Why It’s Worth Savoring Leonor Fini’s Enchanted Surrealism at Kasmin + Other Things to See and Read

Well, one month of 2023 already gone. I started the year with a New Year’s Resolution to write a bit more about art outside of the automatically must-cover big shows or controversies. That’s hard—every pressure of media life pushes towards becoming a brain in a vat plugged directly into trending topics.

But I do want to try! Despite the general bad vibes of our moment, people go on doing and saying interesting things and trying to figure it all out. We’ll see how the year goes. In the meantime, here are a few things I saw and liked, or read and felt worth recommending, in the last weeks.


Things to See

Work by Leonor Fini at Kasmin

Work by Leonor Fini at Kasmin. Photo by Ben Davis.

Leonor Fini at Kasmin

Leonor Fini (1907-1996) is a Surrealist great, and also one of those figures who has been greatly under-appreciated. I mean, just a few years ago, it took New York’s Museum of Sex to give her a first big American retrospective. More recently, the Argentinian-Italian artist’s star has been ascendant, with her declaration that she wanted to be seen as a “witch rather than as priestess” making her perfect for the feminist-Surrealist vibe of the recent Venice Biennale. Kasmin’s mini-survey has Fini’s numinous, libidinal paintings accompanied by her theatrical self-made outfits, freaky masquerade ball masks, and even a pair of clip-on gold devil horns. The show contains magic, maybe in metaphorical and non-metaphorical ways.


Installation view of Alfatih, "Day in the Life," at Swiss Institute

Installation view of Alfatih, “Day in the Life,” at Swiss Institute. Photo by Ben Davis.

Alfatih at Swiss Institute

The Switzerland-based new media artist’s slick, strangely engaging black-and-white digital animation in the basement of the S.I. centers on the doings of a seemingly super-intelligent cartoon baby, looping endlessly through different permeations of daily domestic rituals (cooking, taking a bath) within the confines of some kind of stylish domestic purgatory. If someone told me that I would be moved by something best described as—I dunno—“Yoshitomo Nara meets Spielberg’s A.I.” or “Limbo meets Boss Baby,” I wouldn’t believe them. But that’s why you don’t judge an art show based on pithy little riffs like that. A vignette where the enigmatic child plinks at the piano as rain pours and lightening strobes all around continues to circle in my brain long after I have left the cartoon creature to carry on with its own devices.


Installation view of Carrie Schneider, "I Don't Know Her," at Chart

Installation view of Carrie Schneider, “I Don’t Know Her,” at Chart. Photo by Ben Davis.

Carrie Schneider at Chart

A 16-mm film installation concentrating on a looping image of the Mariah Carey “I don’t know her” meme (the singer pretending not to who Jennifer Lopez is, often used to cast shade), multiply abstracted and reprocessed. It’s an old-fashioned film film showing a phone showing a meme made from a TV show clip of a pop star talking about another pop star. Of course there’s a Pavlovian ’90s nostalgia element to just seeing Carey’s stone-cold quip reframed as art, but I Don’t Know Her (as the work is called) wrings an unexpected bit of beauty from freezing this circulation of media into a shimmering suspension, the image abstracted and pockmarked as it acquires personal associations like a worn-down lucky penny. Fun and brainy and weirdly hypnotic.


Things to Read

Why Is Everything So Ugly?” by the Editors, in n+1

From the Winter issue of n+1, the scene-setting lead editorial on “the New Ugliness” made the rounds last month because it names something worth naming: the generally crappy, greige-colored sameness of the urban creative world now, presented via an entertainingly and convincingly cranky ramble across the full landscape of consumption, from architecture to advertising. “One paradox of the new ugliness is that it flattens the distinction between the rich, the very rich, the superrich, and the merely fortunate by ripping them all off in turn.”

TikTok’s Enshitification” by Cory Doctorow, in Pluralistic

A nice complement to the n+1 rant, and maybe its internet-specific corollary of the “New Ugliness.” The trigger for Doctorow’s screed is a consideration of the implications of recent revelations about how TikTok “boosts” key creators with the end of luring them into their platform with a fake sense of its potential. But really this is a famed web thinker’s master theory of why the internet feels so bad now, backed up by a pretty convincing, historically informed political economy of platform capitalism’s tendencies towards making its own services worse over time, i.e. “enshitification.” (While you are at it, Christopher Byrd’s conversation with Doctorow for the New Yorker last month is also well worth checking out.)

