Category: Museums

Museums: San Diego Museum of Art

sdmaSan Diego Museum of Art at Balboa Park. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

In early February I visited San Diego for the first time, and of course I made sure to check out one of their major museums, the San Diego Museum of Art. Seated within Balboa Park, a sprawling space with hiking trails, a golf course, a country club, restaurants, and several museums, SDMA offers a range of arts primarily from the Western and East Asian regions, as well as the Pacific Islands and Africa. Accompanied by my mom, I wandered through most of the museum’s galleries, taking in works from the fifteenth through twentieth centuries, as well as the temporary exhibition Women, War, and Industry (now closed), which showed wartime images of women (primarily propaganda posters) as well as works made by women artists to document or respond to war (eg, Margaret Bourke-White’s photography and Pae White’s explosive installation sculpture).

sdma-gallerywithmiroGallery view with Joan Miró’s Solar Bird, 1966 in foreground.

The galleries are organized in fairly standard fashion, with modern and contemporary works in a large, white-walled space. There is a good mix of recognizable names- Dali, Johns, Miro- mixed in with lesser-known figures like Oskar Fischinger and Rufino Tamayo. There was also a small exhibit of Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein prints, held within a dark space in the middle of the main gallery.

sdma-oskarfischinger-balls#161964Oskar Fischinger: Balls, #16, 1964.
sdma-rufinotamayo-manandwoman1971Rufino Tamayo: Man and Woman, 1971.

I was ecstatic to see one of my favorite Janet Sobel works right when I entered the door. Sobel is a sadly under-represented Abstract Expressionist who actually experimented with drip painting a few years before Jackson Pollock became famous for it. A Ukrainian immigrant and New York housewife, she began painting in her 40s and was shown at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery in 1946, where Pollock saw her work and was influenced by its all-over composition. Another favorite was a late-career Magritte painting, which I don’t think I’d ever seen before. Painted shortly before his death, it shows the noted Surrealist returning to his trusty pipe iconography, now faded and hidden behind a lone dark tree. This period saw him often toying with silhouette and leaf imagery, but the bleak landscape and feeling of emptiness here create a darker tone than in many of his more famous, playful works.

sdma-janetsobel-untitled1946-48Janet Sobel: Untitled, 1946-48.
sdma-magritte-theshadows1966Rene Magritte: The Shadows, 1966.

The small Post-Impressionist gallery also sported some artists I didn’t know well, including Kees van Dongen and Marie Laurencin. A Dutch painter associated with the Fauvist and German Expressionist movement, van Dongen was known for his garish colors and portraits of high society women. French-born Laurencin was one of the few women associated with the Cubist movement, and sought to blend a specifically female sensibility with Picasso and Braque’s notions of abstraction. I was quite struck by her small painting on display at SDMA, something about those large dark eyes and slight turn of the lip made me want to look closer at the girl’s face and try to figure her out. Laurencin displays a wonderfully light touch with a blocky approach to coloring that shows her Cubist foundation.

sdma-keesvandongen-femmedecommercederevue1908Kees van Dongen: Femme de Commerce de Revue, 1908-09.
sdma-marielaurencin-youngirl1930Marie Laurencin: Young Girl, 1930.

The pre-twentieth-century paintings are found in wood-floored rooms decked out in warm tones. Admittedly, left to my own devices I tend to always favor modern and contemporary galleries, so it was nice to be pulled into the Baroque and early Renaissance rooms by my mom. Two paintings in their collection had actually been saved by the Monuments Men, and since at the time the film had just come out, there was a special attention paid to them. We were taken with both of them: the Madonna of the Roses, with its lively floral background, as well as Batoni’s 1758 portrait of Cardinal Etienne-René Potier de Gesvres, with its realistic depiction of mind-blowingly intricate lacework. Most of the works and artists in these areas would be considered “minor,” but honestly the talent on display was nothing to scoff at. I loved the little Frans Hals portrait, and Sofonisba Anguissola’s child courtier decked out in green silks. Hieronymus Bosch’s The Arrest of Christ is a marvel of smooth colors and exaggerated facial expressions, I got more out of it the more I looked at it. There was also a number of wonderfully-preserved Giotto pieces on view, including this golden fragment of God the Father, once the top tier of an altarpiece in Florence.

