5 books artists should read in 2021

It has been an atrocious year for the arts. For artists, it has been the worst not just because of logistic inconveniences and failed opportunities, but also – or frankly, especially – because of the sudden loss of hope. Questions and questioning has been brutal. Some of us have asked ourselves if things will ever go back to normal. Others, if the institutions our art world was built on will survive. And the worst question: “what is the meaning and the significance of what I do? Does it matter at all?” So now that the light at the end of the tunnel is almost visible, here is something to use our remaining time on before the grand reopen and help find that meaning to start again. Here are 5 books that can be guides in finding one’s way across the rocks.

ArtandFearArt & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland came out years ago, but it is still one of the most recommended books for artists. It is not about professional development, how to put oneself out there or working with a gallery, but the most underestimated obstacle there is: the fears and anxieties within the loneliness of the studio. Continue reading

That photoless Vogue issue

One of seven Vogue Italia cover options, a painting by Vanessa Beecroft, January 2020. Vanessa Beecroft uses painting as well as performance as her chosen medium to change our perception of the body in public spaces. This is her first artistico format into fashion, in her words.

When the news of the latest Vogue Italia issue came out, everybody shared it on social media or, at the minimum, read about it. It made that momentous splash due to the promise that no photography was employed in its making – and that was an added feature to make its production environmentally sustainable.

It is frankly the first time anyone has made the case of photography being an environmentally unfriendly medium. After all, it doesn’t employ harmful chemicals anymore, nor does it necessarily waste paper. If it does, that applies to art photography, not the commercial means of diffusion of information and persuasion. However, as director Emanuele Farneti explains in his editorial statement, a Vogue photoshoot implies hundreds of people traveling thousands of miles to make it happen. Painting, drawing and other tabletop artmaking only requires staying put. Continue reading

Art and Activism (book review)

The textbook for the Art Appreciation class I taught last year offered a chapter on protest art, an umbrella term encompassing artwork related to contestation – from caricatures of the 18th and 19th century to Pussy Riot performances. I asked students: why do the first examples of protest art – according to the textbook, at least – came into existence only a couple of centuries ago? Was conflict not there before, or perhaps it didn’t employ art? While this depends on the definition we choose for conflict and for art, what is normally conserved and transmitted through time is institutionally sponsored art; if it expresses conflict, that will be with other institutions and it would definitely not be considered protest art today. This led to an interesting discussion on how conflict and art intersect and how protest can be even identified in past cultural phenomena.
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Fashion photography in a new light (Bruce Weber at the Dallas Contemporary)



Lonneke Engel for Versus, 1996, gracefully shot by Bruce Weber

Bruce Weber, a noted fashion photographer with a long and distinguished career, is having a retrospective exhibition at the Dallas Contemporary. It is fascinating for many reasons, but first of all because an exhibition venue known mainly for installations and projections has dedicated almost its entire gigantic space to a solo show of this kind of “traditional” photography. But also – and especially – because it offers an unusual view of fashion photography as it is.
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The Floating Piers by Christo as a quasi religious experience

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It was a privilege to walk  Christo’s Floating Piers on the first day of the project. They are the ultimate sensorial experience: all about touch, vision, and whole body mobilization: it felt so light yet the day after everything feels sore. Continue reading


Untitled, New York, 1930 PDNB Acc # 0085

John Albok, Untitled, New York, 1930
PDNB Acc # 0085

This is about clotheslines.  The feel of serenity, the association with the lifegiving powers of the sun, the metaphors for human connections. I miss them so much and their simple graphic beauty that everything that looks like rectangles on a line, e.g. traditional Mexican papel picado banners, gives me the joy of laundry art associations. Because I also see them as a serendipitous art form in itself – along with being a meaningful social phenomenon.

The inspiration for all this is John Albok’s photographs at the Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery in Dallas. They surely present the full panopticum of clotheslines symbolism and motifs you can find in a city. There’s the  loneliness of the isolated human figure, suspended in space, in the shape of an empty dress. Or the connections between people housed in the grey buildings of a dense urban space. The intimacy of our inner thoughts that we unwittingly display in public, to air them. The festivity of small laundered items that look like flag pennants on a ship. The comforting beauty of criss-crossing lines that connect everything.  Continue reading

China Through the Lens of John Thomson at the Crow Collection of Asian Art

John Thompson: Manchu Bride, Peking, Penchilie province, China Photo Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London

John Thompson: Manchu Bride, Peking, Penchilie province, China Photo Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London

At a time when neither Leicas nor iPhones existed yet and photography was quite a serious affair involving assistants, coolies and fragile heavy equipment, you’d think photojournalism would be impossible. Yet it was in those early years when a Scottish photographer – John Thomson (1837-1921) – laid the foundations of photojournalism with the social documentary work he did in China in the 1860s. His photographs from those years can be now seen in their first exhibition ever at the Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas.

It is an exceptional exhibition on so many levels. Of course, the first appeal is the chance to see what China was really like in an era when cameras didn’t roam its lands – the great diversity of peoples, life and traditions, many of which are now extinct. And Thomson pointed his camera to street porters and high-rank officials, rejected ethnic minorities and respected monks alike.

