Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Maintaining the Sistine Ceiling

Present day art preservations work over (or under) the entire ceiling every year  maintaining the work of Michelangelo as well as that of the original restoration team.
Over the past several years during which I've "gone on" about art, I've taken several opportunities to sing the praises of the most unsung heroes of at art world--the art preservationists. Each major museum has an entire department staffed by up to a dozen experts and technicians who labor daily at the task of restoring old art to the point it looks new again. Hopefully the results are much the same as when the original artist finished the work. Occasionally these skilled technicians are assigned some major work of historic importance which lands them on the back pages of the local press, complete with before and after shots as well as photos taken while their work was in progress. Of course, the holy grail of such assignments was the restoration of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, begun in the mid-1980s and not finished until 1994. The project had involved a dozen restorers of the Vatican Museums and two interns who admitted how difficult it was to focus on just a few square inches of painting at a time while ignoring where they were and the wonderfulness of the heavenly masterpiece all around them.
The Prophet Daniel, before and after the original 1985-94 restoration.
Over seven-million visitors trek through the Sistine Chapel each year (I've been one of them) to admire both Michelangelo's ceiling and his famous Last Judgment behind the altar. That number of human beings can do a lot of damage. I'm not talking about deliberate harm but their body heat and their exhaling of carbon dioxide. The human body produces both heat and carbon dioxide. Protecting the frescoes against future damage was a key part of the restoration process. An air-conditioning system with some 92 sensors and necessitating 26km of wiring was installed to protect against rapid changes in air temperature and humidity. The air in the lower part of the building was to be kept cooler and circulate more rapidly to encourage dirt particles to fall to the floor rather than circulate up near the ceiling, while at the same time filtering out bacteria and chemical pollutants. The humidity must never be more than 60 percent and the carbon-dioxide level has to be kept lower than 800 parts per million. All these values have to be kept stable. But the number of people in the room makes that complicated. It can be one, or it can be a thousand. If they have to, technicians can completely change the air inside the chapel 60 times a day.
No, it's not some sci-fi monster but a movable platform from which preservation technician can work.

A master conservator demonstrates
a technique for removing contaminants
from a Botticelli fresco in the Sistine Chapel.
Throughout the day, a Vatican conservation technician monitors sensors in the Sistine Chapel that track all of the environmental variables. Yet, despite the Vatican’s best efforts, thin layers of contamination inevitably develop. Carbon dioxide reacts to the plaster of the frescos. Through the process of condensation and evaporation, bacteria accumulates. The result is an almost imperceptible whitish glaze of soluble salts above the surface of the painting. To prevent the work from being damaged, the staff cleans the frescos regularly and remove contaminants while they are still soluble, using a crane-like machine nicknamed the Spider—a Multitel SMX 250 self-propelled tracked platform (above)—to access the ceiling frescoes. Michelangelo would have loved one of these babies. Thanks to modern technology, reaching the ceiling of the Chapel may be a little easier these days, but no less daunting than when Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the chapel ceiling in 1508. Michelangelo and his assistants carried out the work with the help of a system of wooden scaffolds that had to be taken down, moved and reassembled as the work progressed. Today, the ‘spider’, a type of glorified ‘cherry picker’ has replaced the wooden scaffolds.  It’s four legs anchor securely to the floor as restorers and cleaners, armed with soft cloths, vacuum cleaners and brushes are lifted the 15 meters (about 50 feet) in the air bringing them face to face with Michelangelo’s lunettes.

