Geneva Anderson digs into art

Closing Monday: “Cindy Sherman” at SFMOMA, the most comprehensive U.S. exhibition of her groundbreaking work in 15 years and the only stop on the West Coast

An 18 foot tall photographic mural marks the entrance to the exhibition “Cindy Sherman,” at SFMOMA. Instead of relying solely on her signature use of makeup and prosthetics, Sherman used Photoshop to alter her image for the various personas on the mural. The exhibition features 155 of her works and closes Monday, October 8, 2012.

Entering SFMOMA’S 3rd floor Cindy Sherman exhibition, viewers are first greeted by a colossal photo mural featuring several different 18-foot figures from daily life chameleon Cindy Sherman has taken on.  Ranging from what might be woman in a dance class, to a society woman in a red brocade housedress, to a blonde babushka gardener sporting a country-fair medal and cradling a bunch on freshly-picked baby leeks, to a showgirl in a feathered leotard, the women don’t fit into any pat category but hint at the multiple and varied roles contemporary women play.

Sherman created the floor-to-ceiling mural specifically for her travelling retrospective, which first opened in New York at MOMA in February (2012) and will close its run at SFMOMA on Monday, October 8, 2012.   Sherman helped install the SFMOMA show herself and tweaked the mural especially for the Bay Area, using different characters than those included in New York.  The mural shows how her work has changed with evolving digital technology and the magic of image editing.  Instead of the elaborate stage make-up and prostheses that made her famous—seminal examples are on display in the interior galleries—she has now embraced Photoshop.  The mural itself is printed on several gigantic sheets of a special type of contact paper.

One of Sherman’s most recent works, “Untitled #512” (2011), is a 6 x11 foot chromogenic c-print, depicting the artist in feathery white Chanel couture against a harsh and rocky Icelandic seascape. The melancholic setting was digitally inserted behind Sherman’s figure and embellished with expressive faux-brushstrokes.

The 155 images on display through Monday constitute the largest collection of Sherman’s work ever exhibited on the West Coast, and this is the only West Coast showing of the retrospective, which moves to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (November 10-February 17, 2013), and then to the Dallas Museum of Art (March 17-June 9, 2013).

Untitled Film Stills: The exhibition includes a complete set of her seminal Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), perhaps her most well-known and recognizable works. Organized and hung per Sherman’s instructions after she visited SFMOMA, these 70 black-and-white photographs, roughly 8 x 10 inches each, are presented in tightly stacked rows that completely fill a small interior gallery’s walls.   The subject: movie roles for women influenced by 1950s and ’60s film noir, big-budget Hollywood and European art house films.  In each of these photographs, resembling back lot movie stills, Sherman plays an archetype—not an actual person, nor a replication of a scene from an actual movie—but a self-fabricated fictional character in a setting that clicks into our collective subconscious as “the housewife,” “the prostitute,” “the woman in distress,” “the woman in tears,” etc.  Sherman doesn’t title any of her works, a decision which invites the viewer to freely associate.  These recycled tropes, which reverberate off of each other, evoke any number of reactions but most certainly…how does she do it, and by “it,” I mean the dropping of one persona and complete embodiment of another?

Sherman uses herself as a model wearing Balenciaga in 2007, just one of a series of collaborations with the revered design house. Sherman has also worked with Marc Jacobs and Comme de Garcons. Cindy Sherman, “Untitled #458,” (2007-8), Chromogenic c-print, 196.5 x 148 cm, Glenstone.

Centerfolds:  All 12 of her controversial Art Forum magazine centerfolds (1981) are included.  The series takes the horizontal centerfold as its conceptual and physical framework and is comprised of 12 life-size 2 x 4 foot images, shot close-up and then cropped to appear squeezed into the frame. It depicts young women in various elaborate outfits—plaid kilts, gingham dress, wet t-shirts—provocatively posed and uncomfortably baring their disturbed souls.  While Sherman was commissioned by the influential magazine to do the series, it was rejected by editor Ingrid Sischy who thought the images might be misunderstood, and the series consequently never ran.  These images have since become some of her most widely discussed and influential work.

Society Women: Some of her strongest work appears at the end of the exhibition—a 2008 series of untitled portraits of aging society women, done in such grand scale that they are nearly life sized, intensifying the tension, vulnerability and uncertainty associated with women and issues of stature, aspiration, wealth, age, beauty, and desire.  Each portrait appears sympathetically done at first glance but, upon closer inspection, becomes a subtle critique of the subject.  In “Untitled #466,” Sherman portrays an elegant woman wearing a shimmering turquoise caftan, with lovely jewelry, regally posed in what appears to be the courtyard of her Tuscan-style villa.  Not one hair is out of place but her exposed foot speaks volumes—it’s clad in thick support hose and pink plastic slippers of the Dollar Store type.

Cindy Sherman, “Untitled #476,” (2008), Chromogenic color-print, 214.6 x 172.7 cm), Collection of Pamela and Arthur Sanders.

“The women in this body of work are in many ways tragic,” said  says Eva Respini, Associate Curator of Photography, MOMA, who organized the show.  “Because they are presented in larger than life size, you can really see every detail and that speaks to this contemporary way of being and the fact that photography is very complicit in the way in which identity is manufactured today.”

While many may mistake Sherman’s photographs for self-portraits, these photographs only play with elements of self-portraiture and are really something quite different.  Sherman is just the model. “Everything is carefully constructed,” says Respini. “These are really all about identity—an exploration of multiple identities.  She was her own model because it was convenient.”

The exhibition also includes selections from her major series: “Fairy Tale/Mythology” (1985), “History Portraits” (1988-90), “Sex Pictures” (1992), “Head Shots” (2000), “Clowns” (2002-04), “Fashion” (1983-84, 1993-94, 2007-08).

