Johannes Vermeer, The Allegory of Faith (ca. 1670-72), oil on canvas, 45″ x 35″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
* * *
The Allegory of Faith (ca. 1670–72) is the Vermeer painting no one likes to talk about. At least that’s the consensus amongst those of us who regularly visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in order to commune with Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca. 1662) and Study of a Young Woman (ca. 1665–67)—staples of the collection that encapsulate everything we hold dear about the most evanescent of Dutch Masters. Turning to The Allegory of Faith hanging nearby, we continue to marvel at the artist’s crystalline technique even as the heart drops in response to its stilted imagery. Vermeer’s avowal of religious principle is encumbered by ham-handed symbolism, melodramatic beyond the call of duty. Who could find anything redeemable in this monumental lapse of magic, in such cluttered and over-the-top hokum? Trevor Winkfield, that’s who.
In Georges Braque & Others: The Selected Art Writings of Trevor Winkfield, 1990–2009, Winkfield declares The Allegory of Faith as nothing less than Vermeer’s “greatest achievement.” Citing the picture’s “suppressed manic overtones,” Winkfield elaborates on “the hilarity of [Vermeer’s] amateur operatic performance”:
As the eye ricochets from one object to another to the other, a veritable connect-the-dots constellation of spheres and curves emerges, starting with [the title figure’s] beady eyes.
Writing an encomium to a picture that’s long been dismissed as a minor effort—the Met itself gently chastises The Allegory of Faith by calling it “atypical”—might seem a post-modernist jape, but Winkfield isn’t out to glorify kitsch. He takes the painting seriously. Reading on, he adroitly guides us through the intricacies of the painting, culminating in “one of the most voluptuous objects in Dutch art”: the globe on which Faith has placed her foot. Okay, well—that globe is something special. Maybe the same could be said about the painting in which it appears? Disagree all you want with the “excitement” Winkfield divines in The Allegory of Faith; there’s no doubting he has looked at the picture with a penetrating and appreciative eye.
Lubin Baugin, Still-life with Chessboard (The Five Senses) (1630), oil on wood, 55 cm. x 73 cm.; courtesy Musée du Louvre, Paris
* * *
A painter’s eye, actually. Though not a household name (and keeping in mind that fame is rarely a reliable barometer of artistic worth), Winkfield has garnered an ardent following for his paintings—kaleidoscopic pictures that combine playing card iconography, Neo-plasticist rigor, Dadaist disjunction, and unapologetic cheek. While Winkfield has made New York City home since 1969, his British roots are palpable in all his work—whether sitting at the keyboard or ensconced in the studio, his eccentricity is front-and-center. As such, he’s prone to particular, not to say “private,” enthusiasms and is keenly attuned to artists who are idiosyncratic or little known. Florine Stettheimer, Gerald Murphy, and Albert Pinkham Ryder are favorites, as is “the tortoise that wins,” Myron Stout. Have you heard of the seventeenth-century French painter Lubin Baugin? Neither had I, but after reading Winkfield’s thoughts on Baugin’s still-lifes, you’ll want to see them—like, now.
Winkfield is a convincing writer, even when he dedicates time to subjects of quizzical merit—not just The Allegory of Faith, but Marcel Duchamp, Paul Signac, and Jasper Johns. Winkfield is acute enough in his observations to prompt second thoughts on these and other subjects. Conversational and witty, biting when necessary, and generous when deserving, Winkfield is a rarity: an art critic whose prose is a pleasure to read. Neither as terse as Fairfield Porter or as frothy as Henry McBride, Winkfield nevertheless recalls both in his independence and clarity. He has little patience for received pieties. After likening Abstract Expressionism to a “garrulous uncle whose bulky form hogs both fireplace and conversation,” he concludes that it should be considered “a transitory phenomenon and not the be-all and end-all of a national aesthetic.” Winkfield dismisses as “piffle” the notion of art’s immortality, describes the Last Supper as “one of Leonardo’s most boring conceptions,” and bemoans the Victorians’ use of oil paint: “it had to be battered into the slickness of an illustration for them to understand it.”
* * *
Failed art lends itself more readily to words than good art, so it’s a measure of Winkfield’s literary abilities that he’s at his best when waxing enthusiastic. An encompassing sense of historical, biographical, and aesthetic measure is brought to each essay, all without sacrificing an engaging bonhomie. Winkfield’s gift for the turn of phrase—for the sound, as well as the sense of words—is delightful and sharp. Gerald Murphy could “evoke melting butter on a pewter plate” simply by painting a wedge of yellow. Braque’s late Studio paintings “are illuminated only by calcium shafts of moonlight.” Chardin “delved into the personality of a plum more astutely than anyone before him.” In an unforgettable commendation, Graham Sutherland’s landscapes are described as so “densely umbrageous we might be staring at the lining of a bowel.” It is at moments like these—chatty yet incisive, slightly off-kilter and deeply perceptive—that Georges Braque and Others establishes itself as that rarest of animals: an indispensable addition to the corpus of art criticism.
© 2014 Mario Naves
This review originally appeared in the October 2014 edition of The New Criterion.
* * *
. . . from the custodial staff at MOMA/P.S.1
October 26, 2014–March 8, 2015
Courtyard and 2nd Floor Main Galleries
LONG ISLAND CITY, NY, September 12, 2014—MoMA PS1 presents Bob and Roberta Smith’s Art Amnesty from October 26, 2014, to March 8, 2015.
Bob and Roberta Smith are issuing a call to Artists. Pack it in. Bob and Roberta Smith are delighted to offer an Amnesty for your Bad Art. Turn in your brushes and video cameras. Hand in your chisels and marble.
