It's international art season in Philadelphia. Opening a day apart, German artist Jrg Immendorff's 40-year retrospective steamed into Moore College and the traveling exhibition of works by Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara moored at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Three weeks later, the blockbuster "Manet and the Sea" came in from Chicago and tied up at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Not that we don't love our own. Local painter Sarah McEneaney opened her sizeable retrospective upstairs at ICA on the same night as the Nara show, and the outpouring of support for McEneaney and her colorful, autobiographical paintings -- coupled with Nara's popularity -- brought record numbers in for the party at the Penn institution.
Dusseldorf and Immendorff at Moore
German Neo-Ex painter Jrg Immendorf's survey at Moore College of Art and Design, "I Wanted to Become an Artist," Jan. 23-Mar. 21, 2004, was guest-curated by Robert Storr and Pamela Kort. The show is bit of curatorial activism by the pair, who argue that Immendorff has in fact been wrongly cast as a Neo-Expressionist painter.
Rather, they say, the artist, who is 58, makes work that must be seen in a German-centric context, where its strong affinities to the social critiques of Max Beckmann and even to the cult-of-the-artist work by Joseph Beuys is clear.
The exhibition kicked off with a half-day international symposium chaired by Kort, who is a New York-based independent curator who serves as well as associate curator for the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, and Storr, the well-known former Museum of Modern Art curator who now is a professor at NYU's Institute of Fine Arts. The two were joined in discussion by Nation art critic Arthur C. Danto, painter and art historian Stephen Ellis and Hamburg-based art historian Isabelle Moffat.
Immendorff, who suffers from ALS disease and could not attend the opening or the symposium, was a Maoist student revolutionary in the 1960s, and for most of his career he has been struggling to reconcile his art and his activism.
His series of paintings from the early 1970s, "I Wanted to Become an Artist," in fact, is a painted, Maoist self-critique in which the artist is struggling to get over his need for recognition and get out there with the workers.
Around this time Immendorff also was a utopian thinker, creating a fictional art academy, "Lidl," which became the basis for many art actions he took around Dsseldorf.
He drew up a blueprint for the school's campus (you can see it in the show) and he ran around placing the "Lidl" school flag in classrooms at the Dsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts. Kort said that Immendorff had at one time been arrested for desecrating the German flag when he walked around town with a hand-painted brick tied to his ankle. The brick, which is in the show, was painted the colors of the German flag and emblazoned with the word "Lidl."
Because the artist paints himself into his works -- in fact, he's always a main character in his narrative paintings -- the curators position him close to Beuys and the cult of the artist-poet. And in fact, Beuys was Immendorff's teacher at Dsseldorf Academy, said Kort.
Throughout his career, Immendorff never did leave the studio for the barricades. Instead, his way of integrating activism and art seems to be making paintings that depict Mao, Lenin and his other heroes.
Whatever else he is, the artist is a great draftsman, adept at creating believable architectural space and filling it with a dizzying array of people and things. The combination of chaotic imagery (bleeding swastikas are a recurring motif) and space suggests the drama of history.
The works are visually engaging -- and beautifully painted. The brushwork is lush and layered and the cartoon sensibility is ebullient, you might even say manic.
Kort told me she hoped that young artists could connect with his autobiographical and activist impulses. It's one of the reasons the exhibition came about now.
The show was funded by the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative and the German Institut fur Auslandsbeziehungen, which sponsors exhibitions abroad by contemporary German artists.
Dsseldorf and Nara at ICA
Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara also spent time at Dsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts. He was there between 1989 and 1992. Nara has said it was an alienating experience (he spoke little German at the time) and in fact it was instrumental in re-awakening his childhood feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Rekindling those feelings propelled him on his way to creating the cigarette-smoking, androgynous children that are the basis of his work today.