Finding Awe Amid Everyday Splendor” by Henry Wismayer, in Noema

As an argument, this one is a bit scientistic for my tastes, but I like its summary of the history and present research on the aesthetic concept of “awe.” The key argument here is that, in calling us to visceral awareness of our own smallness, awe is actually our brains signaling that we need each other. It is thus an emotion that “binds social groups in common purpose” (from which it follows that a society so jaded that it can’t make time for real moments of awe is also one that has lost one of its resources of holding itself together).


Things Also Worth Mentioning…

Outside Dunkunshalle for the book launch of Filip Kostic's Personal Computers

Outside Dunkunshalle for the book launch of Filip Kostic’s Personal Computers. Photo by Ben Davis.

Rachel Rossin’s Dunkunsthalle in FiDi

The scrappy art space in a repurposed Dunkin Donuts is worth keeping an eye on. It was a great site last week for the launch of L.A.-based Filip Kostic’s Personal Computers, a very amusing, long-in-the-making compendium of found photos showing the surreal lengths some hobbyists go to kit-out their PCs (gotta love the guy who built his CPU tower into a taxidermied beaver). Watching random passersby seeing Kostic fans packing the space, then peering slowly up at the “Dunkunsthalle” name in signature Dunkin lettering, and trying to figure out what was going on, was a bonus.

Josh On relaunches TheyRule.net

The project, debuted in 2001, is a net art classic and a very early and important example of what Albert-László Barabási recently termed “dataism.” Via crisp, no-nonsense web animation, it compiles a catalogue of the names on the boards of the major companies in the U.S. and shows how they interlock. The new version of TheyRule has updated data for our even more corporate-dominated present, with an autoplay feature endlessly walking you from one end of the network to the next via branching graphics. The site is searchable by name or company, so it can serve as a research tool—but it’s also very much an artwork, something like an x-ray image of the economy so that you just see the unsettlingly alien bone structure underneath.

The artist modestly calls TheyRule a “one-liner,” but it’s a one-liner that hits, maybe even more than when it first launched.

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A Keen-Eyed Shopper Paid $700 for a Chandelier in an Antique Store. It Turned Out to Be an Alberto Giacometti Worth Up to $3 Million

A rare chandelier by Alberto Giacometti could fetch up to $3 million at an upcoming Christie’s London sale—a big mark up from the £250 ($700) the owner paid for it back in the 1960s.

The buyer, British painter John Craxton, was pretty sure what he was getting when he spotted the work in a store window on London’s Marylebone Road. He recognized the lighting fixture as the one commissioned by his late friend Peter Watson, an art collector.

“Peter Watson came into his fortune when he was quite young, after his father died, so he had the freedom to explore what he was very passionate about, which was art and literature,” Michelle McMullan, a senior specialist in Impressionist and Modern art at Christie’s London, told Midnight Publishing Group News.

Watson, who was a cofounder and financial backer of the literary magazine Horizon, likely commissioned the chandelier for the publication’s office on London’s Bedford Square during one of his trips to mainland Europe, either in 1946 or ’47.

Alberto Giacometti, <em>Chandelier for Peter Watson</em>. Photo courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2023.

Alberto Giacometti, Chandelier for Peter Watson. Photo courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2023.

“Watson’s real passion at that time was Surrealism, and you can kind of see it in the sculpture, which combines what Giacometti is doing in the ’40s and the naturalistic elements of his decorative arts with the ball hanging from the bottom,” McMullan said. “That is a real Surrealist element, which is what makes it quite unique.”

The artist may have even been referencing one of his own early Surrealist works in the design, which recalls his 1931 piece Boule Suspendue.

Giacometti is less known for his more utilitarian design objects, but they were nonetheless a major part of his practice.

Alberto Giacometti, <em>Chandelier for Peter Watson</em>. Photo courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2023.

Alberto Giacometti, Chandelier for Peter Watson. Photo courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2023.

“Objects interest me hardly any less than sculpture, and there is a point at which the two touch,” the artist wrote in a 1948 letter to dealer Pierre Matisse.

“Alongside his more famous sculptural work, Giacometti did make decorative design pieces, the most famous of which were collaborations with the French interior designer Jean-Michel Frank,” McMullan said. “The chandeliers don’t come up at auction very often. They are usually unique editions.”

The top price one has ever fetched was £7.6 million ($10.4 million) in 2018—but that piece featured one of Giacometti’s signature stick figures, increasing its desirability.