A fully illustrated catalogue, Cindy Sherman, accompanies the exhibition, with essays by exhibition curator Eva Respini and art historian Johann Burton, as well as a new interview with Sherman conducted by filmmaker and artist John Waters.  The local curator is Erin O’Toole, assistant curator of photography at SFMOMA.

Read more here:

Details: Cindy Sherman runs through Monday, October 8, 2012.  SFMOMA is located at 151 Third St. (between Mission and Howard), San Francisco. Hours: Monday-Tuesday,11 a.m.-5:45 p.m.; closed Wednesday; Thursday, 11 a.m.-8:45 p.m.; Friday-Sunday,11 a.m.-5:45 p.m. Admission: SFMOMA members are free.  Tickets: Adults $18, seniors (62 and older) $13, students (with current ID) $11, active U.S. military personnel and their families are free, children 12 and under accompanied by an adult are free; half-price admission Thursday evenings 6-8:45 p.m.; the first Tuesday of each month is free.


October 6, 2012 Posted by | Art, SFMOMA | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Interview: renowned artist and illustrator, Paul Davis, talks about his “Napoleon” poster, especially commissioned for the U.S. premiere of Abel Gance’s reconstructed silent film masterpiece

New York artist and illustrator, Paul Davis, who created the poster for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's exclusive screenings of Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” signed his posters at Oakland’s elegant Paramount Theatre on Sunday, March 25, 2012. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Abel Gance’s riveting silent film, “Napoleon,” presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF), has taken the Bay Area by storm—and there are just two remaining opportunities to catch the reconstructed classic: this Saturday and Sunday at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre.  Equally amazing is the film’s poster, essentially a huge portrait of Napoleon, evoking the tri-colored French flag, created especially for the event by legendary artist and illustrator Paul Davis.  Even if you’re not familiar with Paul Davis, you’re likely familiar with Paul Davis’ work, especially if you went to any Broadway or off-Broadway shows in the 1970’s or 80’s, where you would have seen his posters, or if you read magazines like Time, Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, Esquire, etc., where he’s done both illustrations and covers.   When the prestigious Centre Georges Pompidou opened in Paris in 1977, Davis was the first American artist to show his work there—his solo show was part of the museum’s opening festivities.  His artwork is also included in  MOMA’s poster collection.  His career spans 50 plus years and his creative voice has helped define that world where art, illustration, design and typography all spill brilliantly into each other.  

His Napoleon poster, too, is sure to become a classic: on the top is an evocative portrait of a young Napoleon, the man who would defend a nation during its greatest Revolution.  Executed in rich hues of blue, with strands of seafoam hair framing his pensive face, the young leader stares imperiously—right at you and right through you.  On the bottom, in red, there’s a subtle use of an epic battle scene from Napoleon’s Italian campaign which closes the film.  Blazoned across the center in a gorgeous typeface called Eagle is “Napoleon” set off by a white backdrop.  Full size posters and window placards are all around the Bay Area and, last weekend, a few were brought to Sonoma County.  

Bruce Goldstein, of New York’s Film Forum, on the advisory board for SFSFF and handling the national publicity for the Napoleon event, suggested Davis for the poster.  “All Paul’s posters have a real psyche,” said Goldstein, who first worked with Davis in the late 1990’s, when his company, Rialto Pictures, commissioned him to do the poster for the special re-release of Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), one of the greatest movies of all time.  “We needed something special, not a run of the mill poster, and Paul Davis, was the illustrator who came to mind who was worthy of Grand Illusion.  And he delivered!  I might also add that his image for Grand Illusionbecame the very first image used as a DVD cover by the Criterion Collection, which was quite an honor for Criterion.”

 “Most movie posters today, even those for so-called art house films, are filled with clichés—it’s just ridiculous,” said Goldstein.  “We didn’t want the Napoleon poster to be an advertisement but rather an enduring work of art in the tradition of the great poster designers of the 19th century, like Toulouse-Lautrec.  You’ll see textual information, which had to be there, but you won’t see any critical quotes on this poster.”

“A poster makes an incredible impression and it’s really a very important factor in the decision to go and see a film,” said Anita Monga, Artistic Director, San Francisco Silent Film Festival, “This is an artwork that makes you want to see the film and that you’ll want to have afterwards to commemorate the screening.  It’s all we’re using.”

I couldn’t wait to speak with Davis about his poster and I caught up with him at last Friday’s dress rehearsal for Napoleon at the Paramount Theatre.

How did you approach a poster design project like this?

Paul Davis:  I first saw the film in 1981, when it was at Radio City Music Hall with a live orchestra and it was quite dramatic.  I remember that feeling of being swept up in it, the emotions, but not so many of the details.  I managed to download the whole thing from the internet on my computer and I really looked at it and that’s where I got most of my reference material from too.  I knew I was going to do a portrait of Napoleon right away.  It was really hard to find that right image–I did a half a dozen portraits before I did this one.   This was from a frame right out of the film itself.

The creative process also has a lot to do with intention.  When I set out to do something like this, I go to the material and I go as deeply as I can go, finding out what moves me and working off of that.  I started on this project last summer and I had several versions and that’s how it’s done.  Sometimes there’s a great film and it really suffers from this lack of attention and that always mystifies me.

Why are so many movie posters today absolute turn-offs?

I ask myself that all the time.  You can look at a movie poster and you say, ‘I know that genre; I don’t want to see the movie.’  But these designers so often miss the point of the movie—they’re so interested in making sure that you know the genre and in capturing a given audience that they are unwilling to experiment in capturing what’s actually moving about that film.  As a result, a lot of posters are negative advertising.     