1983-7_t730Pompeo Girolamo Batoni: Cardinal Etienne-René Potier de Gesvres, 1758. via UT San Diego
Madonna_of_the_Roses_Pseudo-Pier_Francesco_Fiorentino,_San_Diego_Museum_of_ArtPseudo Pier Francesco Fiorentino: Madonna of the Roses, ca. 1485-90. via Wikimedia Commons
Frans_Hals_-_Isaac_MassaFrans Hals: Portrait of Isaac Abrahamsz. Massa, ca. 1635.
sdma-anguissola-boyatspanishcourt1565Sofonisba Aguissola: Portrait of a Boy at the Spanish Court, ca. 1565-70.
sdma-bosch-arrestofchrist1515Hieronymus Bosch: The Arrest of Christ, 1515.
sdma-giotto-godthefather1330Giotto: God the Father with Angels, ca. 1330. via Wikimedia Commons

All in all I enjoyed my visit to the San Diego Museum of Art very much. It’s a bit smaller than I expected but the quality of works on view is strong, and I was so happy to see a number of artists I didn’t know, many not found in the regular “canon.” It’s a great place to discover (or re-discover) lesser-known artists, and it’s the perfect size for a long afternoon of artistic exploration. I really liked their main exhibit, Women, War, and Industry, but I wasn’t able to take photos and it has since closed, so I won’t talk much about it. I found a few new-to-me artists in that show, too, though, so hopefully I’ll do some spotlights on their work in the future.

Exhibitions: Isa Genzken at MoMA NYC

Isa GenzkenNote: All photos taken by the writer.

With a career spanning nearly forty years (and counting) and a body of work notable for both its breadth and variety, Isa Genzken is an artist well worth a look. Her current show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a compelling retrospective, covering everything from her early minimalist sculpture and miniature assemblages to her street photography and memorial designs for the World Trade Center. Born and raised in Germany, Genzken has primarily worked in Cologne and Berlin, with some stints in New York. She studied under painter Gerhard Richter at the Dusseldorf Fine Arts Academy, and the two were married for a time after she graduated. Her work is wildly diverse, but characterized by its mix of wacky, irreverent hodgepodge and Minimalist gravitas. The exhibition galleries abound with so many different objects and images, blending advertising slick and experimental painting with large-scale industrial sculpture and colorful found materials. I was delighted with each new room, each new discovery, for I was largely unfamiliar with Genzken’s range and output.

The show opens with a brand new piece, entitled Actors. A number of assemblaged mannequin figures are arranged against a backdrop of magazine covers and headlines. Their eclectic collage elements make for a grouping both funny and confrontational, with the title suggesting a stage set. Walking into the exhibition proper, the galleries are organized chronologically and generally separated by decade. Genzken’s 70s work sees her burgeoning engagement with Minimalism as well as found imagery, with slender canoe-like forms that sweep across the floor, and enlarged prints of advertisements for stereo systems (the artist was fascinated by the aesthetic forms of audio equipment).

Genzken-Actors3Isa Genzken: Actors, 2013.
Genzken-Actors2Isa Genzken: Actors, 2013.
Genzken-actors1Isa Genzken: Actors, 2013.
Isa Genzken first galleryIsa Genzken: Retrospective, gallery view.
Genzken-Basic Research 1989Isa Genzken: Basic Research, 1989.
Genzken-MLR 1992Isa Genzken: MLR, 1992.
Genzken-gallery view Isa Genzken: Retrospective, gallery view.
Genzken-Little Window 1994 Isa Genzken: Little Window, 1994.
Genzken-Lamp 1996Isa Genzken: Lamp, 1996.

