Saturday, 21 March 2009

Paris: The Jazz Century

I'm currently researching a piece about jazz in Paris for a travel magazine and in doing so I came across a great new exhibition. 
   Le Siècle du Jazz, or The Jazz Century, opened this week and features a host of 20th century art, design and memorabilia. They've got Matisse paintings, bebop-inspired illustrations and all manner of photographs from the era, not to mention sound recordings, a programme of concerts and beautiful vintage album covers. I'll give a more comprehensive update once I make it over to see it, but in the meantime the promise of more than 1,000 works, you can't go far wrong. Le Siècle du Jazz runs at the Musée du Quai Branly until 28 June. 

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Pablo Picasso: A Little Mad

London appears to have gone a little mad for old Picasso these last few weeks. First came the National Gallery's new show, Challenging the Past. Curated thematically and packed with his riffs on the Old Masters, it's an impressive collection, albeit let down by the dim-lit surrounds of the Sainsbury Wing basement. However it does offer the chance to see his sprawling take on Velazquez's Las Meninas up close, as well as a number of unusual early self portraits.
     If you do get chance to visit, don't miss out on the print collection that they are showing in Room 1 of the main building either. It's free and offers fifteen extra variations on existing works, taking on Degas, Rembrandt and Cranach with a more voyeuristic outlook.
     Albemarle Street dealer's Connaught Brown are also getting in on the printing act with a collection of minor linocuts and etchings; all blood red femmes, deep cut lines and one thing on his mind. 
     Perhaps most excitingly is The Allure of Language, a new Yale Uni publication that I got my hands on this week. It picks up on how fiction, poetry and philosophy fed into Pablo's early Cubist experiments and blossomed into a life-long fascination with the power of words and images combined. Below are two pages he illustrated for Pierre Reverdy's 1948 book of poems, Le Chant des Morts, or "The Song of the Dead", which are reproduced in the new book.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Ray Johnson: Unpopular Pop

New York artist Ray Johnson (1927-1995) might have relied upon popular culture imagery, yet on this side of the Atlantic at least, his work remains largely unknown. However, a retrospective of his work, Please Add To & Return, opened on Saturday at new East London gallery Raven Row and should hopefully introduce him to a new audience. 
     Johnson graduated from Carolina's liberal Black Mountain College in 1948, where his contemporaries included Willem de Kooning, Cy Twombly and Robert De Niro Sr - the actor's father and a noted abstract expressionist artist in his own right. On moving to New York the same year, he started producing Pop-style portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley (see the striking Elvis #2, 1956-57, pictured right) almost a decade before Warhol and co. got in on the act.
     During this period, Johnson worked in a bookstore on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where he developed his interest in Zen philosophy and the art of chance. This fed into his art practice, as he took up where Marcel Duchamp left off and began to mail unfinished compositions to his friends, with instructions for them to participate in the creative process and send them on. These instructions would often become part of the works themselves.
     Unfortunately he didn't remain so sociable. On the same day in 1968 that Andy Warhol was shot, Johnson too was mugged and attacked near his home in a separate incident. By all accounts, the experience shook the artist, as he withdrew from city life and became increasingly reclusive, even declining offers to show his work by the early 1990s. It is only now, following his suicide by drowning in 1995 that his work is finally beginning to take its rightful place among the 20th century's most challenging and influential names. A personal archive of unseen works were found at his home after his death, adding to his fascinating legacy.
     Ray Johnson. Please Add To & Return runs until 10 May at Raven Row, 56 Artillery Lane, London E1. Image courtesy of the Estate of Ray Johnson at Richard L. Feigen & Co.