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Monday, April 30, 2018

Via 57 West

New York City's Via 57 West (center)--distinction amid monotony.
Vitruvian Man, Leonardo
This past spring as my wife and I gazed down from the observation level of New York's Freedom Tower at some two-hundred years of American architectural history spread at our feet, I was intrigued by a brand new, highly unique structure unlike any I'd ever seen before (bottom). The most common three-dimensional shape used in mankind's endless attempts to shelter himself is that of the cube. That is, of course, due to the fact that, while people are not cube-shaped, their range of motion, as Leonardo demonstrated with his Vitruvian Man etching, is best likened to a cube in conjunction with a sphere. The sphere not being a very practical nor stable geometric shape, architecture down through the eons has tended to default to the cube.
Via 57 West is situated on prime real estate, in the city's trendy Chelsey District, mid-town Manhattan, with a view looking out over the Hudson River.
From overhead, Via 57 West
takes on a presence never
before seen in American
If the sphere is inherently unstable, the pyramid has, down through the ages, proven to be the most structurally sound shape to be found (just ask the Egyptians). The problem with the use of triangular shapes in domestic architecture is that the inhabitants keep bumping their heads into the obligatory sloped ceilings within. When con-fronted with these advantages and limitations, architects of the Danish-American firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) sought to combine the best features of both shapes. What do you do when asked to design a distinctively unique skyscraper amid the jagged teeth of hundreds of other similar structures marking the New York skyline? The firm's architects studied the scene not from the site between 57th and 58th Streets in Manhattan but from across the Hudson River in New Jersey. What they saw, among all the cubes, was a notable lack of imagination and specifically the absence of pyramidal shapes. Could they overcome the inherent difficulties of the pyramid, replacing vertical lines with diagonal ones? Look below; they could and would.

No one single photo can capture all the shapes and details of a structure on the scale of Via 57 West. The building changes shapes depending upon the viewpoint.
Technically, Via 57 West is not a true pyramid. A true pyramid demands a square base. However, the NYC street grid consists of blocks on a 1:4 or (at best) a 1:3 ratio of the sides. Thus the designers were forced to slice off a corner mass amounting to about one-sixth of a pyramid as their basic shape. Then, in order to accommodate a sunlit courtyard, they carved out another wedge starting on the fourth floor up through to near the tip on the 32nd floor, providing not just sunlight to grow some 43 trees in their mini-park but also providing a stunning view of the Hudson River and its Jersey shore.

With the sun from the south and the view to the west, the second "slice" from the pyramid not only made environmental sense, but also provided a highly distinctive shape.
Needless to say, the diagonal dictates of the exterior of the building created tremendous problems in planning the interior. The area overlooking the courtyard is basically an elongated "U" with the top opening facing the river (below). In order to maximize balcony views the apartments were laid out in a 45-degree herringbone pattern while being of a size to accommodate the highly competitive, high-end, New York real estate market. The result, however, made for some rather strange-shaped floorplans, particularly as seen in the studio and one bedroom apartments.

The pyramidal shape of the building demands that the floors towards the top become smaller and smaller near the point.
So, what's it like to live in a pyramid (or at least part of one)? Surprisingly the apartments look very much like what you'd find in any urban high-rise. There are no sloped ceilings to bump ones head into and, for the most part, the rooms are the same basic cube-shape we've become accustomed to down through the centuries. It's only when you step out onto a sometimes tiny balcony that you discover the diagonals and come to realize why you're paying $2,900 for a modest one-bedroom apartment (or studio). From that price, rentals zip upwards to $9,000 per month for a roomy three-bedroom plan (below).

Quite apart from the exorbitant rent, cutting corners takes on added meaning when you live in a pyramidal apartment complex.
The apartments inside Via 57 West are, by design, bland, allowing the occupants to impose their own personalities and lifestyles (or pay a designer to do so). The model apartments, shown to would-be renters, are designed in what the developers term a "Scandimerican" style (Danish-modern with an American flavor). The iconic luxury apartments at 625 West 57th Street feature floor-to-ceiling windows with captivating views of the Manhattan skyline and the Hudson River. Stylish Italian cabinetry, stone countertops, and Energy-Star appliances add culinary artistry and utility. Master bathrooms offer similar countertops and cabinetry, along with white-tile floors and walls. Many rentals have balconies and terraces that seamlessly blend outdoor and indoor space.

