Shared Experience: The Paintings of Rachel Youens and Sydney Licht

Altar

Rachel Youens, Altar (2010), oil on linen, 22″ x 48″; courtesy the artist

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Pair the work of any two artists and you’re likely to strike sparks of one sort or another. It’s human nature to divine commonalities of temper, style and imagery even if the evidence for them is slim. But what happens when the bonds between artists are self-evident and inescapable? The still-life paintings of Rachel Youens and Sydney Licht announce deep-seated commonalities–working from observation, not least–that nevertheless lead to telling divergencies of form and vision.

Youens and Licht are nothing if not specific in their choice of motifs. The natural world informs Youens’ panoramic canvases. Whether working from corn husks, chunks of stale bread, bundles of fabric or oddments seemingly retrieved from a construction site, Youens favors objects marked by time and use–of age and inutility, really. Licht, too, takes inspiration from discards, but her’s are culled less from nature than from culture: patterned tablecloths, packets of Sweet-and-Low, take-out cups of coffee, the stray piece of fruit and gift boxes, lots of gift boxes.

Visiting the studios of each artist, you might mistake them for undercover sculptors: significant expanses of space are devoted to stuff. Youens’s accumulations of detritus, simultaneously chaotic and impeccably orchestrated, expand laterally across a sizable painter’s table. As for Licht: not far from her easel are pseudo-Minimalist totems, often teetering at imposing heights, assembled from an impressive collection of boxes. But you don’t need direct contact with these objects to realize the importance they carry for Youens and Licht. It’s there to see in the paintings, wherein the physical is confirmed and, more important, transformed into something poetic and meditative.

Sydney Licht

Sydney Licht, Still Life with Pomegranate (2013), oil on panel, 12″ x 12″; courtesy the artist

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Youens trades in abundance, Licht in compression. Youens has stated that she has a need to feel “overwhelmed” by the subjects at hand. A significant amount of the pleasure derived from the paintings is, in fact, watching how she navigates from one object to another, taking into account shifts of texture, rhythm and light. Youens’ brush, brusque but nuanced and given to playful fillips of touch, endows the pictures with a definite sense of choreography.

Licht is more architectonic, frontal and abrupt, not to say “abstract”. Her forms press toward the viewer, creating stepped relationships wherein subtle juxtapositions of space, pattern and definition are rendered monumental and allusive. Licht wields a palette knife with decisive sensitivity. The surfaces of the pictures are densely worked, lush in color and attuned to spare transitions of incident.

Perhaps the strongest attribute that connects Youens and Licht is their relationship with tradition. It’s worth recalling that the still-life, as an artistic genre, is cross-cultural and longstanding, and, as such, points to the unceasing inquisitiveness of the human animal. There’s never been a time when artists haven’t explored the world around them as a means of endowing it with clarity, order and–how to put it?–a measure of grace. Youens and Licht, painters of uncommon probity, tap into that rich tradition and contribute something real to our understanding of shared experience.

© 2013 Mario Naves

A version of this essay appears in the brochure accompanying Sidney Licht/Rachel Youens, an exhibition at Salena Gallery at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University (September 3-27).

Overheard

Hunting and Gathering

Warrington Colescott, Hunting and Gathering (1997), color soft-ground etching and aquatint, with vibrograver, roulette and relier rolls through stencil, 17-1/2″ x 23-5/8″;  courtesy The Milwaukee Art Museum

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“To the man who loves art for its own sake it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived.”

–Sherlock Holmes from “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A Welcoming Impurity: Contemporary Abstract Painting

LaCalleAbraham LaCalle, Saracine 4 (2003), oil on linen, 65 x 50 cm.; courtesy Galería Manuel Ojeda

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The following review was originally published in the February 9, 2004 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Reinventing Abstraction, an exhibition curated by Raphael Rubenstein at Cheim & Read (until August 30).

This is a good time for abstract painting.

(The loud thwack you just heard is the sound of abstract painters all over the city smacking their foreheads in disbelief: What is he talking about?)

Take a look at what dominates the scene: big-budget installations, obscurantist videos, interminable performances, conceptualist novelties, anti-art hi-jinks and photographs by photographers who don’t know how to focus their cameras. The best-known contemporary painter at the moment is a figurative artist: John Currin.

Painting itself is not having an easy time of it: Though news of its death has become a joke even to those who pine for the day, many artists continue to view painting as a plaything to be mocked rather than its own independent pleasure. Try putting brush to canvas with sincerity, passion or ambition and you’ll be shown the door and given large-type directions to the nearest pasture.

JaffeShirley Jaffe, Swinging (2012), oil on canvas, 130 x 97 cm.; courtesy Galeria Nathalie Obadia

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As for abstraction, it’s no longer the engine of culture or the culmination of Modernism; it’s now a specialist’s pursuit. The minimized status that abstraction was given in the millennial exhibitions mounted by MoMA only ratified current opinion: Abstraction is just there, another byway of artistic pursuit in the anything-goes bazaar of the contemporary scene.

