“Fictional Narratives” at Alex Ferrone Gallery

Marisa S. White, Calling Up a Storm (2014), archival print on Canson PrintMaKing Rag paper, 10 x 10″; all images courtesy of Alex Ferrone Gallery

Surrealism, going on a 100-years old now, is as much a period style as any other art movement. Its antecedents–the theories of Sigmund Freud and a Europe devastated by war, in particular–are established to the point of being common knowledge. But surrealism with a small “s”–that is to say, a phenomenon definable not as a distinct style, but as an embodiment of invented worlds–has been with us for centuries. In the visual arts, any number of figures–Bosch, Böcklin, Fuseli and Arcimboldo, to name a few–dealt with images that had no direct equivalent in the observed world. Dreams, in their wildness, have been with us since Day One. Artists haven’t been far behind. Much of the time, they’ve been ahead.

Richard Aardsma, Palm Beach Diner (2021), archival pigment on Moa Entrada Rag Natural fine art paper, 14-1/2 x 14″

“Fictional Narratives”, a three-person exhibition curated by Alex Ferrone, asks the question: what might the surreal look like, here, in the twenty-first century? Technology plays a significant role in the answer. Marisa S. White, Richard Aardsma and Laura Dodson work with photography, but aren’t photographers per se. Their imagery is filtered through the camera’s lens, and subsequently manipulated by digital means. The documentary or the anecdotal—photography’s presumed stock-in-trade–is embellished through nuances in texture, light and juxtapositions of form that could not have been imagined by montage artists tinkering in their darkrooms during the last century. White’s poetic meditations on femininity and evolution, Aardsma’s quixotic mash-ups of retro Americana, and Dodson’s layered orchestrations of discarded snapshots and memorabilia are, as feats of technical acumen, seamless and even painterly. Their images–sometimes kaleidoscopic, invariably enigmatic–are rendered tangible, the stuff of here-and-now.  It’s worth remembering that surrealism doesn’t deny the real so much as unmask and amplify it. And so it is with these artists.

Laura Dodson, It Was (2017), Archival pigment print (Hahnemuehle 100% Photo Rag Sating paper), 20-3/4 x 18-3/4″

The melding of fact and fantasy–the merging of materials and imagination, methodology and abandon–is, of course, an inherent part of the creative process. In White’s Calling Upon a Storm (2014), we see the natural world operating with a logic and precision that creates, and then sustains, an almost mystical lyricism. The ghostly zeppelin seen in the distance of Aardsma’s truck-stop diorama, Palm Springs Diner (2021)? It’s a harbinger from another time and place. In It Was (2017), Dodson suffuses high fashion within Renaissance abundance to create a talisman of unsettling effect and erotic undercurrent. In each case, the artist choreographs a set of motifs that are indicative of an idiosyncratic vision, but also, and not least, a world worth reckoning with. “Fictional Narratives” underscores the ubiquity of the dreamlike, and the pleasures to be gleaned from its caprices.

An online gallery talk with the artists from the “Fictional Narratives” exhibition will take place on Wednesday, September 15th at 6:00 p.m EDT. Clear here to register.

(c) 2021 Mario Naves

“Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities” at The Morgan Library Museum, New York

Installation photo of “Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities” @ The Morgan Library Museum

“Painting is such an ordinary thing.” That was my initial observation upon entering the mid-career survey of the Pakistan-born artist Shahzia Sikander. This thought occurred without my having registered the “extraordinary” claim found in the exhibition title. As it turns out, the Morgan is right. Sikander is an extraordinary—or, at least, atypical—artist: a miniaturist in an age of multimedia showpieces; a painter during a time when art is embracing the virtual when it isn’t dominating a lot of square footage. Sikander has an uphill row to hoe in a culture of post-everything abundance. It’s understandable that an artist given to virtuosic fantasies that are hardly bigger than a sheet of printer paper should feel the need to make some kind of splash. Take the opening gambit of “Extraordinary Realities”: it isn’t a painting, but a sizable bronze sculpture reiterating motifs found in the paintings. The exhibition centerpiece is a floor-to-ceiling, back-to-front arrangement of paper, fabric, and ideograms. Sikander isn’t the first painter to capitulate to the installation ethos; it’s a run-of-the-mill tack. Do such nods to theatricality prompt genuine engagement with the accompanying pictures? That’s the nagging question.

