in 1967, so we gaze as voyeurs into Hockney’s exquisite pools and seductive villas. Impeccably dressed characters suggest prescribed roles, some as art collectors (see above) others as fashion designers and friends in Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, 1971 (below left) and the remainder as more-than friends, as in  Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968 (above right).

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Repetitive iconography of objets, such as the telephone, strategically placed flowers, fruit, hands, crossed knees, books, and distance between couples, portray domestic relationships, whilst inviting us into Hockney’s social circle and his world beyond the frame. His working studies of his subject are even more poignant in their intimacy. With the abandonment of every formal compositional element, as in his crayon sketch of Ossie Wearing a Fairisle Sweater, 1970 (above, right) a familiarity is suggested.

It is in this phase of portraiture that Hockney’s work revels in freedom and the anticipation of possibility whilst geometry and modernism provide a welcome element of composition and technical exactitude, see below, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972.

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Modernism as an influence is seen in linear delights such as Medical Building, 1966 (below left) and Savings and Loan Building, 1967 (below right) whilst surrealism is suggested in Hockney’s Rubber Ring Floating in a Swimming Pool, 1971 (beneath left).

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All this changes in the latter part of the exhibition when the 80s decade heralds color  infused with a more psychedelic Fauvism as in Outpost Drive, Hollywood, 1980 (above right). As a visitor stated “This is where Hockney turns into Matisse.” Whilst Matisse was undoubtedly an influence there is no doubt that these rooms are still Hockney. Continuing with his beautifully composed domestic scenes, adding a cubist reference, Hockney also explores landscape with ferocity, possibly as a reaction to his gradual deafness, and his claims that his perception of colors intensified in their vividness.

Image result for large interior la                                          Large Interior, Los Angeles 1988

Whilst terraces and pergolas interact with the landscapes, enticing the viewer with a differing perspective, the landscapes have become his refuge. Flitting between Hollywood Hills and Yorkshire visits, they excite and inspire. Yet it is his Breakfast at Malibu, Sunday, 1989 (below) that offers perhaps the most compelling combination of heritage. Informed by his humble Bradford beginnings, the traditional teapot and cups assume a Zen-like transcendental quality against the backdrop of the all-encompassing blue Malibu waves, a perfect cross-Atlantic blend of meditative anticipation.

Breakfast at Malibu  (1989 )

The visitor continues to be guided through freer, more abstract treats of the 1990s and 2000s, culminating in a dazzling I-pad display of Hockney’s embrace of technology.

Go, enjoy and be comforted by the fleeting angst, rigor, beauty and thoroughness of his art that is gradually reducing, like a good sauce, to a Picasso-esque squiggle of a solitary line of color.

Modigliani: Melancholy, Mystery and Magnificence

By Sarah Balcombe

Perhaps the most compelling image at the Jewish Museum’s Modigliani Unmasked is a photograph of the artist himself: jet black hair with knowing eyes and an arrogance that belied his youth. “How beautiful he was, my God, how beautiful!” exclaimed his model, Aicha  (Kenneth E Silver, ‘Too Many Last Words!’).
 700h_tjm_672-modi_f002-modigliani                                Amedeo Modigliani, c. 1912
His looks were legendary. “Modigliani was handsome, virile, with his wavy locks, his large forehead and his diamond-black eye,” stated his friend and writer, André Salmon. When asked if Modigliani was handsome, Jean Cocteau stated “No. He was something better….I was fascinated by his…handsome appearance….. He looked aristocratic even in his worn-out corduroys.” (K Silver)


Modigliani, Picasso and André Salmon in front the Café de la Rotonde, Paris. Image taken by Jean Cocteau in Montparnasse, Paris in 1916

It was reported that  “Before the war Modigliani had magnificent beauty but that now he had lost it through debauchery and alcohol.” With fragile health, a wish to conceal his  tuberculosis was apparently the main cause of his addictions and alleged self destructive behaviour. In  her autobiography of the artist, Meryle Secrest claims that he drank to avoid the stigma of tuberculosis, which, was the leading cause of death in France at the time. It was highly contagious and incurable. Secrest writes: “Drunks were tolerated; carriers of infectious diseases were not.””