Bob and Roberta Smith are offering an opportunity for artists to dispose of their artwork at MoMA PS1, and to retire from making art. Beginning October 2, artists are invited to deposit their art in dumpsters located in the museum’s courtyard, which will be emptied as needed throughout the period of the Art Amnesty. Those who wish to exhibit their work one final time before it is destroyed may bring their art to the 2nd Floor Main Galleries, where museum staff will install it for public view. The museum will accept work under the Art Amnesty during regular hours, subject to certain restrictions that will be published at momaps1.org. The exhibition reprises and expands upon their Art Amnesty originally presented at Pierogi Gallery in 2002.
As part of the Art Amnesty, the Smiths will also make available a pledge form at the museum that can be signed by any artist or member of the public: I PROMISE NEVER TO MAKE ART AGAIN. Those who commit themselves will receive an official I AM NO LONGER AN ARTIST badge designed by Bob and Roberta Smith, and shall be invited to create one final drawing for inclusion in the Art Amnesty gallery exhibition, using materials provided onsite. Those wishing simply to discard a work will be asked to sign a pledge that reads I NEVER WANT TO SEE THIS WORK OF ART AGAIN.
While the Art Amnesty provides an occasion for artists to clear out their studios, it also serves other needs. Those who have been the victims of gifts of art, for example, are invited to dispose of these unwanted aesthetic presents at the museum. And as the Smiths note, “Many successful artists have recently voiced embarrassment that their work commands high prices. Artists may also use the opportunity of the Art Amnesty to expel certain works of art from the art market and demote them to objects unburdened by grand expectations and dashed dreams.” The Smiths will be the first to contribute to the Art Amnesty, discarding a batch of work previously exhibited in New York.
Wassily Kandinsky, circa 1913
* * *
The following essay originally appeared in the December 2009 edition of The New Criterion.
The Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) occupies a pioneering role in the modernist canon. He was among a handful of artists who first ventured into abstraction. Pure abstraction, that is: Picasso and Braque, while delving into the headier precincts of Synthetic Cubism, had already made pictures with relationships to observed phenomena that were, if not exactly strained, then tenuous. But it was left to figures like Kandinsky to jettison representation altogether. Given the skepticism with which abstraction was greeted at the time, such a pursuit betokened sensibilities made bold (or reckless) by their aesthetic convictions.
Kandinsky’s radical achievement is the subject of a sweeping retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Kandinsky is, among other things, a reminder that retrospectives don’t always shine a generous light on their subjects. What’s striking about the six signature abstractions installed toward the exhibition’s beginning isn’t their sophistication, but the manner in which that sophistication was misprised. In arrays of wiry lines, random puffs of color, and pinched, convulsive rhythms, the paintings struggle against their own pretensions.
The paintings exude a certain fervor, but not the kind that emanates from exquisitely honed compositions. Kandinsky was an adherent of Theosophy, a mish-mosh of mystical bromides made influential by Madame Blavatsky, the self-proclaimed practitioner of levitation, clairvoyance, and other sideshow hijinks. It was Kandinsky’s artistic goal to evoke this immateriality prized by Theosophists. The Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, another follower of the hermetical Madame, wrote that if an artist is “to approach the spiritual … [he] will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual.” Escaping the tangible world was the Theosophical artist’s highest calling.
* * *
As Kandinsky writes in Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911):
“A painter, who finds no satisfaction in mere representation, however artistic, in his longing to express his inner life, cannot but envy the ease with which music, the most non-material of the arts today, achieves this end. He naturally seeks to apply the methods of music to his own art. And from this results that modern desire for rhythm in painting, for mathematical, abstract construction, for repeated notes of color, for setting color in motion.
“This borrowing of method by one art from another, can only be truly successful when the application of the borrowed methods is not superficial but fundamental. One art must learn first how another uses its methods, so that the methods may afterwards be applied to the borrower’s art from the beginning, and suitably. The artist must not forget that in him lies the power of true application of every method, but that that power must be developed.
In manipulation of form music can achieve results which are beyond the reach of painting. On the other hand, painting is ahead of music in several particulars. Music, for example, has at its disposal duration of time; while painting can present to the spectator the whole content of its message at one moment.”
Oil paint, in its fleshy malleability, is intensely material, and paintings are physical objects with an adamant stake in the here and now. How did abstraction enable painters to navigate the conundrums posed by Theosophy? In The Triumph of Modernism, Hilton Kramer divines the crucial role Theosophy played in the development of Kandinsky’s vision. Kramer writes of how, “in the realm of art at least, a silly idea may sometimes form the basis of a serious accomplishment”:
“Theosophy supplied a systematic cosmology to which the new abstract art could readily attach itself. For the pioneers of abstraction were as eager to have their art ‘represent’ something—even, in some special sense, to have it represent ‘nature’—as the most academic realist, and theosophy gave them a meaningful world beyond the reach of appearances to ‘represent’ in a new way. Thus, abstraction can be said to have made its historic debut as an esoteric form of representational art. Art for art’s sake had nothing to do with the advent of abstraction. It was a means to an end.”
Comprised of close to one hundred paintings and over sixty works on paper, “Kandinsky” will likely define his achievement for the next few generations—or, at least, until the Guggenheim feels it necessary to re-celebrate the artist who is its sine qua non. Originally known as The Museum of Non-Objective Painting, the Guggenheim was founded on the spiritualist aspirations exemplified by Kandinsky’s paintings. Solomon R. Guggenheim collected over one hundred and fifty of them on the advice of his friend, the painter and connoisseur Hilla Rebay. As the museum’s first director, Rebay underscored Kandinsky’s predominance by devoting permanent galleries to the work. The curators of “Kandinsky” have keyed into the special relationship between artist and institution—it’s right there to deduce from the show’s smart selective pacing, nuance, and range.