A film frame of French actor, screenwriter, film director and novelist Albert Dieudonné, who plays the adult Napoleon in Abel Gance’s silent film “Napoléon,” was the basis of artist Paul Davis’ limited edition poster that was commissioned by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for its special Bay Area screenings of the newly restored masterpiece. Image: courtesy SFSFF

For me, what works about the Napoleon image you’ve created is that he is both looking at us and right through us, as if he’s fixed on more important things, which seems so appropriate.  We have a glimpse of his internal world and there’s an almost filmic saturation of the colors. 

Paul Davis:  I do try to capture as much of the character as I can.  There is an emotional quality as well.  He’s looking out into the world.  He was such an unusual character, so very confident and such a leader.   People don’t do what he did without tremendous courage, audacity, and arrogance.  

In terms of a subject for a portrait, it’s hard to take your eyes off Albert Dieudonné−those penetrating eyes and his total embodiment of a complex and driven personality.  

Paul Davis:   Actually, they weren’t sure they were going to cast him; he really had to convince Gance, who thought he was too old.  He dressed up in the uniform and went over to visit him―they were friends―and he got the part.

The portrait that is so familiar of Napoleon though, that is in everyone’s mind, is the one of Napoleon with his hands in his coat, with that kind of permanent scowl, which is so grim.  I wanted to make the poster a likeness of Dieudonné, with an echo of what we all know about Napoleon−that fierce grin on his face.  Actually, if you look closely at the poster, at the face, you’ll a great difference in the whites of his eyes too.  If you look at people’s faces and divide them, there are two different people in everyone.    

So the inspiration is a film still, but you had a real vision of what it should convey.

Paul Davis:  Well, I took the frames I liked off the film, literally hundreds and hundreds of them, and then I loaded them all in iPhoto and I studied them.  I was really looking for very subtle types of emotion and when I finally arrived at that, I printed those out and drew from a few of those.  I actually made several finished portraits.  I was trying to depict that moment when he internalizes that he is the revolution, with him gazing upwards and having the light come from behind his head.  I was working and working with that but I couldn’t get it―it wasn’t convincing.  The one that I chose was the last one that I made.  I knew I had it because it did everything I wanted it to do.

Beyond the idea of a portrait, how did you approach designing this?

For the battle scene at the bottom, I started with a chaotic scene from the film but it was so blurry and it didn’t have everything I wanted, so I started inserting figures and objects into that, that you could read and identify.

Would you say you’re very influenced by and even dependent on photos? 

Paul Davis:   Of course, but when I do the theatre things, if I could get access, I’ve always tried to take my own photographs and to spend time close to the heart of the performance.  I try to see the person separately so that I can have an idea of their character.   For me, I felt that I need to get to know them.  I attempted that here too, to capture Napoleon’s personality.

Paul Davis designed the limited edition poster for the 1999 theatrical re-release of Jean Renoir's 1937 "Grand Illusion. His same poster image also serves as "Spine #1," the first DVD, for the Criterion Collection's elite collection of classic films. Limited-edition U.S. one-sheet, matte finish, 27 x 40 inches, created for the 1999 theatrical rerelease. image: courtesy Paul Davis

When do you add color?  Also, how did you handle the division of space and how it all comes together?

Paul Davis:  First, I compose the image and the color comes last.  I painted the portrait blue and the battle scene red with Photoshop.  I had the idea for the tricolor from the film itself because, at the end of the film, the screen is tricolor, pretty hard and intense―the left screen is blue; the middle is white; the right is red.  The images are just sort of boiling over those colors and that’s the end of the film.

But before that, I basically have the two images in the computer and I set up the size of the poster and start playing with the scale so that I could make the battle scene wider or narrower or deeper or shallower.  Then, I added the white in the center.  I also had to add all that text at the bottom. At that point, it becomes more technical, just trying to fit everything in.  I knew that I didn’t want any text above his face so I convinced everyone to put the title in the middle and everything else beneath that. 

You’ve chosen a very simple typeface but the color makes it pop.

Paul Davis:   That typeface is “Eagle” and it’s one of my favorites. I don’t pick them by name but there’s an eagle in the movie that keeps appearing, so this is the perfect typeface.  It’s from the 1930’s and it’s very useful and you’d be surprised at how many places in the world that it appears.  Once you start noticing those spiky m’s and n’s and the perfectly round o’s―it’s really gorgeous.  Napoleon has this wonderful “o” in it and “n’s” on both ends and it’s such a great word that really works with that font.

What was the feeling you wanted to evoke though the typeface?

Paul Davis designed the poster for Joseph Papp's 1976 production of "The ThreePenny Opera," by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil, starring Raul Julia as Mack, and performed at the 1976 New York Shakespeare Festival. Image courtesy: Paul Davis.

Paul Davis:  I wasn’t trying for nostalgia at all, maybe the opposite.  I tried another typeface of Cassandre’s (pseudonym of the legendary French artist Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron) called “Bifur.”  Cassandre was a great poster designer who did all those great 1920’s posters we know of steamships and so forth.  Bifur is an experimental font from that era which I always wanted to use but haven’t yet.  It just didn’t work for the poster, so I used Eagle instead, which is from also that era and from that same period in which Gance was working, that very modern age.  The colorization was handled through Photoshop.

Sounds like you reply on your iPhone, Photoshop and the new design tools.

Paul Davis:  Photoshop, an Apple computer, iPhone and quite a lot of software—it’s all standard for artists now.  The only thing that is a little unusual about the work that I do is that I also do a lot of illustration and I also do design.  The illustrators all want to know if I had to learn about type and the type designers all want to know if they have to learn about drawing.   My attitude is why wouldn’t they want to know−it’s like consciously choosing to remain crippled. 

Your website has a fabulous gallery of work.  I recognize several of these images.  Which are your favorites?

