“The Milk of Dreams,” the exhilarating and elegant main exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale, features a super majority of artists who are women and gender-nonconforming, with none of the male art stars who have long been the central focus of that affair. But do not worry about them. They are doing fine.
Georg Baselitz has brought a dozen bright new paintings (and a few dark, deathly sculptures) to the grand Museo di Palazzo Grimani. Sterling Ruby has a wily, understated sculpture on the facade of a palazzo being renovated by Berggruen Arts & Culture. Anselm Kiefer has installed gargantuan new pieces inside the sumptuous Palazzo Ducale.
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And Anish Kapoor, never one to be outdone, has a doubleheader curated by Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits, with many tons of his art on view at the Gallerie dell’Accademia and the Palazzo Manfrin, a formidable 18th-century building that the artist is turning into a cultural hub called the Manfrin Project.
In the run-up to his two-part show, Kapoor grabbed headlines by saying that he would display works made with Vantablack, the intensely black material that he secured the exclusive rights to use in art (generating a noisy controversy). In one example in the Accademia, he has affixed it to a wall in the shape of a tall, thin oval. It absorbs nearly all of the light that hits it, and becomes a bottomless abyss that the eye tries to penetrate and fails. It enchants for a moment, and then registers as kind of a gimcrack trick, with none of the beguiling splendor that radiates from Kapoor’s most successful work. Maybe he should let other artists try out the stuff.
With his zest for dramatic scale, his love for high drama, and his towering ambitions, Kapoor has become one of our era’s greatest crowdpleasers, a genuine popular success. No shame should attach to that. His brain-scrambling Cloud Gate (2004–06) in Chicago, lovingly called “The Bean,” is a masterpiece—the rare delightful artwork that has managed to become a city landmark. I do not trust anyone who claims to dislike it.
But Kapoor’s penchant for aesthetic grandiosity has also made him easy to pigeonhole as a purveyor of increasingly empty, overwrought spectacles. Many of the works in Venice fall into that category.
At the Accademia, a specially made cannon has blasted heavy balls of deep-red wax all over a room, turning it into a battlefield of blood, a Chaïm Soutine carcass exploded across white walls. (Its title is also not subtle: Shooting into the Corner, 2008/09.) At the Palazzo Manfrin, similar stuff litters the floor of an expansive space, apparently dropped from the two tall conveyor belts, for Symphony for a Beloved Sun (2013). A gigantic red tondo stands above it all, silent and imperious. This is art that aims to dominate, that will take no questions and brook no dissent. It is dread-inducing, but also fascinating in its absolute disregard for your presence.
Elsewhere, huge hunks of metal are covered with more bloodied, organ-like forms, and large, rough recent paintings bear black patches that suggest bodily orifices. (The less said about them the better.) The show is portrait of an artist who should be encouraged to be more selective in what he unleashes on the world.
Mercifully, there are also a few superb early works in the mix. One is White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers, from 1982. It is composed of what to be appear four small, intricate beachside sandcastles made from pigment. Somehow, they are standing, and they are immaculate. (A wall label reveals that wood and cement are involved.) They are faintly miraculous, and as you walk by them, trying to understand how they work, you may find yourself moving more slowly: It looks like a breeze could knock them over! You want them to be safe. In contrast, much of Kapoor’s newer work just seems to want you dead.