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How Will Architecture Change as the World Gets Hotter?

For the past 150 years, the two cities where I live—New York and Vienna—have been waging epic battles against the sunless spaces that often characterized tenement interiors, as well as parks and streets cast in the shadows of skyscrapers. The legacy of this conflict is visible in the physical character of these two cities, from the plans of apartment buildings to the setbacks on commercial architecture. Today, many architects still define their work by its capacity to provide transparency and sunny spaces. But this ongoing battle against urban darkness needs to be rethought, primarily due to our changing climate. In Vienna, the city’s municipal planners are currently exploring ways to bring back shady, medieval-style streets. The mayor of New York City provocatively suggested banning glass buildings last year. The future of climate resilience, it seems, entails rethinking what was once seen as modern architecture’s progress—its triumph over darkness.

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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, laissez-faire development practices in New York and Vienna resulted in extensive physical transformations that can still be seen in those places today. In both cities, developers quickly erected dwellings for a burgeoning population of the working poor and lower middle class. Such tenement buildings lacked adequate interior sunlight and ventilation, due to exploitative real estate markets and an absence of civic planning practices: the structures were built to pack in as many residents as possible. In both cities, numerous families could be legally squeezed into these cramped apartments. In Vienna, renters of the city’s tenement apartments, many of them windowless and subterranean, essentially “hot desked” their homes to pay the rent and address the housing shortage—leaseholders who worked during the day would rent their beds to others who worked at night.

Daytime darkness was probably the least of New York and Viennese residents’ problems. Nevertheless, the darkness of the cities’ residential, commercial, and public spaces became associated with otherness, disease, and poverty. In New York, Danish-American activist Jacob Riis (1849–1914) famously documented the lightless interiors of so-called pre-law tenements. Riis initiated a reassessment of tenement building practices, and transformed American documentary photography at the same time. He was among the first to introduce early techniques for flash photography from Germany to the United States—this process was necessary to capture the lightless interiors of the city’s architecture. In early twentieth-century Vienna, one of the city’s many unhappy residents mentioned the dark and miserable housing conditions in a notorious memoir titled Mein Kampf. All of this is to say that these spaces made significant impressions on their inhabitants.

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Jaccob Riis: Old Mrs. Benoit in Her Hudson Street Attic, 1897, gelatin silver print, 7 3/4 by 9 5/8 inches. INTERNATIONAL CENTER OF PHOTOGRAPHY.

Given the tendency of developers to maximize profit by minimizing sunlight, one can easily understand the general distaste for darkness in the built environment. In New York, urban reformers sought to transform tenements by demanding that developers include two interior open shafts for light and air. These inadequate slivers of space resulted in floor plans shaped like exercise weights, giving rise to the nickname “dumbbell tenement.” The building type remains a common feature in many Manhattan neighborhoods. The anti-darkness legislation for New York tenements extended to the city’s commercial sector in the 1910s. The erection of massive buildings in Lower Manhattan often cast smaller neighboring structures in permanent shadow, reducing their market value. To protect their investments, the city’s powerful real estate sector initiated a significant redrafting of the city’s building code to protect their buildings from shadow, transforming New York City’s urban sky. The resulting buildings—with setbacks that reduce the upper floors in size so that the structure narrows toward the top—ensured that, in heavily built-up areas, some light would reach the interiors of lower floors and the streets below. One can see the results of these codes throughout Manhattan in structures built between the 1910s and the early 1960s. The mandated changes ironically created a type of socialism of the sky, framing sunlight as a shared urban resource in the city’s most commercial sector.

In 1920s Vienna, then the capital of a socialist government, planners had a much greater ability to shape urban space. Activists transformed enormous areas of Vienna under the mantra “Licht, Luft und Sonne” (“light, air and sun”). Their efforts included massive new public housing estates, built for the city’s working population. These buildings provided not only bright and airy apartments, but also communal baths and great open parks that completely altered urban architecture’s relationship to nature. The Karl Marx-Hof (completed 1930), in the nineteenth district, with its enormous west-facing central courtyard, is representative of how this new ethic changed both public housing and urban environmental conditions.

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Karl-Marx-Hof in Vienna, built by Karl Ehn between 1927 and 1930. KAGAN KAYA/SHUTTERSTOCK.