Wassily Kandinsky, Moscow I (1916), oil on canvas, 59.5 x 49.5 cm.; courtesy The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
* * *
Kandinsky began painting at the age of thirty. A student of law, economics, and statistics at the University of Moscow, he was on track for a life in academia,when inspiration or, rather, inspirations struck. Attending a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin and seeing Monet’s Haystack paintings in 1896 confirmed Kandinsky’s artistic longings, but it was a Moscow sunset that put him over the top. Marveling at “the garish green of the grass, the deeper tremolo of the trees, the singing snow with its thousand voices or the allegretto of the bare branches, the red, stiff silent ring of the Kremlin walls,” the disaffected law student concluded: “To paint this hour, I thought, must be for an artist the most impossible, the greatest joy.” Kandinsky did, in fact, paint an almost literal transcription of this euphoric scenario twenty years later in Moscow I (1916).
Kandinsky’s turn to abstraction is set out with clear, inevitable logic. The exhibition begins with Colorful Life (1907), a storybook vista whose Byzantine composition and clusters of jewel-like color recall, respectively, Art Nouveau and Hinterglas Bilder, a form of folk painting done on glass. Kandinsky brought the same palette, albeit applied in larger swatches, to the landscapes and fairy tale fragments featuring princes, horses, and castles he painted upon moving to Germany in 1908. The saturated colors, flurries of brushstrokes, and increasingly roughhewn structures typical of the work done in Munich and Murnau are textbook examples of Expressionism, the highly charged style developed and propounded by Der Blaue Reiter, an artists’ group founded by Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Alexei von Jawlensky, and other notables.
Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 19 (1911), oil on canvas, 120 x 141.5 cm.; courtesy Stadtische Galerie im Lebenbachhaus, Munich, Germany
* * *
Kandinsky veered away from recognizable imagery around 1911. Forms become less defined and concrete; space is rendered kaleidoscopic, turbulent, and bottomless. Kandinsky’s symbols can be relatively clear-cut: the elegant couple out for a stroll with their dog in Impression VI (Sunday) or the towering onlookers in Improvisation 19 (both 1911). At other times, a loping collection of black lines and color patches suggests, rather than delineates, a galloping horse or a mountain range. Two years later, not even a subtitle—Moscow, say—can codify a turbulent expanse of pictorial incident. Experience had been denatured into pure sensation. The “spiritual in art” had been realized.
But at what cost? Abstraction is now a stylistic trope in a culture overrun with them; its revolutionary character resides largely in period documentation. It is difficult, at this date, to appreciate the risk inherent in Kandinsky’s art. But risky it was: Consider his enemies. Though Kandinsky achieved positions of pre-eminence in the cultural bureaucracies of Communist Russia—he had returned to his homeland in 1914—Kandinsky was eventually pegged as “bourgeois” and fired on charges of being “an emigrant.” Returning to Germany, he found his pictures lumped under the Nazis’ “degenerate” rubric. Kandinsky’s art was anathema to the twentieth century’s two most pernicious political regimes. Abstraction was a dicey pursuit.
Outside of their historical context, however, Kandinsky’s paintings lose power. Essentially drawings embellished with arbitrary rushes of color, Kandinsky’s iconic abstractions scrabble for a uniformity that’s never forthcoming. Shapes and rhythms, lines and brushstrokes scrunch toward the center of each composition and fizzle toward its edges. A veritable rainbow is spread over the surfaces with staccato insistence, but it doesn’t amplify or generate much in the way of spatial complexity or intrigue. And forget about light: With rare exceptions—the Guggenheim’s Black Lines (1913) is a sparkling case in point—Kandinsky’s variegated palette resulted in musty hodgepodges of pigment.
* * *
During his sojourn in Russia, Kandinsky came under the influence of Constructivism; as a consequence, his jangled conglomerations of line, symbol, and geometry began to tighten and focus. Expressionism gave way to something controlled in its process if not in its ultimate effect. By the time he returned to Germany in 1922 for a teaching stint at the Bauhaus, Kandinsky’s approach was, by and large, commensurate with the school’s rigorous aesthetic. Contours became finite, surfaces uninflected, forms were rendered punchy and graphic—the paintings exhibit the influence of his friend and colleague Paul Klee. Unlike the Swiss master, Kandinsky couldn’t reconcile (or pressurize) his iconography within the picture’s frame. The picture plane was merely a container of images, rather than a vital participant in their realization.
Kandinsky’s lack of concern with a format’s perimeters poses less of a problem in the works on paper. Ensconced in one of the museum’s tower galleries, Kandinsky’s watercolor and India ink pieces are the most engaging incarnations of his vision. In them, Kandinsky’s totemic diagrams are at home; the small scale renders his otherworldly portentousness modest, notational, and approachable. Plumes of sprayed color—usually a dusky haze of rust-brown—are predominant and provide a unifying environment wherein Kandinsky’s emblems can convincingly teeter, totter, and, in the ethereal Into the Dark (1928), ascend with grave purpose.