Rue du Delta- Dr Paul Alexandre invited artists to stay here but it was demolished in 1913.

Almost as transfixing and infinitely more curious is the photograph next to Modigliani’s portrait. It shows the other artists with whom he lived, unloading from a horse and cart into an artist commune on Rue du Delta (above), funded by his patron and friend, Dr Alexandre. Every poor artist needs a patron and every patron needs a productive artist. It seems the two were well matched, and only three years apart in age, although due to Dr Alexandre’s modest means, Modigliani actually received very little actual remuneration. Despite Dr Alexandre’s attempts to further Modigliani’s career (many of Modigliani’s portrait sitter’s were family members of this patron) Modigliani’s work was often often exchanged for food and lodging or the price of a cup of coffee in a Montparanasse cafe.

His prolific output should not be underestimated and “from 1913-early 1920 Modigliani produced over 250 oil paintings”, a remarkable quantity especially considering that “this period included the four years of the First World War, when materials and portrait commissions were scarce.” (Simonetta Fraquelli, A Personal Universe: Modigliani’s Portraits and Figure Paintings)

Final Known Study for L’Amazone 1909. Black crayon 30.8 x 23.2 cms (12 1/8 x 9 1/8 inches)    (Paul Alexandre Collection)       

Accumulation of his work was valuable. Dr Alexandre amassed a staggering cache of approximately 400 drawings  during M’s most prolific period of 1906-14, many of which are displayed at Modigliani Unmasked. They capture an energy well-suited to the performance artists he sketched, such as Columbine Wearing Culottes and Studies for The Amazon (above), which reveal an expressive suggestive quality.

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Roger Dutilleul, 1919. Oil on canvas. 39½ x 25½ in. (100.4 x 64.7 cm). Collection of Bruce and Robbi Toll (The Jewish Museum)

Whilst in his male portraits (above) this translated into an arabesque slightly comical quality, Modigliani became a master of capturing nuance, featuring exaggerate stance, and limbs. When painting the female form this abstraction added a sensual element to his work.

Despite Modigliani socialising with Pablo Picasso and Brancusi, his palette was very much his own. Echoing the frescoed walls of Italian palaces and the damp plaster of crumbling buildings, it is possible that M’s use of a delicate patina, mixing dove greys with sage greens and light- infused yellows, was inspired by his visually rich Italian heritage. By gradually replacing his subjects’ eyes with slots of iridescent color,  he imbued faces with mask -like visages. This abstraction combined with elongating necks and tilting heads, added to the commanding, beguiling aura of his work.

Amedeo Modigliani, Lunia Czechowska, 1919. Oil on canvas. 31½ x 20½ in. Museu de Arte de São Paulo. Photograph by João Musa (The Jewish Museum)

His method of elongation is also a derivation of his profound interest in sculpture at the time. The sculptures Modigliani created in 1909-14, of which twenty-five carvings and one woodcut survive, were highly influential on his work as a painter, helping him arrive at the abstracted and linear vocabulary of his painting. The similarity between his sculptures, and those of Brancusi is remarkable. Indeed the curator makes this point by displaying a letter affirming Modigliani’s admiration for this similarly displaced artist (Brancusi was Romanian) also living in the artist colony at Rue d’Delta. The sculptures that followed are elegant and long necked, alluding to the Primitivism movement that was sweeping Paris at that time. Modigliani claimed that he was a sculptor first, but his ill health and financial limitations restricted his development in the medium of stone.

Amedeo Modigliani, Head of a Woman, 1910-11. Limestone, 25⅝ x 7½ x 9¾ in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Chester Dale Collection (The Jewish Museum)

Many of these sculptures are displayed at Modigliani Unmasked, at The Jewish Museum. Also shown is a prolific collection of Greek caryatids, Rose Caryatid and Caryatid 1914. Nevertheless it is the iridescent reclining nudes and enigmatic elongated female portraits, such as that of his lover, Jeanne Hébuterne with Yellow Sweater (1918-1919) (below), which will be forever synonymous with the artist, Modigliani.

Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hébuterne with Yellow Sweater, 1918-19. Oil on canvas. 39⅜ x 25½ in. (100 x 64.7 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, By gift 37.533. Image provided by Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, New York (The Jewish Museum)

With his genius rewarded too late, he died destitute and ill. Hébuterne, pregnant with Modigliani’s child, threw herself to her death two days later. In contrast to this catalogue of death and destruction, his cache of work survived. It seems that his artistry had been recognized, but Modigliani had not been compensated for its value. “An hour after (his death) dealers and collectors, wallets in  hand, desperately grabbed every painting and drawing by Modigliani they could find,” reported Gustave Coquiot.

With no living descendants, “the work was suddenly worth a great deal”  (Kenneth E Silver)  and one painting reportedly fetched one million francs three decades later in 1952. In 2015 the increasing value of his work, was dramatically inflated by the sale of  his “Nu Couché,” (Reclining Nude) 1917-18 which achieved $170 million at Christies auction. A remarkable achievement, especially when considering that Modigliani’s first and only solo show of  paintings  during his lifetime, had been shut down by the chief of Paris police upon its opening night in December 3rd 1917, due to its display of nudity. History has a way of repeating itself and recent controversy surrounding the Doge’s Palace in Genoa resulted in the closure of its Modigliani exhibition, this year, when a significant number of paintings were considered fakes (Hyperallergic).

Try to catch a glimpse of this maverick’s muses in Modigliani Unmasked at the Jewish Museum until Feb 4th and  if you can get to London you can also see Modigliani, at the Tate Modern, London until April 2018. Whilst The London show claims “Modigliani’s nudes are a highlight of the exhibition – with 12 nudes on display, this is the largest group ever reunited in the UK” it is the intimacy of Modigliani’s drawings, sculptures and paintings that has been successfully conveyed in Manhattan. With his artwork beautifully curated and displayed, make sure you visit. You will not be disappointed.

Obama’s Choice of Kehinde Wiley Just got Political


Kehinde Wiley Fishermen Upon a Lee-shore, in Squally Weather (Zakary Antoine), 2017 (above) Courtesy Kehinde Wiley and STEPHEN FRIEDMAN GALLERY, London

Barack Obama’s choice, last month, to appoint Kehinde Wiley to paint his portrait to be displayed at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery could hardly be more timely. As in Michelle Obama’s selection of  Amy Sherald as her artist,  Barack’s choice is current, progressive and as of last week, political.


Emma Amos Eva the Babysitter, 1973 (above) Courtesy Emma Amos, The Amos Family and  RYAN LEE GALLERY (Tate Modern)
Barkley L. Hendricks Icon for My Man Superman (Superman never saved any black people — Bobby Seale), 1969. Courtesy JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY


Kehinde Wiley is no Wadsworth Jarrell, Emma Amos (top), or Barkley L. Hendricks (above) whose Civil Rights Movement inspired artwork, mostly from the late 1960s and 1970s, was exhibited recently at London’s Tate Modern’s Soul of a Nation Art in the Age of Black Power. Yet Wiley is influenced by these predecessors and his work remains relevant in a similar way.  Less militant and of a different time, Wiley’s art not only addresses local issues, it also tackles global  tensions relating to predomnantly male identity and acceptance, across China, Brazil, India & Sri Lanka, Lagos & Dakar, and more recently, Israel. This was seen in Kehinde Wiley/The World Stage: Israel in New York’s Jewish Museum in 2012.

Kehinde Wiley Abed Al Ashe and Chaled El Awari (The World Stage: Israel), 2011(© Kehinde Wiley; Courtesy Roberts & Tilton, CA) (above)
Detail from Kehinde Wiley Kalkidan Mashasha (The World Stage: Israel), 2011               (All images courtesy the Jewish Museum.) (above)

Wiley’s portraits, often focusing on the male skin and body as art, are softened by textiles, pattern and a certain vulnerability. Wiley is best known for substituting the elite and often religious subjects of traditional old master paintings with contemporary African-Americans, emphasizing their absence in these historic paintings.  By challenging accepted historic norms, Wiley comments on “the signifiers of power, the implications of the traditional portrait, which are about privilege, power, elitism…..that he was not included in.” (New York Times)

Kehinde Wiley  Leviathan Zodiac, 2011. Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, California. © Kehinde Wiley.