Such planning in New York and Vienna responded in part to fears of urban disease. A now-disproved, late nineteenth-century theory argued that diseases like tuberculosis could be eradicated by increasing a population’s exposure to sunlight. Before the advent of this theory, tuberculosis sanatoriums were much darker inside. Over time, however, sunlight became increasingly associated with physical well-being. In Paris, the health-obsessed architect Henri Sauvage (1873–1932) drew diagrams that depict an evolution from dim, dense medieval streets to thoroughfares with staggered buildings that vary in proximity to the sidewalk or plotline, maximizing people’s exposure to sunlight. Around the same time, Le Corbusier drew similar diagrams showing a linear progression from dark to sunlit environs.

Due to associations with poor health, prevalence in cities’ disadvantaged areas, and negative effects on the profitability of urban space, darkness became an abject feature of the urban daytime in the eyes of city planners and municipalities. But that has changed: in 1920s Vienna, one might have had five days a year when urban temperatures reached ninety degrees Fahrenheit. Today, Vienna experiences almost thirty days between April and October that reach these temperatures. Climate change calls into question the value of interior daylight.

Extravagantly sun-filled spaces—once an unquestioned luxury—are increasingly becoming uninhabitable. The dangers of rising temperatures affect vulnerable groups the most. Since World War I, Vienna has remained among the European capitals with the largest population of disabled people. Today, it is one of few European cities where someone with a mobility disability—who uses a wheelchair or is blind—can work and easily get around. This is one of the reasons I choose to live there. Vienna also has a high population of elderly people and very young children, due in no small part to the city’s long history of providing affordable housing. Accordingly, during one particularly brutal heat wave, city hall announced that those of us who are disabled, elderly, or have very young children should avoid going outside during the daytime.

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Studio Gang’s office building Solar Carve, 2019, in Lower Manhattan. COURTESY STUDIO GANG. PHOTO TOM HARRIS.

While darkened spaces were once thought to impair people, today they offer relief to those individuals most vulnerable to heat. How do we incorporate that idea into a vision of a future city? Many of the forms we associate with progressive, modern architecture—stepped-back and terraced buildings; transparent, crystalline towers—still dominate conceptions of urban progress. The belief that daytime darkness is an undesirable aspect of the urban environment that must be eliminated is pervasive, yet the project of “solarizing” the city continues in many contemporary firms. Architect Jeanne Gang recently completed construction in New York of an all-glass tower she describes as “solar carved.” The structure’s form both maximizes exposure to sunlight inside the building and minimizes shadows around it. Transparency and sunlight may have represented the height of progressive modernity a hundred years ago, but it’s unclear what these qualities offer urban dwellers today. It’s difficult to justify the energy wasted to heat and cool glass buildings.

Last fall in Vienna, my students and I worked to understand how and why darkness was deemed undesirable, so that we might find a way to bring it back. When we met with the City of Vienna’s planning department, we listened to proposals to plant more trees throughout the city. A standard, nonarchitectural approach to addressing sun exposure on city streets, this is a straightforward countermeasure to increasing urban heat. One planner also introduced a fairly shocking concept: bringing back the narrowness of medieval streets in future projects as a way to create a healthier city. Such narrow, dark streets are proven to be cooler during the summer months, and the circulation of air within them is surprisingly greater than their detractors described. I was delighted by the possibilities, and the historic irony. Nevertheless, my students and I knew Monsieur Sauvage and Le Corbusier would roll in their respective graves.

This article appears under the title “The Dark Day Returns in the May 2020 issue, pp. 34–39.

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Li Hui, Rising Star at Forefront of China’s Art Scene, Has Died at 43

May 5, 2020 1:58pm

Li Hui, 'V', 2008.

Li Hui, an artist whose grandiose installations filled with lasers and lights earned him significant attention in the Chinese art scene, has died at 43. A release from Artron Media said that he died of an illness.

“Li Hui was a pioneering multimedia artist who was at the forefront of the new generation of Chinese artists living and working in Beijing in the early 2000s,” the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing wrote in a statement posted to Instagram.

Over the course of his short career, Li curried favor from notable collectors and curators across China—and beyond. Much of his art was intended to be interactive and made use of high-tech configurations of lasers. For his 2006–14 Cage, for example, Li created a grid-like structure made of green lasers that viewers could walk through. The artist described the work as being about the feeling of being trapped. “I want to create feelings which cannot be expressed in language,” he once said.

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Born in 1977, Li attended Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, one of the top art schools in China. Despite its high-tech leanings, Li intended his work to have a certain spirituality to it that he felt was often hard to find in modern-day China.