The artist’s most-expensive work ever to sell at auction went for $141.3 million at Christie’s in May 2015, according to the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database. The record-setting piece, titled L’Homme au doigt (Pointing Man), is also the highest-priced sculpture ever to hit the block.

Alberto Giacometti, <em>Chandelier for Peter Watson</em>. Photo courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2023.

Alberto Giacometti, Chandelier for Peter Watson. Photo courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd. 2023.

Chandelier for Peter Watson is not expected to match those lofty heights, but Christie’s predicts it will hammer for £1.5 million to £2.5 million ($1.9 million to $3 million) at the “20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale” on February 28.

The piece only hung in the Horizon offices for about a year, at which point the publication folded and it was put into storage. Watson died just a few years later, in 1956. The chandelier likely passed to Horizon cofounder Cyril Connolly, but exactly how it wound up in an antique shop remains a mystery.

For roughly half a century, the buyer Craxton hung the piece in the music room in his home in London’s Hampstead neighborhood. Some years after his death in 2009, his estate finally decided to get the piece authenticated.

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U.S. Authorities Return Antiquities Worth $19 Million to Italy, Including 27 Objects Seized From the Met

Italy has welcomed home nearly 60 looted artifacts, receiving them from U.S. authorities, who recovered around half of the objects from the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Collectively worth about $19 million, the relics were returned to the Italian authorities by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in July and September 2022, and earlier this week, were exhibited at a press conference in Rome. “For us Italians,” said Vincenzo Molinese, head of the Carabinieri art squad, “the value of these artworks, which is the value of our historic and cultural identity, is incalculable.”

Among the repatriated artifacts are a white marble bust of Roman emperor Septimius Severus, which was recovered in 2020, on the eve of it heading to auction at Christie’s New York; as well as the Marble Head of Athena, a 200 B.C.E. sculpture that was filched from a temple in central Italy, and a kylix or drinking cup, which dates back to 470 B.C.E., both among the 27 objects seized from the Met last year.

Also included is a fresco, dated to 50 C.E., depicting a young Hercules battling a snake. The work, which survived the 79 C.E. eruption of Mount Vesuvius, was looted by tomb raiders from a villa in the ancient town of Herculaneum and illegally run into the U.S. Italy first asked for its return in 1997.

All 60 objects had been variously smuggled into the U.S. over the past five decades by traffickers Giacomo Medici, Giovanni Franco Becchina, Pasquale Camera, and Edoardo Almagiá, notorious for employing local looters to pillage archaeological sites across Italy.

While their criminal enterprises were frequently in competition with one another, all four sold artifacts to Michael Steinhardt, the billionaire who’d amassed a hoard of plundered relics, including the Herculaneum fresco for $650,000 in 1995. Following a multiyear investigation into his collection and illicit collecting practices, Steinhardt received a lifetime ban from acquiring antiquities in 2021.

“These 58 pieces represent thousands of years of rich history, yet traffickers throughout Italy utilized looters to steal these items and to line their own pockets,” Alvin L. Bragg, Jr., Manhattan District Attorney, said in a statement following the return of the artifacts. “For far too long, they have sat in museums, homes, and galleries that had no rightful claim to their ownership.”

At the event in Rome, officials on both sides stressed the ongoing need to crack down on the illicit trafficking of antiquities.

With this latest repatriation, Italy’s culture minister Gennaro Sangiuliano said that Italian cultural authorities are contemplating returning the artifacts to museums located close to where they were excavated. A special exhibition of the recovered objects (Italy inaugurated a Museum of Rescued Art last year to house recovered art), he added, is also being considered.

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Did Snoop Dogg Really Buy Crypto Artworks Worth $17 Million Under the Moniker ‘Cozomo de’ Medici’?

About a month ago, a new Twitter profile was created under the name Cozomo de’ Medici, an apparent reference to Cosimo de’ Medici, the Renaissance-era patriarch of the dynastic Italian banking family. Like his namesake, the Twitter user billed themselves as a patron of the arts, but rather than trafficking in Donatellos, their passion was NFTs.

Almost overnight, Cozomo established themselves as a real player in the market, amassing a collection of CryptoPunks, Art Blocks, and other NFTs worth an estimated total value of more than $17 million. The Twitter admirers came too: thousands followed the account, where they found updates about new acquisitions peppered with nuggets of investment advice, such as: “For there is a strange, cultural ‘ponzi-nomics’ to NFTs, [where] much like contemporary art, no one wants to sell for less than the previous high price.” 

