Monday, September 18, 2006

Max Beckmann, Frank Stella, Joel Shapiro, Wolfgang Laib And The Spirituality Of Twentieth Century Art

N. and I, and a friend, visited the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., yesterday afternoon, intending to attend a gallery talk on the great 20th century German visual artist Max Beckmann's late paintings, including the canvas "The Argonauts" which he completed hours before his death while living in political exile in the United States.

Apparently, the room housing the outstanding late Beckmann canvases had to close to prepare for an upcoming exhibition, and the Gallery's curatorial staff instead substituted a gallery talk on two new works by the contemporary German artist Wolfgang Laib -- a faint drawing in graphite and faint orange paint and a small sculpture recently added to the National Gallery's collection. The two works were gifts from the late Edward R. Broida and represent the first pieces by this important German artist in the national collection. Instead of "The Late Painting of Max Beckmann," the title of the gallery talk became "Spirituality and the Art of Wolfgang Laib". The substitution reminded me of the continuity of art in the world over the past 60 years, and especially of the troubled continuity of German and European art.

I was bothered, however, when the fine curatorial staff lecturer, described the "Rice House" of Mr Laib (or perhaps better, Dr Laib, since the artist completed his medical training before turning to visual sacred art [Max Beckmann had himself earlier in the last century been traumatized by his work as a German medic during the First World War]) as 'spiritual art', and then referred to the stunningly beautiful tri-wood sculpture of Joel Shapiro nearby as 'abstract,' formal, and non-sacred art; when if fact, both Mr Shapiro and Frank Stella based cycles of their wooden sculptures on the Nazi German destruction, by burning, of most of the wooden-built, largely Jewish villages of Belarus during the Second World War.

Wolfgang Laib (b 1950) "Rice House" Sealing Wax, Wood, and Rice, 1988.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Gift of Edward R. Broida, 2005.

Selections from the Collection of Edward R. Broida, National Gallery of Art, on display through November 12, 2006. Like my own small collection, Mr Broida's collection focuses on relationships between abstract and figurative art in the postwar period.

Max Beckmann at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Frank Stella's Polish and Belarusian Shtetl and Wooden Synagogue Memorial Sculpture Cycle. Also see Legacy Project web-site.

Joel Shapiro's United States Holocaust Memorial Museum commission, which is similar but less powerful (or beautiful?), in my opinion, than his tri-wood memorial in the National Gallery of Art, for which no image is currently available.

Interview with German sculptor Wolfgang Laib, known for objects and installations of austere beauty and delicacy, using naturally occuring elements such as milk, pollen, stone, and wax.

Image credit: (c) Wolfgang Laib and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. With thanks.


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