How contemporary art is changing in the Covid era

'Roma 21' by Stanley Whitney (2020)

Source: Financial Times

“I didn’t paint the war,” Picasso said after the liberation of France. “But there’s no doubt the war was in my pictures.” Like the impact of coronavirus itself, touching some people mildly, others devastatingly, the effect of a world of illness and lockdown on individual artists and galleries is diverse, but already memorable works are emerging which are inescapably of this moment without describing it.
Callum Innes has just made “Lamp Black/Quinacridone Gold” in lockdown in his Oslo studio: quivering layers of paint partly dissolved in turpentine, exposing strata of colour and tone, suggesting a dark, closed room by lamplight, a mysterious blackness with glimmers of hope, also the fragility of skin.
The Scottish abstract master has never painted a more controlled yet expressive, richly veined work than this double monochrome. I came across it by chance, browsing Kerlin Gallery at the online Dallas Art Fair (to April 23) — a fair I never considered visiting in person.

Picasso did not show his occupation paintings until after the war, but today online platforms, quickly embraced — Art Basel’s viewing room, replacing its March Hong Kong fair, was so popular that the site crashed — are bringing new work to audiences in isolation with unprecedented rapidity. It is a triumph of contemporary art’s resilience and innovation.
“Roma 21” (2020), a vibrant, wobbly multi-hued grid/stack painting, playing off different densities, transparencies, free-form, jazzy, also suggesting shelves of funerary urns, is 74-year-old African American Stanley Whitney’s homage to what he calls Rome’s “order and ancient rhythm”.
Working between Italy and New York, Whitney, focus of the current Artist Spotlight (to April 21), Gagosian’s carefully chosen weekly online series, says the city “clarifies and inspires” him. This joyful disruptive painting reads like an eloquent memory of a shuttered civilisation.

'Exposed Painting Quinacridone Gold' by Callum Innes
‘Untitled’ by Louise Bourgeois (1951) ©️ Courtesy The Easton Foundation and Hauser & Wirth

Second: a flight to quality, with, hopefully, greater emphasis on painting — powerful images star online, conceptual games less so — and also on the subtle pleasures of drawings, which repay close attention: for example Hauser’s inaugural online exhibition of Louise Bourgeois’s drawings, “thought feathers . . . ideas that I seize in mid-flight”, as the artist described them.

Second: a flight to quality, with, hopefully, greater emphasis on painting — powerful images star online, conceptual games less so — and also on the subtle pleasures of drawings, which repay close attention: for example Hauser’s inaugural online exhibition of Louise Bourgeois’s drawings, “thought feathers . . . ideas that I seize in mid-flight”, as the artist described them.

Third is a drive to contemporary art education, paralleling historic offerings from museums. Gallerist David Zwirner has spoken of how the “globetrotting set” is becoming less knowledgeable: “Connoisseurship is really not valued, sometimes it is even looked down on.” But people in solitude learn to dig deeper — a chance for the scholarly over the social. We will all be processing trauma at some level: New York and London, the twin art capitals long thriving on liberalism, global connectivity and extremes of wealth, are suffering the worst mortality rates.

“It’s been a sobering experience,” uberdealer Larry Gagosian told me from his East Hampton home last week, “a terrifying experience. When people go back, things will look different, the test of time will be more meaningful — going deeper, taking more time to digest and contextualise, rather than ‘Here it is, do you want it?’ Everybody is on a crash course, working out strategies — you can’t just tell someone to come over and look at a painting. Business has slowed dramatically, but there is a desire to buy art, art makes people feel good. The art market will come through stronger, smarter, more relevant. There will be a premium on gravitas.”
This is already apparent in imaginative presentations attuned to how viewers “read” art differently online, closer to literature’s introspective pleasure rather than a physical gallery’s collective experience. Kamel Mennour’s recent From Home exhibition threaded excerpts from Zola, Maupassant, Camus and Perec through a gathering of bright, eclectic pieces themed around interiors: Bertrand Lavier’s pink/blue sculpture/painting piano “Erard”, Anish Kapoor’s “Mirror (Magenta)”. Luxembourg & Dayan is publishing weekly art letters: Sophie-Taeuber Arp to her husband on anger, Sol LeWitt’s invocation to Eva Hesse to “stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder . . . ass-gouging, eyeball-poking, finger-pointing, alleyway-sneaking . . . Stop it and just DO.”

Michael Craig-Martin's 'Thank You NHS' poster (2020)

Michael Craig-Martin’s ‘Thank You NHS’ poster (2020)

There is optimism in bleak times from artists just doing; Michael Craig-Martin’s “Thank You NHS” flower poster, free to download, colour in and display in your window; Neapolitan street artist Jorit’s “Paolo Antonio Ascierto”, a hyper-real portrait of the Naples immunologist with mask, at Blindarte’s auction (ongoing) to support Italian medical staff; New Yorker Rashid Johnson’s “Untitled Anxious Red Drawings”, lockdown variations of his “Anxious Men” series, released this weekend by Hauser & Wirth, with 20 per cent of its proceeds to the Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund. Hogan describes Innes’s black/gold painting as “a perfect example of beauty born out of difficult conditions”. “Every day is not a fiesta,” says Gagosian, “but art has come through the ages, a source of inspiration” — as is new work, now.

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