Venice Biennale 2013 - The Arsenale, Part 1

The first Bienalle venue we went to was at the Arsenale. It’s a huge space, and we were not able to do all of it, but here’s a review of some of what I did see.

I apologize in advance for the quality of the images. They were taken with my phone, as I didn’t expect to be able to take pictures, so I didn’t bring my camera. I will do better next time.

I've decided that I'm going to only mention a couple of things I really liked, and that I think are worth the trouble to see. I’m generally not going to mention names of artists I didn’t like, but I will show pictures of some of their work. In truth, the exhibition met my expectations: it was mostly crap. At least a third of the space was dedicated to video installations that were mainly unintelligible nonsense. The rooms were so dark you couldn’t see where you were going, and the images were largely uninteresting. Don’t bother.

There were very few paintings, and such as they were, they were not current. They ranged from the 30s through the 80s, and were some of the more interesting things, but they are not contemporary. 

The highlight of the show was a room full of sculptures by Polish artist Pawel Althamer, called “The Venetians.” There are 90 sculptures in all, done in polyethylene, acrylic resin, metal rebar, and paint. They are all painted gray, and all have different faces, molded from real people. They are fascinating.

Another star was the book sculptures by South African Artist Wim Botha. Stacks of books are held together with vices, and then carved like a block of stone. All very interesting.

Finally, one of the most interesting works was an illustrated Genesis, by American Robert Crumb. The drawings are done more in the style of a comic book. Every word of Genesis (as far as I could tell) is drawn into balloons and boxes, and illustrated with pen and ink drawings. A very fascinating work. It’s actually available on Amazon.

I’ll finish this with one of the more disgusting works, by Carol Rama, from about 1940. I’ll let it speak for itself.

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Venice Biennale No. 1: The Dogana Point

There is no better time to restart this blog than the Venice Biennale. I live in Venice about a hundred yards from the main section of the Biennale. I’ve lived here for two Biennale, and have never seen the main section. I’ve seen some of the outlying exhibits, but never the permanent pavilions. 

Last night we had a chance to get into the Dogana Point, a museum that is at the converted customs house, which shares the François Pinault Collection with Palazzo Grassi. I’ve been to both the Dogana and the Grassi. I’ve never been impressed with most of the works there, with the exception of a few Cy Twomblies. The current exhibition is no different.

The Dogana is a vast space. Lots of wonderful art could be displayed there, but the curators have chosen a generally hideous and uninteresting collection. A rectangular box full of water. An installation that looks as though it was inspired by the Ikea catalogue, cabinets and all. (Although were two large flower pots that interested me, but I couldn’t find a sales person.) A few poorly executed paintings. Three wheelbarrows, each with a crumpled up duffle bag. In other words, it was all crap.


The only interesting work was a piece called Décor by Algerian-born artist Adel Abdessemed, which consists of four sculptures of Jesus being crucified, rendered with razor wire. [put photos here  I’m usually a painting type of guy, not caring much for sculpture, but these were fascinating.

The takeaway: Don’t bother with the Dogana. It’s as uninteresting as usual, and not worth the fee.

(Photos not mine. They can be found on

Abstract Art with Traditional Decor

As you know, I am an advocate of mixing abstract art with traditional or antique decor. It is a common notion that modern art should be mixed only with modern decor and furnishings, and that traditional furnishings should be accented by traditional art. This is wrong - the two can be mixed to great effect, and it is truly more interesting when they are mixed.

I came across a blog recently (click here to see it) with two photographs that illustrate this idea perfectly. One photo shows a room furnished with traditional antique furniture, classical sculptures, and oriental furniture, with large abstract paintings on the walls. The other picture shows modern furniture with one of the same paintings as is shown in the picture with the traditional decor. The room with the traditional furnishings is strikingly more interesting. It has the result that the contrast between the modern art and the traditional furnishings makes both stand out more.

Another blog shows an abstract painting in an antique frame hung on a wall in a room decorated with traditional furniture, further illustrating my pint that abstract art and traditional decor go together.  The interior design of this apartment, although having a certain appeal, is consistent with the observations I made in a previous blog about the frightening trend in interior design.  That is, it is awash with totally neutral decor, even the paintings, with only a few spots of color around, which is created solely by a few plants and nick-knacks

Frightful Trend in Interior Design

As an artist trying to sell paintings, I realize that there are two kinds of people who may purchase my works: collectors and interior designers. With respect to the latter, I preach using my paintings to jazz up one’s decor, even if otherwise traditional or antique. Since my primary mode of marketing is the internet, I keep myself alerted to blogs on the topic of decorating with abstract art, and seek websites of interior designers who might share my philosophy.

The other day while looking for such designers through Google searches, I came across a list of interior designers in New York City. I thought that this might be an excellent place to connect with an interior designer. New York is the home of the Abstract Expressionists, after all, and a lot of people who might be able to afford my modest fees. So I started down the list looking at websites and portfolios of rooms they had decorated. What I saw surprised and dismayed me.

The first designer had a portfolio showing room after room with subdued earth tones of tan, brown, grey, and colors that can be described as “pebble,” or “sand.” There was virtually no art on the walls, and such art as was there was in a similar color. There was no real color at all in any of the rooms. “Alright,” I thought, “this guy has made this his trademark. It has a certain appeal, but he’s not someone with whom I should have a business relationship.”

I left that site and went to the next. Same thing. And the next - the same. I visited the websites of several interior designers in New York with the same result, until I quit in despair. They all had taken to using no color, very few accessories, and virtually no art. An occasional boring photograph, but I don’t recall seeing any paintings in the bunch, and certainly none with any color.