Over the past couple decades, his work has entered various important collections, including those of the Yuz Museum in Shanghai and the Pinault Collection, and has appeared at major biennials, such as the Shanghai Biennale and the Busan Biennale, both in 2006. The UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, the ZKM Art Museum in Karlsruhe, Germany, and the Singapore Art Museum are among those to have exhibited Li’s art, and the artist worked on commissions for brands such as Adidas.

“I also understand that there are elements in my works that might make people feel a little puzzled or even a little scared when first confronted with them,” he said in an interview for the Kunstverein Mannheim in the Netherlands, which staged a solo show of his art in 2010. “However, from what I have experienced, it is not just the visual impact, but also the ‘otherness’ or their mysticism that can have this kind of result. It is somehow similar to … Shamanism.”

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Pennsylvania art organisations ‘blind sided’ by governor’s suspension of grant funds

4th May 2020 19:47 BSTMore

Philadelphia's Fabric Workshop and Museum is in the process of process of “scenario-planning” as state grant funds are frozen.

Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum is in the process of process of “scenario-planning” as state grant funds are frozen. Courtesy of the Fabric Workshop and Museum

As the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis continues to strain and very nearly bankrupt state finances across the US, cultural organisations in Pennsylvania have been “blind-sided” by an announcement that the completion of current year grant awards may not be completed, according to Christina Vassallo, the director of the Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM) in Philadelphia.

Vassallo and more than 80 organisations across the state received a notice from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (PCA) last week via email, in which Karl Blishcke, the council’s executive director, writes that the “unprecedented impact of this health emergency has resulted in a marked decrease in revenue”.

Blishcke adds: “While it is conceivable that the commonwealth will be able to process your grant award agreement at a later date, the outcome is highly uncertain.”

The news comes as Philadelphia announces major budget cuts across all industries. In order to cope with the loss of revenue due to the pandemic, last week the mayor of Philadelphia Jim Kenney proposed eliminating the Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy—which funds around $4m in grants to hundreds of cultural institutions and groups. The shutdown would also end the city’s Cultural Fund, which this fiscal year has distributed $3m across 349 grants.

“Every organisation in the US is experiencing similar losses,” Vassallo says. “Of course there are major concerns around the economy and around the health system, but also who is taking care of our cultural needs?”

Maud Lyon, the president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, says that “we understand the need to re-evaluate the state’s budget, but rescinding grants that have already been issued, which are for reimbursable expenses that have already been incurred, goes too far”.

While these grant amounts have a small impact upon the state’s finances overall, they have “a huge impact upon the organisations that have counted upon this revenue and need it even more”, Lyon adds. “PCA staff have been placed in a very difficult position, but this is not how they should treat their grantees. They have not released information about the number or organisations nor the amounts.”

In a statement to The Art Newspaper, Norah G. Johnson, the PCA’s director of public awareness and external affairs, says: “The Covid-19 pandemic has created an unparalleled situation that has required the state to incur increased costs to protect the health and safety of Pennsylvanians as revenue coming into the commonwealth has decreased. The commonwealth is closely monitoring its finances to ensure state services continue. The PCA has communicated this situation to organisations with grants that have not been processed by the Treasury, and will continue to work with them to share information and address their concerns.”

The PCA has outlined a series of steps for organisations seeking to request disbursement of funds should they become available on its website.

In the meantime, the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and the Philadelphia arts office are hosting an emergency support fundraiser, which ends 5 May, to support artists and cultural organisations in Philadelphia with annual budgets of $250,000 or less and mid-sized organisations with annual budgets ranging from $250,000 to $15m. It has also launched a programme to provide $500 to select artists and $1,000 to organisations in certain Pennsylvania counties, which will be awarded on a rolling basis.

The FMW is the process of “scenario-planning”, Vassallo says, to determine projections for the end of the fiscal and calendar year. The museum is looking at cost-cutting measures and evaluating what aspects of the organisation that it needs to invest more in as both visitor and donor interests shift during lockdown.

“What are we watching on our screens as we’re sequestered right now? It’s the work of artists and cultural workers,” Vassallo says. “If I were in a leadership position in the city or state level, I would make sure that the people who are producing and creating content have the resources that they need.”

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Christopher Knight Becomes One of the Few Art Critics Ever to Win Pulitzer Prize

May 4, 2020 4:16pm

The Pulitzer Prize for criticism has gone to an art writer this year, marking one of the few times in the award’s 50-year history that someone in an art-related field has won the award.

Christopher Knight, the Los Angeles Times’s art critic, will take home the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Just a handful of art critics have ever won the award, which has typically gone to critics with a mass audience such as Roger Ebert, Michiko Kakutani, and Hilton Als. Among the art critics to have won it in years past are New York’s Jerry Saltz in 2018, the Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott in 2013, and the New York Times’s Holland Cotter in 2009.