White and neutral colors predominate in the Scandimerican d├ęcor at least until the rental clients move in.
Via 57 West also provides state-of-the-art amenities for its residents, including a 22,000 square-foot courtyard professionally landscaped and brimming with dozens of native plants, as well as barbecue grills. A top-notch gym offers a swimming pool, dedicated studios, and an indoor basketball half-court. Even more, the residents lounges, reading rooms, screening room, game room, and event room offer plenty of exclusive recreation space. Located on the far west side, at 625 West 57th Street, the location is just a few blocks from the world-renowned Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, as well as a dozens of fine-dining restaurants and shops.

The Via 57 West pool is on the third level overlooking the Hudson.
Via 57 West is not massive insofar as New York architecture goes. It does occupy most of a full city block, but rises "only" thirty-two stories in competing for instant recognition with the likes of the Freedom Tower or the Empire State Building. For a building of such unique design, the public spaces inside on the lower floors are distinctively underwhelming (below). The Via 57 West is a hybrid between the European perimeter block and the traditional American high-rise. The building peaks at 450 feet at its north-east corner, thereby maximizing the number of apartments and graciously preserving the adjacent Helena Tower’s views of the river. The building's volume changes depending on the viewer’s vantage point. From the west, it is a hyperbolic paraboloid (warped pyramid). From the east, the "courtscraper" appears to be a slender spire.

The diagonal meets the cube.
In recent decades, some of the most interesting urban developments have come in the form of nature and public space, as designers reinsert them into antiquated post-industrial pockets. Examples include the pedestrianization of Broadway and Times Square; widespread bicycle lanes, the High Line Park, and industrial piers turned into parks. Via 57 West continues this process of greenification allowing open space to invade the urban fabric of the Manhattan city grid. In an unlikely fusion of what would seem to be two mutually exclusive forms--the courtyard and the skyscraper--the "courtscraper" is the most recent addition to the Manhattan skyline.

Views from the balconies of Via 57 West are just as impressive as those from the West Side Highway.
Via 57 West as seen from the Freedom Tower.


