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Painting in Venice:

The 58th Venice Biennale

by Deanna Sirlin

Artists have been traveling to Venice for centuries to see great paintings and experience the light and color of La Serenissima. I am absolutely thrilled to report that 2019 is the moment when painting has become the primary language and the most interesting type of art to see in Venice. After a hiatus of many years during which contemporary art focused on installation, video, and other media, painting is dominant once more.  So sorry for all those who have pronounced painting dead; once again, painting rises from the ashes. Of all the work on exhibition in Ralph Rugoff’s curated section of the Biennale, the national pavilions, and the many collateral exhibitions, the paintings are the most worth seeing.


The history of the Biennale, which began over 100 years ago, is intertwined with the history of painting. In 1910, there was a room dedicated to Klimt, one to Renoir, and one to Courbet. In the Spanish salon that year Picasso's work was removed; it was deemed too shocking for the public. It was not until 1948 that Picasso had a work in the Biennale. In 1964 Robert Rauschenberg was one of the artists representing the US at the Biennale with four paintings. Rauschenberg won the Gran Premio that year, the youngest artist ever to receive this prize. His victory was controversial at the time, but this exhibition brought American Pop Art to Europe for the first time. 

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George Condo, Standing Female Figure in Black Space, (2018)

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George Condo, Standing Female Figure in Black Space, (2018) (detail)

Fast forward to the 58th Biennale and Rugoff's exhibition which is housed in the Arsenale and the Italian Pavilion at the Giardini.  Deciding to tackle the Arsenale first, I was immediately struck by a powerful George Condo painting, Double Elvis, 2019. Condo's painting, which quotes Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis, 1963, has a palette of metallic silver and black acrylic. Condo's painting of two figures painted loosely in a graffiti-like manner has a primacy of touch and gesture that is commanding. The silver metallic paint impasto activates the space between the two figures but also creates a tension between the space and the picture plane. Although Rugoff curated both venues, I was struck the next day by how much stronger and more sensitively installed the works in the Arsenale were than those in the Giardini. In the Italian Pavilion, everything seemed cramped and the juxtapositions of works seemed arbitrary. One of the prime spaces in this pavilion is a sort of penthouse on the second level of the building.  There, three painters--Condo, Henry Taylor and Julie Mehretu--are hung alternately, which is unfortunate for the works as the arrangement makes no sense either formally or thematically. The Condos here are uneven. His Figure in Black is a stunning work both in the bravado of his cubistic rendering of the female figure and the intensity of the painted surface which is thick with impasto. Unfortunately, the large black and red painting, Facebook, 2017-18 is a misstep. The work looks forced, and the cubist composition feels tired.

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George Condo, Facebook  (2017-18) 

Julie Mehretu’s work in both the Arsenale and the Italian Pavilion is very different from her earlier work in terms of the brushstrokes. There is a spray paint graffiti-like mark making in the works but it is a new depth that makes the space potent. Mehretu's deep space in the paintings is created with brush marks mostly in black on top of a layered colored field. These paintings evoke both the all-over quality of Pollock and a celestial space. Mehretu contends her work is about an "examination of history, colonialism, capitalism, geopolitics, war, global uprising, diaspora, and displacement through the artistic strategies of abstraction." Do these works actually do this? They are formally beautiful, but her insistence on this content is strained. 


Julie Mehretu, Flo Me La (N.S.) (2017-18)

Outside the Biennale grounds, one can see a stunning retrospective of the works of Luc Tuymans at the Palazzo Grassi. It is titled "La Pelle" (The Skin) after the Italian film from 1981 that is set in Naples after the Allies liberated the city in 1943 whose subject is post-war disillusionment.  Tuymans paints with a bleached-out palette that makes his images starkly eerie. In the atrium, there is a large mosaic on the floor of pine trees on a vertical grid. The background is a dazzling array of white mosaic tiles.  This work, Schwarzheide, 2019, is after a painting by Tuymans from 1986 significantly inspired by a painting made by a concentration camp survivor (Schwarzheide had a concentration camp that held more than 1000 Jewish laborers most of whom were worked to death) that had been torn into strips, hidden, and then reassembled later. It is from these strips that Tuymans found the compositional device that divides up the great floor. As you ascend the staircase of the Palazzo on the landing is a small haunting work, Secrets, 1990. It is the portrait of a man with his eyes closed -- that man being Albert Speer, the head of Armaments and War Production in Nazi Germany and a close ally of Hitler. This quiet painting of the man with his eyes closed speaks so loudly of horror, of shocking inhumanity.

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Luc Tuymans, Secrets (1990)

Another artist who peels back the skin of his subjects with complex form and color is Adrian Ghenie in the exhibition The Battle between Carnival and Feast at the Cini Foundation. This young painter (he is 41) was the sensation of the 56th Venice Biennale four years ago representing his home country of Romania. These new works look even better at the Cini gallery which is in the former home of Vittorio Cini. Ghenie dissects and reassembles his imagery in a painted collage-like manner that is rich in color and paint, the works strongly physical.  There is a small gallery with portraits of Trump, his orange hair waving in a slather of paint.  I prefer the large works that are a bit like history painting on acid.


Adrian Ghenie  Ths Raft (2019)

Across the lagoon on the island of San Giorgio are two key exhibitions. Human is a major exhibition of Sean Scully in the Palladio Church, home to Benedictine monks who invited Scully to exhibit his works there. Scully's abstraction has always been about painting, painting in the way that touch and color come together to create great emotion. There is a monumental sculpture in the nave of the church which can be entered by the viewer. Three new paintings which form a triptych titled Madonna, are of his wife and son Oisin and are surprisingly figurative. Landline is a series of paintings that contain large horizontal bands of color. They convey the artist’s touch and connection to color and the physicality of the paint which speak so clearly about the idea of being Human.

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Sean Scully  Landline Black Veined Oisin, 2017, c. Sean Scully

Alberto Burri (1915 –1995) is the subject of an exhibition in the next doorway on the island at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini with fifty of his works. Two works in the exhibition were made by blowtorching plastics on a substrate. There is a great beauty in the destruction in the work with its pulled holes and burnt orifices.  Giulio Carlo Argan’s judgment (written in the 1960 Venice Biennale catalogue) remains emblematic: "For Burri we must speak for an overturned Trompe-l'œil, because it is no more painting to simulate reality, but it is reality to simulate painting." The torn and puckered burnt plastic have a profane beauty. Burri, like Tuymans, is pulling at the skin of painting to reflects his turbulent times.

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Alberto Burri,  Plastica (1964) Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri

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Alberto Burri, Rosso Plastica M3, (1961) Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri

Helen Frankenthaler's paintings have not been exhibited in Venice since her work was in the US pavilion more than 50 years ago. John Elderfield, MOMA chief curator emeritus, has curated an eloquent exhibition of the artist's work from 1952 to 1992 in Piturra/Panorama at the Palazzo Grimani. The way this exhibition is presented is as compelling as its title. The paintings reference a landscape of abstract color field painting. The floating transparent passages of Riverhead, 1963, are reminiscent of the large sky over flat landscape of Long Island. Barometer, 1992, a work in silvers and grays calls up turbulent weather, while the lush greens of Overature, 1992, pull us into the work with a crescendo of the pastoral.


Helen Frankenthaler , Riverhead (1963)  © Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Arshile Gorky (1904 -1948) at Ca' Pesaro is a major exhibition that alone is worth the journey to Venice. There are eighty works in the exhibition but two works, The Liver is a Coxcomb from 1944 and Landscape Table from 1945 are nothing less than masterpieces that make a kind of vibration of color and form when seen in the same room. The ebb and flow of paint within these compositions are so liquid yet so structured in form. The compositions speak with a language of abstraction and form that is still being resurrected by artists like George Condo; the openness of color and staining articulated by Frankenthaler, the black lines surrounding color by Mehretu.

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Ashile Gorky, Landscape Table (1945) Centre Pompidou Paris France

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Ashile Gorky, The Liver is the Cock's Comb (1944) Albright-Knox Gallery Buffalo, New York

A collateral event of the Biennale at the Gallerie dell'Accademia, Baselitz-Academy, is the first exhibition by a living artist ever shown in this museum. I wanted to hate this exhibition because of Baselitz’s depreciating remarks about women painters; turn his upside-down paintings over and one can easily see how terrible they are – they’re simply bad. Flipping them over hides the flaws.  But I confess the late works break from decades of bad painting. In Elke Negative Blue, 2012, the white band at the bottom of the large canvas balances the drip and splashes of paint that make this portrait have a galactic reading. These late paintings have the quality of looking at constellations of stars in the night sky.

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Georg Baselitz, Elke Negative Blue, (2012)

The Nature of Arp, at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is a handsome exhibition that illuminates the many facets of art and invention. Jean Arp (1886-1966), who worked in multiple media and forms, was a visionary. Arp's two-dimensional work has such power and originality. His work is not so much about paint but about a certain characteristic of the compositional surface as it relates to form and his investigation of nature and abstraction through the lens of a dada artist. Large Collage, 1955, is a recreation of a work that he made in 1915. Arp's Eggbeater, 1923, is so fresh a moment for this artist, whose times living and working between two world wars certainly must have been “interesting.” It is part of a suite of seven lithographs.

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Hans Arp, 7 Arpaden  1923  Lithographs 18 1/8 x 14 in.  Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin / Rolandswerthn Arp, Eggbeater (1923) Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin / Rolandswerth

May You Live in Interesting Times, titled and curated by Ralph Rugoff is a curse; no one needs such interesting times. No matter, these artists both living and dead have the power to overcome the shallowness of cute titles and forced content to make their work seem relevant.


In addition:


Of course, there are many more noteworthy exhibitions and artists to be seen in Venice.


At Alma Zevi Gallery is a small exquisite exhibition of the drawings and one painting of UK artist Frank Auerbach: From Drawing to Painting

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Frank Auerbach: From Drawing to Painting at Alma Zevi

At the Iraq Pavilion, Serwan Baran: Fatherland. These paintings and sculptures are the product of an artist living through forty years of war.

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Serwan Baran: Fatherland

American artist Todd Williamson: Processional at the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Pietà. 

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Todd Williamson: Processional

Giavanna Fra of the Republic of San Marino as part of the group exhibition The Friendship Project.


Giavanna Fra, The Friendship Project

And in May You Live in Interesting Times:


Michael Armitage

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Ulrike Müller


Jill Mulleady


Njideka Akunyili Crosby

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Henry Taylor

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Avery Singer


Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York currently living and working outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Sirlin is Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section.

All photos are by Deanna Sirlin unless noted.

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