So what’s good about all that?

Out from under the burden of historical necessity and away from the limelight of successful innovation, abstraction is free. Having been marginalized by Pop, politics, fashion and theory, abstraction has retrenched and set off on pathways that might once have been thought inappropriate, untenable or ridiculous. The quest for “the final painting”–a goal once considered the hallmark of Modernism–degraded the form into a feeble simulacrum of itself. (Just stroll through the gallery at Dia:Beacon devoted to the austere pseudo-paintings of Robert Ryman; you might as well be visiting a tomb.)

Purity, having been achieved, was not the apogee of painting, but a dead end masquerading as artistic truth. Having seen how much could be taken out of a painting and still leave a painting (or something like it), many contemporary painters want to discover how much you can put back into a painting and still have an abstraction. In fact, the best abstract painters working today are a rather impure lot. Inclusiveness is their watchword: They’re willing to try anything once, maybe even twice. They take the whole of human experience as their inspiration.

USleJuan Uslé, MIRON (2006-07), vinyl, dispersion and dry pigment on canvas, 12″ x 18″; courtesy Cheim & Read

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This inclusive approach is not brand-new. Robert Delaunay, Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis and Piet (“Boogie-Woogie”) Mondrian all invited the world into their abstractions, and the results were salutary. The list of today’s abstract artists who favor a welcoming impurity includes Thomas Nozkowski, Shirley Jaffe, Laurie Fendrich, Bill Jensen, Ross Neher, Juan Usle, Andrew Masullo, Harriet Korman and Pat Adams. Their efforts constitute a healthy, if unheralded, artistic moment.

And now we can add Abraham Lacalle to the list. Mr. Lacalle is a youngish Spanish painter (he’s in his early 40′s and hails from Madrid) who’s having his first one-person show in New York, at Marlborough Chelsea. Knowing that inspiration is various and eternal, Mr. Lacalle looks for it everywhere. The paintings are mix-and-match accumulations of pattern and geometry and, less so, color and representation. He makes a brusque patchwork of cross-hatching, dots, stripes, lozenge-like forms, doodles and drips, as well as cacti, hats, fish and hands.

JensenBill Jensen, Images of a Floating World (Passare) (2009), oil on linen, 26″ x 20″; courtesy Cheim & Read

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The juggling of pictorial motifs is reminiscent of any number of contemporary painters who promiscuously lift and juxtapose motifs from history’s warehouse of style. But no one will mistake what Mr. Lacalle does for appropriation. Like the proverbial child in a candy store, Mr. Lacalle surveys 20th-century art (particularly, though not exclusively, Cubism) and likes what he sees. His enthusiasm is infectious.

The paintings, with their distinctly Spanish palette of scrubby ochres and grays, revel in disjunction. Mr. Lacalle’s touch, unencumbered and endearingly clumsy, evens the temper of the fragmented compositions. The bigger canvases are overcomplicated machines; their size and ambition can’t disguise a certain flimsiness or a bent toward formula. The less-cluttered smaller pictures are playful and loose; a minor key suits Mr. Lacalle’s informality. Particularly smart are Sarasine 4 (2003) and Sarasine 6 (2003), both of which neatly mark the distinction between sophistication and amateurishness. At the moment, Mr. Lacalle is less a fully formed painter than a precocious talent; his best work lies ahead of him. Still, you’ll be happy to make his acquaintance.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Masterful Shortcomings: The Art of Ken Price

Met PriceInstallation view of Ken Price Sculpture; A Retrospective; photo by Suzanne DeChillo and courtesy The New York Times

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The following reviews originally appeared, respectively, in the March 10, 2010 edition of City Arts and the November 29, 2004 edition of The New York Observer. They are posted here on the occasion of Ken Price Sculpture; A Retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (until September 22, 2013) and Ken Price: Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Works on Paper 1962-2010 at The Drawing Center (until August 18, 2013).

Animism has never been Ken Price’s strength. The ability to endow inert material with the stuff of life has eluded the veteran ceramicist to the frustration of those of us admiring of his streamlined variations on biomorphic abstraction. The sculptures are, admittedly, fetching: Who could resist those precisely calibrated gestures, fluid contours and breathtakingly abraded surfaces? Would that these virtues encouraged adoration, but Price’s unremitting elegance tamps down our enthusiasm and any vitality the work itself might embody. You get the feeling that life is altogether too base and vulgar to suit Price’s artistic program.

Well, maybe vulgarity suits him. That Price has embraced turds and orifices as inspiration isn’t revelatory or revolutionary—Surrealist scatology has a long and relatively noble tradition. Severity of formal purpose, probably gleaned from Minimalism, imbues Price’s work with no-nonsense principle. Add a distillation of shape that takes off from Hans Arp and stops just short of being cute, and you have an artist who skirts overt ickiness.