Monday, April 23, 2018

Why Paintings Become Famous

Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665, Jan Vermeer

It has always fascinated me to contemplate why some paintings down through the centuries have become so famous that even those who know only a little about art can instantly identify them, often even naming the artist. At the same time other works of art, by other artist, as well done and visually satisfying have remained virtually unknown. Why is Jan Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring (above) considered priceless while the painting below, Filling the Lamps, both having similar content, is totally unknown. The answer lies in the three major factors which determine a painting's monetary value--the lasting impact of the painting's style or content; a fascinating story or mystery attached to the painting; or the work's testament having to do with some tragedy, or hardship linking the artist to a particular work. There are other factors, of course, but those are the most common.
Filling the Lamps
Let's consider the artist first. Little is known of Jan Vermeer himself. Mostly he's admired for his masterful use of light and shadow. Vermeer did not leave many biographical traces and only about three dozen paintings by the artist survive today. In contrast, the artist who painted Filling the Lamps has never been recognized for any earthshattering effects as to style or technique, and his surviving works number in the hundreds. If you haven't already guessed by now, the artist was Jim Lane. Numerous theories abound as to whom Vermeer's sitter may have been. Some scholars maintain that it must be the artist’s daughter, Maria (the likely model for several other paintings currently attributed to Vermeer). On the other hand, there are those who believe the more salacious notion that she was Vermeer’s mistress. Regardless, it wasn’t until almost three centuries after Vermeer’s death that The Girl with a Pearl Earring was chosen for an exhibition poster at Washington's National Gallery of Art in 1995. Following that, the painting quickly rose to celebrity status. To my knowledge, Filling the Lamps has never been displayed publically. Moreover, I couldn't even tell you who owns it much less recall the name of the model.
Mona Lisa, 1503-06, Leonardo Da Vinci
On the other hand (either one will do), there's little doubt as to the above model's identity. Her name was Lisa Gherardini, though we might rightfully question: "Who the hell was Lisa Gherardini?" Leonardo, it seems, made her famous, but neglected to write her biography. Mona Lisa is considered by many to be the most well-known painting in the world. While today. you would be hard-pressed to find someone who couldn’t immediately recognize that crooked smile, this wasn’t always the case. Leonardo painted her in Florence, around 1507 (actually he worked on it over a period of three or four years). His Mona Lisa did not win much praise, however, until the early 20th-century. While it was admired within small circles of art critics and historians, few others had much interest in the painting at that time. Then, in the summer of 1911, things changed drastically. The Mona Lisa vanished from the walls of the Louvre. What followed was a media explosion, complete with ”wanted” posters plastered all over Paris. Crowds formed at police headquarters, and before long, short films and songs were made about the vanished painting. Overnight, a somewhat obscure work of art became the world’s most famous painting. More than two long years passed before Vincenzo Peruggia, a former employee of the Louvre, was arrested as he stupidly attempted to sell the painting to a director of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. Peruggia claimed that, as an Italian patriot, he believed Mona Lisa belonged in an Italian museum. Following months of speculation and media coverage, Mona Lisa finally returned to the Louvre, where she remains the most visited painting in the museum. (Tip: if you want an up-close look, rent a wheelchair.)
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1907, Gustav Klimt
With a story that In many ways is quite similar, Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted in 1907, was one of six Klimt works confiscated by the Nazis from an Austrian home during World War II. After the war, the works became part of the Galerie Belvedere’s collection. The Austrian government claimed the paintings had been willed to the museum and displayed Bloch-Bauer’s portrait under the title The Lady in Gold. In 1998, Adele Bloch-Bauer’s niece, Maria Altmann, began an eight-year legal battle to secure the painting of her aunt which had once hung in her childhood home. What many saw as a portrait by one of Austria’s most famous artists was actually an important part of Altmann’s past. After the violence and oppression that Altmann’s family experienced in Austria, she wanted the paintings in her new home in the United States. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before the Austrian government finally returned the Klimt paintings to Altmann. This most famous legal battle in art history, eventually inspired a movie starring Helen Mirren in 2015. The court case helped catapult the painting (by whatever name) to international fame.
A Lady and a Gentleman in Black, 1633, Rembrandt van Rijn
If you're starting to notice a pattern here, read on. If you walk through the galleries of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, you'll notice something rather peculiar. Thirteen empty frames hang on the walls. These frames serve as reminders of works of art that were stolen in 1990. During the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, museum security guards admitted two men who were disguised as police officers. Once inside, the men tied up the guards and proceeded to steal thirteen works with an collective value of $500-million. Despite a $5-million reward for information leading to the recovery of these paintings, the theft remains unsolved. Included in the heist were three paintings by Rembrandt, a Vermeer, a Manet, and several sketches by Degas. Apart from the most famous, A Lady and Gentleman in Black (above) included Rembrandt’s only known seascape. Both, were cut from their frames. More than a quarter-century later, experts are still puzzled by the choice of works, as even more valuable pieces were left untouched. The media attention surrounding the theft brought unparalleled attention to the stolen works.
Starry Night, 1889, Vincent van Gogh
And finally, two very dissimilar paintings by quite dissimilar artists, stand to break the mold.Neither have ever been stolen. The first, Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh, is so well-known as to need little in the way of explanation. Like his tragic, foreshortened life itself, the painting has deeply haunting quality to be found in the work of few other artist before his time or since. Starry Night, painted in 1889 (less than a year before his suicide), is widely considered to be van Gogh's magnum opus. The piece was painted from memory and whimsically depicts the view from his room at the sanitarium where he resided in at the time.
The Goldfinch,  1654,
Carel Fabritius
Though the two paintings bear no physical resem-blance, the plight of The Goldfinch is, in many ways, no different from that of van Gogh as he neared the end of his life. It depicts a chained bird on its perch in front of a mundane background. The melancholic image of an animal tethered to this drab setting strikes a chord with many view-ers. When it was brought to the Frick Collection in New York in 2014, 200,000 people lined up to catch a glimpse of the famed bird. One part of the public’s fascination with this work may, like van Gogh, well be the artist’s own tragic ending. At the age of thirty-two, Carel Fabritius died in a careless explosion of gunpowder that destroyed a quarter of the city of Delft. Many of his paintings were destroyed in the explosion. The Goldfinch was painted in Fabritius’ final year and is one of about a dozen which survived. Another reason for the work’s rise to fame is Donna Tartt's 2014 Pul-itzer Prize-winning novel named for the painting. The intriguing novel, coupled with the fact that The Goldfinch is among the few remaining paint-ings by one of Rembrandt’s most promising students, suggests why this work continues to captivate viewers.