The preservation team at work.
When that modern-day restoration project ended in 1994, a new one began: the careful monitoring and preventative conservation of the works, which are now seen by close to seven million visitors each year. The name of the game is Constant vigilance. The delicate artworks are carefully monitored to make sure they are not threatened by contaminants brought in by hoards of visitors (more than 1,000 can crowd in at a time) who inadvertently track in dirt, dust, and leave behind traces of hair and skin. The dusting and cleaning of the Sistine Chapel’s covered some two-thousand, five-hundred square feet of painted surfaces. It involved a dozen restorers of the Vatican Museums as well as that many more professionals in the art of dealing with dirt. Also, in their efforts to preserve the ceiling, the Vatican has installed LED lighting that doesn’t emit UV rays and won’t cause the paintings to fade. There is also a special HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) system, donated in 2014 by the Carrier Corporation, that keeps the temperature constantly between 22 and 24 degrees Celsius (71.6 to 75.2 degrees Fahrenheit). To keep out impurities, four diffusers bring in and take out air. At night, staff members painstakingly dust and vacuum the entire museum. (All dust is analyzed to detect bacteria or fungi.).
Cleaning the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. Barely noticeable in the photo is the long arm of the "Spider "(the Multitel SMX 250).
Maintaining the Sistine frescoes is slow, tedious, back breaking work, but no one complains. They all know it is an honor and a privilege to be part of this team. They take their responsibilities very seriously. Their nights in the Sistine Chapel will be the fodder for many a story during their lifetimes, to be told over and over again, including the part about the party they once threw for themselves after cleaning of the hand of God touching Adam, infusing him with the breath of life.
A semi-fictional look at what Michelangelo went through--


Monday, June 17, 2019

Lizzie Fitch & Ryan Trecartin

Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch pose at the opening of their movie/art exhibit, Whether Line at Fondazione Prada, (Milan, Italy) 2019.
Almost fifty years ago, I earned my B.A from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. About forty-five years ago, O.U. bestowed upon me a M.A. in Art Curriculum and Instruction. Athens, Ohio, is a strange little community, thought probably not as compared to other university towns. The estimated population is about 25,000, not including another 29,525 students (as of 2018). Perhaps most peculiar is that politically, it's a bastian of progressive liberalism deep in the heart of Trump country. It's an attractive little bastian straddling the Hocking River, nestled in the hills created by the moraine from the last ice age. For the most part, the people are friendly, sometimes to a fault (i.e. nosey). All this and probably more would likely account for the migration of the rising conceptual artist, Lizzie Fitch and her longtime partner, Ryan Trecartin (above) from the megalopolis of LA. to the quiet little "burg" sometimes referred to as "Harvard on the Hocking."
Overview of the (as of yet unnamed) amusement park still under construction roughly five miles east of Athens, Ohio.
A 55-foot watchtower along one
of the park's woodland hiking trails
Athens is also a rather unlikely site for an amusement park, not to mention movie sets and ghostly female figures straight from a "B" movie horror picture show. Yet those represent the creative presence of Fitch and Trecartin. The two were originally from Ohio. Their hyperkinetic video works have one thing in common: a sense of overload, both linguistic and visual, leaving the viewer pleasantly adrift. Whether Line, the center-piece of a new exhibition at the Fondazione Prada in Milan, is no exception. It’s a whirlwind tale of rural gentrification, Amish identity, queer dance parties, DIY real-estate projects, and what happens when Mid-western manners are confronted by surreal bad attitudes.