The final ramp of the Guggenheim is devoted to the work Kandinsky created in Nazi-occupied France, where he resided in the final years of his life. The paintings done in Paris are ornamental inventories of Surrealist-inspired motifs. With their candied pastels and Miró-like blips and blobs—the Spaniard was a close friend—the pictures are delightfully scattershot in demeanor and clean in resolution. The best of them, Succession (1935), trots out an array of biomorphic forms and does so without apology. It’s as if Kandinsky, freed from the challenges of invention, was having fun for the first time in his life. The free-floating whimsy of Around the Circle (1940) and Various Actions (1941) are winning enough that you can forgive their cornball hieroglyphics and irresolute compositions.
Wassily Kandinsky, Various Actions (1941), oil on canvas, 35-1/8″ x 45-3/4″; courtesy The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
* * *
All the same, the Surrealist impulse in Kandinsky’s late work is curiously anemic—vivifying maybe but, ultimately, insignificant. Of the French paintings, Kramer astutely notes that they were “not a conversion to Surrealism, but a struggle to move into the orbit of Surrealist freedom.” Kandinsky’s biomorphs are singularly devoid of any existential correlative. The impulse to poetic fantasy is strongly and repeatedly expressed, but it seems to lack any real roots in the artist’s experience. In the end, Kandinsky’s concept of the “spiritual” was too bloodless perhaps, too metaphysical and otherworldly, to permit him to become the kind of erotic poet he saw triumphantly at work in Miró. We are given the design of an imaginary universe, but not the thing itself.
“Without a specific and profound spiritual content,” Kramer goes on to say, “Kandinsky felt, abstract painting would simply decline into decorative trivialities.”
One cannot dismiss Kandinsky’s achievement as “trivial,” but there is an abiding sense upon leaving the Guggenheim that his ambitions far outstripped their realization—or, instead, his ambitions muddled their realization. Kandinsky was too much in thrall to the tenets of Theosophy to transcend his own evangelical willfulness or, in the later paintings, to come out from underneath them to play. Mondrian may have been sold on Madame Blavatsky’s blather as well, but his oeuvre is rooted in the prerequisites of the studio, not in woozy hocus-pocus. The same cannot be said of Wassily Kandinsky.
© 2009 Mario Naves
Sigmar Polke, Mao (1972), synthetic polymer paint on patterned fabric mounted on felt with wooden dowel, overall: 12’3″ x 10’3-1/2″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art
* * *
A version of this article originally appeared in the May 3, 1999 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010 at The Museum of Modern Art. Additional thoughts about Polke can be found here.
It’s been said that anyone approaching the contemporary art scene, with its bewildering array of styles and attitudes, should do so with an open mind. All the same, there are events so incredulous that one is reminded of the old joke about the guy who was so open-minded his brains fell out. Such is the case with Sigmar Polke: Works on Paper, 1963-1974 at The Museum of Modern Art.
It should be understood that Mr. Polke (born 1941), a German artist who came of age during the 1960s, is considered one of the era’s defining figures. Not every painter is feted with a show at the premier museum of twentieth-century art, as well as concurrent exhibitions at prestigious galleries like Michael Werner and Knoedler & Company. Such treatment signals an artist of import, one whose fans are vocal and effusive. Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker, posited Mr. Polke as “the artist who rescued painting”. Margit Rowell, chief curator of drawings at MoMA and organizer of Works on Paper, declares in the accompanying catalogue that Mr. Polke’s art “regenerate[s] the language and meaning of Western artistic experience.” In The New York Times, Roberta Smith peppered her review with adjectives like “astounding” and “engrossing”.
* * *
Given the earth-shaking tenor of such kudos, you might think that Mr. Polke’s accomplishment stood alongside that of the Old Masters. Ms. Rowell does go on to suggest that Mr. Polke is, in spirit, a late 20th-century equivalent to Hieronymous Bosch. Now, Bosch painted his share of fantastic scenarios, but even these are prosaic compared to the huzzahs that have greeted Mr. Polke’s trifling art. The Polke phenomenon, if we can call it that, is the most recent manifestation of hero worship in an art world that worships the anti-heroic.
Sigmar Polke, Moderne Kunst (1968); courtesy the Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society, NY/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
* * *
Mr. Polke culls his images from commercial illustration, movie posters, newspaper photographs and comic books. When he’s not aping mass media sources, Mr. Polke flirts–or maybe “toys” is a better word–with modernist abstraction. He’s an equal opportunity aesthete: Kandinsky and kitsch, Spider-Man and Lee Harvey Oswald, it’s all the same to him. A cursory appropriator, Mr. Polke is incapable of investing an image with pictorial heft. (The MOMA show features innumerable drawings that aspire to doodle status.)
His sensibility, shaped by Pop Art and a lax nihilism, is shapeless–a non-sensibility. He’s an artist for whom art is a diversion. That the work is bereft of anything resembling traditional draftsmanship is, if we are to believe his devotees, a badge of honor–a neo-Dadaist strike against, well, whatever. Ms. Rowell writes that Mr. Polke “accorded himself a freedom from all authority except that of his own will.” Exactly. This show documents the numbing delusions of narcissism.
© 1999 Mario Naves
Anne Arnold in her New York studio, circa 1971; courtesy of Alexandre Gallery
* * *
The sculptor Anne Arnold died on June 20, 2014 at the age of 89. The following review originally appeared in the May 17, 2012 edition of City Arts.
The sculptures of Anne Arnold, on display at Alexandre Gallery, are so masterful—so pointed and witty, economically configured and nuanced—that you can’t help but wonder: Why has it been twenty-four years since this artist was last graced with a solo exhibition?
