Sunday, January 30, 2011

Miami Artcentric Books: Video Art by Michael Rush Tops the List

Just as I had started reading my February 2011 issue of ARTnews, I was delighted to come across some good news about Michael Rush. Michael is a superbly talented author and an excellent curator, someone I got to know when I worked for The Miami Herald and he was director of the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art in Lake Worth. He curated so many outstanding shows there, and I learned so much from writing about them.

Over the years we've had many wonderful chats. I recall running into him when I was on assignment for the paper in Venice. I've also seen him in Miami during Art Basel Miami Beach.

After his job in Lake Worth ended, Michael went on to become the director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. Talk about having your job "disappeared" right from under you! (Can this not-dead-yet art critic relate to that!) Now he has been named founding director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University. Those Midwestern college students are extremely fortunate to have him in their midst.

Of course, I dashed off a congratulatory email to him, and was thrilled to learn in his reply that he is coming to Miami soon. I certainly hope we will have the opportunity to get together.

Reading about Michael made me think of his book Video Art that I wrote about for the Herald. So I printed out that review, along with several others I thought I would post today on my blog about about artcentric books. Thank goodness I have my own personal archive of all that I have written for the Herald! Maybe one day I can turn some of that material into a book as well...

Video Art, by Michael Rush.
Rush writes with extraordinary wit and clarity, bringing to bear his first-hand experience of making art beyond the mainstream. The 383 illustrations here go a long way to filling out this indispensable overview of an influential but less-than-40-year-old art form that notoriously eludes the printed page, and Rush gamely covers the still-morphing permutations of video, from digital to DVD, focusing on current artists like Matthew Barney, Pierre Hughye, and Tracey Moffatt.

Goya, by Robert Hughes.
No one can write about art with the blustery confidence and impeccable grasp of visual detail quite the way Robert Hughes can, even taking into account his bouts of dismissive arrogance. An ever-readable stylist, he makes Goya's experiences of late 18th Century and early 19th Century Spain and France almost cinematically vivid, leading us through the intricacies of court politics and the doldrums that impelled this monumental (and, by then, deaf) master to make his late, great, and gruesomely unforgettable "Black Paintings."

Michele Oka Doner: Natural Seduction, with foreword by Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. and essays by Suzanne Ramljak, Morris Lapidus, and Arthur C. Danto.
The catchy title of this book, a survey of the career of Miami Beach native Michele Oka Doner, is more than a clever pairing of seduction and selection. It reminds us that Oka Doner is an artist gifted with an alluring sense of edit, shaping essential forms of nature into sensual environments for body and soul. Many of those environments have been public art, like her walkways at Miami International Airport. But others, like her unusual cast bark silver trays and bronze coral reef bracelets, devise a personal space with instruments both earthy and precious.

Imogen Cunningham, by Richard Lorenz, edited by Manfred Heitling.
Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) knew how to find the crystalline moment, the perfect blend of texture and form--as revealed in her luminous black and white photographs of magnolias, calla lilies, and seashells from the 1920s and 1930s. They're unbearably sexy and stately at the same time, and they surely taught Robert Mapplethorpe volumes about the art of arranging flowers. A colleague of better known photographers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, Cunningham has not received their level of recognition, though she founded with them the f/64 group, trailblazers in the sharply focused aesthetics of modern photography. This monograph by Richard Lorenz should help overcome that oversight by charting her prolific career, with examples of her portraits, nudes, and sculptural tanks and towers of factories recalling more celebrated images by German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Cuba on the Verge: An Island in Transition, edited by Terry McCoy, with an introduction by William Kennedy and an epilogue by Arthur Miller.
Cuba has generated so many books of photographs, with too many offering the cliche of Detroit relics hunkered against fetching, ornate ruins. The combination of images and text in this expansive volume is often striking for the sensitive, beautiful departures from such cliches. Abelardo Morrell returned to Cuba after many years to create his signature, surreal scenes with a camera obscura, while poetry and portraits by Carrie Mae Weems portray the island's Afro-Caribbean heritage with piercing immediacy.

From the Ground Up, by Eduardo del Valle and Mirta Gomez.
Maya heritage in the rural Yucatan prevails in these intelligent photographs documenting indigenous architecture, the modest forms of a hut that have been passed down for centuries. Del Valle and Gomez, photographers and professors at Florida International University, do more than document the evolving materials, from thatch to corrugated tin, by also capturing the huts as they pop up in local pop culture, from topiary to souvenir. This exquisite series of photographs is matched with trenchant essays by Sandra S. Phillips and Richard Rodriguez.