Monday, April 16, 2018

Skunk Art

Puppy Le Pu, Roger Cruwys
The designation "wildlife art" is so deep and wide as to be far too ungainly to handle in a single posting. Fortunately wildlife art (mostly paintings) have proven to be among the most well-received of all the subjects I write about. I think that's because I've broken such art down by content areas--elephants, zebras, giraffes, tigers, etc. In most cases, the number of images I have to pick from are all but overwhelming. I expected the same challenge in selecting skunk art. Not so. For some reason, which is not all that hard to fathom, few artists are willing to take on such a stinkin' subject. To do so requires a daring sense of humor, as seen in the work of Montana artist, Roger Cruwys' Puppy Le Pu (above).
Spirit Skunk of the Cimarron by Foxbane d3got8u
(obviously not the artist's real name).
The skunk icon (not
sure what it means).
If creating skunk art is daring, far more so is buying it, which would explain why there is so little of such work to be found. Not only that, but so much of it is trite and equally inept, often depending up other elements in the (usual) landscape setting to "carry" the work, as seen above (if all else fails, add a sunset). Even albino skunks often get relegated to supporting roles. And, as with virtually all animal art, the handling of the subject by the artist breaks down into two categories--cutesy and realistic. With skunks, hard as it might be to think in terms of the obnoxious little stinkers being "cute," the vast majority of skunk art is just that.
The name "Flower" sent Bambi rolling on the forest floor in gales of laughter.
Baby skunks are born about the size
a mouse and are blind. Can you
anything worse than
encountering a blind skunk?
You can blame Walt Disney and his co-conspirator, Bambi, for that (above). Bambi's darling little friend "He can call me Flower if'n he likes, I don't mind," not only set the bar for skunk art but set it quite high. Warner Bros. and their Looney Tunes version, Pepe le Pew, despite the voice of Maurice Chevalier, never quite mea-sured up. On the realistic side, usually paintings of baby animals can be depended upon to engender the "ahhhhh, how sweet," reaction. As seen below, baby skunks are not so blessed.
Baby skunks are a perennial part of many forest predators' diet (despite the aftertaste). No mother skunk would ever leave her baby to rest alone like this.
If I were to ask you to describe a skunk, you'd probably say they're black with a white stripe down their back. Well, you'd be half right (some skunks have a ginger brownish tint to their fur). As for their most distinguishing feature, virtually all striped skunks have two white stripes down their back starting just behind the head and continuing through to the end of their tails. Essentially, you'd have to say that skunks are mostly black and white with a black stripe down their back. I found several examples where the artists got it wrong.

You think all skunks are basically the same? Think again.
Skunks fall into the same family as badgers and can be quite vicious (apart from their vicious odor) in protecting their young (especially
so if rabid).
A 1634 description of a skunk by a Jesuit priest contained these words:
[The skunk] is a low animal, about the size of a little dog or cat. I mention it here, not on account of its excellence, but to make of it a symbol of sin. I have seen three or four of them. [They have] black fur, quite beautiful and shining; and [have] upon [their] back two perfectly white stripes, which join near the neck and tail, making an oval which adds greatly to their grace. But it is so stinking, and casts so foul an odor, that it is unworthy of being called the dog of Pluto [the devil]. No sewer ever smelled so bad. I would not have believed it if I had not smelled it myself. Your heart almost fails you when you approach the animal. Two have been killed in our court[yard], and several days afterward there was such a dreadful odor throughout our house that we could not endure it. I believe the sin smelled by Saint Catherine de Sienne must have had the same vile odor."
Striped Skunk, Ray Harm.