A closer look--the Fitch-Trecartin home, video studio, and would-be amusement park.
The two conceptual video artists began developing a tract of land into an ever-evolving video set. They built a massive house (above) as part of a postmodern fever dream that nonsensically Frankensteined unrelated design elements into one semi-cohesive whole. Fitch and Trecartin are now continuing to expand their land into a sort of art-damaged amusement park. Building such a place with their own hands has not been a "walk in the park." They had a landslide, a mudslide. There was an unprecedented rainfall, and none of the buildings were done in the way that we originally envisioned, because of extreme weather delays. Farmers were even getting FEMA money. They ended up digging out the mud with their bare hands. The house they made combines wildly different styles and features into one. It's almost ready to move into--except for the septic system.
The viewing room, replete with old-fashioned Amish rocking chairs.
Whether Line explores the idea of a culture clash between all of the characters seen in the movie. Lizzie Fitch notes that almost everyone they’ve met has been very open, accepting, and curious. hey do have one neighbor, though, who’s very extreme. He definitely inspired a lot of the content in the movie, indirectly and directly. But that’s just one person in a whole community around them. They tell people they're making a movie. Then they jokingly add that they’re building an amusement park. But it’s not really a joke. They are, it’s just not a traditional one. There are certain traits of reality TV that went into the conception of Whether Line, particularly peoples’ new relationship to acting, and also the fear of acting. Ryan Trecartin explains that years ago, if someone asked non-actors if they would be in a movie, it would be, "Hell yeah! I want to be in the movie!" Now, however, they ask questions: “What’s the context? Where’s it going to show? What’s the meaning?” Fitch believes everyone has a relationship to their mediated self. Today, a lot of people have a fear of context being weaponized. People are more wary. There is more anxiety around cameras than there was just five years ago.
A Whether Line production still featuring Lizzie Fitch, Jason Rankin, and Ryan Trecartin.
On the sets of Whether Line, it always seems like everyone involved is having a lot of fun, as if it’s all a big, sprawling, unwieldy party. However, some scenes are difficult and painful with everyone working really hard, often doing every line 25 times. Fitch points out that it looks like way more fun than it is. Of course there are other scenes that are really quite a lot of fun to shoot. It depends on how they decide to direct the script. Sometimes it’s line-by-line, very formal, and other times the script is little more than a suggestion. While there is an agenda to it, there is also a lot of space for improv and invention and for people to add content and ideas. Those shoots are usually a lot more fun.

Much of the film is about finding a perfect place to settle. Have these artists done so? Although Fitch and Trecartin seem to love their new creation in its most unlikely setting, there's also talk of maybe moving somewhere for a year to do their next project. They plan to continue to add to their Athens County park and build it out. At this point, exhaustion has set in. Fitch insists she's not going anywhere fast. "This is the first time we’ve ever owned anything. We’re definitely not going to sell it. This body of work has just started."

Production still from Whether Line

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Real Raphael

The Transfiguration, and Ascension of Christ into Heaven, 1516–20, Raphael--final work completed after the painter's death by an assistant.
If one were to question a group of art layman (non-artist) today asking them to name some of the painters of the Italian Renaissance, the responses would probably surprise (and dishearten) you. Virtually every response would include Leonardo and Michelangelo, artists we have come to know on a first-name basis. Fine, but after those two, would follow a lot of blank stares or blank space if this were a quiz. Actually there are enough painters alone to fill a whole sheet of notebook paper. Yet, there is at least one more Renaissance painter we often refer to by his first name yet he would likely land several lines down--that of Raphael (or Raphaello di Sanzio). And even though some might readily recognize and recall the name (even his last name), few people could identify even one of his works.
School of Athens, 1509-11, Raphael
Why is it then that we are somewhat familiar with the name, but are so unfamiliar with the work of Raphaello de Sanzio? Well, first he worked constantly in the shadow of Michelangelo...and a huge shadow it was. Second, while he could be relied upon to complete that which he started (unlike Leonardo), his one failing, if you could call it that, was that he never completed his own life. He died suddenly of a mysterious ailment in 1520 at the age of 37, leaving behind his one unfinished painting, his work depicting the Transfiguration and ascension of Christ into Heaven (later completed by an assistant). The third reason is that, while outliving both his rivals (Leonardo died in 1519), Michelangelo's star continued to rise (as did Leonardo's in spite of his death). With Raphael, that was not the case. He left a dozen or more major masterpieces but none were to become art icons. His School of Athens (above) comes closest, and is on a par with anything (other than Michelangelo's ceiling) done by the other two. However it seems his work was either too cerebral or too "sweet" (sometimes both at the same time) to have earned him the "superstar" status he so richly deserved. Though his memory glowed for a short time after his death, only in the 1800s did his work come to be really studied and admired again. Who knows, maybe it will take another hundred years or so before we can call to mind his Transfiguration (top) with the same ease we can Michelangelo's Last Judgment.

