the fabulous life of dolores olmedo

Dolores-OlmedoDolores Olmedo had quite the colorful life. As a young girl from a working class background she caused a scandal when her family discovered that she had posed nude for the painter Diego Rivera. Forbidden to see the artist anymore, it wasn’t until many years later that their paths crossed again, by which time Olmedo had become one of the richest women in Mexico – both a successful businesswoman, philanthropist, and patron of the arts. Rivera was broke, close to dying, and concerned about his legacy. At his urging she went on a buying spree, amassing a major collection of the painter’s canvases in addition to works by Frida Kahlo, Diego’s wife, with whom Olmedo had a tempestuous friendship fraught with jealousy over Rivera’s affections. After Kahlo and Rivera’s deaths she bought a 16th century hacienda in southern Mexico City, which she later converted into a museum and shrine to her life of passionate collecting. Not only does the five-building complex hold her entire store of pre-Hispanic, colonial, folk, modern and contemporary art, but also the largest holdings of Kahlo and Rivera anywhere – and her private chambers, filled with extravagant displays of ivory and porcelain, showcase photos of Olmedo with virtually every famous person in the world.

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jose clemente orozco

san iledefonso collegeIf you think of Mexico and 20th Century painting, it’s only natural that your mind gravitates toward the power couple, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Their politics and personal stories have become a mythology entwined within their art – often superseding it. (And much more about them later.) Yet amongst Rivera’s contemporaries, Jose Clemente Orozco was often considered the more gifted artist. A social realist painter, Orozco specialized in bold murals that established the Mexican Mural Renaissance along with Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Yet before my arrival in Mexico City I had never heard of him.  That changed rather fortuitously at San Iledefonso College, a museum and cultural center in the historic center of the city, where the painter’s epic frescoes grace three floors of courtyard walls and stairways. In the 1920s, soon after the Mexican Revolution, the government sponsored mural paintings with themes centering on Mexico’s history and politics of the post-Revolution era, but Orozco – in a marked distinction from Rivera – was highly critical of the Revolution, and used his art to examine the bloody toll the movement took on ordinary Mexicans as it lined the pockets of both the upper classes and the church. Influenced by Symbolism – and satire – the politically committed painter takes on the history of human suffering from the time of Cortes’ conquest: the landscapes are somber, the working classes are oppressed, death is dignified and anonymous, the privileged bourgeois is distorted, the revolutionaries are blinded by revolution. Beyond form and composition these are not necessarily always aesthetically pleasing works of art but, wow, there’s no denying their power.

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Stairwell Orozco

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playing hooky with james turrell

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sweeping up at the denver art museum

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finding the reclusive clyfford still

20130520-074951.jpgThere are unknown artists and there are legendary masters. Rarely could one man be described as both. Abstract expressionist Clyfford Still, however, was one and the same. After a retreat from the art world in the 1940’s, he controlled who got to see his canvases – and how. But his influence on Pollack, Newman, and Rothko was profound. An eponymous museum in Denver maintains some 2,500 of his works – everything in Still’s possession at the time of his death. Seen collectively they give rise to the idea that Still was not merely a painter of individual artworks but the architect of a grand symphonic vision.

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the in-n-out variations

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Second only to my fondness for Mexican food is my west coast craving of the In-n-Out Burger. It’s without question one of the best quality burgers out there. The fact that it’s a fast food chain makes their uncompromising standards even more remarkable. Meat, onion, lettuce, tomato, pickle and bun combine to create an idealized work of art as artistically pure as the french fries which are cut and cooked to order. Conceptually this led to me to have a little fun stripping away the nostalgia and experimenting with a bit of digital data-mashing. Corrupting the code of the image above brought about a number of interesting surprises – kind of like discovering there’s a “secret” In-n-Out menu where the fries come Animal Style.