Skunks are omnivorous, their diet quite seasonal, except in populated areas where their favorite dining spot is the back-alley dumpster. They seem not to mind the smell. Also, they seem to have a sweet tooth, being one of the primary predators of the honey bee. Like felines, the skunk is naturally curious, as depicted by the legendary wildlife artist, Ray Harm (above). Harm is often credited with "inventing" the limited edition print. His Striped Skunk is one of the rare examples of skunk art to be found in this media.
I know neither the artist nor the
title of this etching, but judging by
the style and the aging of the paper,
I would suggest it dates from the
late 19th-century (or before), which
would make it one of the oldest
examples of skunk art.



Monday, April 9, 2018

Spring Art

Copyright, Jim Lane
Maple Flavored Landscape, Jim Lane
Last year, on the first day of each month, I made an effort to explore paintings having to do with that particular month. Naturally the mass of art associated with each month was just that--massive. When you include holidays and holiday landscapes, art having to do with historic events, and famous people associated with each month, not to mention the work of famous painters who chose to depict all of the above, the sheer number of works for some months became rather formidable. However, when you're dealing with only four seasons, one has to be a lot more selective. The typical and stereotypical images that might be selected on a monthly basis have to be brushed aside as the search for the more unique visions, styles, and to a lesser extent, technical prowess, must be brushed aside. That's what I've tried to do.
Springtime, 1886, Claude Monet. If you must have arboreal blossoms to symbolize and suggest spring, Monet is a good as it gets.
Imagine Spring, Sue Gardiner
When we think of spring the first image coming to mind are those of flowers--billions and billions of them--often seen in landscapes. What we don't often bring to mind are paintings such as my own Maple Flavored Landscape (top). Spring? There's not a flower in sight. The painting appears cold and drab. However, the last time I looked at the calendar, the month of March ends in the springtime (okay, just barely). The maple sap rises in early spring. It's not that I have anything against flowers, those of springtime or any other time of the year. I just tend to resent an artist's "safe" reliance upon them in place of a more searching and profound depiction of his or her thematic content. As a design motif, either of spring, or quite apart from it, flowers have their place in art, as seen in Imagine Spring by Sue Gardiner (left). But they should not be relegated to mere decor-ations or "eye candy." My tribute to blossoming trees comes from Claude Monet and his Springtime (above) painted early in the Impressionist era about 1866. Below, I've also included a van Gogh, his famous Blossoming Almond Tree, from 1890 (rendered very late in his Career.
Blossoming Almond Tree, 1890, Vincent van Gogh
Okay, now that we've got the pretty flowers and the famous painters out of the way, it's now time to look at those spring renditions which stand apart from the typical. Probably the first painter (or one of the first) to depict spring did so without much attention to floral arrays but with dancing, frolicking, scantily clad ladies (and one or two gents). Sandro Botticelli's now famous, La Primavera (below), dates from between 1470 and 1480, during the period we now call the "early" Renaissance. La Primavera, by the way, literally translates from Italian to English as "The Spring." (Some have translated it "Springtime.")
La Primavera, 1470-80, Sandro Botticelli. It's not one of my favorites but some like it.
Whether selecting paintings and illustrations by the month or by the season, one has to be careful not to be seduced by images, sometimes quite beautiful, of what I call "greeting card cute." I'm talking about any subject with four legs, especially the immature offspring of such creatures, or by the same token, their human equivalent. If it's "syrupy" sweet, almost inevitably the content gets in the way of the message. Kitty cats, puppy dogs, and toddlers are not what "spring" is about.

Spring, 1873,Giovanni Boldini
Spring Confetti, Sabi Klein
The Italian genre painter, Giovanni Boldini and his Spring (above), from 1873, Is a case in point. The setting depicts spring. The figures are merely decorations which attract the eye, thus (as in a play) stealing the show. If that's the case, then what's to keep an artist from attaching the word "spring" to the title of virtually any painting in depicting such sea-sonal art? To put it simply, not one thing, as seen in Sabi Klein's Spring Confetti (right). In fact, it's a ploy often used by artists in their combined search for a title and relevance. Once more, the colors and their relationship one to another sug-gest spring. It makes Liana Turnbull Bennett's Spring Creek (below), seem almost realistic. There's not a flower, a blossom, even a pedal in sight. Only the vivid colors and semi-abstract shapes suggest spring.