Knight has been writing for the Los Angeles Times since 1989. In that time, he has written extensively on a wide variety of subjects in the L.A. art world. Over the past several months, he has returned frequently to writing about the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s controversial new building, designed by Peter Zumthor. In its citation, the Pulitzer committee recognized Knight “for work demonstrating extraordinary community service by a critic, applying his expertise and enterprise to critique a proposed overhaul of the L.A. County Museum of Art and its effect on the institution’s mission.”

Knight has also published an anthology of his art criticism, titled Last Chance for Eden: Selected Art Criticism, 1979-1994, and he also wrote a book on the famed Panza collection. Prior to working at the Los Angeles Times, Knight was a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

This year is not the first time that Knight had been up for consideration for the prize, however. He was a finalist for the award in 1991, 2001, and 2007. And he has also won some other major journalism awards, including the $50,000 Rabkin Prize Lifetime Achievement Award (in 2017) and the College Art Association’s Frank Jewett Mather Award for distinction in art criticism (in 1997).

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Is Artist Jordan Wolfson Really So Offensive? A New Documentary Considers the Artist’s Persona

May 1, 2020 3:33pm

Jordan Wolfson in 'Spit Earth'.
Jordan Wolfson in Spit Earth. COURTESY THE FILMMAKERS

If Jordan Wolfson is an “edgelord,” our culture doesn’t have much of an edge. Spit Earth: Who Is Jordan Wolfson?, a new documentary directed by James Crump, nods at its start to the artist’s “offensiveness” and his lack of deference to “political correctness” and “virtue signaling.” But since the putatively offended parties are mostly absent from the 55-minute film, one can only imagine what sensitivities might be triggered by Wolfson’s vulgarity, scatology, violence, lust, and direct or sideways invocations of ethnicity, race, and racism. Maybe tweakings of these taboos count as offensive today, but not too long ago they were common currency.

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So outside a certain bubble, Wolfson comes across less as a provocateur than as a sophisticated and entertaining nostalgia act, repackaging familiar transgressions in novel trappings like animatronics and virtual-reality headsets. Plenty of precursors beyond the two that Wolfson names (David Lynch and Jeff Koons) are obvious: Norman Mailer, R. Crumb, Al Goldstein, the Beastie Boys, Howard Stern. His 2014 breakout work (Female figure), an animatronic blonde who dances while looking in a mirror, channels ’50s-era pinups through pre-2001 robotics and the perverted masquerade of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. His VR installation from the 2017 Whitney Biennial, Real Violence, replays the street beatdown scene from A Clockwork Orange in black goggles with an anti-Semitic twist. As for the animated aging Jewish man in a yarmulke and beard talking dirty in the artist’s voice in Animation, masks (2011), Woody Allen made the same joke in Annie Hall. Call Wolfson a transgressive traditionalist—and watch him drag such manchild signifiers as Pinocchio and Looney Toons into the piss and shit of a muddled 21st-century adulthood to a familiar pop score of Lady Gaga and Percy Sledge.

One function of virtue signaling is money laundering, since money has no virtue on its own and more often than not is born of vice (or worse). But if virtuous art pays out these days in return for the cover it provides to capital, it stands to reason that some money will flow to its opposite, especially if it comes in an ironic wrapping. If Wolfson were truly offensive, he’d be kicked out of polite society. But his irony affirms the status quo even as it points up its hypocrisies and general flimsiness. And so Spit Earth takes us to Wolfson’s farm house in upstate New York, where he enjoys the company of a couple of large dogs and keeps a pair of rescue horses in a big red barn. Wolfson cops that he’s always been “fortunate,” and we see childhood photos of his upper-middle-class family. But as usual, his checking of privilege comes across as a form of autofellatio thinly disguised as self-deprecation.

The best scenes of the film transpire in the living room: Wolfson putting his phone on the mantel and FaceTiming with an animator, acting out the scene he wants her to put on the screen for his next piece. He’s laughing, he’s dancing, he’s appreciative of his collaborator—all with the sense of childlike fun that enchants many of his works. Such scenes are more illuminating than anything the talking heads in the film say about him—though they’re all entranced by his charisma—or any of the vague things Wolfson says about his boyhood. “It was hard,” he tells us of growing up. “Jordan had a learning disability,” his mother explains. There’s a whiff of therapy to the proceedings, the couch no doubt being the source of a good deal of Wolfson’s inspiration. “No artist is comfortable in his own skin,” adds Wolfson’s aunt, the novelist Erica Jong. “Am I allowed to say that?”