The most compelling feature of his photography  though was his cultural sensitivity and his poignantly humanistic approach as an observer and a photographer at a time of which we are used to expect cultural paternalism and a focus on the exotic. While looking at a reality and people so different from his own, he saw not just types but their distinct personalities. When witnessing social phenomena dramatically different from what he knew, he didn’t point at their weirdness but found parallels with those at home. And he did it through photographic means. Continue reading

Frida Kahlo: Her Photos

Book cover of Frida Kahlo: Her Photos. The cover image is of Frida at age 20, taken by her father

If perusing someone’s personal library is a way to understand their inner world, browsing the photo archive of one of 20th century’s most important artistic figures is a bonanza for understanding the visual world from which their art came. Surprisingly enough, we didn’t have access privileges to Frida Kahlo’s visual archive until recently. The book Frida Kahlo: Her Photos  shows it for the first time. Divided in several sections (“Mother”, “Father”, “Casa Azul”, “The Broken Body”, “Political Action”, etc), it encompasses family pictures, photographs taken of her, by her, given to her. For someone who so carefully crafted her image in so many ways, who made herself into a character of a larger story that is only partially contained in her art, the archive is an indispensable tool for understanding Frida as a work of art herself. Continue reading

Che Guevara the photographer

Photography, or at least this famous picture ,  has been crucial for the spread of Che Guevara’s image worldwide – and perhaps for the creation of his cult as well. But few people know that he was an avid photographer himself.  In fact, he’s said that before becoming a comandante he was a photographer. Continue reading

Elliott Erwitt’s Dogs and other Contemporaries in Bremen

Felix, Gladys and Rover, USA, 1974. Elliott Erwitt, Magnum Photos

I was very pleasantly surprised to see an Elliott Erwitt retrospective at the Focke Museum in Bremen, Germany, a great local culture museum. The connection with Erwitt? I don’t know. It could be because one of the Bremen musicians was a dog, or because dogs are beloved animals here. But we don’t really need a connection. In any case, the retrospective was in the museum’s special exhibition space and was extremely well attended. The museum was outright crowded on a recent Sunday afternoon with lots of interested patrons.

Elliott Erwitt has an unusual background as an artist and photographer. Born in Paris to Russian emigres, raised in Milan and then the US, he has built a tremendous ability to approach a city or a place without assumptions of exoticism. He manages to find universal meaning in different places, some of them traditionally presented to the Western viewer through the exoticizing lens of the outsider, like Brazil or Iran. But not him. Continue reading

FORMA in Milan

Fondazione FORMA per la fotografia, Milan

We discovered this photography space by chance – or rather, by the recommendation of the Lomography store in Milan (which deserves a separate post). It is a really cool initiative dubbing itself a “photography house”: equal parts conceptual exhibit space, a secondary market gallery of important names and a photography education and promotion venue. One of its coolest features is the location, in the historic former warehouse of the Milan public transportation authority, still headquartered next door.

This kind of architectural reuse makes a huge difference in the contextualization of new venues in established cities. Even as they are born, they already have a memory, an adoptive pedigree. In this case, FORMA symbolically takes on the vital role of urban transport in the building of a community and ultimately, the dissemination of ideas. It also has a tiny restaurant where discussions  bubble, just next to the bookstore, where we found images by photographers I’ve been looking for a long time. You can bet it will be one of my favorite places in Milan when I move there in the future. Continue reading

Frida Kahlo: the Nickolas Muray Portraits at PDNB Gallery in Dallas

Nickolas Muray (1938). Frida and Diego with Gas Mask. PDNB Gallery

It’s not an exaggeration to say that we owe the popular image of Frida Kahlo to the photographs of her as much as to her own paintings.  Her relationship with photography is so strong one might wonder why she didn’t embrace it as her own art. The daughter of a photographer, one of her most intriguing early images is in a family portrait, dressed as the son her father craved. Tina Modotti, Manuel and Lola Álvarez Bravo were three big-name photographers within her circle of friends as well as influential artists who put in motion the post-revolutionary Mexican cultural renaissance.  And let’s not forget the powerful role photography played in the Mexican social and political upheavals of the early 20th century.

But the connection here is not just Frida’s friendships with photographers and the power of photography in society. The striking correspondence of her paintings of herself and the pictures others took of her just invites us to look closer and to use one in order to understand the other better. There is definitely a dialogue between her self portraits and her photographic portraits that’s worth exploring and enjoying. Continue reading

El Ojo Fino / The Exquisite Eye. Nine great women photographers of Mexico

Graciela Iturbide (1979), Our Lady of the Iguanas. Witcliff Collection

We all know famed photographers Edward Weston and Tina Modotti who moved from California to Mexico City in the 1920s to make Mexico’s highly active artistic scene their creative base. But Weston was an American and Modotti, an elusively identifiable international artist with Italian roots. The general public hardly knows the Mexican photographers who built the vibrant tradition of photographic imagemaking that permeated Mexican cinema and art and was so influential in modern Mexican society and culture.

This traveling exhibit, initiated and organized by the Witcliff Collection of Southwestern & Mexican Photography at Texas State University San Marcos (curator Connie Todd) provides the essential building block in knowing a less acknowledged side of Mexican art, the work of women photographers of three generations who are the pillar of the photographic interpretation of Mexican history and identity. They start with Lola Alravez Bravo, Kati Horna and Mariana Yampolski, mentored by or somehow related to Manuel Alvarez Bravo, one of the pioneers of Mexican photography. Continue reading

Ka Yeung’s landscapes of China at the Crow Collection of Asian Art, Dallas

"Long River" by Ka Yeung, 1997

China has captured the popular imagination nowadays but at the same time – or maybe because of this – it is still the subject of popular consciousness legends and elusive mystique. How do you actually imagine such a country? Even with all the abundant information, it is still difficult to reach a grasp of understanding of what it is really like.

As a photographer, Ka Yeung is probably in the best position to show what China is through his landscapes. He is both an distanced outsider (coming from Hong Kong) and a native informant of Chinese history and culture. And photography is after all the most trusted medium to show an elusive reality. Landscapes, especially, are perfect for rendering the glorious beauty of natural expanses and burgeoning humanscapes, which you can expect of China. You can see Ka Yeung’s photos, from a trip he took to China in 1995-1996, at the Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas until May 16, 2010. Continue reading