Which doesn’t mean that Price doesn’t have it in him: Eeezo is genuinely repulsive. A fleshy swaddling of upright tubers punctuated by a gaping maw, Eeezo generates clammy élan through its pearlescent veneer, pimply surface and milky pallor. The work is something between ghastly, garish and tacky, which, for this artist, is some kind of achievement.

Eeezo has wisely been segregated from the rest of the work; its brute presence would only distract from Price’s usual run of stylish blips and blobs. Unfortunately, three sizable sculptures—Lying Around, Simple-istic and Percival—are displayed front-and-center. There’s no compelling aesthetic reason for their bigness unless price tag counts; this tabletop intimist has yet to get a handle on a larger scale. It’s enough to make you love Price’s more masterful shortcomings.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Ken Price Drawings

Drawings by Ken Price; courtesy Art Fag City

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If you’re familiar with the ceramic sculptures of Ken Price–those overrefined glosses on the tradition of biomorphic form–you’ll want to check out his drawings at Matthew Marks’ shoebox gallery on 21st Street. They’re not recommended, mind you, just odd: They depict erupting volcanoes, lightning, the ocean, and blobby, aquatic-like creatures in the company of buxom young women–not-so-distant cousins of Gauguin’s Tahitian nudes.

The pictures are reminiscent of underground comics, the animated film Fantastic Planet, and the fervent imaginings that line the margins of a high-school student’s notebook. Rendered in a flat-footed, psychedelic style, they pay little attention to the niceties of line or shape. (Color fares a mite better.) The drawings aren’t studies for sculptures; they tell us less about Mr. Price’s art than Mr. Price the artist. It turns out he’s a guy given to rather pedestrian daydreams. Mr. Marks felt that was reason enough to mount an exhibition–depending on your frame of mind, you might grant that he has a point.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Unbending Conviction: Bill Traylor and William Edmondson

Traylor 2

Bill Traylor, Untitled (ca. 1939-1942), poster paint, crayon and pencil on cardboard; courtesy The High Museum of Art

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This following article originally appeared in the June 13, 2005 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of the exhibitions Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and Traylor in Motion: Wonders from New York Collections, both of which are on display at the American Folk Art Museum (June 11-September 22, 2013).

Sometimes the surest marker of artistic worth is the flow of traffic. Standing on the mezzanine landing of the Studio Museum in Harlem, overlooking the ground-floor gallery, I was struck by the decisiveness of its visitors. One glance at the exhibition featured downstairs, Chris Ofili: Afro Muses 1995-2005, and–hup!–straight to the staircase and up they went.

How many of the gallerygoers remembered Mr. Ofili as the pornography-recycling, elephant-dung-wielding, Rudolph Giuliani–enraging artist of Sensation fame is anyone’s guess. One thing that’s certain is that the majority of them chose not to waste their time with his art. In bypassing 100-some-odd of Mr. Ofili’s “treasured archetypes”–watercolor portraits notable only for their haplessness–visitors to the Studio Museum voted with their feet. In doing so, they exhibited considerable aesthetic acumen. Afro Muses? Afro-kitsch is more like it.

Traylor 1Bill Traylor, Untitled (1939-1942), poster paint, pencil and colored pencil on cardboard; courtesy The High Museum of Art

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In marked contrast to the sprinting occasioned by Mr. Ofili, Bill Traylor, William Edmondson and the Modernist Impulse, the exhibition seen on the museum’s mezzanine, encourages and sustains deliberation. Little wonder: Bill Traylor (1854-1949) and William Edmondson (1874-1951) are among the most significant exemplars of American folk art. The two men–one born a slave, the other the son of slaves–epitomize the attribute we have come to value most in “outsiders”: vision propelled by unbending conviction.

Edmondson, for instance, had no say in taking up sculpture: God told him to get busy. Given the stolid gravity of his limestone carvings, you can believe it.

Traylor has, in recent years, emerged as a favorite among connoisseurs of folk art. His silhouetted depictions of men in top hats, pointing women and animals of all stripes are delights of pictorial economy. He had an impeccable gift for placement: Hieratic figures, structures and designs occupy the page with an almost balletic lilt. Narrative is winnowed to a potent minimum. A stylish woman moves her arms in an accusatory manner, heaping frustration upon a one-legged man slumped on his crutches. A reptilian creature is trapped at the bottom of the page, its expression unnervingly self-aware, as if it realized that extinction was its fate. These are startlingly evocative images, urgent and whimsical.