Paul Davis:   The early theatre posters I did for Joe Papp―The Three Penny Opera and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.   Those were the first real theatre posters I did.  That was over 30 years ago.  I did most of these within a year or two of each other and I was exploring new ground and I was very receptive to trying many different things for new effects.  To kind of begin a career with an opportunity like this was really good because it gave me the chance to do the type of work that I wanted to do.

How many movie posters have you done and how are they different from your theatre posters?

Paul Davis:  There are different contractual agreements.  In terms of film posters, I’ve done:  Small Circle of Friends (Rob Cohen, 1980, starring Brad Davis, Karen Allen and Jameson Parker), Secret Friends (Dennis Potter, 1992, starring Alan Bates),  Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937, starring Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Eric von Stroheim) and Napoleon.  I’ve done quite a lot of sketches for movie posters that were rejected and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to do them.  We’re doing another Grand Illusion poster for the 75th anniversary.  They are doing a digital version of the original print, so I’m doing that too.

What makes a movie poster work for you?

Paul Davis:  I really love the posters from the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s.  They had very exciting graphics but they weren’t taken very seriously in terms of being an art form.  Some movies had as many as 1,000 printed pieces that went with them to the exhibitor and, to capture different audiences, they would do two and three posters for some movies.  They would also put little contests into the posters too to find out whether people were actually looking at them.  They would print small things like, “Mention this when you come to the theatre and you’ll get a prize.”  I was amazed at how intense some of these posters were and how creatively they were designed and how they made real statements.  In the 1930’s and 1940’s, they used some of the very best artists in New York for these—like Al Hirshfeld.  When it came to prizes, these artists never won any prizes for these things because I think they were considered kind a low form of art.   That whole era, when they were churning them out and were so experimental, is very exciting for me.

Paul Davis’ 1968 portrait of Che Guevara, based on a photograph by Alberto Korda, became the February cover of liberal “Evergreen Review.” The public response was instant and intense—copies of the poster were defaced and a bomb was thrown into the Evergreen offices. 30 x 45 inches. Image: Paul Davis

What poster artists inspire you?  I’ve read that you really appreciate Toulouse Lautrec.  

Paul Davis:  The best posterist at the time was Jules Cheret, known for his rainbow of color…an almost impressionistic splatter of color…but Lautrec, one of the very best artists, really breathed life into his art.   And because he was wealthy, and could do what he wanted, he was such a great artist.  Lautrec, Cheret and Cassandre—the high art they brought to the poster was unexcelled.  So the poster, for me, really starts in France and then it goes to a lot of other places.   I heard that Lautrec used to go and stay in the country with some friends of his and, every day at their house, he would write the menu for dinner and make a drawing and would do this in multiple.  The woman who owned the house would throw them away afterwards.   And apparently he never objected at all to her behavior.  It just makes me sick to think of throwing out those drawings.

What are you working on right now?

Paul Davis:   Two things.  A promotion for a new project about Eleanor Roosevelt (a video) and I really want to do a portrait of Obama for the election. I had this idea four years ago but the Shepard Fairey inauguration poster just swamped everything and it was so good, very graphic, and you really remember it.  I also thought I ought to do a poster of Mitt Romney too, just to be fair.  Norman Rockwell did this.  He did Nixon and John F. Kennedy and he did Eisenhower and Stevenson and he would do these portraits every 4 or 8 years, and he was so even handed.  I really want to do this.

But it sounds like you’re not so interested in being even handed?

Paul Davis:   No.

Do you have any personal connection to Napoleon?

Paul Davis:   Well, I grew up in Oklahoma.  In 1803; Napoleon sold that land, which included Oklahoma and 14 others states, in the Louisiana Purchase to Thomas Jefferson.  If he hadn’t sold this, I might be French today.  So that’s my connection.

If you could somehow go back in time to Napoleon’s era when he was the most important figure in world politics and the frequent subject of caricature, how might you have depicted him?

Paul Davis:  I don’t know what I would have done.  The fact is that they were sending English caricaturists to jail in France for what they did…but the satire back then was quite sophisticated.  I recently saw an image at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in their exhibition, “Caricature and Satire From Leonardo to Levine” of a caricature done by the famous English artist, James Gillray, dated 1805, showing Napoleon and William Pitt, who was England’s Prime Minister, though they didn’t use that title at the time.  The two of them are carving up the world―depicted as a big plum pudding with the Earth drawn on it.  The thing that struck me as fascinating was that Gillray was criticizing the English military mandate in the same way that he was criticizing Napoleon.  You saw Napoleon slicing off Europe and the

The political cartoon first appeared in England. Here two famous individuals, Napoleon and William Pitt, are the butts of the artist James Gillray, who is satirizing both France and England. "The Plumb-pudding in danger-- or State Epicures Taking un Petit Souper" 1805," colored engraving, 240 x 340 mm, British Museum, London. Image courtesy: British Museum.

English guy slicing off another side, like the Americas.  Napoleon was trying to unite Europe and started out with a very noble cause, wanting to bring about real change.  In the beginning, the French Revolution was supposed to bring liberty, equality and fraternity and it did remove a lot of obstacles to progress but it brought along a lot of horrible things as awful people came to power.  Napoleon came in at the end of that and he was lucky that he didn’t get caught up in it, or killed.  He seemed set to really change things but he became a total nepotist and had members of his direct family made kings (of Belgium, Italy and Spain) and that flew in the face of everything the revolution had fought for.  I’m sure I would have found a way to comment on that, but it was also dangerous. 