His work has a contemplative and reflective quality with his current solo show at the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London  (see London’s Evening Standard) depicting everyday real Haitians (with their names in the titles) painted in heroic, maritime poses, as in Fishermen Upon a Lee-shore, in Squally Weather (Zakary Antoine), 2017 (image at top). Lacking the technical complexity of his earlier works, these portraits of migrants or seafarers, fisherman or villagers,  have acquired heightened political status, due to the Department of Homeland Security’s termination, last week, of the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) granted by Barack Obama, to Haitians in the US.

With irony as the main ingredient of Wiley’s art, the timing of the exhibition of his Haitian portraits is not to be underestimated. Due to the secrecy shrouding Barack Obama’s anticipated portrait, it will be interesting to see to what extent Kehinde Wiley will reflect this relevant humanitarian TPS issue.

Value in art or salesmanship?

By Sarah Balcombe

Never before has the art world succeeded in igniting the imagination of so many in such a short time.  In Star Wars terms Christie’s has entered another galaxy,  gone where no auction house, living or dead has ever gone before and it has certainly pushed the art world into a new frontier. Records have been shattered, reputations have been made, and dismayed, and the art world will never be the same again.


In case you haven’t heard, Christie’s Rockefeller Center has cause for celebration. Triggering cover stories such as “Dough Vinci!” (NY Post)  their sale of this reputed 500 year old artwork, entitled Salvator Mundi (below) achieved a staggering $450.3 Million (including fees).


Its sale surpassed the highest price paid for an artwork by over $150m, smashing the  $300m reportedly achieved in 2015 by the private sale of Willem de Kooning’s “Interchange” (below).


Whether the restored Salvator  Mundi, will trigger prices of other old masters remains to be seen. It has certainly commanded a list of firsts. It has achieved the highest price ever of any artwork, surpassing any previous record by 150% and earning Christie’s allegedly $50million, according to their 12.5% recently revised fee structure (Artnet).

It is also the first time Christie’s has enlisted an outside agency to advertise their work, reportedly the first time that a $100m bid had been secured  by an unidentified third party, prior to auction and the first time Christie’s have used  an exclusive “specially- designated paddle” . The newly devised red paddles used to make bids was also a clever marketing tool, standing out amongst the furore of raised mobile phones, all clamouring to capture the escalating illuminated price figure at the auction house.

Whether the secret buyer should be applauded or berated, he/she has the  somewhat dubious accolade of having bought the most expensive painting ever. Nevertheless it is Christie’s who must be considered the Old Master of this stroke. Meticulously marketed, with a campaign “unprecedented in the art world” and boasting a celebratory audience at the auction itself, Christie’s investment paid off. According to Todd Levin, a New York art advisor, “There was a thumping epic triumph of branding and desire over connoisseurship and reality”.

London’s Evening Standard states that there is speculation that the recently opened new Louvre in Abu Dhabi could well be the purchaser. There would be a certain easy symmetry to this equation if that turns out to be the case. The new Louvre is already excited about its current star attraction, Da Vinci’s lesser known, La Belle Ferronnière,


on loan from its counterpart in Paris. The director of the museum, Manuel Rabaté has openly stated that his mission is to open a dialogue between the East and the West. This could be significantly addressed by such an acquistion.

Regardless of who the new owner is, speculation is rife as to the real value of the painting, with its quality and authenticity still in question. Critics claim that a contemporary sale was used by Christie’s as a device to circumvent the scrutiny of old masters experts. Charles Hope, a professor emeritus at the Warburg Institute at the University of London states “Even making allowances for its extremely poor state of preservation, it is a curiously unimpressive composition and it is hard to believe that Leonardo himself was responsible for anything so dull”.