EdmondsonWilliam Edmondson, Bess and Joe (c. 1930s), limestone; courtesy the Cheekwood Museum of Art

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Having said that, the narrowness of Traylor’s art–and it’s prudent to remember that we shouldn’t expect breadth of vision from a folk artist–becomes all the more pronounced when placed side by side with Edmondson’s sculptures. It’s not that they aren’t narrow, but Edmondson’s narrowness feels deeper, more rounded. Certainly, his simplified, monolithic figures resonate, due not least to their good humor and the close attention paid to the foibles of humankind. In one work, Edmondson bestows (or maybe burdens) Eve with a hilariously oversized fig leaf. Elsewhere, an angel glares with admonishment, two doves nuzzle lovingly, and a crucified Jesus gestures forgivingly. Edmondson wasn’t a master of his materials–limestone never quite yields to his touch; he did the best he could with it–but the sense of contained malleability typical of the work is no mean accomplishment.

What this all has to do with a “modernist impulse.” as stated in the title of the exhibition, is unclear. Could it be an implicit argument that Traylor and Edmondson be ushered into the company of, say, Constantin Brancusi and Elie Nadelman as equals among modernists? Lowery Stokes Sims, the executive director of the Studio Museum, intimated as much in writing about Edmondson’s work that “the distinctions between self-taught and mainstream artists [are]… specious.” If that’s the case, the argument could’ve been framed in a more up-front and provocative manner. If you’re going to strong-arm art into being an adjunct of politics, then for God’s sake, don’t be namby-pamby about it. Still and all, that plaint is easily ignored: Modernist impulse or not, this is a charmer of a show.

© 2005 Mario Naves

A Collage Compendium

Thomas

Austin Thomas, Round Placed Square (2010), collage with pen and pencil, 42″ x 42″; courtesy the artist

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On the occasion of Remix: Selections from the International Collage Center, an exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art (on view until October 13), herewith is a variety of links that lead to articles on artists who do the tradition proud, among them John AshberyRomare BeardenJessJosh Dorman, Bruce HelanderLance Letscher, Conrad Marca-Relli and Austin Thomas.

JessJess, Blasted Beauty (1954), collage, 30″ x 24″; courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery

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Anyone who talks about collage without mentioning Dadaism or women is oblivious to the history of the medium. And then there’s Joseph Cornell, the outsider sophisticate and mama’s boy from Flushing, who is a genre unto himself.

Cornell

Joseph Cornell, Madame Mallarme’s Fan (1954), collage on board, 11-1/2″ x 8-3/4″; courtesy The International Collage Center

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Art critic, professor of philosophy and inveterate bloviator Donald Kuspit wrote that “collage . . . involves condensations and displacements, and also seems like a mistake of consciousness, which is why one tends to forget it, confirming its transience–unless one forces oneself to remember it–when one awakens from its spell.” Cornell puts such specious theorizing firmly to rest, as do any number of artists whose collages continue to cast a spell long after our first acquaintance with them.

© 2013 Mario Naves

Collage Comes to Katonah

Mario Naves

Mario Naves, Hopes and Wishes Received (2010), acrylic and photograph on paper, 17″ x 11-1/4″; courtesy The International Collage Center, Milton, PA

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I’m pleased to announce that a work of mine will be on view in Remix: Selections from the International Collage Center, an exhibition at The Katonah Museum of Art. The show opens on June 30 and runs until October 13, 2013. Click here for more information.

By Popular Demand: Hannah Höch

Hannah Hoch 6Self-Portrait by Hannah Hoch, 1926

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Nothing at Too Much Art has received as much traffic in recent weeks as my review of The Photomontages of Hannah Höch, an exhibition seen at The Museum of Modern Art in 1997. Operating under the rubric of “Give The People What They Want”, I hereby present Dada’s “good girl”.

There is a gratifying modesty in how The Photomontages of Hannah Höch at the Museum of Modern Art has been properly, if not perfectly, scaled to its subject. Hannah Höch (1889–1978) was the sole woman artist associated with Berlin Dada, a group known for its strident politics and anti-art stance. In contrast to renowned Dadaists such as George Grosz and John Heartfield, Höch has been, until recently, a modernist footnote. At the time of her death in 1978, she was remembered as the “Bobhaired Muse of the Men’s Club” and, most infamously, the “good girl” of Dada, a moniker given to her by the artist Hans Richter. The exhibition at MOMA attempts to correct this dubious recognition by spotlighting the work for which she is best known, and though the hundred or so photomontages on view are as small in scope as they are in size, they are not negligible. While The Photomontages of Hannah Höch does not reveal a major talent, it does show us why Höch is an artist worth considering in the first place.

This is, of course, seeing the glass half full rather than half empty. Yet at a time when marginal artists are hyped with claims that have little to do with art, The Photomontages of Hannah Höch is, as an exhibition of pictures, the equivalent of straight talk. Indeed, the curators’ focus—which, by its very nature, excludes Höch’s paintings, drawings and watercolors—involves something resembling connoisseurship. Admittedly, the resuscitation of Höch’s career owes much to feminist art history, and the catalogue underscores (in the jargonistic parlance of the times) her “poignant commentaries on the strains and confusions caused by culturally exacted gender performances.” One doesn’t have to be an ideologue to find the “good girl” tag belittling, but politics is never a good reason for salvaging (or judging) art. If a few reputable artists have been rescued from oblivion because of their race, gender, or what have you, then we are less blessed than lucky. So it is with Hannah Höch.