Extraordinary Interpretations: Florida's Self-Taught Artists, by Gary Monroe.
Gary Monroe has an eye for cultural resources that remain off the beaten path in this over-developed state, having written about the Highwaymen, a group of African-American landscape painters. Here Monroe records Homestead's bizarre complex of Coral Castle and well-known paintings by Purvis Young, but he also explores the quiet eloquence in such self-taught art as the "identity masks" of rusted tin and wood by Jerry Coker of Gainesville, or the dotted landscapes by Frank Ritchie, who lives in Ormond Beach and paints snow with curious precision.

The Design of Dissent, by Milton Glaser and Mirko Ilic, foreword by Tony Kushner.
This is a visually stunning collection of over 400 posters and other items from the 1960s to the present, but the main focus is work from the last several years. Opposition to the war in Iraq, gas guzzling, corporate greed, and the marginalization of women are prime topics. Legendary designer Milton Glaser closes out the book with these sobering comments. He says that dissenting designs do have an effect, even if the results aren't obvious: "I don't think it makes any difference whether you think it works or not. You have to do it." In a democracy, dissent is "the only hope we have."

Latin American Posters: Public Aesthetics and Mass Politics, edited by Russ Davidson.
This selection of some 100 political posters is based on the 10,000 strong poster collection developed by Sam L. Slick, a Spanish professor at University of Southern Mississippi. In 2001 University of New Mexico acquired the collection. This book gives a dynamic, historical overview of that collection, showing how posters played a role in reflecting and promoting opinions during times of political turmoil from the 1960s to the 1990s. In the 1960s, Pop art and new printing methods gave posters their bold punch; later art movements were reflected in this brash and populist medium.

Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture, by Michael Kammen.
Kammen explores the compelling stories of how envelope-pushing artists have defied the mind-numbing status quo and how they have been censored for their provocations. At times their defiance was more calculated than earnest. Many pages recount debates about public art and public funding. The furor over Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc" is a well-known chapter in the culture wars of the 1980s, but Pulitzer-prize winning historian Kammen puts that volatile event in the context of another art controversy from the 1840s, the size and design of the Washington Monument. Not everyone thought that an Egyptian obelisk was the right icon for a young democracy. Kammen shows how art controversies over notions like beauty and decency reveal fascinating aspects of social history. He makes the case that no matter how stressful conflicts are for the art world and general public, they provoke discussion and can be enlightening with the passage of time. His is a nuanced study that provides no easy answers. It does offer an important context for looking at ongoing issues of censorship and debates about the point of art.

Shall we start our own virtual book club in cyberspace? Why not?? I welcome readers to post comments about artcentric books they have read, or add to my comments about the books I have just discussed. I am quite sure that there is much more to be said about them!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Miami Book Clubs Turn Heads...To Art

I love getting together with people to talk about books. My daughter and I started a mother-daughter book club when she was in fourth grade, and it lasted until she graduated from high school. Now I am in another terrific book club with very smart women who love to read. We have such lively and interesting discussions.

Sometimes the books we choose are connected to the visual arts, such as The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. It is a novel recounting the story of an imagined writer who lived in Mexico for a time and got to know Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo very well. It also provides frightening details about the McCarthy era in American politics. This time period was not, shall we say, a golden era for journalism. One of my favorite quotes from the book: "Those news men could not make a thing true just by saying so. It's only living makes a life."

Now I'm hoping to attend the Miami Art Museum book club at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Avenue in Coral Gables, on this Tuesday, January 25, at 6:30 p.m. (To register for this book club, which meets every other month to discuss a wide range of books dealing with the visual arts in a variety of ways, contact or call 305-375-4073.)

The book under discussion this time is absolutely fascinating. I learned so much from it! The book is The Girl with the Gallery: Edith Gregor Halpert and the Making of the Modern Art Market by Lindsay Pollock (Public Affairs, 2006). I reviewed it for The Miami Herald in 2006 as part of my annual holiday art book suggestions for gifts. Here's what I wrote then:

The Girl with the Gallery: Edith Gregor Halpert and the Making of the Modern Art Market by Lindsay Pollock rescues the sassy, savvy art dealings of Edith Gregor Halpert from the mists of time. Alfred Stieglitz's early 20th Century contribution to American awareness of European Modernists like Matisse is legendary. But few knew much, if anything at all, about contributions to American art made by the younger Halpert.