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Tech Entrepreneur Sean Parker Ensnared in Dispute Over $5.7 M. Peter Paul Rubens Painting

May 4, 2020 12:18pm

Billionaire Sean Parker, a founder of the music platform Napster and the first president of Facebook, is entangled in a legal dispute over a Peter Paul Rubens painting he purchased for his nonprofit foundation for $5.7 million at Christie’s in 2018. The work, which is titled A Satyr holding a Basket of Grapes and Quinces with a Nymph (ca. 1620), is reportedly at the center of a conflict between Parker and Debra L. Turner, who sold the work.

“A consignor sought to cancel a completed auction sale and following repeated attempts to settle the matter amicably, the matter was submitted to arbitration,” a Christie’s spokesperson said. “The arbitrator ruled that Christie’s complied with its contractual obligations and that the successful bidder had lawfully acquired the painting. Christie’s is now seeking to confirm the arbitration award in federal court to conclude this matter, and transfer the painting to the buyer and the significant sale proceeds to the consignor.”

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In a petition to confirm the arbitrator’s ruling filed on April 20 in Manhattan Federal Court, the house said that, following the 2018 sale, Turner “claimed that she had cancelled the sale of the painting, and the foundation asserted that it was entitled to the painting by virtue of its auction purchase.”

The foundation’s attorney said in a letter to the court that it “promptly paid in full” for the painting in 2018 and that it had “purchased the painting without any knowledge that the consignor had attempted to withdraw it.” The letter goes on to say that the foundation intends to “take possession of the painting it purchased in good faith more than two years ago and put it to charitable use.”

Parker’s San Francisco–based organization has four areas of focus: life sciences, public health, civic engagement, and art. Its collection of artworks includes pieces spanning 20 centuries, and it has loaned works to institutions around the world.

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Divisions Between Art and Sex Work Grow Blurrier During Coronavirus Pandemic

May 4, 2020 5:04pm

Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the Sex Workers’ Pop-Up in March, just two days after it opened, New York was able to glimpse artwork that spoke to the experiences of fierce fighters in a field that has been subject to ongoing stigma and criticism. “When your very existence is criminalized, survival becomes a radical action,” read text included as part of an installation of black-and-white portraits of black and brown, cis and trans women by photographer Kisha Bari. Alongside it were Molly Crabapple’s drawings of Decrim NYC for the defunct sex-worker magazine $pread, video interviews with South African sex workers by Candice Breitz, performance photos by Annie Sprinkle, and a canopy of red umbrellas—the international symbol of the sex workers’ rights movement—by Sun Kim.

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Such a moment of celebration and call for action by the sex workers’ rights movement was cut short by the coronavirus, which has created a new existential threat to those who cannot afford to stop working during the crisis and have no access to resources available for other service-industry professionals. Sex workers who also have careers in the art world, whether as artists or muses to creators, have remained resilient, continuing to produce important work during a time of crisis.

The Sex Workers’ Pop-Up, where 17 of the 22 presenting artists had backgrounds in sex work, was intended partly to underscore that many sex workers are artists and that there are artists who are sex workers. As the exhibition showed, sex work and art have a long, intimate history, especially in kink-friendly niches, because both can be considered areas that push at social boundaries through creative means. Beyond the possibility of providing for elemental material needs, consensual sex work can provide artists with an auxiliary creative outlet and inspiring insights into the human condition.

“We are much more than bodily barometers for the toxicity levels of the patriarchy,” Bella, a London-based artist and sex worker has written. “We can be its bailiffs too, knocking down its doors and seizing the cash up front. Leaving furnished with its fruits, empowered and enriched.”

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The Sex Workers’ Pop-Up, an exhibition in New York focused on art by sex workers, was shuttered early by the coronavirus. ISAAC GARCIA

Yet the pandemic has changed the way sex workers do business, and among the mortal dangers Covid-19 creates for sex workers are infection, increased predation, and financial destitution. Since the virus’s emergence, sex workers were among the first to experience the massive loss of employment now devastating many other sectors, due to the closing of strip clubs and concerns from clients about interpersonal contact. Even legal sex-workers were explicitly excluded from eligibility for Covid-19 relief loans for business and the self-employed.