An additional observation prompted by “Extraordinary Realities” goes to the wall labels accompanying Sikander’s paintings. Text has long been an adjunct to displays of contemporary art. “Didactics,” as they are known in the trade, are touted as an educational tool that provides context for audiences in need of a hand. The truth is that most contemporary art can’t be fathomed without a cheat sheet. Concept is king. The visual? A necessary evil when it isn’t nugatory. Sikander isn’t a conceptual artist, but she fits within the frame-work of an age in which Conceptualism is the smog-like oxygen we all breathe. Consequently, the Morgan show is festooned with didactics—copious blocks of verbiage that, in the immortal locution of Ricky Ricardo, ’splain the images on view. And, boy, are the images ’splained hard. The requisite hot buttons are pushed. Let’s reel them off together, shall we? Colonialism, gender, race, class, globalism, patriarchy, and—catch your breath!—“narratives [that] shatter expected hierarchies, norms, and stereotypes.”

Shahzia Sikander, The Many Faces of Islam (1997-1999), dry pigment, water color, tea wash, gold leaf on wasli paper, 14 x 18″; courtey of The Morgan Library Museum

Given this run of topics, it’s a wonder the museum extols Sikander’s work as “open-ended.” Can there be any room left for interpretation? The aforementioned subjects are fair game for artistic exploration, but what might happen if someone stole into the museum during the wee hours and removed the wall labels? Would an impartial viewer ascertain the true meaning of the rust-red stain obscuring Separate Working Things I (1993–95)—an image rendered in the manner of Mughal painting, a type of picture-making with roots in sixteenth-century Persia? Sikander’s superimposed gesture, we are informed, “shatters the trope of ‘ideal love’ . . . [becoming] the site for rupture, a destabilizing of the motif of heterosexual love itself.” Hermann Rorschach notwithstanding, that’s a lot to ask from a blot. With time, Sikander’s agglomerations of characters and symbols became less vague and more selective, even if one is hard-pressed to say they gained in clarity. There are exceptions: The Many Faces of Islam (1999) is a straightforward accounting of Muslim leaders, including Benazir Bhutto, Hanan Ashrawi, Yasser Arafat, and Saddam Hussein. The piece was commissioned by The New York Times Magazine. Sometimes an editorial nudge can help an artist dot her i’s and cross her t’s.

Truth to tell, Sikander’s ambitions are sizable. Any artist worth her salt works within the parameters of a given tradition even as she explores how to question, broaden, and elaborate upon them. Admittedly, some traditions are more hidebound than others. Sikander raised eyebrows at the National College of the Arts in Lahore when she set out to pursue miniature painting. Members of the administration, as well as her peers, actively discouraged Sikander from doing so. Shrugging off the naysayers, she hitched her pedagogical lot with Bashir Ahmad, a figurative miniaturist of no small repute. In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Sikander praises Ahmad for instilling “tradition at a deeply visceral level” and insisting on the primacy of skill and technique. The Scroll (1989–90), Sikander’s undergraduate thesis project, is on display at the Morgan; good luck trying to look at it. Even at the sparsely attended press preview, visitors crowded around the piece, attempting to unravel its cinematic flow and taking pleasure in its meticulously crafted minutiae. The Scroll is an astonishing accomplishment for a twenty-year-old artist. It would be an astonishing accomplishment for an artist of any age.

Shahzia Sikander, Detail of The Scroll (1989-90), watercolor, gouache, tea wash, gold leaf on wasli paper, 14 x 67″; courtesy The Morgan Library Museum

Sikander left Pakistan to pursue graduate studies at the Rhode Island School of Design—a shift in geographical context that was, in the artist’s estimation, a “pleasing dislocation.” (Subsequent stopovers were made in Glasgow and Houston; ultimately, New York City became home.) “Dislocation” is, in fact, the predominant theme of Sikander’s work. During the ensuing years, obeisance to craft remained a mainstay, as did an abiding stylistic grounding—the pictures never abandon their miniaturist origins. The compositions, however, took a turn, becoming increasingly fragmented and collage-like in their overlays of imagery. Segments of Desire Go Wandering Off—the title of a handsome 1998 accumulation of marks and materials—sums up the trajectory. The pictures are increasingly global in reach, with Sikander appropriating motifs from Botticelli, Greek mythology, Hindu iconography, Renaissance manuscripts, and the Texas art scene. All of which point to the vagaries of a full life lived by one woman—a woman of envious talents and significant accomplishment. Still, it’s worth mulling if that’s enough. Do the paintings pique our attention because, or in spite, of their cross-cultural markers? The challenge for any artist is to rise above the particular—the anecdotal and insular, the temporary and meretricious. “Extraordinary Realities” is testament to the contortions, artistic and otherwise, that can go into that vexing enterprise.

(c) 2021 Mario Naves

This review was originally published the September 2021 issue of The New Criterion.

“Alice Neel: People Come First” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Alice Neel, Margaret Evans Pregnant (1978), oil on canvas, 57 3/4 × 38″. Gift of Barbara Lee, The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women. Courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Let’s talk real estate. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has allocated the same amount of space to the American painter Alice Neel (1900–84) as it did for the art and artifacts of Byzantium; the reign of Hatshepsut, queen and, later, pharaoh of Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt; two outlays of tapestries from medieval and Renaissance Europe; and a career-spanning exhibition of the French romantic painter Eugène Delacroix. However you might esteem the subjects explored in these shows (I’m fairly agnostic on Delacroix, myself), there is little doubt that each body of work merited the grand treatment, that they are subjects worthy of sweeping scholarly focus. But what about a second-tier talent whose aesthetic purview was nowhere near as encompassing as her meanness of spirit? Museums have galleries set aside for temporary exhibitions, and those galleries need to be filled. Square footage, when doled out by an important institution, connotes prestige. “Alice Neel: People Come First” will have repercussions. Notice must be paid.

Not that Neel’s work has been without an audience in the decades since her death; nor did Neel suffer inattention during her working life. Anyone invited to sit and chat with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show had, in one way or another, achieved a notoriety rare in American culture. For a visual artist, this kind of recognition—that is to say, the imprimatur of mainstream media—is all but unheard of. Neel’s fame came relatively late. As with most artists, she sacrificed much in terms of comfort and security to pursue her work. Neel did possess that most vital of traits: tenacity. Where would she have been without it? Painters who worked figuratively during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism had a tough go of it; the advent of neo-Dadaism didn’t exactly provide an accommodating context for an artist taken with the human condition and its many foibles (though Neel did locate a friendly toehold within the irony-laden precincts of Pop Art). Gumption propelled Neel’s art, as did gall. Johnny Carson couldn’t help but bestow his favors on the feisty old lady and her crazy pictures.

Alice Neel on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson

Longevity became Neel; flattery followed on its heels. Few of us get to hear ourselves described as the best at anything. Neel lived to hear herself pegged as “the best portrait painter of the twentieth century.” Given her renowned irascibility, she likely cast a skeptical eye on the sobriquet, knowing full well how wheels are greased in even the most outré precincts of the art world. What, then, would the self-described “Mother Hubbard” make of the claims surrounding “People Come First”? The Met is, after all, touting Neel as “one of the century’s most radical painters.” What century might that be? Before you can say “champion of social justice”—which the museum does, in fact, say—you’ll know the aforementioned century is the current one, despite her death in the 1980s. “In an era of record income inequality, resurgent white nationalism, and xenophobia, Neel’s painterly advocacy of humanity in its multiracial and multicultural manifestations, her inclusive, democratic spirit, and her commitment to social justice all serve to enhance her posthumous reputation, making her art seem all the more relevant, even urgent.” Enter Alice Neel, Patron Marm of All That Is Woke.

None of which is surprising. Diktats and notions that were once the purview of a select group of academics have become part and parcel of everyday life. Joe and Jane Lunchbox are conversant, nowadays, with “hetero-normativity,” “cultural appropriation,” and “privilege.” Anyone who has cracked open an exhibition catalogue in recent years, or cherry-picked through any number of specialized journals, will recognize the type of writing that strong-arms art into the service of political fashion. Try taking a tipple each time the words “justice” or “identity” pop up in the essays and wall labels accompanying the Met show—inebriation will be achieved swiftly. Making light of the strained verbiage typical of our time shouldn’t mitigate its cumulative effect. Reading about Neel’s “female-lived experience,” the “gendered struggles” of her subjects, and the “intersubjectivity” of the resulting portraits is to realize how over-intellectualized argot can become run-of-the-mill. It’s depressing, and a disservice to the liberating capacities of art. Listen to Neel, during the advent of Feminism, tell it: “When I was in my studio, I didn’t give a damn what sex I was . . . I thought art is art.” Neel didn’t suffer ideological grandstanding gladly. Why subject her work to it?

Neel hailed from Merion Square, Pennsylvania, the fourth of five children born to Alice Concross Hartley and George Washington Neel, an accountant by trade. Neel attended the Philadelphia School for Women, purposely setting out to avoid the Impressionist-influenced curriculum fostered at the better-known Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. (Even at a young age, Neel knew her own mind.) While studying painting and drawing, she met and later married the artist Carlos Enriquez, a Cuban émigré of some means. The couple moved to Havana, but the relationship proved rocky. Enriquez left the marriage, taking the couple’s daughter with him. Neel subsequently had a nervous breakdown and was committed to the suicide ward of Philadelphia General Hospital. After having been placed in the care of her mother and father, Neel ended up in New York City, spending a formative period living and working in Spanish Harlem. She moved to Greenwich Village—a neighborhood Neel dismissed as “honky tonk”—and settled on the Upper West Side. Along the way, she worked for the WPA, fellow-traveled with Communist culturati, took a host of often troublesome lovers, and became a fixture of the New York art scene.

Alice Neel, Two Girls, Spanish Harlem (1959), oil on canvas, 30 x 25″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston;
Gift of Barbara Lee

“People Come First” begins with a gambit that is partly a dare and definitely a grabber. Margaret Evans Pregnant (1978) portrays a nude woman toward the end of her term. The sitter, scaled close to life-size, is wedged between the top and bottom edges of the canvas. Evans confronts us with an expression that is both uninhibited and wooden—a mask that portends vulnerability. The posture is rigid, the belly alarmingly convex. Evans appears to be gripping the yellow footstool upon which she’s seated. Neel’s rendering of the hands and arms is awkward, and their tensions unclear. Does Evans hold on because the incipient responsibilities of motherhood are pressing upon her consciousness? Or is it because the floor tilts at an angle parallel to the picture plane? A mirror in the upper right hand of the picture reflects a different woman—or so it seems, anyway; the likeness is iffy. The mirror is, in and of itself, problematic: it’s out of sync with the overall composition. The more time spent with Margaret Evans Pregnant the more its glitches are revealed. Art should withstand the long look, not crumble beneath it.

All of which will strike fans of Neel as moot. Didn’t you read the exhibition title? People come first. “Paint your power,” the catalogue intones, “paint your politics.” In the introductory essay, Kelly Baum and Randall Griffey—who, along with the curatorial assistant Brinda Kumar, organized the Met show—write of how “Neel embraced imperfection as intrinsic to the human condition” and how “we are wrong to assume perfection from her.” Neel’s lack of perfection, in this circumstance, lies in her independence as an individual and as an intellect. (Neel had some choice opinions that wouldn’t withstand the puritanical dictates of our internet overlords.) Forget, for a moment, the curators’ backdoor clarion call for conformity. What might be said about Neel as a painter—as a person involved in an art form with its own distinct history and attributes? It’s worth reiterating that a painting, before it is anything else, is a painting. Once that essential prerequisite has been engaged—once it has been complicated, questioned, and brought to resolution—viewers can move on to the work’s “embedded code[s]” and “innuendo.” Prioritizing theory over matter and political intent over aesthetic fact are convenient means for setting aside critical distinctions. Righteous obfuscation is no substitute for the real thing.

After the ice-breaker that is Margaret Evans Pregnant, the exhibition stumbles precipitously with a showcase of Neel’s early forays into Social Realism. Forever down with the proletariat, Neel depicted protest marches, dock workers, sundry members of the intelligentsia, and unsung corners of the urban landscape with an earnestness that is leaden when it’s not amateurish. Was there an unwritten law at the time that political art had to be awash in that distinctive and deadening brown? If so, Neel’s palette followed suit. Works-on-paper depicting vignettes of bohemian domesticity are preferable in their relative lightness of touch, though they are marred by an uncertain handle on caricature. Max Beckmann looks to have been an influence, along with Chaïm Soutine, the Soyer brothers, and van Gogh. Neel jettisoned the somber affectations of her generation round about the mid-1950s— particularly as she took increased notice of her neighbors in El Barrio. Georgie Acre No. 2 (1955) and, especially, Two Girls, Spanish Harlem (1959) signal a welcome shift—the everyday awakening potentialities of form. Neel’s chromatic range gained in brightness, her brushwork speed and vigor, and the compositions a measure of clarity or, if you prefer, bluntness.

Alice Neel, Black Draftee (James Hunter) (1965), oil on canvas, 60 x 40″; courtesy COMMA Foundation, Belgium

Neel’s signature attribute is unquestioned immediacy—you know: first try, best try. Eschewing preparatory drawings, she painted directly on the canvas and from direct observation. Beginning with a wiry under-drawing, usually keyed to a cool variation of blue, Neel applied flattened patchworks of pigment, juxtaposing warm and cool tonalities and surfaces that are constitutionally resistant to sensuality. Neel’s brusque treatment of the surroundings in which her subjects are ensconced is cursory-bordering-on-negligent, but it can be effective. The settee in Andy Warhol (1970) or the chaise longue upon which the subject of Pregnant Woman (1971) reclines are marvels of bare-bones delineation. Both pictures are, in their own flagrant way, arresting. The tension between painted form and diagrammatic notation is as rude as it wants to be, and adroitly choreographed. Over the long haul, however, Neel’s pictorial flourishes flatten the expressive intent of her art. She puts one in mind of Francis Bacon—another semi-Expressionist swallowed whole by exquisitely cultivated mannerisms. By the time we reach Black Draftee (James Hunter) (1965), a canvas displayed toward the back end of the exhibition, we are grateful to see Neel not take up her brush all that much.

