New Yorkers currently have two large exhibitions with which to take the pulse of contemporary art, and neither shows the patient feeling altogether well. At the Whitney Biennial, this time around presenting many videos along with paintings, installations, and artists’ collaboratives performing music, the spirit is retiring, docile, and a little like spending an afternoon at some lackluster shows in Chelsea.
Preposterously premature acclaim has posited the London-based Iraqi Zaha Hadid (who turns sixty next Halloween but has yet to produce a body of built work commensurate with her hyperbolic reputation) as the world’s foremost female architect. Instead, that designation rightfully belongs to Denise Scott Brown, a truly towering figure in the modern history of the building art.
With the renewed interest in nuclear weapons I have been struck by how few people there still are who have seen one explode. There are a few survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and there are a small number who witnessed some of the above ground test explosions. But the last American above-ground test was in 1962 and the last above-ground test by any country was conducted by the Chinese in 1980. This means that the Indians, Pakistanis, Israelis—to say nothing of the Iranians and North Koreans—have never seen a nuclear explosion. In the main, this is a very good thing: the fallout from such a test is a real health hazard. But there is a downside. We have lost the experience of watching a nuclear explosion—perhaps the most powerful lesson about nuclear bombs there is.
The speed and certainty with which the conventional wisdom in Washington flips can be a comical thing to watch. A mere forty-eight hours ago, Barack Obama was a struggling president, even a likely one-termer. Today, in the wake of the House’s narrow passage of the health-reform bill—which is to say, on the strength of a grand total of four votes, which if cast the other way would have ensured reform’s defeat—he’s suddenly once again a political mastermind and one of the most consequential presidents of the last half-century!
In “The Best Faces of the Enlightenment,” from the April 8 issue of The New York Review, Willibald Sauerländer writes about a new exhibition of the work of Jean-Antoine Houdon, whom he calls “the last and probably greatest French sculptor of the eighteenth century.” In his works—a selection of which can be seen in this slide show—the “panegyric rhetoric of the baroque” and the “flounces and wigs of the rococo” give way to “an unadorned naturalism.” “Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sensuous Sculpture” was organized by the Liebieghaus in Frankfurt, Germany, and is on view at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, France, until June 27. It includes nineteen works by Houdon (1741–1828); it also includes works by some of his most important contemporaries, including Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, Augustin Pajou, and Jean-Baptiste II Lemoyne.