Hannah Höch, Cut With The Kitchen Knife Through The Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919-1920), photomontage and collage with watercolor, 44-7/8″ x 35-7/16″; courtesy Staatliche Museeun Zu Berlin

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Just how much the revitalization of Höch’s reputation is due to extra-aesthetic matters can be divined from the attention bestowed upon the large collage Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany (1919–20). With its snipped and jumbled photos of politicians, artists and entertainers, Cut with the Kitchen Knife is a bona fide artifact of the Dadaist epoch. The title alone is fraught with enough symbolism to launch a dozen thesis papers. (Cut with the Kitchen Knife did, in fact, serve as the title of a recent study of the photomontages.) In her catalogue essay, Maria Makela pinpoints the work’s imagery—from Marx and Lenin to Pola Negri and Kathe Kollwitz to a map of Europe that identifies the countries in which women were able to vote—and makes a kind of sense of it, though scant attention is paid to it as a work of art. And, as such, Cut with the Kitchen Knife is a mess. Physically, it has not held up well; the piece’s discolored and mottled surfaces suggest a work that once had graphic power. As it is, Höch’s composition—or, should one say, non-composition—is diffuse. Portions of it are funny, but they don’t coalesce into anything consequential; it lacks the basic armature a good joke requires. What seems a jolting piece of propaganda is, finally, a dissipated rebus. The appeal of Cut with the Kitchen Knife to contemporary taste may be precisely this fragmentary quality. There are, it would seem, few things more validating for a confused culture than a confused work of art.

Cut with the Kitchen Knife is the largest and most overtly political of Höch’s photomontages. Yet both its scale and “content” were alien to her sensibility. Most of the collages are small—“intimate” is not an inappropriate word—and without the vitriol typical of Berlin Dada. A German critic described the photomontages as being “skeptical in an almost tender way” and this seems about right. For Höch never took great interest in expounding an anti-art agenda. “A clear aesthetically resolved statement” (as the artist had it) was important to Höch. It is noteworthy that not until 1929, almost ten years after the First International Dada Fair, did she feel confident in exhibiting her photomontages publicly. During this time Höch was not completely convinced of photomontage’s viability as an art form and exhibited, albeit sporadically, only her paintings and textile designs. Nonetheless she found within its “traditionless” parameters an artistic and imaginative freedom absent from her other work.

Hannah Hoch #2

Hannah Höch, Watched (1925), cut-and-pasted printed paper on printed paper, 10-1/8″ x 6-3/4″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Although the philosophy of Dada didn’t altogether jibe with Höch’s world view, the movement itself was an essential catalyst for her art. She clearly benefited, artistically if not emotionally, from being in proximity to the “men’s club.” Höch’s vision, however, was not fueled by anger or despair. What emerges from the photomontages is a sly and not ungentle intellect with a deft eye for design and a love for absurdist disjunction. She was a quirky miniaturist at the beginning of what seemed, at the time, an impossibly big century. The century turned out to be bigger (and more impossible) than anyone in 1920 could have predicted, and if some of Höch’s collages seem dated it isn’t due to yellowing newsprint alone; the fractured juxtapositions of scale, image, and text in the photomontages have long been a part of our cultural life. The artist (and Höch’s one-time lover) Raoul Hausmann, writing in 1931, griped that photomontage was rapidly being shanghaied by commercial and political interests. In this respect, he was prophetic—more than he could ever imagine, in fact. If the edge in Höch’s work has dulled a bit, her portrayal of the new century—dizzying and open to possibility and paradox—is often still exhilarating. It is impossible, for instance, not to read the rush of overlapping images in The Beautiful Girl (1919–20) or Untitled (1921), with its glamour girl spinning atop a turntable, as anything but paeans, albeit acerbic ones, to a world in flux.

Höch’s works of the early 1920s are impeccably constructed and the best of them is High Finance (1923). Here we are presented with a surfeit of images: an aerial photograph of the Ausstellungsgelände and Jahrhunderthalle in Breslau; British chemist Sir John Herschel; machine parts; a truck riding over a tire clipped, one imagines, from an advertisement; the red-white-and-black striped flag of the empire; and a double-barreled shotgun. With its provocative scraps of imagery, High Finance can be read as a satirical comment on industrialism and power. Yet what makes the collage truly memorable is, for example, how the graphic slickness of the oversized rifle offsets and dominates the grainy photographs of the piece’s two main figures or how the ball bearing at the bottom left corner serves as the collage’s anchor. Höch snaps her units of information into place and the results positively hum. (The dead-on stability and rhythmic counterpoints of the composition would have impressed Mondrian.) High Finance is neither novelty nor propaganda; it is an expertly executed work of art and Höch’s masterpiece.