Nara's exhibition was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland, and is accompanied by a catalogue that includes an essay by Philadelphia ICA curator Ingrid Schaffner. As installed at the ICA, Jan. 24-Apr. 4, 2004, the exhibition shows the artist working variously, for multiple audiences. Large wall pieces that look like oversized rice bowls have a kind of corporate distancing to them, as do the sleek, molded resin sculptures of his signature white dog.
On the other hand, a wall of small pencil drawings on scraps of found paper are completely non-corporate. They feel like an angry teen made them. The drawings' handmade quality and their anti-art idiosyncracies appealed big time to the young crowd at the opening.
Nara allows his imagery to be mass produced so it's affordable for his many young fans. Some of the items, like the Too Young to Die ceramic bowl were available to buy at the opening. And people bought.
Nara, a boyish 44, attended the premiere courtesy of ICA, which flew him in from Tokyo.
Callowhill and McEneaney at ICA
Upstairs at ICA, Sarah McEneaney's bright-colored storybook paintings, full of a kind of earnest documentary storytelling, counterbalance Nara's pastel-infused fantasy gang.
McEneaney, who paints autobiographical works in a meticulous style influenced by Indian miniature paintings, is a conjurer who builds worlds brick by brick. Works like Separation, the cover image on the 74-page catalogue for the show, depict the artist going about her daily chores -- including preparing her egg tempera paint. In fact, whether she's bathing (there are many, luxurious bathtub scenes) or cross-country skiing, the works are icons of dailiness in the life of an artist who's chronicling her own private "Real World."
McEneaney's world, like Nara's, contains much fiction. The artist moves objects and even whole buildings around and edits things out in order to convey just the meaning she wants. And her world is not always hearts and flowers.
Animals are loved, grow old and die; a neighbor pours toxic waste down the sewer; and in one harrowing group of works, McEneaney deals with her own rape, at her house, and its aftermath.
The drama of a life, told in close-ups, long pans and recurring bathtub scenes, has a cinematic pacing. Spend an hour with these works and it's like going to McEneaney, the movie.
Out and about
It's not cinematic, but Manet's paintings of the sea, on view in the exhibition at PMA, caused waves. With their focus on the human -- putting fishermen and ferry boats ahead of sunsets and endless horizon lines -- these are not the expected sublime or romantic Impressionist take on things.
"Manet and the Sea," organized by the Chicago Art Institute, the PMA and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, actually includes a lot more than Manet. In addition to 38 Manet paintings, the show contains seven Courbets, 17 Monets, three Renoirs, six Morisots and five Whistlers -- to present the broader context of the time.
Meanwhile, sailing into Locks Gallery, Mar. 5-Apr. 24, 2004, is "At Sea," three big, nautically-themed works by New York artist Jennifer Bartlett. Dating from the late 1970s and mid-'80s, the paintings with 3-D rowboats and houses on the floor in front of them explore water and boats in their metaphoric and real meanings.
Running concurrently at Locks, local artist Eileen Neff presents digitally manipulated color photographs of landscapes made during the artist's recent residency at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. The work continues Neff's themes of mystery and spirituality.
You won't be at sea at Larry Becker Contemporary Art, where David Goerk's juicy painted objects hold the walls like bullets of color. But it's not clear where you are with these small, fantasy constructions, made of wood painted with encaustic in mouth-watering shades of red, green, white and other hues. Goerk's world is one of allusion and illusion. Skate, a pale white object with a thick green undercoat, looks like a skateboard deck. Maybe it is and maybe it isn't. In either event, the piece lets your mind go where it will. These are works whose craftsmanship is a delight and whose surfaces and colors alone bring Spring indoors.
Speaking of bringing, Seraphin Gallery brings in new figure photographs and video work by Puerto Rican artist Victor Vazquez, also opening Mar. 5. Vazquez, whose previous Santaria-influenced photographs were a wow, can be counted on to provide more Caribbean exotica -- just when you need some.
ROBERTA FALLON is an artist who writes about art for Philadelphia Weekly. Her new blog, co-written with Libby Rosof, can be accessed at www.fallonandrosof.com/artblog.