Art News Roundup: Better Late Than Never Edition

Forgive my delay in posting this week’s art news roundup, gentle reader, I was unavoidably detained yesterday. To make up for this, instead of my usual three curated bits of news from the world of art, architecture, design, and so on, I shall give you FIVE.

New Clues in New Mexico

In this absolutely fascinating story in the Post, reporter Antonia Farzan does her homework and digs deeply into the mystery of a stolen masterwork by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), and the quiet, reserved couple that may have had something to do with its disappearance over 30 years ago. The twists and turns of the investigation are fascinating, but the real punch at the end is when you learn just how much money the couple had in their bank accounts when they died, and how photographs revealed that they had traveled to about 140 countries and all seven continents during their marriage: an achievement that, on its surface, would seem to be beyond the means of an ordinary pair of public school employees. This is a story begging for a good screenplay.


Coming Back to Canterbury

In one of the weird ironies of collecting history, an illuminated 13th century Bible which was once part of the library of Canterbury Cathedral has been purchased for roughly $128,000 by…Canterbury Cathedral. The “Lyghfield Bible” is a Medieval French volume which miraculously survived Henry VIII and the Reformation, when many Catholic books were simply burned or destroyed, and passed through the hands of a number of private owners before ending up on the auction block last month. It is the only Bible from the former library to have survived completely intact, and will be part of a new exhibition space at the cathedral detailing the history of the building (from a Protestant perspective, natch.)


Lo Spagnoletto in London

The Baroque painter Josep de Ribera (1591-1652), often referred to as “Lo Spagnoletto” (“The Little Spaniard”) by other artists, was born and raised in Valencia, but made his career in Italy, particularly in the city of Naples, which was under Spanish rule during his lifetime. Ribera is one of the most important and influential painters of the first half of the 17th century, painting dark and brooding canvases that are often intense and stripped-down psychological studies, and so it surprises me to learn that an upcoming show titled “Ribera: Art of Violence” will be the first major exhibition of his work ever held in Britain. Ribera is not always easy to like, and his paintings of martyrdom, torture, drooling idiots and sideshow freaks are rather off-putting: you can certainly see why Goya, a century and a half later, was fascinated by his work. “Ribera” opens September 26th and runs through January 27th.


Magnificence in Magnesia

The ancient Greek city of Magnesia, which today is part of modern Turkey, remained relatively unimportant in ancient history until it became a Roman colony around the 1st century BC. After it was virtually destroyed in an earthquake in the early 1st century AD, it was completely rebuilt on a luxurious scale by the Emperor Tiberius. Now an ongoing archaeological dig at the site of the Temple of Artemis in the city’s ruins has uncovered six magnificent, over-life-sized statues, bringing the total recovered thus far from the excavation to more than 50. Scientists believe there will still be many more to uncover, and as you can see here the works are very beautiful indeed.


Mockery in Manhattan

Moving on from the sublime to the ridiculous, New York has decided to grant landmark status to 550 Madison, a ridiculous pink skyscraper topped with a broken pediment designed by starchitect Philip Johnson (1906-2005) back in the late 1970’s. One should normally not speak ill of the dead of course, but as Mr. Johnson quite literally lived in a glass house, was an anti-Semite, a Nazi enthusiast, and loved to go on Charlie Rose long after this career was over and say terrible things about subjects which he did not in any way understand, I feel reasonably comfortable in laughing at the fact that anyone thinks that this particular monstrosity of his was worth preserving for the ages. As Hitler’s favorite architect, Albert Speer, once told art historian Robert Hughes in an interview, Johnson would have made a perfect architect for a fascist leader, since “Johnson understands what the small man thinks of as grandeur.”