Read the catalogue accompanying Anne Arnold: Sculpture from Four Decades and you’ll get an idea. Both veteran curator Chris Crosman and critic John Yau make a point of Arnold’s “singular position in American sculpture”—that is to say, how the work sits firmly aside the run of –isms that typify the usual telling of post-war American art. You know the routine: Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Post-Modernism, etc., etc. and blah, blah, blah. What to do with an artist whose vision touches lightly, if at all, on these blue-chip precedents and, instead, goes its own blessed way?
You hope that the Alexandre show will dismantle “preconceptions about what ‘important’ art means” and that it “broadens our sense of history, progress in art, and what we consider modern.” The sophistication of Arnold’s meditations on the animal kingdom—dogs are the specialty, but her empathy and know-how extend to pigs, rabbits, cats and hippos—will be plain to anyone with the eye to see it. And there’s the rub: Arnold’s achievement is predicated on the visual and not on extra-aesthetic rationales or, as Crosman has it, the “self-consciously ‘radical’”.
But Arnold’s art is radical—radically humane. Only a temperament in tune with sensibilities outside of her own—in fact, outside of her own species—could contrive personages as true and soulful as these. Don’t be fooled by the work’s accessibility and charm. It’s a sculptor of stringent gifts and focus that could pull off pieces like Ohno (Skunk) (1974-75) or Gretchen (Dachshund) (1978) without devolving into a cloying, folksy mannerism.
Which isn’t to say Arnold’s art doesn’t benefit from being accessible and charming. Viewers who don’t take instantaneous delight upon encountering Arnold’s work should check for a pulse—or a sense of humor. Delight is deepened upon realizing how seamlessly Arnold absorbs a cross-historical range of inspiration—from early dynastic Egypt and the Aztec Empire to American “primitives” and Russian Constructivism. But it is in direct experience, both in the barnyard and without, that Arnold’s art finds its locus and generates its abundant pleasures.
© 2012 Mario Naves
Trevor Winkfield, Her Pines, His Pineapple (2005), acrylic on linen, 24-1/4″ x 32-1/4″; courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery
* * *
My review of Georges Braque & Others: The Selected Writings of Trevor Winkfield, 1990-2009, published by The Song Cave, will be appearing in an upcoming issue of The New Criterion. In the meantime, here’s a piece on Winkfield the painter from the November 1, 1999 edition of The New York Observer.
The painter Trevor Winkfield is, in more ways than one, an oddity. In an art world overpopulated by careerists with a gimmick and theorists with a beef, Mr. Winkfield has steadfastly pursued his art without recourse to formula or fashion. At a time when glib appropriations of popular culture permeate almost every facet of contemporary art, Mr. Winkfield transforms pop-inflected imagery into something personal and rooted. In a gallery scene renowned for its sophomoric high jinks, Mr. Winkfield’s art is endowed with a wit that is keen and dry.
His work looks nothing like the major art we’ve come to expect from the standard surveys of late twentieth-century culture. Mr. Winkfield’s pictures can, in fact, look marginal. Yet he’s one of our most distinctive painters. Which goes to prove that the margins are where the action is.
Walking into an exhibition of Mr. Winkfield’s paintings is to enter a dotty and rambunctious cosmos. It is a world that is as complex as it is concentrated as it is comical. The paintings are absurd and logical, dizzying and sober, nostalgic and up-to-date. They remind us of how uncommon true artistic vision is.
In describing Mr. Winkfield’s canvases, one is tempted to dust off the cliche of “everything but the kitchen sink.” This metaphor, however, is wanting and wrong. In Mr. Winkfield’s pictures, no object or motif is superfluous. Each of the artist’s heraldic doohickeys, however transmuted, has a formal and iconographic import. There’s not a wasted moment in his paintings, even if every moment is a veritable cornucopia of flux and incident. For all I know, the artist has given the kitchen sink an indispensable place in his oeuvre.
Trevor Winkfield, Frolic II (2009), acrylic on linen, 12″ x 12″; courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery
* * *
Winkfield’s canvases are hard-edged and clean, colorful and cartoonish. They’re divided into abutting geometric planes, within which a trans-historical array of stuff rollicks and tilts. Tubes of paint, ice cream cones, brushes, fish, pipes, beakers filled with color, postcards, bubbles, books and kitsch landscapes are a few of the items featured in the artist’s absurdist dioramas.
A Winkfield canvas may resemble some kind of arcane game board; another may recall a stash of notes, photos and oddments affixed to a refrigerator door or the wall of an artist’s studio. Imagine the archetypal depictions of royalty in a deck of cards put through a slicer-dicer along with Kasimir Malevich, Yellow Submarine, children’s book illustrations, healthy dollops of Dada and Surrealism and one gets a hint of what Mr. Winkfield’s art entails. He makes precise enchantments out of cosmopolitan clutter.
Mr. Winkfield delineates his topsy-turvy compendiums with a patently emphatic touch. When he approximates the grainy texture of a newspaper photograph, it’s not only a play on the quotidian nature of everyday images, but a droll addendum to his distilled and deliberate paint handling. Mr. Winkfield orchestrates his imagery within a kaleidoscopic structure that amplifies its pictorial punning. In Ice Cream (1999), he transforms a Suprematist scaffolding into a lumbering drizzle of rain. The artist’s jokes expand geometrically and take on unexpected guises. Mr. Winkfield’s style doesn’t settle for one-liners.
Trevor Winkfield, The Gallery (2012), acrylic on canvas, 49″ x 44″; courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery
* * *
Mr. Winkfield has sharpened his art by all but becoming an abstract painter. It’s evident that he’s profited from looking at classic geometric abstraction, although what Mr. Winkfield does with neo-plasticism (and color) would have given Mondrian conniptions. The recent still-life paintings are his most integrated and accomplished canvases.