These moral prejudices divide sex workers with pre-existing online platforms and those without. “People need porn right now, and our company provides a small amount of gigs to sex workers—though obviously, not to the ones working on the street, without any internet access, who are suffering most right now,” said Stoya, a pornographic actress and founder of ZeroSpaces, who collaborated with the artist Clayton Cubitt on a 2014 projects that is more relevant than ever. “Hysterical Literature”, a video series on YouTube, shows artists, scholars, porn actresses (including Stoya) and writers orgasming from his remote-control sex toy play while reading their favorite pieces of literature. “Hysterical Literature” speaks to a need for intimacy right now—something that artists and sex workers can provide.

Risks still exist on the digital sphere, however. Leah Schrager—who also works under the guise of Ona, a cam-girl persona/conceptual artwork—said that, while sex work can provide all kinds of relief for viewers and customers with wit and wiles, earning a sustainable living during the pandemic without a pre-existing following, identity, and platform can be challenging, especially with a significant surge in performers and equal drop in viewers’ tips. “It’s obviously a super challenging time, but I would encourage those who start doing online sex work to do it because they’re really into it,” Schrager said. “Just like any job, a true enjoyment and passion for it really helps for the long run and the overall experience. I’ve personally always thought of online sex work as an awesome thing—but there is massive societal prejudice against it.”

Scams preying on novice cam-girls are proliferating. Rachel Oyster Kim, who left a top-tier art school for full-time sex work, said that she urges potential cam-girls to consider the likelihood that content will be recorded and rereleased. “You never know who is recorded,” Kim said, “and you have limited ownership over your own content.” For the clients and creators, cam-work can provide needed parasocial connection along the lines of the tag-line for eighties porn-star and AIDS activist Robin Bryd’s iconic Public Access show, when she urged viewers to avoid risky sex and instead stay home with her.

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Jan van Eyck’s Influence: How He Pioneered Oil Painting and Changed Art History

May 1, 2020 10:42am

A recent Jan van Eyck survey
A recent Jan van Eyck survey in Belgium drew large crowds until it was unexpectedly closed early. STEPHANIE LECOCQ/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK

The influence of Northern Renaissance artist Jan van Eyck has been so outsized, it is almost impossible to discuss oil painting without considering his impact. “Talking about Van Eyck is talking about the most powerful painter in the western hemisphere,” the painter Luc Tuymans once told Even magazine. “It is not Leonardo da Vinci. It is nobody else but van Eyck.”

Such a pronouncement may seem strange. The 15th-century painter died in 1441, likely in his early 50s, and he left behind just over 20 known oil paintings. Despite being well-respected in his day, a lot is still unknown about van Eyck—even the exact year of his birth remains a mystery. But his art continues to intrigue today—as evidenced by the fact that a humanoid lamb featured in his famed Ghent Altarpiece became an unexpected viral sensation earlier this year. (Hélène Dubois, a conservator who worked on the altarpiece’s $2.4 million restoration, led by Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage and funded by the Getty Foundation, claimed that the tweets mocking the lamb were “stupid,” but acknowledged the shock of seeing the “masterpiece” anew.)

Belgium, the modern state that includes van Eyck’s native County of Loon (in what is now Belgium), is currently undergoing what it has termed the Year of Van Eyck to toast the newly restored altarpiece. But the celebration was cut short, after the largest van Eyck show ever mounted—a blockbuster assembling more than half of van Eyck’s oil paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent—closed more than a month early because of the coronavirus pandemic. (This week, it was revealed that the exhibition would never reopen.) With the year of van Eyck continuing on in other forms, below is a guide to five of his most famous works by the artist, who is considered to be one of the first important oil painters.

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Jan van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece, 1432. UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/SHUTTERSTOCK

The Ghent Altarpiece (1432)

Technically, van Eyck’s finest work was a collaborative production—scholars agree that Hubert, Jan’s older brother, conceived and started the Ghent Altarpiece, though it is unclear which van Eyck worked on which elements of the piece. But the mysteries have not ended there, as historians have spent centuries mulling over the work’s dense iconography. (Laypeople, too, have recently spent time musing over the work’s Lamb of God, which, after the restoration, looks shockingly human.)

Historians have spent the most time praising van Eyck’s style, which, like other Northern Renaissance artists, was more interested in the piling on of details, rendering fabric, furs, and surfaces in stunning detail and less about creating a naturalistic illusion of reality, like their Italian contemporaries who studied anatomy and biology to depict their subjects with more scientific accuracy. Van Eyck’s “observation of nature is even more patient, his knowledge of details even more exact” than the artists who came before him, art historian E. H. Gombrich once wrote. Such a tendency is abundantly evident in the Ghent Altarpiece, which weighs more than a ton and is 14.5 feet tall. And van Eyck’s reliance on oil paint—a then-new medium that allowed for artists to return repeatedly to an area of a canvas because it takes so long to dry—enabled him to render Adam and Eve in such realistic detail that the figures, depicted almost at life size, really do appear to occupy three-dimensional space.

The Ghent Altarpiece’s history is almost as interesting as the work itself, however. In 1566, years after countless artists, including Albrecht Dürer, began making the trek to the see the work, Protestants stormed St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, where the altarpiece is currently held, and tried to burn it. (They were unsuccessful in doing so.) And, during World War II, the altarpiece was pilfered by the Nazis. The Monuments Men, a group that helped retrieve stolen artworks, assisted in the return of the piece to the cathedral once the war ended, but the damage had been done—one panel from it has never been recovered.

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Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?), 1433. EILEEN TWEEDY/SHUTTERSTOCK

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?), 1433

Could the mysterious male subject in this painting be van Eyck himself? Historians are still unsure. One clue comes in the man’s headwear—a piece of garb that was fashionable in 15th-century Burgundy known as a chaperon—which may have been tied up to avoid getting it dirty. Some scholars point to this as proof that it’s van Eyck at work, as he would have arranged the chaperon that way to keep it away from his paints. Regardless of who the subject is, the painting, which is owned by the National Gallery in London, captures the man’s psychology—and his physiognomy—in unusual detail. A close look at the canvas reveals that this man’s face is flecked with stubble; his chin even has some grey dots on it, hinting at the subject’s age. Toward the top, van Eyck has inscribed the phrase “Als Ich Can,” or “as I can,” which was likely meant as a mark of humbleness.

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Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Wedding, 1434. EILEEN TWEEDY/SHUTTERSTOCK

The Arnolfini Wedding (1434)

Van Eyck’s career has been pervaded by various myths, among them the longstanding one that he invented oil paint. One that has circulated widely is the untrue suggestion that the woman in this painting from 1434 is pregnant because of the way she is holding her dress. In fact, viewers of the day would have been keyed in to the fact that the excessive amount of fabric she dons, rendered in painstaking naturalistic detail by van Eyck, would have signified her wealth.

The woman has been identified as Giovanna Cenami, who is here shown getting married to Giovanni Arnolfini, an Italian merchant who was likely passing through Bruges on business. At the work’s center is a convex mirror; look closely, and an image of van Eyck painting the canvas becomes visible. (These elements, of a mirror and the artist appearing in the work, would later serve as inspiration to Diego Velázquez in his 1656 painting Las Meninas.) Above it is van Eyck’s signature, which art historian Erwin Panofsky cited as evidence that the image was meant as a marriage contract, in keeping with Catholic customs about bearing witness to wedding ceremonies. The work is now in the collection of the National Gallery in London.

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Jan van Eyck, The Annunciation, 1434/36. VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The Annunciation (1434/36)

Van Eyck’s artistry is often most evident in the methods by which he reworked Christian iconography, invoking biblical texts while also alluding to recent art history. In this scene depicting the annunciation, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., van Eyck utilizes the vertical format to offer an image depicting a moment of transition. As the Angel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she will conceive Jesus Christ, van Eyck enacts a complex formal game in which old becomes new—not only on a metaphorical level, but also on a stylistic one. The church’s architecture moves from the Romanesque style to the Gothic style, with rounded windows of the clerestory giving way to pointed arches. The panel—which was likely part of an altarpiece—also pays homage to contemporaneous reenactments of biblical events that were important components of religious services.

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Jan van Eyck, The Crucifixion; The Last Judgment, ca. 1440–41. METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

The Crucifixion; The Last Judgment (ca. 1440–41)

It was long thought that these two panels, held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, were meant as a diptych, but research has revealed that they once took a slightly different form, either as parts of triptych or as tabernacle doors. Whatever their original purpose was, the two panels evidence van Eyck’s masterly ability to paint details. At just under two feet tall, these panels are filled with an array of minute figures, some of whom are shown plunging into the depths of hell in the right half. (When the Met showcased recent studies devoted to the work in a show several years ago, a magnifying glass was supplied to allow viewers to admire them.) And there is still much left to consider about the works: some mysteries about these paintings—their landscapes, for example, may have been inspired by van Eyck’s travels as a diplomat and a spy, though it is unclear to what extent—remain unsolved.