The Alba Madonna, ca. 1510, Raphael

Doni Tondo, 1507, Michelangelo
According to Renaissance hist-orian and architect, Giorgio Vasari, Raphael was the one who suggested Michelangelo for the commission in the hopes that he’d fail, since Michel-angelo was mostly known as a sculptor. Yet Raphael seems to have respected Michelangelo’s style: From the older artist, Raphael learned how to imbue the figures that inhabit his The Alba Madonna, completed in 1510, has a monumental quality. While Raphael was at work on The School of Athens, Michelangelo was painting his frescoes on the Sistine Ceiling. The Alba Madonna (above), completed in 1510, has a degree of monumentality not seen in Raphael's earlier works. We have only to compare Raphael's Alba with Michelangelo's Doni Tondo (right, completed in 1507) to gauge the effect Michelangelo works, both in the Sistine Chapel and elsewhere to get a first glimpse of the "Real" Raphael.

Raphael Self-portrait, 1506
However telling, Raphael's larger com-missions expose only one aspect of his personality and character. Born on Good Friday, April 6, 1483—the same day on which he’d eventually die—in Urbino, Raffaello di Sanzio took over his artisan father’s workshop as a teenager. In 1500, at 17 years of age, the boy received his first commission: an altarpiece for the church of Sant’ Agostino in Perugia, an assignment that would launch his precocious career. He began charming wealthy patrons from a young age, ensuring that he always had commissions to execute and money to spend. His self-portrait, painted around 1506, helps explain his success: Raphael rendered himself with long curly locks, searching brown eyes, smooth skin, and plush lips, glorying in his image as a sensitive, soulful aesthete. From his adolescent years on until his death, women found him attractive. Beyond this romantic reputation is a prolific artist who produced a varied body of work that brought Renaissance painting to its pinnacle. In his 2006 biography Raphael: A Passionate Life, Antonio Forcellino writes that the young artist “...acted as the interpreter of a very particular world, the dream of a golden rebirth to be brought about through literary studies and painting.” Raphael’s oeuvre likewise reveals a sense of “harmony, culture, and intellectual and sensual equilibrium.”

Lady with a Unicorn, 1505, Raphael
Two portraits, one from early in his career (above) and the other, painted over the final years of the artist's life (below) illuminate Raphael the man. Raphael's Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn, painted 1505 when the artist was twenty-two, depicts an elegant blonde woman holding a small unicorn, her head framed by two columns and a far-off landscape of green earth and blue sky. Yet for centuries, the picture showed a different scene. In the 1930s, conservationists revealed that the painting had undergone multiple revisions. Raphael had initially painted a dog instead of a unicorn. Then sometime in the 17th century, another artist had painted over Raphael’s composition entirely, turning it into a picture of St. Catherine holding a broken wheel, the symbol of her martyrdom. The vandal also added a shawl over the subject’s shoulders, which had originally remained bare. Subsequent scholars have come up with myriad interpretations of the painting. Some note its compositional similarity to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, began around the same time, in 1503. Both women look out at the viewer with impenetrable glances and pursed lips, and the paintings similarly employ a half-length format in which their subjects appear seated, the frames cutting them off at their waists. But the identity of Raphael’s sitter, and the symbolic meaning of the unicorn, remain puzzles for historians. The mythical creature may have functioned as a symbol of purity: Legend maintained that only virgins could attract a unicorn. Of course, these virgins’ powers of persuasion also warned potential suitors of seductive cunning.

La Fornarina, 1518–20, Raphael
Through his painting, La Fornarinawe see Raphael at his most lascivious. Against a dark, leafy background, a woman with a bare torso and pert nipples holds a sheer cloth by her left breast, while her left arm, encircled with a blue band that reads “Raphael Urbinas" rests on her lap. A colorful turban wraps around her dark hair, which is elegantly parted down the center. Her large brown eyes look left, out of the frame. She was probably his lover Margherita Luti, a baker’s daughter, or fornarina. The armband is often interpreted as a token of the woman’s ownership rather than of the painting’s authorship.” Raphael died before he could complete the work, which remained in his studio for the remainder of his life, suggesting that the artist may not have intended it for public view. Even centuries later, the intimate portrait remains one of the most erotically charged paintings in Western art.