This doesn’t mean that he’s immune to the occasional dud. Studio Still Life (1999) is a flat-footed cataloguing of curiosities, and Mr. Winkfield’s less complicated images feel designed rather than inhabited. But pictures like Ice Cream, Trophy (both 1999) and Still Life With Fish II (1998) hold tight without sacrificing an iota of Mr. Winkfield’s discombobulated vigor. The artist’s maturing powers as a painter have bolstered his art by forsaking bits-and-pieces specificity for the fulsomeness of an encompassing whole.
In Mr. Winkfield’s paintings we get a reflection, albeit as seen through a fun house mirror, of our own overextended epoch. Mr. Winkfield isn’t necessarily s a history painter, but who could fail to recognize the pace and fragmentation of the late 20th century in these rebus-like pictures? And who doesn’t recognize the delightfully befuddling logic Mr. Winkfield has made of it?
His elaborate tinkerings with history, culture and memory encapsulate our chaotic era while pointing forward, looking back and getting sidetracked by bizarre and revealing byways. Mr. Winkfield’s is an art of reach, optimism and cheek.
© 1999 Mario Naves
A version of this article originally appeared in the November 1, 1999 edition of The New York Observer.
Installation of Life and Death: Still Lifes and Select Masterworks of Chaim Soutine at Paul Kasmin Gallery; courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery
* * *
The following article was originally published in the June 1998 edition of The New Criterion and is posted here on the occasion of Life and Death: Still Lifes and Select Masterworks of Chaim Soutine at Paul Kasmin Gallery (until June 14).
Walking through the exhibition An Expressionist in Paris: The Paintings of Chaim Soutine, I was put in mind of the philosopher Susanne K. Langer and her book Problems of Art, published in 1957. In a chapter titled “Expressiveness,” Langer differentiates between “the expression of feeling in a work of art” and self-expression. For Langer, expressiveness is experience given shape and vitality through the artist’s realization of form. “What [the artist] expresses,” she writes, “is … not his own actual feelings, but what he knows about human feeling.” The jumble of life, then, is not explicated but made recognizable and whole. Langer adds that this “knowledge may actually exceed his entire personal experience.” In contrast, she brusquely likens self-expression to a crying baby. Giving precedence to the artist’s psychological disposition, self-expression surrenders the artwork’s structural logic. That such logic reinforces the aesthetic—and, yes, emotive— capabilities of a work of art is lost on those who make self-expression their métier. Cézanne, for example, may have been a cold fish, but could anyone dispute the “expressiveness” of his paintings?
The paintings of Chaim Soutine (1893–1943) exemplify the dilemma of self-expression. I don’t mean to imply that his oeuvre is equivalent to a child wailing for its mother. Soutine’s work is, after all, credible and handsome. Yet it is rarely moving—at least, in a way that we feel we should be moved by it. Visitors to An Expressionist in Paris will, certainly, exit the show with a definite impression of Soutine’s art. Soutine’s imagery—with its page boys, pastry cooks, and carcasses—is forceful. The work’s tangled surfaces, heated colors, and roiling brushwork will leave their mark. Not a few viewers will ruminate on the instability of Soutine’s psyche and recall him as an artist given to violent emotions. Such observations have merit. But how many viewers will find themselves engaged with the paintings half as deeply as Soutine was himself? How many would want to go that far? My guess is very few. For what defines Soutine as an artist is a striving for catharsis that remained unfulfilled.
The last time New York saw a retrospective of Soutine’s work was at the Museum of Modern Art in 1950. An Expressionist in Paris will, in all probability, be the only opportunity a generation will get to see the work in depth. As such, it is a superlative chance to acquaint oneself with the paintings of this fierce, if problematic, artist. In an age of blockbusters one is tempted to remark that the exhibit includes a “mere” fifty-six paintings. Curators Norman L. Kleeblatt and Kenneth E. Silver, however, make their case for Soutine with uncommon diligence. Kleeblatt and Silver posit Soutine as a “liminal” figure—an outsider both in relation to the European avant-garde and as a Jew in Paris. More importantly, they celebrate his paintings as painting. Given the luxuriant nature of Soutine’s art, any other approach would be tantamount to fraud.
Chaim Soutine, Plucked Goose (1932-33), oil on panel, 19-1/4″ x 16-1/2″; courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery
* * *
An Expressionist in Paris is divided into three sections, each devoted to a different critical interpretation of Soutine’s art. We are led through galleries featuring Soutine the primitive, the master painter, and, finally, the prophet—prophet, that is, of Abstract Expressionism. It is debatable whether such categories add to our appreciation of Soutine’s work. As topics for inquiry, they are better suited to a catalogue essay than to the arrangement of pictures, which is likely to result in a misrepresentation of the art. The installation, however, underplays the regimentation of the exhibition’s thesis. Even so, the show is somewhat misleading. It ends, for example, with a gallery of landscapes. They are among Soutine’s most emphatic pieces and make for a knock-out finale, but the paintings date from the early 1920s. Works that post-date them are included in the beginning and mid-point of the exhibition. Accustomed as we are to chronological surveys of artists’s careers, An Expressionist in Paris leaves us with a misleading assessment of Soutine’s progress as an artist.
Then again, how important is a straightforward assessment of Soutine’s progress? In her catalogue essay, “The Late Works: Regression or Resolution?,” Esti Dunow considers the distinctions between Soutine’s early and late work. Until I read it, however, I had not given Soutine’s development a second thought. The show’s tripartite structure doesn’t, as one might suppose, cloud Soutine’s maturation as a painter; rather, it divulges the constancy of his vision. One could speak of pictures that are more composed—or, should one say, less frenzied?—than others. This might lead to an analysis of how he approached his chosen art form at different times in his life. But Soutine, in a sense, came to us whole. An Expressionist in Paris reveals an artist both self-confident and monomaniacal. There is no sense of evolution or exploration to the work. His is an art without scope. Soutine’s paintings are flawed by the tortuous confines of his own world view.
A friend once stated that Edward Hopper was a great artist but a so-so painter. The converse is true for Soutine: he was a so-so artist but a great painter. Soutine avoided the theatrics typical of Expressionist art. He achieved this feat chiefly through his extraordinary gift as a paint handler. Who can doubt his love of oils? Soutine’s scraping, dabbing, dotting, and slashing of paint is fervent and expert. The blouse of the reclining woman in Siesta (c. 1934) and the frock of The Pastry Cook (c. 1927) have enough gusto to sustain an entire painting. In Soutine’s pictures, the world is rendered as flesh. People, animals, houses, hills, and kettles all share the same membranelike skin. Consequently, the images have a fragility, as if they were capable of being bruised. Yet even when a flurry of brushstrokes approaches the hysterical—as in Group of Trees (c. 1922)—we never question its veracity. Soutine’s French Expressionism makes German Expressionism look thin and mannered. It reminds us that what we may admire about, say, Ernst Kirchner is not his passion, but, rather, his style.
* * *
Soutine’s authenticity does, however, have its limits. The paintings are unremitting. However breathtaking their surfaces, bravado alone cannot compensate for the one-note character of the work. And what a note! Each painting is pitched at such a level of intensity that one is grateful for the respite offered by a negligible work like Young English Girl (c. 1934). Oddly, though, the work doesn’t grate. We savor each painting’s sumptuousness, but remain distanced from raw emotionality. A wall label informs us that “Soutine’s painting was the residue of a ‘process’ in which the artist seemed to lose all sense of self in the ecstatic moment of creation.” I don’t doubt the bit about “the ecstatic moment of creation.” But the loss of “all sense of self”? Soutine’s sense of self is omnipresent and indomitable. In painting after painting, he imposes himself on the subject. This accounts for the cloistered tenor of the work and explains why Soutine was classified, at one time, as a primitive.
That Soutine’s art had little room for anyone but the artist himself is particularly blatant in the portraits. However soulful his subjects may appear—whether it be the village idiot or Madeleine Castaing, Soutine’s patron—they remain anonymous. Rembrandt may have been his hero, but Soutine lacked the Dutch Master’s empathy. Soutine blanketed his rage onto the sitter. The portraits, ultimately, have nothing to do with the other person and everything to do with Soutine. The two finest portraits in the exhibition are atypical. No one would mistake Portrait of a Man (Emil Lejeune) (c. 1922–23) or Woman in Red (c. 1923–24) for works by anyone else but Soutine. Both are characteristically stormy with contorted figures made up of so much Silly Putty. They are also, however, real people. Looking at the supercilious expression on Monsieur Lejeune’s face, one gets a good idea of how highly he esteemed himself. One gets a good idea of what Soutine thought of him, too. This give-and-take is rare in his work.
Soutine captured more personality with the title figures of Still Life with Herrings (c. 1916), and, in fact, dead animals gave rise to some of Soutine’s lushest painting. But his best paintings are the landscapes. Like van Gogh, an artist whom Soutine supposedly hated and without whom his art is unimaginable, Soutine found in landscape a subject pliable enough to withstand his vision. He saw in nature underlying rhythms that echoed the turbulence of his temperament. The landscapes have the sinew and sweat of a wrestling match. Trees stretch arthritically over the expanse of the canvas. Houses pulse, thrust, and dip with malevolent force. Hills are writhing masses of brawn shoved into the viewer’s space. A few of the pieces are near-abstractions, as brushstrokes snarl into clotted skeins of nubby paint. What prevents them from being too much is their pathos. Van Gogh, one feels, found solace in his cypress trees and starry nights. Soutine was not so fortunate. His paintings evince an artist arduously longing for a release that was never forthcoming. Frustration gives these tumultuous paintings their power; it also explains their marginality.
Chaim Soutine, Landscape at Céret with Red Trees (c. 1919), oil on canvas, 21-1/4″ x 25-1/2″; courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery
* * *
To come to the conclusion that Soutine was a failed artist is as unjust as claiming that he made the world safe for Francis Bacon. In our culture of diminished expectations—where, as one wag had it, Morris Louis begins to look like Michelangelo—we are likely to esteem Soutine’s struggle highly, even if that struggle remained largely unrealized. Still, the merits of his art are not all negative. His knack as a painter—a pure painter one is tempted to append—is irrefutable. That’s why a lot of us will come back to him with respect, if only for one painting at a time. Soutine, like his friend Amedeo Modigliani, will continue to rest as a minor light in the pantheon of twentieth-century artists—an honorable painter good for a modest charge. For what An Expressionist in Paris confirms is that Soutine, too, is a stylist rather than a fully rounded artist. That his work shows us what talented stylists are capable of is true enough. It also shows us why they don’t fly as high as the masters.
