Questionable Leonardo. Bad Koons. Great Isabelle.

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When, in 1967, the National Gallery of Art in Washington purchased Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of Ginevra de' Benci from the royal family of Liechtenstein for $5 million –– a record price at the time –– few doubted its authenticity.

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Leonardo da Vinci, "Ginevra de' Benci," c. 1474/1478
Oil on panel
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Now, almost sixty years later, learning that a Russian billionaire collector paid $127.5 million for an image of Christ by Leonardo da Vinci, "Salvator Mundi," one would want to stop for a moment and ask if the whole art world has gone topsy-turvy. A few days ago, the New York Times revealed the fascinating story behind this painting, which was bought at an obscure estate sale a decade ago for less than $10,000. Then it was considered to be merely the work of Leonardo's school.

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Leonardo da Vinci, "Salvator Mundi," c. 1500
Oil on walnut panel

After careful cleaning and restoration, some experts looked at "Salvator Mundi" more favorably and declared it to be an authentic work by Leonardo himself. Still, a number of museum specialists continue to have serious doubts about its authenticity. In 2013 Sotheby's sold it for $80 million to a Swiss art dealer who, within only days turned around and sold it to an unsuspecting Russian client for an additional $47.5 million. All of the above led Russian collector Dmitry Rybolovlev to file high profile lawsuits against the Swiss dealer and Sotheby's auction house. As for myself, I have to say that, if it is indeed by Leonardo, then it's probably the most charmless work of his I have ever seen. Here's my sincere advice to billionaires eager to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to get their hands on a "rediscovered" Leonardo -- don't be foolish. There's no way that one of his paintings has been sitting in someone's attic for 500 years waiting to be discovered.

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(L) Digital rendering of Jeff Koons' "Bouquet of Tulips," 2017
© Jeff Koons, courtesy of Noirmontartproduction
(R) Peter the Great statue designed by Zurab Tsereteli, Moscow
Photo by Eugene Tarasov

Now here's another bit of art news that stopped me in my tracks. We're learning that our Parisian friends have accepted the donation of a monumental sculpture from Jeff Koons –– the 30-foot-high "Bouquet of Tulips" –– which will be installed next year in the plaza in front of the Museum of Modern Art and the Palais de Tokyo. According to the New York Times, Koons' sculpture, depicting a hand grasping a bouquet of tulips, "is meant to echo the hand of the Statue of Liberty, a gift to the United States from France." To that, I would say 'give me a break:' his sculpture comes across as the most banal work from this celebrity artist. I have the suspicion that when it's ultimately installed, it will be as much ridiculed and dismissed as the embarrassingly ugly 300-foot tall bronze statue of Peter the Great erected in Moscow twenty years ago.

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Installation view of "Agnes Martin" at Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Courtesy of LACMA

Now, let's change the subject to something cool, very minimalistic, and very, very beautiful. Of course, I'm thinking about Agnes Martin and the silence and solitude of her paintings, with their seemingly simple geometric compositions, most often consisting of several horizontal stripes.

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Isabelle Huppert in Elle (2016)

Strangely enough, I've been thinking about her paintings after seeing two newly released French movies, Elle and Things to Come (2016), starring Isabelle Huppert, one of my all-time favorite actresses. Huppert's face and composure remain surprisingly cool no matter what extreme situation her characters are thrown into. And like with Martin's paintings, the more you pay attention to Huppert's famously controlled and cool appearance, more complex and hidden emotions are revealed.

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(L) "Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art" by Nancy Princenthal
Thames & Hudson, 2015
(R) Agnes Martin, "Untitled," 1977
Watercolor and graphite on paper
© 2016 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Reading the recently published biography of Agnes Martin by Nancy Princenthal, Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, you learn that her life was anything but quiet and simple. There was a lot of drama, a lot of instability, and a lot of pain. And, as with so many great artists, all that turmoil was transformed into poetic, poignant, philosophical artistic sermons.



Benjamin Gottlieb