Spring Creek, Liana Turnbull Bennett

Perhaps the spring art genre most often ignored by serious painters in more recent decades is that having to do with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Notice, I did not say "Easter." God knows, there's a ton of springy pictures of merry little bunnies and the colored eggs they've begged, borrowed, or stolen from their barnyard friends. One such work which caught my eye was by Sir Lawrence, Alma-Tadema which he titled Spring-1894 (left). At first glance, it would appear to depict the crowd accom-panying Christ's trek from the court of Pilate, through the narrow streets of Jerusalem, to Golgotha. Here the title is most important, both in its reference to spring and to its being a scene from the modern era. Along the same line, my own resurrection scene, He Lives (below), while not referencing springtime directly, nonetheless reminds the viewer of the rebirth so crucial to any depiction of this transitional season.

Spring-1894, Sir Lawrence
Copyright, Jim Lane
He Lives, 2000, Jim Lane

Springtime, 1873, Pierre
Auguste Cot. I could
think of lots of titles
for this one. How about
"Spring Swing?"


Monday, April 2, 2018

Vanessa Poutou

Voices 2016, Vanessa Poutou. At first glance it appears to be little more than a Jackson Pollock inspired splash of paint.
One thing quickly learned by artists wanting to sell their work and make a name for themselves is that they must stand apart from the crowd of other artists wishing to do the same. One of the best ways they may do so is to create works which are in some way eye-catching. Sometimes sheer size alone is the key. Distinctive color is another. I always tended to concentrate on unusual, viewpoint, content, humor, and a generous amount of detail, though for many artists, "expressive" works too. Some artists come by this realization through experience while others seem to have inborn instincts in this regard. I always hung such work at the front of my displays in the hope of garnering a "second look" by the passing art lover. In my own case, often such works were too big and/or too expensive to ring up much in the way of sales. One look at the Greek expressionist Vanessa Poutou's work reveals that she, too, has come to embrace this sales strategy. Virtually all of her paintings are crowd-stopping works--expressive, but not quite abstract figures.
Petit Ballet, Vanessa Poutou
Petit Ballet (above) is one of Poutou's best in the way of showstoppers. The two detail close-ups drive home her penchant for a sort of wildly beautiful expressionism seasoned with just enough objective realism to avoid the age-old, "my kid could do that." Voices 2016 veers toward expressive dance, or possibly (given the title), singing.
Vanessa is young, appears to be still in her thirties. Yet her mastery of her medium (oils), color, and dazzling self-expression is that of an experienced artist twice her age.
Vanessa Poutou was born in 1979, thus she is, indeed, still in her thirties, though barely so. She is one of several contemporary artists I've highlighted during the past year. Vanessa Poutou studied at Middlesex University of London where, in 2004, she gained a bachelors degree (with ho-nors) in graphic design. Her work focuses on the traditional descriptive depiction, but painted in a modern manner. Emphasis is given to facial expressions and body move-ments, which are reinforced by abstract twists, strong ges-tures and, often, surrealistic elements. Vanessa explores human emotional states such as loneliness, nostalgia, love, eroticism, and the need for freedom. All of Poutou's paint-ings are unique, hand painted originals (sorry, no prints) found in private collections all over Europe, the UK, Aus-tralia, and the US.
Young Werther,
Vanessa Poutou
The Breath, Vanessa Poutou
The Young Werther (above, left) was inspired by The Sorrows of Young Werther, an autobiographical novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Poutou does not paint people as they are. I paint them as she feel them to be. She conducts a private investigation into their character and personality, exploring her subject to the very boundaries between life and death. Her models often reflect the transcendent act of crossing the border of souls living in the body as seen in her We Are All Drowned in the Aegean (below).

We Are All Drowned in the Aegean,
Vanessa, Poutou.
Drowning in oil on canvas.

Touch the Sun,
Vanessa Poutou.
Life after death?