In the 80s and 90s she moved on to concrete and resin sculpture- some fairly monumental in size- and textured paintings. I loved the feel of this gallery, with its sturdy, large-scale works in different industrial materials and geometric forms, a few reaching up towards the skylight. They are reminiscent of ruined buildings and cityscapes, but somewhat whimsical in their tactility and shapes. Along the walls are various experimental canvases, adding some color to the room but generally maintaining the subdued tones of the sculpture. The MLR series of paintings were made with spray paint and stencils, with layered compositions that recall architectural patterns and photogram silhouettes. The Basic Research series was created through frottage (a rubbing-out technique), resulting in a fascinating textured effect that had me doing double takes. A lot of her work had me doing double takes, actually. Genzken does not go for the obvious effect, combining and altering various familiar shapes and objects in unexpected ways.

By 2000, she was making the kitschy assemblage sculpture she is perhaps most known for, as seen in the sardonic series Fuck the Bauhaus. With these frankly silly works, she knowingly goes against the Bauhaus school’s belief in function over form, putting together wonderfully convoluted and useless- but vaguely architectural- combines. Around this time she began using found objects and materials found in hardware stores or street fairs. She continued to create abstract sculpture but in using such objects there is a note of representation and figuration seen in them. Her works also became more suited to site-specific installation, with series of sculptures coming together to form one immersive room, while also allowing her space for political and social commentary. The American Room– a set of assemblages that pokes fun at material culture, capitalism, and nationalism in the United States- and Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death– assemblages paired with a film that act as commentary on the American presence of Iraq- are examples of this.

Genzken-Fuck the Bauhaus 2 2000Isa Genzken: Fuck the Bauhaus 2, 2000.
Genzken-Fuck the Bauhaus 4 2000Isa Genzken: Fuck the Bauhaus 4, 2000.
imageIsa Genzken: Social Facade, 2002.
Genzken-The American Room 2004 Isa Genzken: The American Room, 2004 (detail).
Genzken-Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death 2003-04Isa Genzken: Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death, 2003-2004 (detail).
Genzken-Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death 2003-04 2Isa Genzken: Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death, 2003-2004 (detail).
Genzken-Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death 2003-04 3Isa Genzken: Empire/Vampire: Who Kills Death, 2003-2004 (detail).

The final gallery shows a grouping of Genzken’s Ground Zero project, produced in response to a call for design proposals for the World Trade Center site. Genzken was in New York City during the 9/11 attacks, and these works serve as her response to the event. Together they form a sort of eclectic miniature city, with buildings constructed out of found materials both high- and low-end. The artist stresses celebration and fun over sorrow, transforming the space into a happy memorial to the city itself.

Genzken’s tremendous output is of course only partially represented here, but MoMA has collected together an impressive array of the artist’s works, reflecting her personal and professional development since the early 1970s. With such a diverse oeuvre, I responded differently to certain movements in her work. Her concrete and resin sculpture is fantastic, her miniature assemblages are complex and often delightful, and her abstract paintings are surprisingly intricate. I was less compelled by her earlier minimalist sculpture and mid-90s street photography, however. Ultimately, Isa Genzken: Retrospective is a fun, varied exhibit that has so much to offer: art historical references, urban culture, political commentary, visual wit, and a good dose of wacky humor.

Genzken-Light (Ground Zero) 2008Isa Genzken: Light (Ground Zero), 2008.
Genzken-Ground Zero roomIsa Genzken: Ground Zero, 2008 – gallery view.
Genzken-Untitled 2012 Isa Genzken: Untitled, 2012.
Genzken-friend portraits 1998-2000Isa Genzken: Kai, 2000; Isa, 2000; Dan, 1999; Andy, 1999; Wolfgang, 1998. Portraits of Genzken’s friends, including artists Dan Graham and Wolfgang Tillmans.
Genzken-Gay Baby series 1997Isa Genzken: Gay Baby series, 1997.
Genzken-Slot Machine 1999-2000Isa Genzken: Slot Machine, 1999-2000.

