Tuesday, February 28, 2017

NGA Super Stars

 No, not a mistake - neither NBA nor even NFL but National Gallery of Art.  And while art stars are  often less heralded than athletes, their actions are no less eye catching. (Literally. ) Two of them  caught the eyes of many people this week at the NGA in Washington - Alexander Calder in his 'tower' and Theaster Gates in another tower, both in the East Building. The museum celebrated both in different ways. Calder's grandson, Alexander "Sandy" Rower, appeared in a 'tete-a'tete' conversation with NGA curator Henry Cooper on Sunday afternoon for a wide ranging discussion focused generally on the issue of preserving his grandfather's memory. A press preview of  Theaster Gates'  first solo exhibit in Washington -  titled 'The Minor Arts' - took place Tuesday ahead of Sunday's March 5 opening (due to run through September 4).  Both men were proudly schooled  long ago in the art of craftsmanship by their fathers  but the connection between the two might seem to end there - at least outwardly, although both are associated with large installations. Even so, a remark by Mr. Rower that as head of the New York-based Calder Foundation he is still 'trying to figure out what' his famous relative was trying to say - almost an offhand comment, possibly meant to quiet any discussion of the subject. (After all, what an artist communicates can be different for different people at different times - and talk of this kind can get to sound very pretentious.)
 If  Calder and his grandson let the artist's work speak for him, Theaster Gates seemed to welcome the opportunity to tackle the challenge. He proved to be an articulate explainer, giving of himself in a manner both direct and theatrical. His work  on show includes a discarded high school gym floor, a pitched wall of slate from a demolished church (each single piece viewed up close could be a painting),  a 'canvas' of naugahyde, copper, and tar, and a stacked library of bound Ebony magazines plus several fetish objects - all reclaimed  first-hand. He spoke of the meaningful "relation between art history and social history"  - messages that are obvious when he mentions his devotion to the craft of roofing, calling it "my MFA."  All objects that "refer to the decline of urban institutions and traditions" - as NGA literature explains it. There is something ominous in the room, some warning notes: witness the axe pinned to an entrance wall and a steady chopping sound in the background.
Calder similarly used everyday materials in his creations, but was he any less 'serious' and solemn even in his so-called playful approach?

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