Paul Davis’ Artwork appearing in film and television:  Paul Davis’ artwork has appeared in many movies and TV shows. When Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason share an apartment in The Goodbye Girl, it is decorated with Davis’s poster for the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Henry V.  Davis’s poster of Che Guevara appears both in Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! and Rob Cohen‘s A Small Circle of Friends.  In the film adaptation of John Guare‘s Six Degrees of Separation, Davis’s mural for New York City’s Arcadia restaurant is featured.  Paul’s iconic poster for the Public Theater production of Three Penny Opera is on the wall of Jonathan Eliot’s apartment in the NBC sitcom The Single Guy. In the 2009 film Precious, Paul’s poster for the 1975 production of Ntozake Shange‘s For Colored Girls adorns the teacher’s apartment.

Click here to purchase a limited edition Napoleon poster by Paul Davis.  (27” x 40”  $30.00 and 11” x 17’ $15.00)  Posters will also be available at all four screenings.

More about Paul Davis:  There’s a very good article by Steven Heller about Paul Davis (click here to read) at AIGA, the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

Paul Davis’ Napoleon poster was printed by Jeff Baltimore of XL Graphics, Inc., in NY.

Napoleon Event Details: 

What:  Silent film historian Kevin Brownlow’s 2000 reconstruction, the most complete possible restoration of 1927 5 ½ hour film in the original 20 frames per second, with the finale in polyvision, requiring 3 screens. The Oakland East Bay Symphony will be conducted by the eminent British composer, Carl Davis, whose score will be the live accompaniment to the film. This is the U.S. premiere for both the reconstruction and the music. 

2 remaining performances: Saturday, March 31, 2012, and Sunday, April 1, 2012

Where: Paramount Theatre, Oakland

Time: All four performances begin at 1:30pm. There will be three intermissions: two 20-minute intermissions and a 1 hour, 45 minute dinner break starting at 5:00pm. View Places to Eat for nearby restaurant recommendations and make reservations in advance.

The film itself is 5½ hours long; with intermissions included, the show will let out at approximately 9:45pm.

Tickets: Buy tickets for all Napoleon performances here.

More Information: San Francisco Silent Film Festival

March 29, 2012 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Artist Jeanne-Claude has died suddenly. She lived a full life. May she now wrap Heaven in shimmering fabrics

Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebone, wife and artistic partner of Christo, died suddenly Wednesday, November 19, 2009, in Manhattan, where she had lived with Christo since 1964.  A statement on the couple’s website said that she died of a ruptured brain aneurysm.  She was 74.  I met her several times throughout the years and found her both enchanting and frank–hallmarks of a strong woman.  The last time we met was in mid-September at “The Running Fence at 33” gathering,  when she and Christo spent the afternoon in Valley Ford reminiscing with old friends about “The Running Fence,” which graced our California coastline 33 years earlier.  German filmmaker Wolfram Hissen was there shooting a documentary film about the fence and George Gurney, deputy chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum was also there preparing for “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76, A Documentation Exhibition,” which opens April 2, 2010, in Washington and will travel nationally.  

Looking back at that lovely event, I am thankful that I had the chance to greet her again and that she was able to visit with friends who were part of her formative years.  She said several times that afternoon that she felt as if she had “come home.”   When I wrote about the gathering, my headline pointed to what was coming “..we’re all older but the fence lives on..”  Many of the farmers who had given the young couple permission to put the fence up on their property had passed away and most of the people at the gathering were well over 50.  Talking about the fence took us all back to our youthful days.   Jeanne-Claude was happy and spoke excitedly about their new project “Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado.”    which had suffered the standard bureaucratic and funding snafus that accompany these immense temporal  projects.  Her red-orange hair—reminiscent of the cotton candy hair of a clown– seemed brighter than it had ever been before.  She signed autographs and poured over pictures and maps.  She spoke graciously with strangers and lovingly with dear friends.  And, like a little girl, she snuck a cigarette with an old friend and told us not to photograph her smoking because she didn’t want to be seen promoting something that was unhealthy.     

Jeanne-Claude and Christo in younger days (image by Fred Modarrah)

I have always been fascinated by artist couples who manage to pull it off—a loving marriage, a creative partnership and fame.  Their collaborative approach, which I had heard them describe a few times in the 1990’s, always left me hungering for more information.  It was described as follows–Christo and Jeanne-Claude would come up with an idea and he would prepare drawings, scale models and descriptive items that could be sold to realize the full-scale project.  She was a driving force in other ways, particularly with financial affairs, permitting and when the project was going up on site– The only problem with this explanation was that it seemed to contradict an earlier history of sole attribution to Christo that had been in practice from the 1960’s through the 1980’s.

Around the time the Wrapped Reichstag project (1971-95) was nearing its completion– about 1994—Christo and Jeanne-Claude began to insist on retroactive joint attribution of all artworks from the 1960’s onwards that had previously been attributed to Christo.   They essentially re-branded themselves.  Before, they asserted they had been “Christo” and now they were instead “Christo and Jeanne-Claude.”     The problem I see in that is that it does not answer when or how she began to think of herself an as artist and it clashes with earlier comments Christo made about his artistic process.  In my mind, a large part of making art is declarative–asserting that what you are doing is art when you are doing it.  It is less powerful when it comes 30 years after the fact.  

Christo and Jeanne-Claude (image by Wolfgang Volz)

So in the 1990’s, it was asserted frequently that she and he shared equally in the creative process.  At other times during this period, Christo spoke of himself as the artist, the one who had absolute control over all the decisions.  There are quotes to back-up competing interpretations.   Their website has a section called “Common Errors” which explains it this way: “In 1994 they decided to officially change the artist name Christo into: the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. They have been working together since their first outdoor temporary work: “Dockside Packages, Cologne Harbor, 1961.” Because Christo was already an artist when they met in 1958 in Paris, and Jeanne-Claude was not an artist then, they have decided that their name will be ” Christo and Jeanne-Claude”, NOT Jeanne-Claude and Christo.” 