Hoch 4

Hannah Höch, High Finance (1923), photomontage, 36 cm. x 31 cm.; courtesy Galerie Berinson, Berlin

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High FinanceThe Beautiful Girl, and The Coquette I (1923–25), a sardonic depiction of courting that has the delicacy of a Persian miniature, all have Dadaist overtones. But the movement, such as it was, petered out in the early 1920s. Höch drifted away from her Dada contacts but not from the avant-garde. Friendships with Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Kurt Schwitters, Theo and Nelly van Doesburg, and Hans and Sophie Tauber Arp provided Höch with an artistic community more conducive to her temperament. “Hans Arp and Kurt Schwitters …” said Höch in a 1959 interview, “were rare examples of the kind of artist who can really treat a woman as a colleague.” (The Dadaists, more often than not, condescended to her.) Yet, the strongest influence—if that is, indeed, what we can call it—on Höch’s post-Dadaist work may have been National Socialism. The Nazi rise to power, and its concomitant antagonism toward “degenerate art,” were felt early on by Höch: a planned 1932 retrospective of her photomontages at the Dessau Bauhaus was canceled when the local wing of the party closed down the school. In 1939 Höch, keenly aware of the threat to “cultural bolshevists,” moved to Heiligensee, a suburb of Berlin, where she lived and worked in relative isolation until the end of the war.

It is little wonder, then, that Höch’s work of the 1930s and 1940s becomes increasingly private and prone to Surrealist reverie. These works are problematic in that Höch’s chopped up and rearranged figures had already become routine, rarely rising above the limits of a good formula. (There are, perhaps, one too many mismatched sets of eyeballs here.) While the work of this time is not as tight as the Dada-inspired collages, cumulatively, it makes Höch’s pressurized world felt. There are numerous moments of arresting weirdness—the floating, disembodied legs of Never Keep Both Feet on the Ground (1940), for example, approach the magical. The best of this group, The Accident (1936), however, is atypical. While it uses recognizable motifs—wagon wheels, baskets, and polka dot fabric—The Accident is, essentially, an abstraction. Its clunking, circular rhythms create the pictorial equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. Höch would work abstractly again, primarily during the 1950s, but she never equaled the off-kilter beauty of The Accident.

Hannah Hoch 3

Hannah Höch, The Dream of His Life (1925), cut-and-pasted hand colored photographes and printed paper on paper, 11-3/4″ x 8-3/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The mistake the curators make is in trying to revamp Höch as a contemporary artist. It is surprising to learn that an artist associated with the Weimar Republic was also a contemporary of Robert Rauschenberg, and one sympathizes with Höch when, in 1976, she wearily states: “I’m sick and tired of Dada.” Many artists are unfairly stuck in historical brackets that limit our appreciation of their life’s work, but Höch is, well, fairly stuck. The most unsettling aspect of her postwar collages isn’t necessarily that they are bad. On the contrary, works like Synthetic Flowers (Propeller Thistles) (1952) and Burst Unity (1955) are accomplished, handsome, and utterly bland. Whether abstract or pseudo-Pop satires, the late photomontages are without bite or artistic necessity. Höch may well have flourished best in an artistic and historical context that made demands of her gifts. At a time when the heritage of Dada was being mainstreamed—courtesy of Rauschenberg, Pop, et al.—Höch was, at best, coasting. It is sad that the most “memorable” work here is also the most embarrassing, simply because it breaks out of the final gallery’s monotony. Homage to Riza Abasi (1963)—which juxtaposes the head of an Audrey Hepburn look-alike with the ample body of a belly dancer—is so simple-minded it would make a sophomore art student blush. It isn’t Dada-inspired so much as it is Dada-lite. Surely, the exhibition would have been better if it had ended with Dove of Peace (1945), a scary and incredulous take on world events, but such are curatorial prerogatives. Instead, we get a finale that is beside the point.

Despite the anticlimactic nature of the final gallery, The Photomontages of Hannah Höch is a welcome exhibition. If Höch’s work doesn’t elicit the intense pleasure we associate with the greatest art, its unassuming pleasures should not be dismissed. “Höch-watchers,” including the catalogue essayists, may use terms like “genius” and “dazzling” in describing the work, but these words are too strong for what is, in the end, a pretty good artist in a pretty good exhibition. Such a statement may be interpreted, in some quarters, as the merest chauvinism. Yet it is entirely possible to be a feminist and deplore the politicization of art. Privileging ideological intention over aesthetic fact results in little more than political placebos and diminished art—results, I daresay, Höch herself would have found questionable. Hannah Höch’s contribution to twentieth-century art is modest and solid. The crowds I attended the exhibition with seemed to be having a good time. We should take our cue from them and leave the proselytizers to fend for themselves.