Monday, June 3, 2019

How Art is Priced

The Piano Lesson,  1923, Henri Matisse
In 2011, The Piano Lesson (1923 version, above) by Henri Matisse sold at auction for $10.8-million. It was expected to sell for more than $12-million. Just over a year ago I wrote as to why certain painted masterpieces of the past became famous while similar works did not. Today I'm going to discuss a related question, not from a historic point of view, but from an economic one. How do gallery owners set prices for their high-end fine art? And, moreover, how do the wealthy buyers of such art decide the prices they are willing to pay? And beyond that, we take a glimpse into the workings of today's art market.

The Stolen Mirror, 1941, Max Ernst
Max Ernst's The Stolen Mirror (above)from 1941 is a dream-like landscape which sold for £10.3million in 2011, (a record for the surrealist artist). The European collector who bought it accepted a loss, offloading the work for just £8m at Christie’s in February. Although there may seem, in some cases, to be no "rhyme nor reason" in the astronomical sums paid for paintings by artists such as Matisse, Picasso, Max Ernst, and Alberto Giacometti, there is a certain basic logic involved. In nearly all cases, to varying degrees, the following nine factors come into play--

       1. The name of the artist.
       2. The size of the artwork.
       3. The medium employed.
       4. The date created.
       5. The content.
       6. The provenance.
       7. Recognizability.
       8. The condition of the work.
       9. The rarity of the work.

Les-femmes d Alger (Version "O"), 1955, Pablo Picasso
Picasso’s 1955 oil painting Les-femmes d Alger (above) sold for $179,365,000 at Sotheby's last month. Perhaps most important of all these criteria is the name of the artist. A billionaire art collector would be unlikely to bid the same price for a Jim Lane painting as one by Picasso. Picasso is internationally famous, a major mover and shaker in several groups of artists during his era. I can barely move much less shake. Any art group I've ever headed has had little or no impact on the overall history of art. The impact of Picasso's work on the history of art is nearly inestimable. Picasso's work, from time to time, comes up for auction. So far as I know, my work has yet to be sold at auction.

Nymphéas en fleur,  1914-17, Claude Monet
The other price determining factors all involve characteristics of the work itself. For example, damaged work obviously bring lower prices. But also, evidence of restoration likewise lowers price.
,As to size, in general, the larger the work the higher the price, but only up to a point at which size influence becomes less and less important. The break point as to sizes for collectors involves dimensions they can comfortably display in their homes. Larger works are purchased for corporate and institutional collections. Works such as Monet's Nymphéas en fleur series from the Peggy and David Rockefeller collections, are often measured in feet or meters. Nympheas en Fleur (above) sold for $84.6-million. Even some museums would be hard-pressed to display canvases of such size.

Picasso's Tete de Femme, (1935), sold for £18.9-millon at a Sotheby's last month, a far cry from the £28m which the seller paid for the work at the auction house’s 2013 sale.
Oil paintings tend to bring a higher price than works on paper. An artist's primary medium will bring the highest prices. Mixed media prices tend to fall somewhere between those for paper and canvas, depending on the artist's style, size and content. Speaking of content, content--male buyers tend to prefer female figures with nudes fetching the highest prices. Portraits of unknown figures bring lower prices, and today religious are quite out of fashion for individual collectors. They thus bring lower prices. The date of a given work must be correlated with the various developmental stages most artists go through during their careers--early, transitional, and mature. An artist's mature work is usually priced higher than his or her earlier pieces when they are struggling to "find" themselves.
Typical Certificate of Provenance provided by the artist. Where art history begins. Some are less "fancy" than this, some far more so.

Bust of a Man, plaster, 1965.
Alberto Giacometti .
The term "provenance" (above) comes to us from the French and might best be equated to an animal's pedigree. It begins with the artist's signature and the date completed, usually rendered on the work itself, but also includes what amounts to a written history of the work from the time the piece is first sold by the artist (or his estate) to the current owner offering it for sale. It is a legal document, often coming to the fore in court cases. Works without provenance are little more that wall decorations.