Nice dodge.  I would have loved to have spoken with them about the topic of authorship, though I suspect the conversation would not have been an easy one.  I suspect the truth is that they struggled with this and reached some negotiated decision and then set it aside and got back to work, which they seemed to thrive on.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude met in Paris, France, in November, 1958—Christo Javachef, a native Bulgarian from Gabrovo, was a young impoverished refugee artist, who had recognized artistic talent and had already wrapped a few things.  She was born in Casablanca, Morocco, where her father, Major Léon Denat was in the French military.  Her mother, Précilda, divorced Denat after Jeanne-Claude’s birth and remarried three times.  During WWII, Jeanne-Claude lived with her father’s family while her mother fought in the French Resistance.  In 1946, Précilda married the influential General Jacques de Guillebon and the family led a priviledged life in Berne from 1948 to 1951, then in Tunisia from 1952 to 1957.  In 1957 they returned to Paris and lived in comfort.  Jeanne-Claude earned a baccalaureate in Latin and philosophy in 1952 from the University of Tunis. 

Jeanne-Claude met Christo in Paris in 1958 while she–a young debutant– was enagaged to be married and he was painting a portrait of her mother.  It is well-known that Christo invited her to his place to see his real artwork—sculptural pieces which were a series of wrapped found objects—and that she thought he was crazy but she was hooked.  She became pregnant by Christo but married her fiance, an older man, and then divorced him immediately and took up with Christo, delivering their child Cyril in 1960.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

The couple not only share the same birthday but the same time of birth on June 13, 1935. They emigrated to New York from Paris in 1964 and worked together for over 40  years creating temporary artistic interventions involving covering, wrapping or altering landscapes.  Iconic best describes their impact.  Many people I have spoken with have mentioned a sense of the spiritual and others see it as a kind of architectural humor.    Whatever the reaction, is it deep and memorable–no one walks away from one of their installations without being stirred.  Their projects have been immortalized in six films by filmmaker Albert Maysles, whose first film “Christo’s Valley Curtain” was nominated for an oscar.   German filmmaker Wolfram Hissen also paid homage to the couple with his 1996 film “To the German People: The Wrapped Reichstag.” 

 My favorites of their 18 realized projects  are “ Running Fence” (1972-74),  “Pont Neuf Wrapped” (Paris, 1975-85) and  “Wrapped Reichstag”  (Berlin, 1971-1995)—all of which required years of planning and lengthy campaigns to obtain the necessary permits.  In September, Jeanne-Claude, with a mixture of pride and weariness, reminisced about the tenacity these bureaucratic interfaces required, particularly “The Running Fence” which was one of their earliest big projects.  I think it is fair to say that everyone in attendance at the event was proud that Christo and Jeanne-Claude had cut their teeth for these projects here on our home turf.   And, what a battle it was– they perservered and, in the end, created the most lyrical outdoor intervention ever.

 While the couple were long-term residents of New York, “The Gates” (1979-2005) was the only project they succeeded in installing in New York City, in Central Park.  They signed a 43 page contract with the city of New York before they could install the 7,503 orange fabric panels of varying heights that graced Central Park for 16 days.

The couple’s website is the best place to read about their work.   Whatever they have declared about the change from “Christo” to “Christo and Jeanne-Claude”, the institutions that house the artworks done by Christo’s hand have not followed suit with retroactive joint attribution.  That may or may not be important to Christo, who survives his wife and, according to their website, plans to continue on creating in both their names.    

SFMOMA has a number of photos and drawings by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in their collection with attribution solely to Christo Javacheff.  Images of “The Running Fence” dominate their Christo holdings and were accessioned in 1977, a year after the project was realized.  None of these are currently on display.  The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) has 22 of Christo’s drawings, attributed solely to Christo (Christo Javacheff).  Ditto for the Smithsonian American Art Museum which in 2008 acquired the complete documentation of “The Running Fence.”  The title of the exhibition does credit Jeanne-Claude—“Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76, A Documentation Exhibition.” 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s artworks are temporary and immortal, living on in our dreams long after they have been taken down.   As a new cycle now begins for Jeanne-Claude that is even richer than her time here on earth, may she smile as she wraps heaven in shimmering fabrics.

November 20, 2009 Posted by | Art | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Richard Avedon at SFMOMA: A Powerful Retrospective of the Legendary Photographer through November 29, 2009. SFMOMA is the show’s only U.S. venue

Richard Avedon, Self-portrait, Provo, Utah, August 20, 1980; © 2009 The Richard Avedon Foundation

Throughout his celebrated six-decade career, Richard Avedon (1923-2004) has always drawn huge crowds.  His fashion photography, portraiture and reportage, an innovative juggling of commercial and fine art photograph, have seared themselves into our memory.  His current show at SFMOMA, “Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004” July 11 through November 29, 2009, is the first comprehensive retrospective his work since his death in 2004 and delivers over 200 of his signature photographs along with some surprises—lesser known photographs that are remarkable.  SFMOMA is the only US venue this show.  The exhibition was organized by Helle Crenzien in 2007 for The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art Denmark in cooperation with the Richard Avedon Foundation and it has traveled to Italy, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.  It is installed here by Sandra Phillips, SFMOMA Senior Curator of Photography, with support from SFMOMA curator Corey Keller, Norma Stevens and James Martin from the Richard Avedon Foundation and the Jeffrey Frankel Gallery.