Pollock's book came about after she read Halpert's archives at the Smithsonian and Diane Tepfer's dissertation about Halpert's innovative Downtown Gallery, which the stylish Russian immigrant opened in New York's Greenwich Village in 1926. Unlike Stieglitz, Halpert wanted art to be affordable to a large audience. She had a prescient eye for the artists of the day, especially for Stuart Davis, Charles Sheeler, and Jacob Lawrence.

She was passionately devoted to promoting and selling their work so that they could keep making art. She brought business acumen to her creative skills for nurturing a developing American art scene. She worked hard to get her artists museum sales and shows, at a time when museums weren't that interested in American artists.

Her style drew wealthy collectors to her Downtown Gallery, located far from the uptown galleries that sold costlier Eurpean art. One was Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, to whom she introduced folk art.

American artists and art consumed Halpert's life. Her prime dealings were in the 1930s and 1940s, sustaining art sales in the lean times of the Depression and World War II. But her skills were finite; she didn't forsee the success of Abstract Expressionism, and she thought Andy Warhol was vulgar. Plans to donate Halpert's art collection to a museum went awry.

Ailing and apart from the latest directions in art, she ran her gallery till dying in 1970. In 1973, her collection was sold at auction for over $3 million. Pollock reports that Halpert's collection could fetch over $100 million today--an artful irony, since in the 1930s she thought she might have to close up shop.

This book is a highly readable, bittersweet rediscovery of an art dealer who made a difference.

IF YOU READ ARTCENTRIC BOOKS: I would love it if readers of my blog post comments with suggestions of books they have read and want to recommend.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Miami Art Critic on Assignment in Naples

A few days ago I went to my mailbox and found the January 2011 issue of ARTnews. Was delighted to see, on pages 48-49, my News Spotlight profile of Myra Janco Daniels. She's the founding CEO of the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts and an absolutely dynamic woman to interview! Perhaps the most amazing interview of my career in journalism.

I have to say, looking back on our interview during Labor Day weekend in 2010, it was cool to be on assignment again. Of course, going to Naples, Florida is not quite like traveling on assignment to Venice, Italy or Basel, Switzerland or even Havana, Cuba--but this gig was a lot less work, and I did have the distinct pleasure of traveling with my super-duper husband.

Nevertheless, I do want to state very clearly that I am EXTREMELY grateful for those very fab opportunities to travel for the Knight Ridder-owned Miami Herald, thanks to the TERRIFIC publisher the newspaper had at the time. I am for sure confirming this regardless of what anyone may think or say. As we all know, nothing lasts forever, and I really don't have the energy to work to work as hard now as I did then.

I do have astonishing memories from those trips--including taste-testing my fave lemmony desserts in Venice, and having a totally charming dinner with Mark C one evening at an apartment on the Lido, not to mention all the art and architecture I got to see. Venice is my absolutely favorite city in the world!

Then there was the unforgettable time we visited my husband's relatives who still live in Havana, even though most of his Cuban relatives moved to Miami years ago. We brought them medicine. Their modest kitchen looked like the one in the old "Honeymooners" TV sitcom. We wanted to know: Why are you still in Cuba when so much of the family is in Miami? "Some of us have to stay in Cuba," was the reply, which haunts me still.

So back to Naples, Florida...

At an extraordinarily lively event at the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts, security officer Frank Warren grinned and remarked to his indefatigable boss, "Mrs. Daniels, you don't seem to understand. If it wasn't for you, none of this would be here." Warren, a retired NASCAR driver, chuckles as he tells me this story. You could for sure call it a tribute from one hard-driving competitor to another.

Daniels is all smiles as she talks about her latest coup for the Patty & Jay Baker Naples Museum of Art. It's part of the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts (aka "the Phil"), a thriving cultural complex on Florida's west coast. In the fall of 2010, the museum unveiled its recent acquisition, "Dawn's Forest" (1986) by Louise Nevelson. It features geometric structures evoking a forest transformed by snow or moonlight. A painted plywood installation, it is considered Nevelson's largest and most intricate sculptural environment. In some places 30 feet long and 25 feet high, this artwork brings together 12 sculptures produced in the mid-1980s. Nevelson created "Dawn's Forest" for the Georgia-Pacific Center in Atlanta two years before her death.

