Vasari Diary

Vasari Diary: Julianne Swartz, Munch Meets Schoenberg at the Met, and Artists Playing With Dolls

Julianne Swartz, Zero Weave (detail), 2017, enameled copper wire.


Making Heavy of the Light

To understand what makes a medium a medium and what makes nothing something, Julianne Swartz leads us to act on all of our senses, and, in the process, renders us her most unreliable medium—breathing, singing, walking, touching, blinking, we can’t help activating her fragile environment.

Swartz constructs her sculptures from the humblest of things—paper, wire, string, mirrors, magnets. The finished pieces vibrate slightly, appearing to breathe; it is we viewers who, with the slightest of (often inadvertent) motions, bring them to life.

Shadows assume both lead and supporting roles, as in her Drip Drawing (long), a skinny fabric fragment with a slender shadow. It’s a tenuous sculptural form, subject to the vagaries of illumination.

Julianne Swartz, Bone Score (Paper Zero), 2016, stainless steel wire, magnet wire, magnet, abaca paper, amplifier, audio player, wood, and sounds of: breathing, a whispered conversation, a timpani drum, rustling paper, a child’s laugh, a storm, and thunder.


Working with sound waves and kinetics, Swartz calls into play optics, magnetism, space, and time. All of this can be witnessed in action at New York’s Josée Bienvenu gallery through January 6, at the Museum of Art and Design (MAD) through February 25, and in ongoing installations, including “Harmonicity, the Tonal Walkway” at MASS MoCA; “Blue Sky with Rainbow” at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth; and “Terrain,” at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The Perth installation is an optical piece, one that, Swartz told me, “gathers sunlight through fiber-optic cable and brings the light onto the site.” In one place, it makes a rainbow-like pattern; in another, a beam. “It’s not functional,” she said, “but the sunlight collector I use has been used in architecture.”

For the group show “Sonic Arcade: Shaping Space with Sound” at MAD she has contributed 18 glass objects. Although object-based, she explained, “together they make a sonic installation. Each object makes a particular tone.” Through physics and electronics, she continued, “these are essentially instruments.”

Technology and craft combine to create an emotional component. For Swartz, “sound is a way to get to emotions. Today I use it as a more tactile way to convey emotion.”

“Sometimes you see or feel the sound vibrations as a way to transmit the content without going into narrative,” she said. As an example, she captured her father breathing at the end of his life; she was, as she put it, “taking out the narrative and communicating through vibration.”

Edvard Munch, The Dance of Life, 1925, oil on canvas.


Art of Darkness

“Munch, Schoenberg and Expressionism at the Met,” a recent program occasioned by the Met Breuer’s presentation of the exhibition “Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed,” offered an unexpected cross-disciplinary look at two masters. It also harbored a drama fraught with sex and sorrow and Freudian overtones.

Presented by conductor and Bard College president Leon Botstein, and performed by Metropolitan Opera soprano Kirsten Chambers and the young orchestra TÕN, the talk and images and music left one wondering what’s Expressionist and what’s Symbolist and what doesn’t have a name. The music was Schoenberg’s atonal Erwartung (Expectation), of 1909. At the heart of Botstein’s discussion was an explanation of how the abstract translates and expresses itself across mediums, and how deep feelings can be conveyed intellectually as well as emotionally.

Edvard Munch, Self Portrait between the Clock and the Bed, 1940–43, oil on canvas.


It all starts to fall into place when you see Schoenberg’s paintings alongside Munch’s. The range of 43 Munch works—16 of them self-portraits—from the bohemian Lady in Black (1891) to Man with Bronchitis (1920) to the Mattissean, Jasper Johns-ean Between the Clock and the Bed are highlights of the Norwegian artist’s turbulent theatrical repertoire. His self-portraits, which resemble some of Schoenberg’s, are paralleled by the composer’s disturbing, dramatic, difficult-to-fathom orchestral sounds.

Botstein referred to “Erwartung” as the “first Freudian opera,” and explained that it was based on personal trauma. It turns out Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilda, had been having an affair with the Austrian Expressionist artist Richard Gerstl (the subject of a recent exhibition at the Neue Galerie), who went on to commit suicide as a result. As much as the darkness expressed in the composer’s paintings calls to mind that pervading Munch’s, it more vividly echoes the emotional intensity of Gerstl’s fearsome canvases. In the end, it all leads back to the madness of love and its consequences . . . here, art.

Not to Be Toyed With

In the great tradition of 20th-century doll-maker, -deconstructer, and -reconstructer Hans Bellmer, journalist Grace Banks takes a look at the female stand-ins from an obverse perspective—that of a woman. In her often-disturbing book Play with Me, published by Laurence King, 43 artists, mostly women, imbue their subjects—female figures in every variety, medium, attitude, and posture—with political and social power and authority.

The shiny, heavy, tech-savvy, and sex and violence–laden paperback is divided into four sections: Blow-Up, Muse, Female Gaze, and Cyborg; among the high-profile artists weighing in are Laurie Simmons, Lee Bul, Vanessa Beecroft, Jeff Koons, Martin Gutierrez, and the collective The Ardorous.


It opens with a bang: Bellmer’s 1936 sculpture of a segmented nude female torso, featuring two vaginas and two sets of breasts, one placed up top, where the head should be, and the other down below. It immediately calls to mind the iconic Paleolithic-period Venus of Willendorf, a figure that may or may not have been a fertility goddess—strong but eternally enigmatic. Closing the book is a series of doll collages, consisting of sculptures, paintings, and an installation of plastic figures from Vusal Rahim’s series “My Name is Sarah.”

What makes this last so powerful is the way it cubistically takes us inside the doll, capturing inner stress through the cut-open head of a Barbie doll with another head peering from inside. A diabolical corkscrew constitutes a female, with winged “arms” held akimbo and little plastic penises wrapping around tiny legs at its base. Rahim is exploring the problems of women in Azerbaijan through storytelling.

Where male artists often use figures of women to portray their adoration and fears, as well as disgust, women use them to project themselves as super-heroines, fierce Medeas, or pathetic victims. They may end up as fetish figures or demons.

Looking outside Banks’s book, artists like Sally Saul and Rona Pondick have long expressed themselves through sculpted personae. Saul’s soulful, reflective, Roz Chast-ian sculptures speak to a mood of the moment–a state of wonderment or even dismay at the ways of the world. The handcrafted figures are humble and introspective, often bird-human hybrids. Pondick’s sculptures, also human-animal hybrids, take the form of assertive self-portraiture, the artist’s face defiantly staring us down. She presents herself as a confident, uncompromising Sphinx, determined to win. These artists’ thought-provoking works are at once of the moment and of all moments, timely and timeless, pulling mythology into the present and bringing to bear moral and life-and-death matters, some even more pressing than the ongoing battles of the sexes.

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