Richard Avedon, Dovima with elephants, evening dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, August 1955; © 2009 The Richard Avedon Foundation

Aside from the famous models (Dovima, Suzy Parker, Veruschka, Twiggy), there are movie stars (Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn), rock stars (the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Björk), world leaders (Eisenhower, Kissinger, Ted Kennedy), writers and poets (Ezra Pound, Renata Adler), artists (Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol) and non-famous people.  It all adds up to a show that equals the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2002 blockbuster show “Richard Avedon: Portraits.”   Now that Avedon is dead, what kind of artist we judge him to be is ultimately based on the work we see and its presentation, which makes posthumous retrospectives vitally important. 

This exhibition is organized chronologically, highlighting the major themes and benchmark moments in Avedon’s prolific career—his early post WWII street scenes; his breakthrough into fashion work in the 1950’s; his expansive reportage of American counterculture in the 1960’s and 1970’s; his Reagan-era series of portraits of non-famous people—cowboys, drifters—on the fringe and his iconic portraits of the influential and famous.  The galleries are filed with unforgettable gorgeously printed pictures–medium-sized, large, larger and really really large, like the 31 foot long 1969 mural of Andy Warhol and several of his Factory gang, buck-naked. 

Avedon, Homage to Munkacsi. Carmen, coat by Cardin, Place Franḉois-Premiere, Paris, August 1957, @2009 The Richard Avedon Foundation

 With Avedon, it’s all about people—capturing them at that perfect moment in time when you sense you can read them— against a backdrop that is either a highly-stylized fashion environment infused with energy and movement or, for the portraits, a stark sheet.  Either way, Avedon was in full control of everything down to the finest detail.

 Of his early fashion photography, certainly the most famous images are those of his beloved models– “Dovima with Elephants, evening dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, August 1955” and “Homage to Munkacsi, Carmin, Coat by Cardin, Place Franḉois-Premier, Paris, August 1957”  which captures Carmen gliding effortlessly in mid air as she steps off a curb into a Paris street.  Avedon was inspired by the Hungarian-born Martin Munkacsi, whose work he had come across in Harper’s Bazar and Vogue.  Munkacsi was a former sports photographer who revolutionized the static world of fashion photography by injecting it with movement. Avedon added to Munkacsi’s pioneering work by infusing the movement with soul and emotion.

Richard Avedon, Marilyn Monroe, actor, New York, May 6, 1957; © 2009 The Richard Avedon Foundation

 As Avedon quickly found his expressive groove in the fashion work, his career took off and he successfully and seriously embraced portraiture.  His stark portraits have been described as unforgettable, as being unusually good at capturing character.  The truth is that we read into these whatever we want to see.  We all have an internal filter–whatever we think we may know about that person, we project onto their image.  Critic Michael Kimmelman writes “The tradeoff with Mr. Avedon is between style and substance.  It’s the tension he has made into his art.” (Art Review, New York Times, September 27, 2002.) Avedon’s  1957 portrait of Marilyn Monroe captures a weary starlet who seems smaller than life, whereas his 1963 portrait of a young Bob Dylan seems “charged with future” (Gabriel Celaya). 

 Avedon is one of the very few artists who started in a so-called non-serious branch of photography and transitioned into serious branch and was able stay there, not only as a fully accepted but also as a highly esteemed practitioner of photography as an art. (Helle Crenzien essay p 22 in Richard Avedon Photographs 1946-2004, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2007)  His first major retrospective was in 1962 at the Smithsonian (he was 39), just as photography itself was being recognized by arts institutions.  His fashion work drew the crowds, who also reacted enthusiastically to his vital portraits.  The situation now is radically different—today, it is generally accepted that a commercial photographer can be an artist. 

Walking through the exhibition, I had a talk with Sandra Phillips, SFMOMA Senior Photography Curator, and with Norma Stevens, Avedon’s long-term “person” (friend, colleague, and Founding Executive Director of the Richard Avedon Foundation in New York) and with James Martin, Managing Director, The Richard Avedon Foundation, who worked closely with Avedon as a technician up until Avedon’s death in 2004.  

 Geneva Anderson:  As Avedon became more and more famous over the years, did his work process change?  Did he become more and more picky about who he worked with, selecting subjects himself, or did he work on commission?  

SANDRA PHILLIPS:  He worked pretty much only through commissions.  He had a very strange egalitarianism mixed with celebrity.  I think what he tried to do was to show that people were remarkable and that famous people were as remarkable as people who are remarkable in different ways. 

His work did change over time.  It changed, I think, because the market place evolved. Harper’s became a less interesting magazine.  It is significant that his last position was at The New Yorker which was kind of like Harper’s Bazar had been and he was very interested in making that a vital magazine.   He also did these commissions In the American West—these people who are not celebrities, they are unknown and that was an interesting challenge for him.  They are not humanitarian pictures; they are very serious pictures though that show the dignity that people have acquired through living as they have and where they have.

Richard Avedon, Willem de Kooning, painter, Springs, Long Island, New York, August 18, 1969; © 2009 The Richard Avedon Foundation

I believed the 1960’s shaped him profoundly in the way it shaped us–a period of tremendous upheaval whose resonance we still experience.  He photographed all the players, the heroes and villains, from Janis Joplin, to the Beatles, to Warhol, to the

Vietnam Generals, to George Wallace.  And his pictures of art aristocrat’s Robert Frank, Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns come from the same special family as those more broadly known. Avedon saw them all as an individuals and all as models.

NORMA STEVENS:  He worked both ways. He worked for Harpers, Vogue, The New Yorker, so if he wanted a photograph someone, like say Ezra Pound, that request came from him through the magazine.  If the magazine brought him someone, he would do that too.  It happened all along the way and I am talking about the portraits–they were something that were of enormous interest to him.  He had fascination with the arts—artists like Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning and writers like Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker. By the time he got to The New Yorker, it was wonderful because they were interested and would bring him people that he might not have even known about and it was a wonderful collaboration.