Putting on the Big Pants

One of the continued problems with contemporary architecture is its tendency to vacillate almost exclusively between only two extremes: the banal and the kitsch.  On the banal end of things we have an endless parade of glass curtain walls and concrete/metal boxes, sometimes with facing in other materials, which are viewed as safe since they are interchangeable, irrespective of where they are built.  Pick up a contemporary K Street office building from Washington and plop it down in the middle of Stockholm or Singapore amidst other such boxes, and no one would find it strange.  These are the sorts of projects that city planners and landowners tend to like, since they can fill these spaces easily with businesses or residents.

On the other side of things we have attempts to look like something other than a box.  These projects may initially capture the imagination of those planning them, but upon completion strike viewers as ill-conceived or utterly impractical.  Frank Gehry’s now-iconic Guggenheim Bilbao is one example, since for all of its flash and acclaim, the building is leaking and falling apart.  Though my personal favorite has always been Philip Johnson’s dreadful AT&T building in New York, with its ridiculously amateurish, giant broken pediment roofline, that looks as though it was designed by a Looney Tunes matte artist for some sequence involving Bugs Bunny being chased across Manhattan by Elmer Fudd.

However sometimes the project does not even need to near completion, before people realize that there has been a terrible mistake somewhere.  Such is the case with a British-designed building currently under construction in the city of Suzhou, China, a structure known as the “Gate to the East”.  The massive project, which features a pair of skyscrapers connected at the top, is supposed to resemble a triumphal arch, symbolizing China’s arrival on the world stage.  Yet the more people look at it, the more it reminds them of a giant pair of long underpants.  It has caused some in China to (understandably) question why it is that their country seems to be commissioning and building more and more odd-looking buildings from Western architects.

Part of the reason for what we might call a “Wild West” architectural movement in the PRC is that China is one of the few places in the world at the moment which not only wants lots of new buildings, so that it can bulldoze the poor out of the sight of Western television crews, but also has the cash to pay for them.  For somewhat different reasons, the wealthy emirate of Dubai has been another locale for bizarre-looking building projects, such as a hotel shaped like an incomplete sailboat, or artificial islands laid out to look like a palm tree from space.  This has been driven by Dubai very sensibly thinking about what will happen when the oil runs out, so that at least there will be nice, shiny buildings for tourists to look at, as the country morphs into some sort of Koranic Las Vegas.

While China and Dubai are – at least compared to much of the rest of the world anyway – doing just fine economically, those who pour their funds into such experimental architecture ought to remember that much of what they are building is doomed for the scrap heap, thanks to poor design and a pernicious effort to try to make people like things which they simply cannot in good conscience accept as a good building.  Modern untested materials and methods combined with bizarre building shapes often become hated eyesores within less than a generation, even as more traditional construction fades into ruin in a sympathetic way.  Thus, the fact that so much of the formerly grand hotels, public buildings, and homes in places like Havana or Detroit for example, are still standing in a kind of spectacularly beautiful decline, is a tribute to the men who built them.  Meantime, I have yet to meet anyone who thinks that the comparatively recent Boston City Hall and its courtyard, which looks like the setting for some sort of space-age auto-da-fe, is anything but a crumbling, hulking disaster which no one at present has the courage to tackle.

There is much to be said for trying new things in architecture, for by doing so we can create buildings that better serve their purpose.  Imagine how much more pleasant, for example, it is to be a patient in a hospital where all of the rooms receive plenty of fresh air and sunlight via modern methods of air circulation and an expansive use of glass, for those who cannot get out of bed or outside unassisted, and think about how much more hygienic a trip to the market is today than it was 50 or 100 years ago.  These are thanks to improvements in engineering and in architecture in understanding how to effectively use different materials and ways of looking at buildings.

Yet not everything that is new is necessarily better.  Simply because a starchitect tells us that a new building is the latest and greatest thing to appear on the planet since Mr. Obama does not mean that either statement is true.  And in the case of building a giant pair of pants, one cannot help but feel that if the Chinese wanted a triumphal arch, they ought simply to have built one.

The “Gate to the East” building, currently under construction
Suzhou, China