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$20 M. Roy Lichtenstein ‘Brushstroke’ to Be Offered at Sotheby’s in June

May 1, 2020 12:29pm

Roy Lichtenstein, 'White Brushstroke I', 1965.
Roy Lichtenstein, White Brushstroke I, 1965. COURTESY SOTHEBY’S

With Sotheby’s moving forward with its marquee New York contemporary evening sale for the week of June 29, the house has revealed one of the major lots set to hit the block: Roy Lichtenstein’s painting White Brushstroke I (1965), which comes with an estimate of $20 million–$30 million.

Produced as part of a seminal 1965–66 series, the work is one of the few remaining Lichtenstein “Brushstroke” paintings still in private hands. With related examples of the canvas in major permanent museum collections such as those of the Whitney Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago, the work is coveted. This “Brushstroke” painting appeared in two of the artist’s Guggenheim surveys, the first in 1969, and the latter in the early 1990s in a traveling exhibition, as well as at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and other institutions.

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Lichtenstein has long been one of the top-selling Pop artists, and the prime placement of the work in such a major sale underscores his prominence in the market sphere.

“This is Pop at its most profound core” David Galperin, head of Sotheby’s contemporary art evening auctions in New York, said in a statement. “White Brushstroke I is an icon of Pop Art, capturing in a single painting the rupture that this movement invoked in an entire generation of postwar picture-making.”

Following the impact of the coronavirus pandemic across global sale rooms, top auction houses have widely expanded their online offerings across fine art and collectibles categories. Typically, Sotheby’s contemporary art evening sale is held in May, but this year, it was pushed to June because of the shutdown. The Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale will include Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, which has a low estimate of $60 million, along with property from the storied Anderson collection estimated in excess of $55 million, both announced earlier this year. This is the first official date Sotheby’s has assigned to the contemporary and modern evening and day sales, originally scheduled to take place in May, since they were postponed in April.

Despite uncertainty around the timeline for businesses’ reopenings, the announcement of the Lichtenstein lot marks the first sign of cautious optimism that the art market will start back up again this summer. Sotheby’s said on Friday that the current plans are “pending the lifting of certain restrictions and confirmation from the relevant authorities that we can proceed.” The auction house also confirmed that further details around the New York 20th Century Week sales are forthcoming.

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Get Back to Basics with These Classic #2 Pencils

May 1, 2020 11:04am

Notebook and Pencil
Image courtesy of Amazon SHUTTERSTOCK / ROB BYRON

You probably remember the #2 pencil from your days taking standardized tests, but it’s also the unsung workhorse of offices, homes, and studios. Whether you’re seeking a classic yellow pencil or an instrument with a less conventional look, we’ve got you covered. Get back to basics with the high-quality pencils on our list below.

1. ARTEZA #2 HB Wood Cased Graphite Pencils

What’s more basic than a bright yellow pencil? This pack of 180 pre-sharpened #2 pencils will serve your writing and drawing needs for months, or maybe years, to come. Arteza’s graphite pencils lay down a smooth line, and they have break-resistant cores, so you don’t have to worry about inadvertently sullying your works in progress. And with satin-painted hexagonal shafts, they are easy to hold for hours at a time.

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2. Three Leaf Recycled Paper Pencils

Help heal the planet when you buy these eco-friendly pencils. With their graphite cores encased in layers of recycled paper, they contain no harmful chemicals, making them great for pencil-chewing children and adults. They have the sturdiness and durability of woodcased implements, and like standard #2 pencils, they have rubber erasers on the end. This pack holds 10 pencils perfect for sketching and writing. And, since they’re biodegradable, these pencils won’t go to waste, even when you’ve used them up.

3. Ticonderoga Pencils

You probably remember these bright yellow pencils, with their distinctive yellow-and-green metal ferrules, from your school days. This pack features 18 pre-sharpened graphite pencils made with premium wood and latex-free erasers. Whether you’re a teacher, student, or professional artist, you need tools you can rely on, and these tried-and-true nontoxic pencils are the real thing, good for a quick sketch or a full-blown masterpiece on paper. Those who insist on American-made products, though, should note that the Dixon-Ticonderoga Company, established in New Jersey in the 19th century, is now owned by an Italian firm and that its pencils are largely produced in Mexico and China.

4. Staedtler Rally Graphite #2 Pencil

Crafted by Staedtler, a German company with expertise in art supplies, these bold blue pencils come pre-sharpened for your convenience and have a latex-free eraser. Available in a pack of 12, they have break-resistant leads, ensuring reliable sharpening . Get smooth lines and dramatic shading with these economical and practical graphite pencils.

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