Friday, April 26, 2013

An Embarrassment of Riches: El Anatsui and John Singer Sargent at the Brooklyn Museum

I found myself at the Brooklyn Museum tonight. I say "found myself" as I never really plan to visit the Museum, I usually just kind of show up if I'm near by and go in on a whim if it's still open. Even if there's nothing really new to look at my favorite pieces are always worth revisiting, and I really am a sucker for the Luce Center for American Art on the fifth floor. The Brooklyn Museum is a remarkable facility, but very often large chunks are usually closed off either for art installations or for the extensive renovations the museum has undergone in the past few years. It's worth it though, especially when you visit and are presented with remarkable exhibits you haven't seen before, which is what happened this evening.

Just a small bit of the massive Sargent Watercolor exhibit
After working my way to the fourth floor I went towards Judy Chicago's always visitable The Dinner Party, which has a fascinating new exhibit ringing it, Workt by Hand: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts.1 Then, through a set of doors and whoosh - a massive exhibit, an entire wing of the Museum, dedicated to one type of work from one prolific artist: John Singer Sargent Watercolors 2 is a gargantuan exhibit of over 100 paintings from a titan of American art. In his life Sargent produced thousands of watercolors, but his legacy is largely held to be in his oil portraiture. The exhibition cogently makes the argument that not only was Singer's watercolors a vital and important part of his creative output but that he was undeniably an unparalleled master of the medium.

John Singer Sargent's Bedouins, 1906
The watercolors on display here are from two collections, one owned by the Brooklyn Museum and the other owned by the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, both purchased from the artist en masse at the beginning of the twentieth century. The paintings show a wide range of subject matter from the portraits that he is best known for to studies of architecture and nature that range from life-like detail to abstract impressionism. The broad range of subject matter and style show his mastery of the form. There is historical context for most of the works, showing the remarkable lengths Sargent would go to to produce his work, always painting from life, almost to the level of being a documentarian in his paintings of a quarry at work in Italy or of his remarkable studies of Bedouins in Syria.

Process junkies will have a field-day here. The Brooklyn and Boston Museums went to great lengths in producing this exhibit, doing (and presenting here) advanced research into the paintings including advanced microscopy, x-ray fluorescence, infrared imaging and a lot more. There are photographic comparisons for some pieces, mini-documentaries on Sargent's processes from the types of paints used to how he accomplished what he did, and even a video presentation of a full-on attempt at recreating one of his works, going into great detail all of the things that make his watercolors special. And these are special watercolors in their broad range of style and subject matter, and this exhibit is a special one indeed, containing dozens upon dozens of his watercolors and even some of his more well-known oil paintings for good measure.

So after spending a good 90 minutes with Sargent, I managed to tear myself away to go up to the fifth floor and quickly made my way towards the Cantor and Seaver Galleries which usually have some pretty excellent exhibits. I wasn't expecting to get my mind blown but I'm pretty sure that Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui 3 left bits of my consciousness strewn across nearby Crown Heights and the Botanical Gardens.

Al Anatsui's Peak (as displayed at the Brooklyn Museum)
El Anatsui is a Ghanian/Nigerian artist and educator who exploded onto the international scene six years ago with his massive and complex, interpretive metalworks. Defying any national or racial or gender or frankly artistic label, Al Anatsui's astonishing sculptures utilize recycled and found objects, woven together into unique and malleable abstract pieces. From a distance his extraordinary tapestries appear to be multifaceted fabrics of shiny silvers and reds and gold. But walk up close and you will see that these monumental... somethings, are made of bottlecaps and tins and aluminum strips from cans and liquor bottles. Both El Anatsui's chosen medium and output are completely unique.

Monumental doesn't scratch the surface of what El Anatsui achieves and what is on display in this exhibit. The title piece, Gravity and Grace,4 is 12 feet high and nearly forty feet long - utilizing tens of thousands of strips of aluminum woven together with copper wire by dozens of workers over weeks into a building-sized blanket - flowing and undulating like a gossamer sheet on a wall. The more you consider his tapestries, the more detail you see and the more you realize how revolutionary this work is, how much it simply defies.

And beyond the huge blanket-like, painting-like, sculpure-like tapestries are his "sculptures" which are always tailored and tweaked by the artist to fit the space provided, or perhaps to become something different based on the artist's always changing vision. Peak, above, left me transfixed, stunned. Using woven tin lids, El Anatsui positioned the work as it's displayed at the Brooklyn Museum into an undulating, shifting series of waves, of tendrils, like something reaching out, dancing up, up, waving. That he created this using tin lids, salvaged, recycled, that the piece is never the same between locations and time, adds to its unique power.

Gli (Wall) by El Anatsui, 2010
Making metal seem like something it is not is the key to El Anatsui's genius. The only stiff, unchanging pieces on display are a series of massive, apparent papier-mache sculptures representing bags. The closer you get, and you see they are made from newspapers. And then you get closer and you see they weren't made from newspapers, but discarded newspaper printing plates, warped and woven to look like papier-mache. I guarantee you've never seen or experienced anything like El Anatsui's art. Each work is evocative and unique and powerful in their own ways. The first thing you see when you enter the exhibit is the piece above, Gli (Wall), a startlingly translucent and airy blanket hung from the museum's dome some three stories up. As you approach it, you see that it is strips of aluminum, rolled into circles and connected with copper wire to the circles around it, like a giant piece of chain-mail. It announces a bold new vision and a bold new type of art from a bracingly unique voice.

Both the comprehensiveness of the Sargent retrospective and the sheer, seismic cultural importance of the El Anatsui exhibit represent sterling examples of The Brooklyn Museum's role as one of this great city's premier artistic institutions. I am going to pull out an old cliche here, for which I apologize, but you need to run, not walk to see these exhibits. (Hell, teleport if you need to.)

John Singer Sargent Watercolors is a presentation of the Brooklyn Museum and The Boston Museum of Fine Arts produced with the support of a ton of different foundations. It is on display at the Brooklyn Museum through July 28, and will be on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts October 13 through January 20. Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui is originally a production of the Akron Art Museum, presented at the Brooklyn Museum with the support of grants from the Knight Foundation, the Broad Art Foundation, and Christie's. It is on display at the Brooklyn Museum through August 4. For more, go to

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