They say you get by with a little help from your friends, and the proof is presently hanging at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art.
The exhibition Artistic Relationships: Partners, Mentors, Lovers pairs artists who were friends, acquaintances, mentors or lovers, showing their work side by side. According to John Boyer, CEO and president of the museum, "Artists arrive at epiphanies through their relationships." While the show points out similarities between each couple or each set of artists, the bigger picture is that community is essential to creative development and progress.
This display of work could feel choppy and disparate, but the transition from each couple to the next is smooth and forward-propelling. There's a slight thematic progression, but it's hard to find among the fascinating stories of friendship, love and admiration; one might even be seduced by the stories more than the art itself. Be careful.
While the Bechtler Museum's collection is tightly focused, and quite a few works have been shown before, the curators continue to provide new angles on pieces we thought we knew. Highlights include Jean Tinguely and Nikki de Saint Phalle, Joan Miró and Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger and Le Corbusier, and a fantastic piece by Bridget Riley, who is paired with Victor Pasmore. Make sure to pause in front of the first room's paintings by friends Alfred Manessier and Gustave Singier for each artist's interpretation of the sea in a port town, in "Port du Nord" (1955) and "Les dunes et le port" (1951), respectively. In these abstract works, the artists flatten the brightest colors into triangles and rectangles of paint, their angular intersections invoking ideas of moving water under breezy skies.
The second room's first left wall shows a painting titled "Composition" (1956) by Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle, who clearly loved his medium. It's a sea of oil paint: It crests and recedes in crowded, overlapping, narrow rectangles. It sits between two Sam Francis oil-on-canvas pieces, whose thin veils of paint form curvilinear shapes and look meek in comparison. The two were ex-pats together in 1950s Paris.
A more dominating section is the work of Jean Tinguely and Nikki de Saint Phalle, friends of the Bechtlers and famous for their romance and successful collaborations. Bright colors, swirls, movement and shiny wall sculptures are playful but require much attention. de Saint Phalle's dancing green cartwheeler enchants as she flips through the center of the room and Tinguely's colorful works on paper filled with bright circles are a nice static companion (Charlotteans will identify with his 1991 study for Cascade, the Bechtler-commissioned kinetic sculpture in the Carillon building). They contrast greatly with the Hans Hartung and Anna-Eva Bergman drawings on the next wall, which mistakenly look melancholy by comparison. A visitor would be remiss to not spend extra time in front of these three pieces, whose dark and crowded vertical lines feel explosive, intentional and loaded with meaning. The two had a tumultuous romance and a pair of marriages to one another.
In the opposite corner, striking tapestries by Le Corbusier and Fernand Léger hang proudly, displaying the tenets of Purism, a refined form of cubism. The two artists, who both had architecture backgrounds, met in Paris in the 1920s and became friends.
The section of the exhibition featuring work by Alexander Calder and Joan Miró is made even more fun knowing the story of the lifelong friends. They were opposites in build — Calder a hulk of a man, and Miró much more slight — and taught each other both to box and to dance. In their well-documented correspondence, they rarely spoke of art, though there are striking similarities in their work: Flat elemental forms float over saturated colors. The tapestries on the floor and wall are in seamless dialogue.
The last room of the show contains only British pairings, including the striking Bridget Riley painting coupled with a piece by an artist she admired, Victor Pasmore. Pasmore curated a contemporary show that awakened Riley's abstract spirit. Despite its ability to make one's eyes cross and become dizzy, her piece "Fade" (1975) will never stop exciting Bechtler audiences. Small bronzes by Henry Moore and his student Bernard Meadows show the influence of the former on the latter.
The ideas of community, conversation and partnership that this exhibition espouses are highly relevant to any pursuit we, as humanity, take on. One could even claim this is a mirror to Charlotte's current arts scene, which with collaboration has only become stronger in the past years. Institutions like Packard Place and the Levine Center for the Arts, and upcoming arts festivals like Ulysses and CPCC's Sensoria enhance cultural awareness in Charlotte.
With that in mind, this show feels like a big pat on the back, and an encouraging affirmation to keep moving toward that cultural light at the end of the tunnel.