Geneva Anderson:  Did he ever refuse to photograph anyone?

NORMA STEVENS:  Well, Madonna.  When a celebrity comes, they have their idea of how they want to look and you can go along with it but Dick would always want to add his creative mark, how he saw what they wanted to portray.  There might be a little struggle but, with her, she was not interested in working with him and he was definitely not interested in working with her.

Geneva Anderson:   Did she approach him?

NORMA STEVENS:  With celebrities, it’s usually mediated.  She sent her people to our people (and that was me).  She has people she loves working with like Steven Meisel. Dick was not her time of day.  It would have been interesting though–don’t you think?– to see what would have come out of that?

Geneva Anderson:   Did he strictly adhere to no cropping?

NORMA STEVENS:  He rarely cropped.  The prints you see here with all the black edge—that’s the entire photo.  He did it in the camera and that was it.  He used a big 8×10.  The printers would go all through the night and prepare images for him to review in the morning and he would make comments like “it needs a little more drama.”  And they had to interpret that.

Geneva Anderson:  How did the advent of digital photography impact him?

SANDRA PHILLIPS:  I am inclined to say it didn’t.

NORMA STEVENS:  He tried it and it didn’t really impress him.  He might have gone around and said no further prints can be made.  He was very strict about that.

Geneva Anderson:  What was it like over the years?   How did you make it?

NORMA STEVENS:  I am still here.  It wasn’t always fun.  It was an awful lot of work. Look at the energy in those portraits around us…he was just like that…he was so full of energy.  We had an understanding.  I am taller than I look.

 James Martin, Executive Director of the Richard Avedon Foundation  worked as a dark room technician for Richard Avedon during his final years.

Geneva Anderson:  Take me through a typical printing experience with Avedon.

JAMES MARTIN:   I did a lot of his printing.  If you look at the way he has printed, it hasn’t changed that much. Earl Steinbicker, who worked with him from the 1950’s onward, is writing a book about the experience and his blog describers the printing technique.  The process for a single print involves making ten different prints with slightly different contrast ratios—darker or lighter and picking the four that they—the team–think Dick would want.  Those were printed 16 x 20 and put on his kitchen table in morning and, of course, they would all be wrong.  He would say things like “the ear is perfect–you should focus on the ear.”  And so you would go back down to the dark room and spend 4 or 5 hours and make another range of say 6 images based on his comment.  You would bring these up to him and you would get closer but he would say these are garbage.  And so it went.

Geneva Anderson: He had the capacity to use very technical terms to describe precisely what he wanted but it sounded like he chose to communicate in a non-technical way.

Richard Avedon, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano, New York, October 1, 2003; © 2009 The Richard Avedon Foundation

JAMES MARTIN:   Yes. He would communicate with us using phrases like “this “needs to have more passion” which, in a sense, is not technical but you know exactly what you need to do as a darkroom technician.  “More passion” is a nuanced way to work with the printing process.  Everything was done downstairs in the basement and you would work all day long on a single print, sometimes at 3 in the morning and he would talk in a very non-technical way–“More drama here, less drama there.”  It was a very intuitive way of going about it—it’s also talking with the other technicians you are working with and trying to determine what that means, what does that translate to.  It was a lot of teamwork and a lot of team building.

Geneva Anderson:  Is there a photograph here that you were responsible for printing?

JAMES MARTIN:  There is only one in this show—the portrait of the singer Lorraine Hunt Leiberman. It’s really fairly close towards the end of his life.  He was 82 when he did this project and was aware that it was his last major effort and he knows it and he knows he needs to come up a last important series of photographs.  And this was for The New Yorker but it was also for himself.  He working on this book Woman in the Mirror , photographs of hope, woman that bring that sense of coda to his story, to the work of Avedon.

 These are different portraits. This is a very tender tender image.  You do not see that forgiving quality in his earlier work.  That meant lowering the contrast in her face with one filter, yet pumping the contrast up in the hair.  But once you did that, you ran into the problem of what does that hair convey?  She had red hair and as I took the photo back to him, he would say that it doesn’t look like a photograph of a redhead.  I had to translate that into technical printing—how do you make that hair look red and preserve the contrast with the softness in the face?  It was certainly a challenge and you make choice and it probably took me 20 hours just working on the contrast ratios in the hair alone to really pull it up.  Now that I am looking at it here, I am seeing that in certain light, it looks a little more brown than red.  It’s very hard to look at this without seeing the other photos, the history.

Richard Avedon, Marian Anderson, contralto, New York, June 30, 1955; © 2009 The Richard Avedon Foundation

Contrast that with the 1955 portrait of Marian Anderson  the contralto singer who is captured in a moment of intense inner concentration on song.   By waiting for the moment when her eyes were closed, all the attention is drawn to her mouth, to her total embodiment of voice.  There is strength in this portrait rather than the tenderness and vulnerability in his last portraits of women. 

When Avedon died unexpectedly in San Antonio, Texas, in October 2004 on assignment for The New Yorker magazine, he left iron-clad instructions about how his $60 million fortune was to be used and how his artistic legacy should be preserved.

Geneva Anderson:  Norma, you have worked for the past five years to establish and make The Richard Avedon Foundation financially secure.  We are living in very tumultuous times–how secure are you?

NORMA STEVENS: “We are financially secure for the foreseeable future, at least the next five years.   Dick knew what he wanted done to protect his legacy.  The copyrights of his work alone, which he bequeathed to the Avedon Foundation totaled nearly $300,000.  The estate’s biggest asset is his printed pictures.  His biggest worry was what would happen to the prints after his death and he left directives indicating that no prints or reproductions were to be made posthumously, except for contact sheets, which could be used for educational purposes.

November 11, 2009 Posted by | Art, SFMOMA | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment