Monday, July 30, 2012

Haggerty Museum of Art highlights a major donation

Robert Rauschenburg
When I think “art collector” I must admit the image that comes most readily to mind is one of a person with substantial means at his or her disposal; an Andrew Carnegie or Peggy Guggenheim. And certainly an “art collection” that includes large scale works by the likes of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenburg, Ellsworth Kelly, Chuck Close, and too many other major artists to list must confirm this stereotypical image, mustn’t it? Well, much to my surprise I had to park that bias at the doors of the Haggerty Art Museum when I went there to see the current exhibit, “Selections from the Mary and Michael J. Tatalovich Collection.”

What I found most sobering, however, was not simply the remarkably perceptive choices made by these two collectors that were acquired with limited resources. It was to be confronted with the unassailable notion that, but for some art world savvy and a healthy dose of persistence, I might have amassed a collection of similar proportions. A profound revelation in this large and exemplary exhibition of outstanding modern and contemporary artists was that Mary and Michael Tatalovich managed to collect it during their careers as teachers in the Milwaukee Public Schools.

Richard Serra
Please don’t misunderstand me: this exhibition needs no such compelling narrative. It stands on its own merits and can be fully appreciated without reading the wall text that reveals this personal tidbit of information. I particularly liked discovering Richard Serra’s enormous etching, called Bo Diddley, which I’d never seen before. Serra can leave me hot or cold, depending on the piece and the context. This one works for me - but you have to see in situ. The scale is essential.

If, like me, you haven’t been to see it before now, try to make it before it closes on August 5.

Tom Arndt
While you’re there, be sure to stop by the small galleries to see two more modest exhibits that feature the photography of Tom Arndt and Mark Ruwedel. All of these shows close August 5.

Mark Ruwedel
You can read more about all of these exhibits at Third CoastDigest. Reviewer Brian Jacobson was more on the ball than I and filed his piece in June. But you still have 6 days to get over there!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

"Priceless" artwork worth nothing or $65 million?

"What is the fair market value of an object that cannot be sold?" asks Patricia Cohen in a New York Times article about a masterpiece by Robert Rauschenburg. Cohen likens the question to a Zen koan, which is a statement or question used in Zen practice that often contains a paradoxical element.

But the more I read about the controversy that has erupted over the difference between the artwork's appraised value versus its tax value, the more it reminded me of a Catch-22. Joseph Heller's 1961 book was set in Italy during World War II. The term Catch-22 referred to government (military) regulations that involved circular reasoning to arrive at an impossible conclusion. Heller's satirical conceit so caught the imagination of the country that the term quickly entered the lexicon and is often used rather loosely.

However, it applies perfectly to the question of the fair market value of Rauschenburg's piece, which is called Canyon.
Canyon, Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, NY
As you can see, Rauschenburg included a stuffed bird in this example of one of what he called "combines" - a painting combined with assemblage. But that's not just any bird; it's a bald eagle, which is a federally protected endangered species. Because of that the painting, although legal to own, can never be sold. Therefore its appraised value is zero.

But the IRS demurs, says it's worth $65 million and expects a tax payment of $29.2 million!

You cannot sell - so says the government - so it's worth nothing; the same government demands taxes on a value of $65 million; but don't try to sell it to make the tax payment: Catch-22.

The fact that we're talking about a wealthy collector who could afford to make that tax payment doesn't change the principle, which potentially could be applied in cases that would financially ruin someone less fortunate. Or is this simply too unique a situation to make that case?

Is this another example of "big government" over-controlling personal and civil liberties? It's more complicated than that, of course. Read the whole article to get some of the nuances. But here's an appropriately cynical quote from Heller's book: "Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing."

But wait! What was Rauschenburg thinking, I have to wonder, when he knowingly used a bald eagle in this work? Or Sonnabend, the art dealer/collector, who obtained the non-salable but highly valuable piece from the artist? Perhaps the (absent) monetary value deliberately was being pitted against or contrasted with inherent artistic value. It's an intriguing story any way you dice it. Priceless.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Madison full of art

I spent an art-filled day in Madison recently. Here are some snapshots and a taste for what's on exhibit now. Follow the links for more info, or better yet plan a trip over to Mad-town for some good art.

This new mural celebrating the unity of women on the Willy Street Coop was dedicated Friday evening. The mural was done by Panmela Castro (below), who is from Brazil. Castro is sponsored by Vital Voices around the Globe. Her work intends to remind us that women in many parts of the world suffer oppression. Extending the length of the building, the piece is certainly dramatic and beautiful, but that message isn't clearly evident in it.

The Willy Street Coop is at 1221 Williamson St. on the near east side of Madison.

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMOCA) has several exhibits to see. The featured exhibit is called One must know the animals. Drawn from the museum's collection, this is a large and diverse show that strays far from the typical wildlife art that might be expected from the title.  Read more. The exhibit runs through Aug. 19.
Sergio Gonzalez-Tornero, Wolf, courtesy MMOCA
The exhibit to which I was especially drawn was Within a Stone's Throw, by Cecelia Condit. The exhibit is dominated by a three-panel large screen video, but goes further. This is from the museum's website: "Although Condit is best known as a video artist, this exhibition signals her new immersion into the world of still imagery. A series of seven photographs complements Within a Stone’s Throw, each image a complex, digitally constructed composite of Lake Michigan and its environs. These works showcase the sublime beauty of the natural world, at once threatening and delicate, while addressing both the fragility and the timelessness of our planet." Read more.

This exhibit runs through Sept. 23.
Cecilia Condit, video still, courtesy MMOCA
While you're at MMOCA walk over to the adjacent Overture Center for a slew of smaller but engaging exhbits.

The top-floor James Watrous Gallery hosts a pair of very different bodies of work.

Milwaukee photographer James Brozek and art historian Debra Brehmer of Milwaukee's Portrait Society Gallery teamed up to create a portfolio of vintage photographs called Flowers by Livija. If you missed it at the Portrait Society, here's another chance to see the "hundreds of hauntingly beautiful still-life compositions, self-portraits, and images of the floral arrangements [Livija] created for her husband’s grave."

Courtesy Watrous Gallery
The other half of the duo couldn't be more dissimilar. "Lon Michels’s large, lavishly detailed figure paintings, landscapes, and still lifes are rich with art historical references, but their primary subject is his love affair with color and pattern."

Don't take the elevator back down after your visit to the Watrous Gallery. There are three discrete exhibits in each of the even smaller hallway spaces known collectively as the Overture Galleries. The short hallways are easily overlooked. They extend away from the central rotunda. Most people likely go there to find the restrooms. But if you go now you will find more intriguing art.

In Gallery 1 you will find At Your Service, which "presents the common domestic plate as a site for cultural investigation." Seven artists appropriate, alter, and re-interpret ceramic dinnerware. Read more. (Through Sept. 16.)

Courtesy Overture Galleries

Have you heard of "Alternography?" I hadn't heard the term before and I'm curious to know if "The Alternography Group" who comprise the artists in the Gallery 2 exhibit coined the term. Whether or not the term is new, the methods they use decidedly are not, and that is the point. Alternative techniques and processes, whether primitive cameras or darkroom printing methods (yes, some of them use darkrooms!), drive the creative output of this sub-group of the Center for Photography at Madison. More interesting to me than the use of alternative processes in themselves is the content of the show, entitled Trespass, which "explores three types of trespasses: trespass to person, trespass to property, and trespass to land." Read more. (Through Sept. 12)

Courtesy Overture Galleries

Gallery 3 hosts a more diverse collection entitled Once and Again, which "explores images and ideas related to symmetry." Read more. (Through Sept. 16.)

Courtesy Overture Galleries

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Phoenix Art Museum: cool in the heat!

Sui Jianguo, Jurassic Age
Maybe it’s just me, but I’d never been aware of the Phoenix Art Museum until I went to Phoenix for the first time recently. If I’d thought about it I would have expected a city that size to have a decent museum, so I think it’s actually an interesting question: why hadn’t I heard of it? There are well known art museums in cities – some smaller than Phoenix – that I’ve never been to.

I don’t have an answer. Maybe they never lend works out to other museums. Maybe they don’t originate many important or traveling exhibits. Maybe they just don’t get enough press. Maybe it’s just me.

But finding the Phoenix Art Museum was a pleasant surprise. I spent a long time in it – and not just because it was over 110° outside!

The featured exhibit was called Paper! for the simple reason that all of the work in the show was either printed/painted on, made of, or in some way about paper. The few selections I’m including here just hint at the diversity of work in the show. In fact one could criticize the lack of a coherent theme, genre, historical period, or any of the other typical unifying art categories. But I found it refreshing.

Having just seen the new exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec and His Contemporaries, the biggest surprise was finding some of the exact same posters on display here.

These are just a few of my favorites. (I was also surprised that non-flash photography was allowed in the gallery, with a few exceptions.)

Liu Guosong, Which is Earth?
Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe, Rock Formations...
Tom Wesselman (I missed the title)
I don’t have time to describe my entire experience at the museum. It is strong in a few predictable areas, like the distinctive arts of the southwest – as it should. It also has an extensive permanent collection of contemporary art in a cavernous new wing.

Milwaukeeans like me who are fans of Cornelia Parker will find another connection between the two museums in this piece, entitled “Mass (Colder Darker Matter).” It was constructed from remnants of a church in Texas that was struck by lightning.

And for those familiar with MAM’s “Infinity Room,” its younger, hipper cousin resides here in Phoenix. By Yayoi Kusama, it is titled “You Who are Getting Obliterated the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies.” You can see a static image of it (which gives a feel but, of course, doesn’t do the kinetic/visual experience justice) by viewing the online gallery of contemporary art on the museum website.

To read two very different accounts of my exploits in Phoenix, check out: