The Medium Itself

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Honoré Daumier, The Artist (c. 1868-70), oil on wood, 10″ x 13″; courtesy The Rheims Museum of Fine Arts

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Thanks to painter and arts writer Patrick Neal for his coverage of “Painting Matters Now”, a panel on the art of painting held last week at Pratt Institute. You’ll find Neal’s article on the invaluable arts website Hyperallergic. Thanks, as well, to Brett Baker for listing the piece on the equally invaluable Painters Table.

Simple But Not So Simple: The Art of Victor Pesce

harbor3Victor Pesce, Harbor 3 (2009), oil on canvas, 24-1/8″ x 30-1/16″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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The following essay was originally published in the catalogue accompanying Victor Pesce, a 2001 exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery and is posted here on the occasion of Victor Pesce: Selections 1978-2010 at Elizabeth Harris Gallery (April 20-July 26).

Victor Pesce paints pictures of simple things, but the pictures he paints are not so simple. Certainly, his still-life paintings are unadorned. A few pieces of fruit, a couple of bottles, a milk carton or coffee cup–that’s all he needs to pique his interest, to set the pictorial snowball rolling. These items are seen situated against flat expanses of dusky color, mottled fields which are, at the barest maximum, demarcated by a horizon line. Yet even without that line–that not-quite-Platonic table top–we read Pesce’s still-lifes as occupying space, as things that “sit.” It is with this nod to gravity that he lets us know that however spare–or, if you prefer, abstracted–his paintings may be, they are irrevocably of this world.

Pesce’s art is hard-won, but plain-spoken, roughhewn in its clarity. Although their surfaces evince a history of painterly give-and-take, the pictures themselves are absent of fuss or muss. Whether it be a bottle, a box or the stray posey, Pesce bestows upon the objects of his attention an inquisitive, just-short-of-tenacious regard. In doing so, he locates both its essence and its pith without settling decisively on either. Pesce couldn’t, in other words, care less about absolutes; “pairing down” is not the Pesce approach. So while each canvas declares that things are pretty much what they seem, it also insists that things are more than what they appear. If anything, the more Pesce focuses on a particular still life the more allusive it becomes.

pinkboxbrownwallVictor Pesce, Pink Box, Brown Wall (2007), oil on canvas, 8″ x 8″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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You see this in the nudgy relationships he divines between his subjects and the peculiar–and peculiarly stubborn–life they take on. In one painting, a quartet of lemons engages in a pokey game of courtship. In another, a duo of soda bottles huddle together awaiting a verdict. In Pesce’s hands, a brick and a rock aren’t inanimate objects, but parties who have reached a tenuous and grudging agreement. These are muted, barely discernible dramas–pivotal morsels of some unknowable narrative given a gruff independence. One could trot out the word “poetic” in describing Pesce’s transformations, yet “poetry seems too highfalutin’ a conceit for paintings as down to earth as these. What he does is closer to magic–a magic so unassuming that it barely knows its name.

blackandwhitefruitVictor Pesce, Black and White Fruit (1999), oil on canvas, 18″ x 24″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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Pesce’s is a slow art, one for which time is not only a prerequisite, but its leitmotif. Asking us to work our eye with as much forbearance as went into their making, the pictures extend a blunt, take-it-or-leave-it respect–a kind of challenge. They dare us to stop and a look and then look some more. Pesce doesn’t operate on the belief that an artist’s worth is measured by how much he co-opts a culture made breathless by technology and its efficiencies. He puts brush to canvas as a means of regaining a sense of measure and proportion, of achieving a no-nonsense wonderment. His paintings make us realize that the simple things around us aren’t as simple as we think.

© 2001 Mario Naves

Painting Matters Now: A Conversation at Pratt Institute

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I’m pleased to announce that I will be participating in Painting Matters Now: A Conversation, a panel discussion on “the challenges and rewards of being a painter today.” The other participants are Greg Drasler, John Dubrow, Laurie Fendrich and Peter Plagens; the moderator is Nancy Grimes. The event takes place at the Brooklyn campus of Pratt Institute and will be held in the Alumni Reading Room on the third floor of the library. The date? Wednesday, April 17th. The time? 6:30-8:30 p.m. Admission is free.

“Piero della Francesca in America” at The Frick Collection

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Piero della Francesca, Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels (c.1460-70), oil (and tempera?) on poplar panel, transferred to fabric on panel; courtesy The Sterling and Francine Clark Institute

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Piero della Francesca’s Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels (ca. 1460–70), once encountered, is not easily forgotten or, for that matter, absorbed. A cornerstone of The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Virgin and Child is a wildly unpredictable picture, though its stoic demeanor offsets its radical nature. There are Piero’s angels: they are, if not exactly wedged into the rectangular format, book-ended significantly within its edges, their wings offering only a hint of “escape” from the picture’s confines. Piero has increased the scale of the human form for mother and child, rendering them mountainous. A painted architectural frieze running along the top of the composition crowns the Virgin’s head, pressurizing Piero’s diorama. Space, once stated, is made shallow, stark and stage-like. Combined with the milky green pallor of the angels and Piero’s exacting geometry, Virgin and Child is revealed as a pictorial machine whose logic threatens to collapse even as it holds true.

Virgin and Child is a devotional image, of course, and its function as such is inescapable and ineradicable. Piero’s artistic liberties endow the figures with an immovable gravitas that keys into their spiritual vitality. As the centerpiece of “Piero della Francesca in America,” the Clark’s Piero is a stand-in for the lost central panel of The Sant’Agostino Altarpiece, a gilt framed edifice once situated in a church located in Piero’s birthplace, Borgo San Sepolcro. The commission took fifteen years to complete, roughly from 1454–1469, and was—if we are to believe that inveterate booster of the high renaissance, Giorgio Vasari—“highly praised” in its day. The altarpiece was dismantled in 1555. Hometown admirers of Piero’s art preserved many of the panels, but only eight are still extant—six are currently at the Frick, four being mainstays of the collection. The other paintings are borrowed from The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and Portugal’s Museo Nacional de Arte Antigua.

Piero 2Piero della Francesca, Saint Augustine (1454-69), oil and tempera on poplar panel, 53-1/3″ x 26-1/6″; courtesy Museu Nacional de Arte Antigua, Lisbon

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You can’t blame Nathaniel Silver, Guest Curator and former Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Frick, for fudging the exhibition’s geographical purview by including the Lisbon Saint Augustine (1454–69). Its original location was, after all, named for the world historical figure—that, and it’s a spectacular painting. We don’t think of Piero as a showboat, but his portrait of the church father is an almost ostentatious tour-de-force. With his salt-and-pepper beard and knitted brow, Saint Augustine cuts a dour figure—fitting for the man who maintained the importance of original sin. But contemporary viewers will be taken by the inventiveness with which Piero has delineated Augustine’s vestments. Forget the sumptuous attention paid to material verisimilitude—a tough call given the razor-edged concision with which, say, St. Augustine’s crystal staff has been delineated. Instead, it is the title figure’s miter and cope that dazzle. They are compendiums of scenes illustrating the life of Christ—paintings within a painting. Narrative function, theological authority, and pictorial clarity reach a meticulous détente. Piero was some kind of artist.

An obvious statement, perhaps, but Piero had pretty much been forgotten by the end of the sixteenth century—a hundred years after his death in 1492. (He was born circa 1415.) It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Piero was rediscovered and into the next century when Piero-mania gained momentum. No less an eminence than Bernard Berenson expressed astonishment at this newfound “mass admiration”—particularly since Berenson had, earlier in his career, felt it necessary to defend Piero’s inclusion in the Renaissance canon. Among those taken with the Italian master’s “ineloquent art” was Henry Clay Frick’s daughter, Helen. She was eager to acquire Pieros—works “unlike any other Italian art!” After much frustration, including a failed attempt to woo Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels away from the “obstinate” Robert Sterling Clark, Helen convinced the Frick’s trustees to purchase Saint John the Evangelist (1454–69) in 1936 for $400,000. Subsequent Piero additions to the collection came through museological horse-trading. When the opportunity arose to swap canvases by Cézanne and Gauguin for a discount on two Pieros, Helen did so swiftly. She did not share her father’s love of Impressionism.

Piero 4Helen Clay Frick in Belgium, August 1920; courtesy of the Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

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“Piero della Francesca in America” is, in part, an homage to the perspicacity of American collectors and, especially, the doggedness of Helen Clay Frick. Is it crass (or ungrateful) to observe that this aspect of the exhibition leaves a greater impression than the re-envisioning of The Sant’Agostino Altarpiece? The attempt to do so, while heroic, is inherently frustrating. A photographic montage seen on a wall label illustrates what Piero’s altarpiece—or significant portions of it, anyway—might have looked like. But history is ruthless and scholarship sometimes a tease. It’s a testament to the intensity of Piero’s vision that the authority of this-or-that image survives the loss of a guiding context. Still and all, anyone who manages to mount the first U.S. exhibition devoted to this seminal figure deserves kudos. So give Curator Silver a hand. We are not likely to see another such exhibition on this side of the Atlantic in our lifetimes.

© 2013 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the April 2013 edition of The New Criterion.

A Painter in Need of a Spanking: Andrew Masullo

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Andrew Masullo, 5378 (2011-2012), oil on canvas, 24″ x 20″; courtesy Mary Boone Gallery and Feature, Inc.

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The following review was originally published in the July 12, 2004 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Andrew Masullo at Mary Boone Gallery, Chelsea (until April 27).

There are artists we hate to love and artists we love to hate. Most artists don’t make a dent; nonentities rarely do. Then there are artists in need of a spanking: painters and sculptors of talent, skill and vision incapable of resisting their worst impulses. Chief on the list for corporal punishment is Andrew Masullo, whose recent paintings are at Joan T. Washburn Gallery.

Mr. Masullo partakes of a distinctly American brand of abstraction, a tradition that mines high modernist style for individualistic–that is to say, independent and eccentric–purposes. The pictures are lovingly delineated and kitsch-inflected amalgamations of organic shape and geometric pattern. Taking inspiration from the paintings of Alice Trumbull Mason, Myron Stout and Thomas Nozkowski, Mr. Masullo is as singular, rigorous and uncompromising as his predecessors. He can nip and tuck a composition with the best of them. That doesn’t prevent him from indulging in groan-inducing cutesy-pie tactics.

3Andrew Masullo, 5369 (2011), oil on canvas, 20″ x 24″; courtesy Mary Boone Gallery and Feature, Inc.

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In one canvas, he appends cartoony hands and arms onto an array of floating rectangles; in another, an iconic black circle, Malevich-like in its portent, is transformed into a Christmas ornament. All the while, his oversweetened palette makes our teeth ache. Mr. Masullo is clearly capable of standing outside of style in order to ridicule it, yet his mockery is amiable, even at times a bit dreamy. The sensibility is acidic, not malevolent–Mr. Masullo only hurts the ones he loves. Sacrificing gravity for cheap caprice, his aesthetic is rooted in the quirks of personality. Nihilism has nothing to do with it.

How willing you are to forgive Mr. Masullo the kiddie biomorphism and insouciance depends on one’s taste. Me, I enjoy his sharp wit, applaud his pictorial steadfastness and consider the excess of paintings–over 30!–a token of generosity. Not that we should be grateful for everything that runneth out of Mr. Masullo’s cup; too many of the pictures are flighty or hermetic. When he does pull one off–as in 4067 , with its spic-and-span array of stripes, or the cut-rate psychedelia of 4066 (both 2003)–you realize Mr. Masullo is a precocious nuisance you’re willing to put up with.

© 2004 Mario Naves

A Gracious Deference: The Art of Mary Lucier

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Mary Lucier, Wisconsin (2009-12) (video still); courtesy Lennon, Weinberg Inc.

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The following review was originally published in the April 1, 2007 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Mary Lucier: New Installation Works at Lennon, Weinberg Inc. (until April 20).

Mary Lucier is no Sacha Baron Cohen.

You may remember Mr. Cohen masquerading at a Virginia rodeo as the hapless Kazakh journalist in Borat. As seen in the film, the cowboy spectacle is a haven for yahoos, rednecks and astonishingly casual racists. The squirm-inducing comedy confirmed the prejudices of big-city types, who are, of course, a more highly evolved species. The rodeo, it concluded, is barbaric entertainment.

Ms. Lucier, whose video installation The Plains of Sweet Regret is on view at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., attends the rodeo and sees something radically different: a poetic blur of muscle, movement and, unexpectedly, a gracious deference to the natural world.

In one sequence of the video, a bull is let loose from a holding pen. A cowboy tries to ride it, but is thrown off in a matter of seconds. He comes precariously close to being trampled and gored; at one point, he lands directly between the animal’s horns. A cadre of men, including a clown, circles their comrade and attempts a rescue. They manage to drive off the bull, whose rampaging hurdles are terrifying to behold. The scene runs at a pace slightly slower than life.

Once the bull calms down and lopes off, the scene begins again. But this time, a mirror image is superimposed upon the original. A Rorschach-like tumult ensues, bull and rider expanding and contracting into a heaving field of action.

The scene is run yet again, complicated further by shifts in time. The temporal stagger creates a kaleidoscopic abstraction of transparent earthy tones and magical, transitory pictures. At one point, a virtual totem pole coalesces and just as swiftly dissipates; it exists as a ghostly flash of portent.

The camera makes a sudden rush sideways, and we’re presented with different moments of the same rodeo projected in a similar manner. At the end, a wrangler brings a calf to the ground. For one fleeting instant, man and animal morph into each other as the divide between them dissolves. A rough-and-tumble collision of purpose is choreographed into a sinuous ballet. We intuit the cowboy’s respect for the animal, despite the confrontation that’s taken place.

The rider, wearing a white cowboy hat and a pinstriped shirt, lets go of the calf; both pick themselves up and walk away with breathtaking nonchalance. The cowboy comes toward the camera. Turning sideways, his head is briefly transformed into a Janus-like effigy. All the while, George Strait’s “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” a plaintive country song about distance and loss, underscores the archetypal drama enacted by the rodeo. Ms. Lucier conjures up myth with a deceiving dispassion. It’s an awesomely beautiful sequence.

The rodeo scenes come at the end of The Plains of Sweet Regret, and they all but eclipse what’s come before. Which isn’t to say that the rest of the 18-minute video, presented on five separate screens, isn’t, in its own way, stunning. The installation abounds with iconic heartland images—more documentary than lyrical—from the vast and consuming plains of North Dakota.

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Mary Lucier, Wisconsin (2009-12) (video still); courtesy Lennon, Weinberg Inc.

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Laurel Reuter, the director of the North Dakota Museum of Art, commissioned The Plains of Sweet Regret as part of a larger project titledEmptying Out of the Plains. This initiative invites essayists, poets and filmmakers to respond to the ongoing evolution of the state and its economy, population and landscape.

“The land is now occupied,” Ms. Reuter writes, by “agribusiness with its massive machinery, global positioning systems … worldwide marketing networks, and government safety nets.” Communities are changing: Some are adapting and most, it appears, are dying; the migration of farmers, cowboys and jobs has left a disheartening mark. Ms. Lucier’s video is a kind of historic preservation.

Talk of “global positioning systems” shouldn’t deter anyone wary of political ax-grinding. Ms. Lucier steers clear of explicit commentary; the intractability of time is her subject. In her hands, time’s unsparing momentum is rendered monolithic and is stilled, however precariously.

The artist juxtaposes panoramic vistas with remnants of individual achievement and desire. Isolated highways, smokestacks expelling pinkish-purple smoke, and wind-blown fields of wheat are set against abandoned homes and churches, a mysterious stack of suitcases, a cow giving birth, a weathered bowling trophy and farmland seen from a speeding car. History haunts The Plains of Sweet Regret, but through quiet understatement and an unfailingly humane focus, the video dexterously avoids the pitfalls of easy nostalgia.

Ms. Lucier has a cinematographer’s gift for composition, tempo and point of view, as well as an impressionistic instinct for narrative, however obscure or diffuse. Camera movements are various, recording events straight on, at first-person vantage points, gently rocking back and forth, panning downward or moving at an almost indiscernibly reduced speed.

imgresThe Plains of Sweet Regret (installation); courtesy Lennon Weinberg, Inc.

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Each of the five screens may hold disparate actions or objects, yet they’re counterpoised in ways that unify the work’s gentle yearning. An atmospheric cascade of music (composed by Ms. Lucier’s longtime collaborator, Earl Howard) keys in to subtle shifts of rhythm, image and gesture. The undulating electronic score, forever promising crescendos but adroitly glancing off them, indispensably complements the visuals.

Ms. Lucier stumbles when she inserts an unnecessary theatrical device. Two women wearing kerchiefs and a young police officer with an earring are simultaneously seen swaying in slo-mo. Their languorous motions smack too much of the artist’s conscious direction. It is Ms. Lucier’s lone false note.

Otherwise, The Plains of Sweet Regret is a moving evocation of a land burdened with grave uncertainty. A nagging strain of pessimism informs the work, but Ms. Lucier’s celebration of the American character refuses to capitulate to it. There’s resilience mixed with her melancholy. If she doesn’t tell us about the country as deeply or as concisely as Walker Evans or John Ford, Ms. Lucier approaches the stern heights reached by Edward Hopper. Certainly, she gets closer to the heart of things than Borat. Compassionate insight beats cruel humor every time.

© 2007 Mario Naves

“Drawing Surrealism” at The Morgan Library & Museum

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Joseph Cornell, Untitled (c. 1930), collage, 9-7/8″ x 7-3/8″; courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum

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If memory serves correctly, it was the critic and artist Sidney Tillim who observed that the Surrealists couldn’t paint well because they were too preoccupied by bad dreams. The point is sardonic, but not off base. In privileging imagery or, to use parlance particular to the style, putrefaction over aesthetics, Surrealism erred on the side of illustration—on rendering, instead of embodying, “bad dreams.” Once an artist begins delineating visions gleaned from the unconscious in an insistently conscious manner, how genuinely surreal can they be? Notwithstanding exceptions like Joan Miró, whose forays into automatism were emboldened by an encompassing playfulness, the Surrealists employed paint not as a forum for possibility and pleasure, but merely as a means, often perfunctory in character, to otherworldly ends.

But what about the famously direct medium of drawing? Drawing lends itself more readily to quixotic musings—the route from the imagination to the page being less fettered by materials and more open to curious fancies and untested ideas. That’s the impression left by Drawing Surrealism, an array of over 160 works on paper by seventy artists. The usual suspects are present and accounted for at the Morgan: Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Miró, André Masson, André Breton (the self-proclaimed “Pope” of Surrealism), Man Ray, and, alas, the overly prolific Max Ernst. Lesser lights and hangers-on are included, as are marquee names—Picasso, Kahlo, Pollock—and a host of artists operating outside the main Surrealist satellites: Adriano del Valle from Spain, Japan’s Ei-Kyu, and Peru’s César Moro. Leslie Jones, the curator of Prints and Drawings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the exhibition organizer, extols Surrealism as “a dynamic international discourse.”

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Wolfgang Paalen, Fumage (Smoke Painting) (c. 1938), oil, candle burns and soot on canvas, 10-3/4″ x 16-3/8″; courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum

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Welcome to the age of curatorial globalism. Drawing Surrealism is similar to Inventing Abstraction, a concurrent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, wherein a bevy of inescapable figures is peppered with local heroes, dark horses, and bit players known primarily, if at all, to specialists of the genre. Though Jones pays due diligence to Paris and, later, Manhattan, where Surrealist methodologies informed the nascent New York School, the exhibition is centered less on artistic capitals than on “an approach . . . that can go where no other pictorial practice can.” Given Surrealism’s cultural reach, such a tack isn’t inappropriate. As an evocation of a particular community of artists, however dispersed, Drawing Surrealism is coherent and surprisingly fulsome.

The exhibition succeeds in reverse proportion to the significance of its contents. Most of the pieces are anything but major: they’re small in size, almost willfully slight and remarkably non-committal in their assault on the “reign of logic.” The medium contributes to the casual air, as does the march of time. History has a tendency of ironing out the kinks (and the kinkiness) of techniques and imagery that were, at one time, shocking or repellent. Perhaps Jones hasn’t been illogical enough in setting out the parameters of Surrealist strategies. The exhibition is fairly didactic, being arranged in discrete sections devoted to distinct approaches: among them, frottage, collage, decalcomania, and cadavre exquis, the collaborative Surrealist parlor game. Does the Morgan show conjure up a milieu wherein (as a chapter heading has it) “works on paper [are] in service of the revolution”? Not a chance: a woozy mildness prevails.

Which is welcome given a context that was (in Breton’s words) “beyond all aesthetic or moral preoccupation.” Of course, how much viewers cotton to the visions of Pavel Tchelitchew, Federico Castellón, Leonora Carrington, and Alfonso Ossorio will depend on one’s taste for distant vistas populated by (as a friend bluntly put it) “icky tits-and-ass.” Over-exposure to Surrealist imagery inevitably calls into question its conventions, and pinpoints how meager—how humdrum, really—the imagination can be. It’s worth recalling that Freud, the sine qua non of Surrealist thought, considered Dalí’s conscious mind more interesting than his unconscious mind, and that Alberto Giacometti broke with Surrealism because of its strictures, likening the school’s practices to masturbation. In the end, Surrealism proved a finite and unyielding ethos.

url-1Man Ray, Untitled (Abstract “Smoke”) (1928), gelatin silver, rayograph print, 9-5/8″ x 7-7/8″

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Surrealism found its truest expression in artists who stepped outside the purviews of self and followed the exigencies of their materials. The inherent disjunction of collage lent itself to provocative, often funny and, in the case of the unapproachable Joseph Cornell, tender ruminations on culture and memory. Early experiments in dripping and blotting will look dated (or easy) to contemporary eyes, but not so the pictorial freedom it allowed Miró, Masson, Arshile Gorky, Matta, Pollock, Richard Pousette-Dart, and, albeit through a long and tortuous process, Mark Rothko. The lone anomalous inclusion at the Morgan is Ellsworth Kelly who, even at his loosest, is a quintessential classicist. But credit Jones with rescuing Man Ray from his own dilettantism. She’s done an impeccable job of winnowing through the photograms and selecting a handful of exquisite apparitions. For those alone, Drawing Surrealism is a must-see.

© 2013 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 2013 edition of The New Criterion.

A Hard Act To Follow: Piero della Francesca

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Piero della Francesca, Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels (c. 1460-70), oil (and tempera?) on poplar panel, transferred to fabric on panel; courtesy the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute

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The following review appeared in the February 20, 2005 edition of The New York Observer and is reprinted here on the occasion of Piero della Francesca in America, on view at The Frick Collection (until May 19). My review of the Frick exhibition will appear in the April issue of The New Criterion.

Before I begin kvelling about From Filippo Lippi to Piero Della Francesca: Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, duty compels me to get the bad news out of the way. Contrary to the exhibition’s title, Fra Carnevale is no master–he’s a dud.

Actually, the key word in the title isn’t “master,” but “making.” What powers the exhibition is the scholarship leading to the recent identification of Fra Carnevale as the artist responsible for The Birth of the Virgin (1466) and The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (1466), which are in the collections of, respectively, the Metropolitan and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Placing Fra Carnevale within the milieu of Florence and, later, Urbino, the curators explore the sometimes bewildering trajectories of stylistic influence. In doing so, they pinpoint the achievement of Fra Carnevale, “the quasi-mythical painter from Urbino” born Bartolomeo di Giovanni Corradini sometime around 1420. (He died in 1484.) History has been clarified, but has it been vindicated?

The Fra Carnevale panels, coming at the end of the museum’s impressive feat of connoisseurship, are anticlimactic. The crazy-quilt admixtures of zooming spaces, overweening architecture, fussy passages of texture and disjointed arrays of figures are the handiwork of a skilled artisan incapable of articulating a coherent painting. Other examples of Fra Carnevale’s work–especially The Crucifixion and Saint Francis, wooden pictures both–evince an artist who couldn’t realize the human figure as an expressive component of pictorial form. The best Fra Carnevale painting on view, the silky and taciturn Madonna and Child (1440), may not be by him at all; it’s an attribution.

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Fra Carnevale, The Crucifixion (c. 1450), tempera and oil on wood, 40.6″ x 26.4″; courtesy Galleria Nazionale dell Marche, Urbino

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The folks at the Met don’t pretend that Fra Carnevale is the equal of the painters with whom he shares title billing. The sharp and sensitive eyes responsible for organizing the exhibition know what’s what: Filippo Lippi, Fra Carnevale’s teacher, and Piero are headliners for a reason: They’re masters in every sense of the word. In the catalog, we learn that Fra Carnevale was “not [an artist] … of the very first importance.” Elsewhere, we read that his pictures fall under the “shadow” of Piero, an artist who “epitomizes the artistic culture of Urbino.”

Piero, as you might guess, casts some shadow, and it’s there to see at the Met. Directly preceding the gallery dedicated to Fra Carnevale, you’ll find Piero’s Madonna and Child Attended by Angels. In it, the Virgin has been transformed into an immovable–though not inhuman–presence,adivine slab of architecture. She towers over the angels surrounding her and the Christ child and, as such, serves as the anchor for a deeply eccentric composition. Symmetry is suggested and then offset, but in a sneaky, unnerving manner. The space of the picture, notwithstanding the strong directionality of the enclosing architecture, is sharply stunted. The painting’s iconography is reinforced and somehow deepened by Piero’s bizarre manipulations of pictorial form. You can scarcely imagine a harder act to follow.

Make that two hard acts to follow: The initial portion of the exhibition is dedicated almost exclusively to the paintings of Filippo Lippi, and it’s a knockout. Particularly strong are The Pieta, with an ominous outcropping of rocks being the arbiter of its gravitas, and the unstoppably gentle The Meeting of Joachim and Anna at the Golden Gate; particularly strange are the jack-in-the-box elisions of space in Portrait of a Woman and a Man at a Casement.

hb_89.15.19Fra Filippo Lippi, Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement (c. 1440-44), tempera on wood, 25-1/4″ x 16-1/2″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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If it’s name artists you’re after, look for Madonna and Child by Luca Della Robbia, a terra-cotta relief that’s more fully realized as sculpture than the attendant glazed terra-cotta of the same subject by the same artist. Other figures will be known primarily to specialists of Renaissance art, but are well worth getting to know for the rest of us. I was particularly grateful to make the acquaintance of Pesellino, whose Madonna and Child with Saints is a compacted yet remarkably coherent congregation of figures. A small crucifixion by Giovanni Boccati is similarly packed with imagery–if anything, it’s more ambitious and complex than the Pesellino–and has to be counted as the purest expressionism.

By the time you’re finished zigzagging through Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master, you’ll be exhausted by its many and various glories. (Hey, no one said 15th-century Italian art was easy.) You might even grant that Fra Carnevale had his moments: Look closely, for example, at the supernal slice of life (the guy walking his dog) seen through a doorway just off-center in The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple. You’ll be grateful, as well, to the Met for mounting yet another serious, scholarly and stellar exhibition.

© 2005 Mario Naves

Unlikely and Eccentric: The Art of Tom Uttech

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Tom Uttech, Kikinowijiwed (2011-2012), oil on linen, 32-1/2″ x 36-1/2″; courtesy Alexandre Gallery

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The following review was originally published in the March 1, 2004 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Tom Uttech: New Paintings at Alexandre Gallery (February 23-March 30, 2013).

The paintings of Tom Uttech at Alexandre are steadfastly rooted in the local. He depicts panoramic scenes of densely wooded forests populated–at times absurdly overrun–by fauna. The forests are part of a protected wilderness area in Ontario, but the macro geography is less important to Mr. Uttech than his embrace of the particular: There’s no place he’d rather be.

He paints with the precision of a naturalist. We’re never in doubt that these often encyclopedic pictures are scientifically correct. The same goes for the depiction of light: Whether painting the sparest of rainbows or the northern lights, Mr. Uttech is true to the drama and sweep of the specific moment. Yet the paintings have been orchestrated with a decidedly unnatural theatrical flair. The animals loitering on the scene are acutely aware of themselves as objects of observation. At times, they look out at us resentfully, as if our presence were an encroachment on their territory. (Is there an eco-political moral buried in the pictures? The only animal not pictured is man.)

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Tom Uttech, Mamakadjidgan (2011-2012), oil on linen, 91″ x 103″; courtesy Alexandre Gallery

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The gulf between viewer and image is unbridgeable, the distance emphasized by Mr. Uttech’s touch, which keeps us at bay. And there’s a mysterious recurring motif, also distancing: a lone black bear with a curious demeanor, standing on its hind legs. It’s too close to being a cute gimmick–and after a couple of cameos, it’s an annoyance. Not cute at all–in fact, arresting–is Awassabang (2003), which depicts the uniform migration of innumerable species of birds, all heading resolutely stage right.

Imagine pictures painted by the love child of Corot, John Frederick Kensett, John James Audubon, René Magritte and Jackson Pollock, and you’ll have some idea of Mr. Uttech’s unlikely and eccentric sensibility.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Abstract Repartee

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A “curious cut” by Hans Holbein used to illustrate Erasmus’s treatise, In Praise of Folly (1515)

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In conjunction with Wit, an exhibition on view at The Painting Center, curator and artist Joanne Freeman will be hosting a panel discussion featuring Marina Adams, Barbara Gallucci, Doreen McCarthy, Stephen Westfall and myself–all of whom are included in the show. Subjects to be discussed are good taste, bad taste, “escape from taste”, ambiguity, anticipation, surprise and (ulp!) psychedelic drugs. The panel is scheduled to take place on Valentine’s Day between 6:00-8:00 p.m. Hope to see you there.

© 2013 Mario Naves

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