And finally, art history comes into play as prices are often determined by the impact the artist's following or that of the individual work on the overall art scene A .Giacometti painting similar to the plaster sculpture at left was bought just before the credit crunch for £1.6 million . The price was estimated at £1.8-2.5 million at Christie’s but failed to find a buyer. Apparently Gia-cometti's stature in the history of art has suffered in recent years. Works by artists who have created a relatively small amount of work brings higher prices. Giacometti does not fit into that category. The 17th-century Dutch painter, Jan Vermeer does.


The dominant forces of the fine art market today.
High-end art is one of the most manipulated markets in the world. Who are these manipulators? Major gallery owners you've probably never heard of, and the two giant auction houses, Sotheby's and their rival,Christie's (above). Both are venerable, ancient institutions, Christie's dating from 1766, Sotheby's from a few years later in 1774. Both houses no longer sell only art but high end real estate, cars, jewelry and other expensive knick-knacks for the terminally wealthy. moreover both behemoths have auction floors in all the many centers of sophisticated wealth around the world. They cater to a clientele of art collectors different than consumers or investors in any other market. High-power art collecting is both time consuming and expensive, so collectors tend to be very wealthy. Art collecting is often more of an avocation than a utilitarian pursuit. Although there's joy in collecting beautiful things, the social benefits are a large part of that enjoyment. The high-end art collector is part of community of collectors who go to fairs together and enjoy a friendly rivalry in acquiring the work of certain artists. He’s spent his life in the company of major collectors, dealers, and artists. At the same time many collectors are skeptical of the industry. They see prices that are often bogus; Bad art often sells for too much. Some question the integrity of many dealers. Yet these same avid collectors each, believe they are well informed, rarely overpay and enjoy what they’ve acquired.
Auction Room, Christie's, circa 1808.
Price manipulation occurs at the elite end of the primary market. There exists a lower tier art market, full of small unknown, local galleries outside of large urban areas where prices are listed, transactions occur at that price, and the work is sold to whomever wants to buy it off the street. These collectors buy art simply because they love the work, Artists who sell at these types of galleries probably can’t support themselves selling their work. Galleries must invest many costly resources in the artists they represent. They mentor them by visiting their studios, fostering their relationship with collectors and plot their career. But they’ll probably only represent a rising artist for a short time as the artist progresses they’ll move on to a higher tier gallery. Galleries promote the artist by presenting their art at an exhibition or at an art fair like Basel. Before new work is shown, the gallery has already offered it to their preferred clients, which include museums as well as major public and private collections. Their motivation to select buyers is inclusion in a major collection that signals that an artist’s work has been endorsed by the art world. This can increase the value of the artist’s portfolio and catapult him into another tier of prestige. Galleries also want to know the buyer in order to keep track of the work. That way they can ensure it’s available for exhibitions in the future and that it won’t be sold on the secondary auction market.
How the art market works.
Many art experts today feel that we have finally reached a peak in art sales? Works by Matisse and Picasso are going for a song as the world’s leading auction houses report a slump in sales. It’s less than a year since Pablo Picasso’s Women of Algiers (Version O) set a new world record for the most expensive artwork to be sold at auction after reaching $179m (£115m) in New York. Now even Picassos are falling in price after a run of disappointing sales which has forced the leading auction houses to take radical action. When Sotheby’s and Christie’s held a series of impressionist and modern art sales not long ago, they collectively sold $210-million worth, a dramatic 45 per cent decline from the $381m total for similar sales the year before. Christie’s International, the world’s leading auction house by revenue, reported a 5 per cent decline in annual sales, ending five years of growth. Sales of postwar and contemporary art, Old Masters, 19th century and Russian art were among those in decline. In further sign that collectors are becoming more selective, Sotheby’s sold just 67 per cent of its 37 offered lots at one recent sale, for a total of $114 million, below its own expectations of a $123m return.

Vincent Price, legendary art collector.