The myth grew, and quickly, as others online came to wonder about Cozomo’s real identity. Surely this was somebody of note, right?

Speculators soon got their answer. On September 20, Cozomo announced a contest to reveal who was behind the account. A celebrity, the anonymous figure explained, would publicly claim the Cozomo name on Twitter, and the first person to spot the tweet would be gifted 1 ETH, worth roughly $3,000. 

“I am @CozomoMedici,” rapper Snoop Dogg tweeted later that day, ending the mystery and sending the crypto-community into a tizzy.

In a way, it made sense: the seemingly bottomless supply of cash, the Medici bit, the bizarre courtly air of the tweets. Snoop—given name Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr.—is predictably unpredictable, and belovedly so. He’s also proven to be a hungry investor, backing tech businesses, plant-based food companies, and ​​cannabis startups through his venture capital firm Casa Verde.

But then again, maybe it makes too much sense—an elaborate troll job neatly packaged in a little Twitter flimflam?

At least that’s the theory some online are now pursuing. VICE recently broke down all the holes in the Snoop story, comparing the geo-tags of the rapper’s social media photos to those of Cozomo, who appears to spend a lot of time in Italy. The NFT influencer also once tweeted out a photo of himself with fellow collector Jason Derulo on the shores of Lake Como. Both of their faces were covered with avatars, but it’s clear which one was Derulo and which one was not, and the one who was not was…well, it wasn’t Snoop.

D-O-Double G or not, this modern-day Medici is sitting on an impressive hoard of crypto artworks. In addition to Punks and Art Blocks, they own a Cai Guo-Qiang NFT and recently acquired a character piece by artist XCOPY for 1,300 ETH, or about $3.9 million—which should ensure the fickle art world’s continued attention.

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Sotheby’s Is Suing a Miami Couple for Consigning Millions of Dollars Worth of Allegedly Fake Diego Giacometti Works

Sotheby’s is suing two Florida consignors and an auction house they own for nearly $7 million after several pieces of furniture and decorative art purported to be by Diego Giacometti allegedly turned out to be fake.

The seven works were sold in separate sales over the course of 2016 and 2017. A handwriting expert determined that the provenance documents the consignors submitted with the lots were forged, according to the lawsuit.

Having canceled the sales and refunded the money to the respective buyers, Sotheby’s now wants the consignors—Frederic Thut, his wife Bettina Von Marnitz Thut, and their business, Fine Art Auctions of Miami (FAAM) —to return their proceeds as well.

The Thuts could not be immediately reached for comment and emails to the Miami auction house did not receive a reply.

As part of a “brazen fraudulent scheme,” according to Sotheby’s, Frederic Thut claimed to have purchased a large trove of works, supposedly by Diego Giacometti, brother of the world-renowned sculptor Alberto Giacometti.

Thut then consigned the works to his own auction houses “with no disclosure concerning his own ownership interest in the works.” The lots were then purchased by Thut’s wife, who soon thereafter consigned them to Sotheby’s at far higher estimates than their sales prices at FAAM, according to the complaint.

Sotheby’s said it discovered the works were counterfeit in 2018 after one of the buyers enlisted an expert, Denis Vincenot, who works closely with the artist’s estate and deemed the purported Giacometti works inauthentic. The auction house claims that Von Marnitz Thut was required to return any proceeds paid to her in connection with the sale once it was canceled.

By its own admission, Sotheby’s initially pushed back on the findings, citing the “strength” of the provenance documents the Thuts had provided. Those included letters from the legendary New York dealer Pierre Matisse and from Serge Matta, brother of Surrealist painter Roberto Matta, as well as a certificate of authenticity by James Lord, author of a book about Alberto Giacometti.

But Sotheby’s employees changed their minds after hiring a handwriting expert. The consultant concluded that the documents purportedly written by Matisse were inconsistent with samples sourced from his archives in the Morgan Library. It was also found that the Matisse, Matta, and Lord documents were all written by the same hand. Finally, the presence of counterfeit protection system coding in the letterhead was introduced to all printers in the 1990s, and therefore could not have appeared in 1982, when the letters were dated.

“Sotheby’s had engaged the handwriting expert to convince Vincenot of the authenticity of defendants’ consignments,” reads the complaint, “only to learn that the documents supposedly proving the provenance were themselves forgeries.”

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