© 1998 Mario Naves
Jasper Johns, Regrets (2013), oil on canvas, 67″ x 96″; courtesy the Museum of Modern Art
* * *
A regular Vanity Fair column is the “Proust Questionnaire,” wherein a celebrity is asked a range of questions, the answers to which are presumably revealing if not exactly Proustian in length: Tidy quips are the norm. (The column takes off from a questionnaire Proust filled out as a precocious fifteen-year-old.) A few years back, Jasper Johns, the man who “changed the course of American painting,” was asked to participate. His answers were laconic, bemused, and without grammatical niceties like punctuation and uppercase letters. When queried as to what form he would prefer to take upon being reincarnated, Johns replied: “must I decide before I die.” Some of the replies were telling. What is your greatest regret, Mr. Johns? “An absence of clarity.”
Now we have “Jasper Johns: Regrets” at the Museum of Modern Art, an exhibition devoted to the artist’s recent efforts. That’s right: Johns’s drawings, prints, and paintings have bypassed the commercial gallery scene and been deemed “museum-ready” by no less an authority than The Behemoth of Fifty-third Street. Given Johns’s reputation and, lest we forget, the astronomical prices his work fetches at auction, how could MOMA not glad-hand the status quo? Johns is, after all, a lynchpin of the standard telling of twentieth-century art. Along with his neo-Duchampian comrade-in-arms Robert Rauschenberg, he provided the transition between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, between serious (if often overblown) attempts at tapping into the unconscious to the canny (if sometimes perspicacious) coopting of mass media.
Much has been made of the exhibition’s title-conceit and Johns’s age. How might the notion of “regret” inform the work of an eighty-three-year-old artist? Mortality and retrospection can, of course, filter their way through art. The dearth of color at MOMA intimates gravity: Gray is the rule. The source material for the new work—a circa-1964 photograph of the British painter Lucian Freud—can lead to conjecturing about how one blue chip painter considers another. But Johns is less interested in Freud—whose psycho-sexual riffs on nineteenth-century figure painting have little in common with neo-Dadaist bromides—than the photograph itself. Having been recovered from Francis Bacon’s notoriously ill-kempt studio, John Deakin’s picture is folded, spindled, and mutilated beyond repair. For Johns, the Freud portrait is like a target or a can of Savarin coffee—a peg on which to hang, and merely hang, paint.
John Deakin, Photograph of Lucian Freud (circa 1964), gelatin silver print with paper clips, 12-11/16″ x 12-11/16″ x 9/16″; courtesy the Museum of Modern Art
* * *
Deakin’s photo is included in “Regrets,” along with two sizable oil paintings by Johns, a dozen studies on paper, a suite of etchings, and a series of monoprints based on numeric stencils—the latter being the only works that don’t explicitly refer to the Freud picture. I say “explicitly” because you never know with this artist. Johns says he regrets an absence of clarity, but it’s long been his stock-in-trade. Johns’s vaunted artistic strategy—“Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”—is cited early on in a wall label. As a corrective to the hairy-chested mythopoeia of the New York School, Johns’s deadpan pedanticism presented a tongue-in-cheek alternative. But it proved no less resistant to formula than the umpteenth de Kooning knock-off. Over the years, Johns has finessed his approach through the inclusion of myriad biographical, cultural, and historical reference points. Not, however, by artistic means. Johns has trod the same sludgy ground since a dream prompted him to paint the American flag almost sixty years ago. His art has gone nowhere. Jasper Johns has been ever thus.
In most of the new work, Johns creates a mirror-image of Deakin’s photo, wherein a sizable tear at the bottom left is transformed into a centralized, monolithic form that is then topped by a skull. Freud—seen in a seedy bedroom, his face hidden by a fleeting gesture—is all but obliterated by marks that emphasize shape and material at the expense of recognizability. A range of materials is employed in delineating this superstructure—most agreeably with ink on plastic, most lugubriously with oil on canvas. In Study for Regrets (2012), the phrase “Regrets, Jasper Johns” is rubber-stamped in the upper right-hand corner. (Johns had the stamp fabricated well before conceiving the work in the current exhibition, in order to make short shrift of the myriad requests and invitations he receives.) This trope appears on a larger scale in the paintings, and its execution is just as second-hand: The phrase comes courtesy of a screen print. Elsewhere, we see Johns scribbling notes alluding to The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, and, in a welcome burst of color, an untitled watercolor is accented with saturated reds, blues, and yellows—a palette reminiscent, in no small way, of MOMA’s very own Map (1961), a signature Johns image.
Jasper Johns, Untitled (2013), watercolor on paper, 22-1/4″ x 31″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art
* * *
Count all of the above as signposts of master painters long gone (Goya), recently gone (Freud and, tangentially, Bacon), and still with us (Johns). But, really, who cares? Aesthetic engagement is prompted by an artist creating a compelling, absorbing, undeniable, and, not least, available fiction. How convincingly this is put into motion depends on a bewilderiing number of factors, primary among them formal control, material command, and a willingness to let the audience enter into the work—to share the vision. Johns’s art is confounding in that it trades in a stunningly willful brand of obfuscation. It doesn’t even allow the courtesy of a “my way or the highway” option. There is no way with Johns. Each of his abstruse rebuses is a calculated rebuff to anyone not clued into their byzantine minutiae. It’s enough to make you think that art is a mummified parlor game masquerading as intellectual provocation. Given Johns’s current stature, a lot of people, many of them influential, are content with that idea. Now that is something to regret.
© 2014 Mario Naves
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 edition of The New Criterion.
* * *
I’m pleased to have been asked to participate in The Review Panel, David Cohen’s invaluable (and often contentious) series of critical conversations about current exhibitions of contemporary art. The panel takes place on Friday, May 2nd, at the National Academy Museum. I hope you’ll be able to attend.