Have we here a reaction to the trend of adding color, which I had observed in the past few years? Is this lack of color what the entire market of those willing and able to pay large fees for interior designer services demands?

Here’s what I need: I need a designer who is willing to take some abstract pieces and stick them with some traditional or antique furniture. Take my challenge. And as the gondoliers here say: “I give you good prrrice.”

Why Decorate with Abstract Art?

Whether you are completely redecorating your home or office, or just looking for a way to bring new life to your existing decor, abstract art is the way to do it. Here’s why.

It’s colorful. Abstract art adds color and interest to any room. Take your boring picture of a sailboat and replace it with a nice colorful abstract, and you will have immediately injected new life into the room.

It’s timeless. Look at any abstract painting. There is no outdated political message, and no clothing style giving away its age. Put a good gestural abstract or abstract expressionist painting in the room, and it could have been painted yesterday. There is generally no message in such a painting to become outmoded.

It’s interesting. A good abstract piece will become an instant conversation piece. The bigger the painting the better, but even a small work can do wonders. Everyone may not like it, but everyone will talk about it.

Abstract art goes with everything. Even if your decor is otherwise traditional, you can decorate with abstract art. It is surprising, but abstract paintings coordinate will with antiques and very old buildings. In Venice there is a place where they display modern paintings, which are generally quite abstract, in what amounts to a crypt. It has bare brick walls, and tombs from the 15th century along the walls, but the display works.

When is a Painting Done?

Abstract painting, particularly the type without any imagery, causes one to wonder how the artist knows the picture is finished. The short answer is a quote from Picasso (or at least a paraphrase), which is something to the effect that "a work of art is never finished, it is simply abandoned."

The word "abandoned" is a bit harsh, as it has a negative connotation, but it is close. Obviously, it is not possible to say that a painting with no imagery, or imagery that is a loose representation of a thing, is ever "finshed." I can say your portrait is finished. I can say the painting of an apple is finished. But how can I say that a painting that consists of only a series of lines, circles and masses of color is finished?

When I start to paint I generally have no plan at all. At best, I may have a vague notion of what I hope to achieve, but there are no plans or sketches. I allow the painting to sort of take its own path. I put on some black, swish it around and see what happens. I add some white, and maybe some color, and see where these things take me.

There comes a time when I wonder if there is anything else I can or should do. One can over work a picture. Just as a lawyer needs to know when to shut up, the artist needs to know when to leave the picture alone. This point in development of the painting is not always clear. There often comes a point when I look at the painting and don't know what to do next. That is a good time to stop, at least for a while. I then put the painting to the side for maybe several weeks, and look at it later.

At that point, one of three things will happen. 1) I like it the way it is and decide to quit; 2) I don't like it, and I see what else might be done to it; or 3) I paint over some or all of it. This may go on for several rounds. I continue with the "unfinished" picture until I like the way it looks, or I give up and paint over it.

In the end, there should be some feeling of satisfaction I get from looking at it, at which time I try not to ruin it putting more paint on it.

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What Next for Art and the Artist?

The Development of Painting: What Next?

The question of what direction painting should take next has been gnawing at me. As a painter, I am not satisfied with learning a set of skills and simply applying them to make a pretty picture; this is easily done. I am concerned with making a contribution to the development of art, and with moving it in some direction. But these days that is not easy, and may not be possible, and it may not even be relevant. Painting has gone from realism to total abstraction and back. Is there a “direction” in which painting can be taken, or is it simply a matter of finding a unique and interesting style?

Western painting over the centuries before the impressionists was concerned with trying to make accurate representations of things and people. This is understandable, as there were no cameras, and such things needed to be drawn or painted to preserve their images. Some artists varied the way that was done, such as el Greco and Caravagio, and some artists did it better than others, but the point was still to create a recognizable image.

The impressionists used a looser painting style to manipulate light, which bordered on the abstract, but which always had the goal of producing an image. These painters broke from the tradition and opened a door to Picasso and his contemporaries to move on and try other things. Picasso, who, by the way, could paint and draw like the old masters from the time he was a child, worked for years to develop painting beyond what the impressionists had done. His early works reflect an impressionist influence, but quickly moved to a distinct style in the blue and rose periods. If Picasso had continued in this style, he would have been looked at as mere extension of the impressionists. He did not, and with Les Mademoiselles d’Avignon (1907), he single-handedly marked the beginning of cubism.

Picasso’s paintings, and all that came after (with one or two exceptions) were still intended to represent something. At the same time Picasso was working, other artists were making paintings ranging from those with abstract imagery, to those with no imagery. I do not know when all imagery was first taken from painting, but the most notable event was the invention of the “all over” paintings and the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock.

Pollock’s paintings are interesting to look at, and I like them, including those made before the drip paintings. He only made the drip paintings for a short time, and then went on to try and find something else, a quest that was largely unsuccessful before he died. But with the drip paintings he set painters free. There were no longer any rules of composition, and it was the act of painting that was important. The only resemblance these works have to anything that came before is that they consisted of paint on canvas. He only used a brush to cause the paint to drip, and painted on the floor, rather than an easel.

What is really important about the painters from the impressionists through Pollock, is that they were consciously working to find something new. Not just a unique style, but a new way to represent things and light, and a new direction for painting. Can we do that today, that conscious searching for a new direction, or are we reduced to simply finding a unique signature style and sticking with it?

Consider that in painting anything goes. We can paint (and sell) photo realistic work. We can paint (and sell) minimalist work. We can do the same thing with work in an impressionist style, and work that is purely abstract. So what is the challenge for the artist? The challenge is to find a unique style that is identified only with that painter, while not being an imitation of others. This is all we can do.