© 1997 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 1997 edition of The New Criterion.

“Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Watercolors, and Prints from the Albertina” at The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Durer #1Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait (1484), silverpoint, 10-3/4″ x 7-1/2″; courtesy Albertina Museum, Vienna and The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

* * *

Say this for the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528): he was not lacking in self-esteem. A painter, draftsman, and printmaker of preternatural skills, Dürer depicted himself, at the wizened age of twenty-eight, as Jesus Christ or, at the very least, in the tradition of devotional images. The allusion in Self-Portrait (1500), a cornerstone of the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, is unmistakable even as the intent of the picture remains elusive. That Dürer nevertheless risked the comparison speaks to an unapologetic and, as history has proved, well-earned chutzpah. Visitors to Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Watercolors, and Prints from the Albertina get a handle on the artist’s gift right off the bat. The exhibition begins with Self-Portrait at Thirteen (1484), a delicate, if at moments awkwardly delineated, silverpoint drawing. It’s paired with a self-portrait, heavier in patina and considerably less animated, by Albrecht Dürer the Elder. Was this an attempt by the father to best young Albrecht or, perhaps, comprehend the son’s gift? Whatever the case, the curatorial point is obvious: Dürer was a phenomenon.

Is a phenomenon, if the response of the crowds attending the show is any indication. Huddling around the works, viewers can’t look closely enough at the images—because of their small size, sure, but mostly because of Dürer’s huge talent. Ensconced, as it is, in the East Wing, the section of the museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art, the exhibition may (as a friend suggested) prompt doubts about the progress of art: Sixteenth-century Northern Europeans had the meticulous intensity of Dürer; we have to settle for the decorative flourishes of Ellsworth Kelly, the subject of a concurrent exhibition at The National Gallery. An apples and oranges comparison, perhaps, and any museum-goer seeking proof of art’s forward march will inevitably be frustrated. But if Dürer the man is history, then Dürer the artist is forever our contemporary, a figure whose virtuosity—at once both clinical and deeply intimate—withstands anything so mundane as time passing.

Durer #2Albrecht Dürer, Agnes Dürer as Saint Ann (1519), brush and gray, black and white ink on grayish prepared paper; black background applied at a later date (?),  15-1/2″ x 11-1’/2″; courtesy the Albertina Museum, Vienna and The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

* * *

The exhibition features close to one hundred-and-twenty pieces, a smattering of which belong to the National Gallery, but most are culled from Vienna’s Albertina Museum, among the world’s great repositories of works-on-paper. The Albertina has a comprehensive collection of Dürer drawings, watercolors, and prints thanks to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, whose enthusiasm for the artist was boundless: He was not above wielding political influence to acquire Dürers. Rudolf’s collection includes Dürer images whose purchase on the imagination extends well beyond the parameters of the art world. Certainly that’s the case with Praying Hands (1508), an ink-and-gouache drawing of understated elegance and uncanny specificity, and The Great Piece of Turf (1503), a watercolor whose botanical accuracy doesn’t preclude a fairy tale–like ambiance. Even cursory students of world art will recognize Adam and Eve (1904), an engraving seen in a range of proofs, and Agnes Dürer as Saint Anne (1519), wherein the title figure is imbued with a sense of resignation distinctly absent from the oil painting for which it was a study.

Arranged chronologically, Albrecht Dürer follows the young artist as he tussles with precedent (Mantegna was a touchstone), investigates human anatomy, and indulges in an occasional reverie—a pen-and-ink portrait of his wife, Mein Agnes (1494), is haiku-like in its tenderness and informality. Myths and biblical tales are endowed with steely grandeur, and the earthly—a bridge in Nuremburg, a woman dressed for a dance, a squirrel, a friend from Antwerp—is delineated with tight-lipped appreciation. All the while, Dürer’s line—wiry and tactile, at times all but ineffable—gains in authority. Among the most arresting works are those done on paper toned a dusky blue, green, or gray. Working with ink and white gouache, Dürer creates images that seem to coalesce from the ether, even as he paradoxically endows them with unnerving dimensionality. The pieces are ghost-like in character, fleeting and evanescent, but unmistakably there. The ability to simultaneously pay homage to the tangible and the otherworldly goes some way in explaining the iconographic power of Praying Hands. Rarely has faith been embodied with such pith and poetry.

Durer #3

Albrecht Dürer, Head of an Apostle Looking Up (1508), brush and gray ink, gray wash; heightened with white on blue prepared paper, 20-3/4″ x 18-3/8″; courtesy Albertina Museum, Vienna and The National Gallery of Art Washington, D.C.

* * *

Dürer the rationalist is on view as well. His diagrammatic breakdowns of the figure recall Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man (ca. 1490) in their insistence on establishing a logical means by which the human anatomy could be formulated. But Dürer was more than an immaculate technician. Any draftsman beholden to what-meets-the-eye realizes fairly quickly that nature’s variety humbles any attempt to codify it. However much Dürer may have been entranced by scientific fact, he was also an engaged sensualist. True, the eroticism informing his ample nudes or, for that matter, filtering through his drapery studies is severe in nature. Dürer isn’t Rubens. But whether his burin was weaving an undulating tapestry of cross-contour lines, or his pen nib was skittering across the page in the attempt to capture a rare encounter with a lion, or his chalk was delineating the contemplative features of an African met in Venice, Dürer brought to the subject at hand a fullness of sensation, of experience both tempered and enlivened by reason. Albrecht Dürer is both one of those exhibitions that can change a life and, as such, a gift.

© 2013 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the June 2013 edition of The New Criterion.

The Serious Aesthete: Jeff Koons

Koons Installation

Gallery installation of Jeff Koons; New Paintings and Sculpture; courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

* * *

The following review was originally published in the April 29, 2008 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Jeff Koons; New Paintings and Sculpture at Gagosian Gallery (until June 29).

A few months back, I bumped into a colleague at the Met’s Courbet exhibition. After a polite disagreement about the merits of the 19th-century French painter—he’s a fan, I’m not—we extolled the Met’s stellar run of historical exhibitions mounted under the guidance of since-retired director Philippe de Montebello: Ingres, tapestries, Velázquez, the Greek and Roman galleries, the list goes on.

When the discussion turned to the museum’s forays into contemporary art, the requisite eyeball-rolling ensued. With rare exception, the museum has fumbled, allowing contemporary fads to interfere with sound curatorial judgment—the most egregious example being the three-year exhibition of Damien Hirst’s sideshow novelty The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991). (Yeah, the dead shark thing.)

Now here comes the redoubtable Jeff Koons with three sculptures on the Met’s rooftop garden.

As a venue for sculpture, the Met’s roof is unforgiving and all but pointless. How can any artist compete with a spectacular bird’s-eye view of Central Park? David Smith, Joel Shapiro, Sol LeWitt and Roy Lichtenstein have all been humbled by the encompassing fairy-tale vistas the Met provides. And so it is with Mr. Koons’ slick iterations of Pop Art.

KoonsJeff Koons, Antiquity 3 (2009-11), oil on canvas, 102″ x 138″; courtesy Gagosian Gallery

* * *

Fabricated from stainless steel and coated with industrial color, his gleefully deadpan sculptures tower over the viewer. Sacred Heart (Red/Gold) (1994-2007) is a Valentine chocolate, complete with wrapping paper and gold ribbon. Coloring Book (1997-2005) is an irregularly shaped plinth overlaid with secondhand scribble-scrabble. Balloon Dog (Yellow) (1994-2000) is a child’s party favor whose flimsiness has been made sleek and forever taut.

The latter is a relative of Rabbit (1986), Mr. Koons’ masterpiece and an icon of postmodernism. It’s a stainless steel sculpture of an inflatable bunny, the kind of thing you’d win at a carnival. With its gleaming surface and factory-made anonymity, Rabbit turns High Modernism on its head—Brancusi rendered as high-end kitsch. It’s more unnerving and beautiful than anything Andy Warhol put his silkscreen to.

But Rabbit was a fluke—the Chelsea equivalent of a thousand monkeys producing Hamlet after a thousand years of typing.

The Man Himself

Jeff Koons in his studio; courtesy Art:21

* * *

Mr. Koons’ true art is his image. With that patented shit-eating grin and Teflon demeanor, he’s an animatronic neo-Dadaist with a Hollywood budget. The porcelain Michael Jackson, the huge flower-covered dogs and, God help us, the enormous photos of the artist engaging in Hustler-style sex with his ex-wife, the porn star and former Italian Parliament member La Cicciolina—they’re idle distractions; expensive, too. That’s how Mr. Koons wants it.

There’s not much to say about the Met show. The sculptures are there, they’re blandly diverting, and that’s about it. Mr. Koons is ever thus. Admirers will likely demur and peg something like Coloring Book as a dazzlement by one of “the most important artists of … the twentieth century” (as Nation critic and philosopher Arthur Danto believes). Mr. Koons’ sculptures are easy to ignore. They’re nothing to get hot and bothered about.

The most interesting thing about Mr. Koons isn’t his art, but a rumor. According to my aforementioned colleague, word is that Mr. Koons uses the considerable sums of money he derives from sales of his work in order to collect art by the likes of early Renaissance German sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider and Post-Impressionist painter Edouard Vuillard.

These aren’t typical figures of pomo adulation. You can barely imagine them occupying the same galaxy as Mr. Koons. Could the shallow artist be a front for a serious aesthete?

As I say, it’s a rumor, but Mr. Koons just might be a better con man than we think.

© 2008 Mario Naves

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