Exhibitions: Christina Ramberg at ICA Boston

ramberg-waiting lady-1972-flickrChristina Ramberg: Waiting Lady, 1972. via flickr

The human body as a subject has long fascinated visual artists. It has fallen prey to distortion and monstrosity, to sexualization and idolization, and so many other representations. In the 1970s many artists involved in the rising feminist movement turned to the female form as a symbol of oppression as well as power, some referencing Mother Earth metaphors and others satirizing 1950s domesticity and feminized consumerism. It became easy for any woman artist to be labeled “feminist” (a dirty word to many) regardless of her actual intentions or activism. While many artists actively pursue goals relating to feminism and combating prejudices, others are more ambiguous in their work, more private about their own goals or beliefs. It is this understated approach that makes the work of Christina Ramberg so fascinating. Her work can easily be interpreted through a feminist lens, but does not endeavor to give the viewer any clear answers or meanings.

Based in Chicago, Ramberg became associated with the loose-knit group of artists known as “Hairy Who,” a subset of the Imagists- Chicago artists generally known for their humor, grotesque surrealism, and disconnect from the more mainstream New York art world in the 1960s and 70s. Her influences range from geometric Cubist Fernand Léger to 1950s “damsel-in-distress” comics. I also see a bit of the Art Deco figuration of Tamara de Lempicka in the angular forms and notable sheen of her paintings. Ramberg’s work is characterized by stylized forms, close-up and cropped body parts, binding and bandage motifs, and references to women’s lingerie and hair. Though she had several solo shows during her lifetime, her career was tragically cut short in 1995 when she passed away of a neurological disease. She is popular with collectors but rarely exhibited in museums, pushed to the side in more mainstream discussions of the Imagists, women artists, and contemporary painting.

ramberg-istrian silver lady-1974-whitneyChristina Ramberg: Istrian Silver Lady, 1974. via The Whitney Museum tumblr

The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston’s exhibit Christina Ramberg (on view through March 2) focuses on the artist’s major paintings made between 1971 and 1981, featuring a selection of 13 works. It is a small but effective show, exploring the artist’s development over a significant period. Her style is sleek and flat, mostly acrylic paint on masonite. Her palette is subdued, often limited to brown, tan, and black tones with the occasional dark blue or bold purple. With their cropped bodies and surreal distortions, the paintings invite closer scrutiny, and their memorable bright sheen effect has to be seen in person.

1988_ramberg_blackwidow_bChristina Ramberg: Black Widow, 1971. via The Renaissance Society

One of my favorite pieces is Black Widow from 1971, one of her first large paintings. The catalogue shares an interesting quote from Ramberg, as she reminisces about watching her mother get dressed for a night out when she was a little girl: “I can remember being stunned by how it transformed her body… she’s transforming herself into the kind of body men want. I thought it was fascinating… in some ways, I thought it was awful.” This painting is one of a series showing women’s torsos in antiquated lingerie, with flesh tightly bound in black satin and lace. By hiding the figure’s face and limbs, Ramberg de-humanizes them and thus literally objectifies them.

The artist moved onto more abstracted paintings, with figural forms that merge with phallic forms and repeating motifs of long strands of hair and wooden chairs. Her tendencies move from voyeurism to surrealism. The latest works in the exhibit showcase Ramberg at her most abstract, with androgynous torsos and body parts made up of different objects, patterns, and materials. She also veers slightly away from her penchant for symmetry, with some bodies partially falling apart from the center. Freeze and Melt from 1981 shows a body as an assemblage, composed of furniture parts, wire mesh, wooden blocks, and clothing.

ramberg-Freeze_and_MeltChristina Ramberg: Freeze and Melt, 1981. via Boston Beyond

Over these ten years of experimenting with the human form, showing the transformative power of clothes, hair, and objects, Ramberg reveals a refusal to be obvious. She plays with gender, with feminine sexuality, with stereotypes, and creates her own iconography that lends itself to multifarious readings. The exhibit is a small but powerful one, and allows a neglected artist a worthy space and surely many new admirers.



Janelle Porter. Christina Ramberg (ICA Boston, 2012).