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the return of the apsara

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The relatively recent history of Cambodia is horrific. Under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge the country was subjected to a radical social engineering project in the 1970’s that aimed to create a purely agrarian Communist society. Around two million people were forced from the cities to take up agricultural work in the countryside. The party controlled what they wore, whom they could talk to, how they acted. Children were believed to be tainted by the capitalism of their parents, so they were separated, indoctrinated in communist ideology and made a dictatorial instrument of the party, given leadership roles in the torture and execution of anyone suspected of being a traitor. And almost everyone could be considered a traitor: intellectuals, artists, minorities, city-dwellers and anyone with an education. In little more than four years the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 1.5 million people – a fifth of the country’s population – through torture, forced labour, starvation, and executions. Unbelievably, one of the many groups targeted were the Apsara Dancers, practitioners of the classical Khmer dance which dates back to the 7th century. (The Angkor temples are festooned with thousands of images of the Apsara. During this period, dance was ritually performed at the temples as both entertainment and as a means of delivering messages to the gods.) Although 90 percent of all Cambodian classical artists perished in the genocide, the tradition of the Apsara was resurrected in the refugee camps in eastern Thailand with the few surviving Khmer dancers. Yes, I had come to Cambodia because I wanted to see the temples, but what I needed was to see this dance: elaborately dressed, performing a slow and figurative set of hand gestures and poses, invoking the gods and enacting epic poems; a testament to the power of art and a point of national pride. (Plus, anyone with even a passing familiarity with The King & I will immediately notice where Jerome Robbins stole his best ideas.) The return of the Apsara augured not only a reestablishment of civil society but,  more importantly, a resurrection of the country.

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in the eye of the beholder

Four hours ago I was in the middle of nowhere contemplating art, infinity, and my place in the universe; now I’m killing time in a suburban mall before flying home, fascinated by something called Hot Dog on a Stick. I guess art really is subjective.

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video: very, very early

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the lightning field

No single image could do justice to The Lightning Field, Walter De Maria’s epic land art installation. It’s just too big – conceptually as well as physically – to be contained inside the boundaries of a frame. Yet at the same time there is something in human nature which begs to try to capture it in some way, shape, or form. So, I thought I’d include a series of individualized perspectives. Taken together they might amount to something, but until film and photography develop multi-sensory properties, it’s not even close to experiencing it as both participant and observer at once. For greater detail, click each image.

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looking for lightning

I’m off this Memorial Day weekend into the desert of Quemado, New Mexico to take part in Walter De Maria’s monumental land art project, The Lightning Field. Without cell service or internet I’ll be spending quality time in a simple hut, interacting with the art and the remote landscape. So, no live blogging but expect a full report next week. Fingers crossed for lightning. Not that it’s essential to the experience: it’s about the journey and not the destination. Even when it’s all about the destination.

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the right stuff

There is something thrilling about entering into a very specific, fully realized world not your own – even if you don’t necessarily “get it.” Tom Sachs’ Space Program: Mars currently installed in the titanic Wade Thompson Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory is just such a world. Marked by a striking curiosity and often ribald wit,  the films and displays which make up the bulk of the program are an invitation to reflect on abstract concepts, utopian follies and – I can’t believe I’m about to write this – dystopian realities. If that sounds like a load of bollocks, don’t be afraid: it’s not nearly as precious as all that. Think of it as a call to look at our consumer culture slightly askance; one that cajoles rather than demands your participation. (Sachs-designed Nike sneakers worn in the space program are on sale in the gift shop, too, for anyone easily seduced out of $380.) And in case you’re wondering, no, I don’t entirely “get it” – so, no worries about my going into too much detail and spoiling that sense of discovery – but that’s not going to stop me from revisiting Sachs’ inquisitive vision and contemplating it once again.

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live blog: air/craft

Standing at the end of a runway, Jeffrey Milstein captures images of aircraft moments before landing. Carefully positioned and using a high-resolution digital camera he photographs them from below as they streak past at speeds up to 175 miles per hour. A professional photographer, graphic designer, and architect, Milstein’s trained eye and steady hand produces images of pristine clarity, 33 of which are currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. In this photographic analysis, or typology, the neutral background and precise symmetry focus attention on the design, color and symmetry of each aircraft: razor-sharp lines reveal technological complexity; spread wings evoke the form of birds. The arrayed images bring to mind a scientific study of pinned butterflies. Elegantly distilled, each of Milstein’s super-sized prints seem to pull you into the air, as though you’re going along for the ride.

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california dreaming

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the first great meme of 2012

Plank this, people. Involuntary Collaborations – my pick for the first great meme of 2012. Disturbing and altogether brilliant at the same time.

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