Jan Fabre: The Years of the Hour Blue
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
May 4 – August 28, 2011
One of Europe’s most fascinating artists, Jan Fabre is having one of his best years ever. The 52-year-old Belgian artist, playwright, film and theater director, and choreographer is showing large marble sculptures, which reference Michelangelo's Pietà, at the Nuova Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Misericordia, an historic church school in Venice, as part of the 54th Venice Biennale. He had a spectacular survey show spanning some 30 years of work at the Netherlands’ Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo that was spread throughout the museum’s modernist building and sprawling sculpture garden. And, to top off the year—which is far from over—Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum hosted The Years of the Hour Blue, a display of his ballpoint pen drawings and sculptures interspersed with the works of Old Masters from its compelling collection.
Skillful in a variety of media, Fabre creates theatrical artworks that combine his interests in the human body, insects, animals, medieval times, myth, science, and spirituality. The Years of the Hour Blue, presented 30 of his Bic-art works, a series of blue ballpoint pen pieces from the late-1970s to the early-1990s, intriguingly intermixed in the museum’s Picture Gallery with masterpieces by Rubens, Caravaggio, Titian, and other legendary artists. Offered as the final chapter in a trilogy of exhibitions juxtaposing Fabre with past European artists he’s found influential at the Royal Museum of Fine Art in Antwerp in 2006, the Louvre in Paris in 2008, and this year at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the show took on the feeling of a treasure hunt as viewers moved from room to room finding Fabre’s art.
Fabre’s drawings replaced paintings from the collection, hung in harmony above and below them, and even covered them completely, while his sculptural works posed jarring juxtapositions in the museum’s ornate galleries. The artist’s 1987 drawing Materialization of Language, which shows a female figure with an elongated tongue, was hung with Moretto da Brescia’s St. Justina with the Unicorn, a painting from 1530. Fabre’s 1990 The Lime Twig Man, which portrays a beekeeper, hovered above Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s The Peasant and the Nest Robber from 1568. Meanwhile, Three Claws (1987) was cleverly paired with a 17th-century painting by the Flemish master Anthony van Dyck of a regal couple with three exposed hands.
Covering a group of Peter Paul Rubens’ canvases in a room full of Rubens’ paintings—something that must have frustrated many visitors—Fabre’s massive, stitched-together Flying Rooster, a tapestry-like monochrome canvas from 1991, was arguably one of the most powerful works on exhibit, while the golden, life-size cast of the artist on a ladder measuring the clouds with a giant ruler—a bronze sculpture that was perched on the museum’s roof and out of site to most viewers—was probably the most iconic and poetic piece by the multidisciplinary artist in the show. Although not a new idea, this survey in dialogue with a collection was filled with thoughtful twists and turn, that made it a pleasure to behold.
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, independent curator, artist and lecturer. He is a New York desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific and a contributing editor at Whitehot and artBahrain. He was the founding editor of Artkrush.com and Artspace.com and art editor of Flavorpill.com and Russell Simmons's OneWorld Magazine; started TheDailyBeast.com's art section; and worked as a photojournalist for Artnet.com and Art in America. He is a frequent contributor to Time Out New York, New York Observer, Modern Painters, ArtPulse and ArtInfo.com.view all articles from this author