Jacques Franck, a Leonardo expert claims  “The composition doesn’t come from Leonardo. He preferred twisted movement. It’s a good studio work with a little Leonardo at best, and it’s very damaged. It’s been called the male Mona Lisa, but it doesn’t look like it at all. “(NYTimes)

On Tuesday gallerist Richard Feigen stated “There’s so little of Leonardo there. From a commercial standpoint, I don’t think it has any value. I wouldn’t buy it at any price,” adding when pressed: “Well, $10 I could do.”

Whether this was a serious gaffe, reminiscent of the BBC weatherman Michael Fish, in October 1987,  denying the possibility of a hurricane, hours before it caused death and devastation across England and France, or whether Feigen will ultimately prove to be correct, remains to be seen. What is probable however, is that as Fish’s gaffe remains prevalent in the UK’s consciousness, 30 year later, so too will this sale, albeit on a more global scale, regardless of its authenticity.




Much Ado about Harlem…


In an effort to challenge the status quo, to continue this revolution of sorts and give voice to those silenced by administrations such as the current one, Michelle Obama is forging ahead with her own set of rules. It is only fitting that she has chosen Amy Sherald, an emerging artist and heart transplant survivor, to paint her official portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.


It is hard not to be impressed by the boldness, color and use of pattern in Amy Sherald’s work. Having been awarded this somewhat formidable task, Ms Sherald has been cast into the orbit of celebratory artist. Whether that is something she is comfortable with remains to be seen, and yet one can understand the complete confidence that Michelle Obama had in her selection. Obama’s choice is a significant one. She is saluting this emerging artist, for all of those reasons and another very important one: Relevance.

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Sherald is an expert at calmly depicting the struggle and identity of where we are now. In her works The Make Believer (Monet’s Garden), 2016, top, and The Boy With No Past, 2014, above, these images prove irresistible in their vividness. Sherald has captured a spirit that is bold and unapologetic, non-confrontational yet defiant. Her depiction of street smart fashion, of obvious interest to Obama, is deliberate, playful and accessible, far removed from the echelons of exclusivity. Sherald’s choices are original and controlled without being contrived. She  depicts the inner spirit of ordinary people in technicolor honesty, regardless of status. This in itself is simultaneously a humbling and empowering message and this is the message that Michelle Obama wishes to convey. It is up to us now to embrace it.

Whilst checking out Sherald’s work currently displayed in Fictions, at Harlem’s Studio Museum, don’t miss the artistry of her peers. Flanked by the striking graphics of Deborah Roberts’, The Sleepwalkers, 2017, below


and Devan  Shimoyama’s bejeweled Shape Up and a Trim, 2017, below,

Devan Shimoyama.jpg

whose works challenge racial and gender stereotypes, a fabulous celebration of restrained flamboyancy is on display. In the chromogenic color prints of Kings and Queens (2017)and Colorblinds (2017) within  Genevieve Gaignard’s installation, a Cindy Sherman style voyeurism is established, with photographic images inserted into vintage styled sets. Gaignard’s  Nevertheless, She Persisted, 2017, with a porcelain figure trapped within a gold birdcage, below, references racial injustices, and possibly Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.


Simultaneously nostalgic and critical, these works are powerful in highlighting taboo subjects such as restrictions of liberties and incarceration.  jumpsuit.jpg

Similarly, in the work of Sherrill Roland, The Jumpsuit Projects, 2016-2017, above, a powerful autobiographical commentary is presented on wrongful imprisonment. Finally in the adjacent gallery, the exhibition Their Own Harlems features the timeless message of migration, depicted by Jacob Lawrence (The Architect, 1959, below), and others, providing historical context and poignant relevance.


If the appointment of Amy Sherald merely increases the exposure of these artists, Michelle Obama has done well. But by introducing this work to a much wider audience, Obama has  not only secured Sherald’s future, but is keeping alive the consciousness of The Studio  Museum in Harlem, as it leads up to the start of its three year construction project, led by David Adjaye. With curator Thelma Golden at its helm, there was never any danger of it “Going Gentle Into That Night” (Dylan Thomas) during its temporary closure, but now there is significantly more reason for it to be defiantly screaming Hamilton’s “Stay Alive” (Lin- Manuel Miranda) with all the backing of this Harlem Renaissance boost.