"The Nevelson is a happening," asserts Daniels. Her excitement about this impressive acquisition is infectious. With a penchant for relating tales from a career distinguished by high-octane exploits, she recalls how, one Friday in early 2010, she learned that "Dawn's Forest" was going to be given to a museum outside Atlanta. The very next day she flew to Atlanta, arriving in a wheelchair because she had injured her foot. (I told you that the woman is indefatigable!) After meeting with agents for the sculpture's owners, Georgia-Pacific LLC and MetLife, she nailed down agreements for the gift, which were announced last May.

When she saw "Dawn's Forest" in its corporate location in Atlanta, she immediately envisioned how it would look in its new home in Naples. "I could imagine the forest," she says, in a slightly hushed tone of voice. "It could be where you see the clouds. I could picture it here." Today, "Dawn's Forest" utterly transforms the museum's glass-domed Figge Conservatory. "At night it is magnificent," Daniels adds.

"It's a coup--because Naples Museum of Art is not exactly a well-known museum--to bring art of this caliber to that part of Florida," says Carol Damian, director of Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum of Florida International University in Miami. "You just don't expect to see a work by Nevelson there," adds Damian. "My mother used to live in Naples. She would tell amazing stories about this woman who said she was going to bring culture to Naples, and Daniels did it."

Daniels tells her own stories about re-inventing sleepy Naples. In the early 1980s, she and her husband Draper Daniels were living in nearby Marco Island. After his death in 1983, she found a new passion as arts activist in Florida. First she plotted to build an orchestra, the "hub" of her vision, and then soon moved to Naples.

"I love my home, but I have to have my career. When you fly with an eagle, you can't go around with a titmouse," she says with characteristic and spirited bluntness. Draper Daniels was a legend in the advertising world, the model for the character Don Draper in the hit TV series "Mad Men." Together the couple shared extraordinary careers as ad executives in Chicago. "My Draper Daniels was a man of high principle, completely different from Don Draper. But they looked exactly alike," she says. "It still spooks me."

In the early 1980s, she was told that there was no audience for classical music in Naples. "People came here to fish, play tennis, and golf. They went to sleep by nine," she laughs. Though she had the means to travel easily to another city to attend concerts and museums, she wanted Naples to share her love of culture.

With $25,000 of her own money, she purchased TV commercials on a station targeted to stock investors. Using her advertising skills, she wrote a script for the ads, in which she invited the city's well-heeled community to be part of a new movement for the arts. "Together we can do it," she wrote. That line brought in $600,000, she recalls. It was just the beginning. In 1986, "the Phil" broke ground on prime real estate, and it opened debt-free a few years later.

Daniels says she has raised $400 million for the center, from both large and small donations. And, she adds, the center has found an audience of more than 10 million people for its programming, which includes not only the orchestra and fine art, but also ballet, comedy, and jazz.

The Naples Philharmonic Orchestra has accompanied such artists as Placido Domingo, Renee Fleming, Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, and Denyce Graves. Meanwhile, the Naples Museum of Art, which opened in 2000, has a permanent collection of abstract works by American modernists, given by Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records. These works do indeed complement "Dawn's Forest," which also somehow seems at home with the museum's Mexican art. Visitors can see both the much-admired "Figura Blanca Desnuda" (White Nude, 1950), by Rufino Tamayo, and "Novia de Tehuantepec" (Bride of Tehuantepec, 1950), by Rosa Rolanda.

"We bought Rosa's work because she was never given credit," says Daniels, partial to women, like Louise Nevelson, not admired until late in life or after death.

Daniels applauds Nevelson's pioneering ambition. "I don't have her talent, but she had a passion. I have that passion," says Daniels, a self-confessed workaholic barely five feet tall in chic black business attire. Declining to give her age, she says she is "past retirement."

For her family, the arts were as vital as food on the table. Growing up shortly after the Depression in Gary, Indiana, she recalls taking the train to Chicago on Saturdays to visit the Art Institute with her mother and a friend. "We were about nine. We would take drawing classes. We thought it was risque because we had to draw nudes," she admits, giggling now at this recollection. Then they attended the children's program of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Her business acumen and civic spirit she credits to the example set by her grandmother Sophie Jancowitz, a Romanian immigrant who found success in real estate and who, on Sundays, tutored Gary's immigrant steel workers in English.

Indignantly, Daniels says one area collector dismissed the Naples Museum of Art as a "crackerbox." Ticking off future plans for "the Phil," she declares, with her trademark indefatigable spirit, "no one tells me something's impossible. All things are possible if you believe."