Black Draftee (James Hunter) would make a striking centerpiece for a more concise and, I would argue, better exhibition. As it is, “People Come First” oversells Neel’s achievement and, in particular, her vaunted humanism. Really, who does come first? Notwithstanding an atypical and often eccentric range of sitters, Neel doesn’t do much plumbing of character. Miserabilist superficiality was her gig. There are exceptions: artists like Benny Andrews, Geoffrey Hendricks, and (not included at the Met) Faith Ringgold make themselves felt, as does Richard in the Era of the Corporation (1978–79), a painting of Neel’s son in which he evinces an understandable level of wariness. Even then, it’s the Corporation that is Neel’s starting point; Richard is there as a type. And so it goes: New Yorkers, in all their multiplicity, are rendered goggle-eyed, pasty-skinned, and splayed like butterflies in a curio cabinet. Whatever the initial attraction or relationship between sitter and artist, the resulting paintings are peculiarly neutral in affect. They exist, primarily, as emblems of Neel’s nervy savoir-faire. Denizens of twenty-first century-America shouldn’t mistake representation for “allyship” or “anarchic humanity” for significant art. There are better exemplars for our fractious age than a painter endowed with a cruel and unlovely gift.

(c) 2021 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the June 2021 edition of The New Criterion.

“Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented” at The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Installation photo of “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor” at The Museum of Modern Art; courtesy MOMA/photo by Robert Gerhardt

When notice of “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented” arrived in my inbox, I gave the e-mail a cursory scan and promptly deposited it in my trash folder. Knowing that curators have a tendency to overlay contemporary mores onto historical precedent, I feared this MOMA show would have “Woke” stamped all over it. The exhibition title reminded me of the initial wave of political correctness some thirty years ago. At that time, “cultural worker” had been mooted as a replacement for the word “artist”—the latter carrying with it the gamey stench of elitism. Starry-eyed soul that I am, I thought “cultural worker” had long been consigned to the circular file of post-Marxist assaults on the language. A quick surf of the internet proved otherwise: “cultural worker” has become part of the lingua franca for the enlightened among us. There is, I learned, an organization dubbed Cultural Workers Organize—its stated mission being the fomentation of “collective responses to precarity.” It’s a hop, skip, and click from this kind of thing to engineers, agitators, and constructors.

“Precarity” was, in fact, my state of mind when I visited MOMA and wandered into “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor.” The first thing to be read on the introductory wall text is that “the title ‘artist’ is an insult.” The exhibition catalogue goes further, including what appears to be a snippet of free verse: “No more painters, no more writers, no more musicians . . . no more, no more, no more, nothing, nothing, nothing.” The “artist-proletarian,” we are duly informed, will usher in “the language of the masses, not the individual.” Should one have the stomach for pronuciamentos of this sort, they can be readily gleaned from any number of Twitter feeds, newspapers, and academic journals. The aforementioned quotes? They come not from a usual suspect like The New York Times, but from Georg Grosz, John Heartfield, Louis Aragon, and Raoul Hausmann. Troublemakers all, for a time anyway, and integral figures—dare one say “artists”?—during a signal moment in twentieth-century art. Those with a sense of historical sweep will recognize the names. Or maybe not. Cultural memory ain’t what it used to be. Which is a significant reason “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor” proves to be a noteworthy event.

Valentina Kulagina, Maquette for We Are Building (Stroim) (1929), cut-and-pasted printed and painted paper, sandpaper, gouache, and pencil on paper, 22 5/8 × 14 1/4″; courtesy MOMA

The exhibition serves as a showcase for the museum’s 2018 acquisition of some three hundred works on paper from the collection of Merrill C. Berman, a financial advisor with a predilection for the graphic arts. The curatorial focus is on the international avant-garde—specifically, how it responded to and was shaped by historical events, chief among them World War I and the devastation of Europe, along with the Russian Revolution. The ascendance of mass media is equally attended to, as is its re-imagining by designers whose artistic agenda was no less radical than their politics. As such, “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor” errs on the side of reproducible materials. It contains a handful of paintings, sculptures, and industrial objects; a sampling of collages; and an abundance of brash and propulsive posters—maybe too abundant. The compositional strategies of the Russian Constructivists, as well as those of their followers, were contrived to arrest the passersby’s attention when encountered at a magazine kiosk or on a city wall. As museum pieces, one bullying tract on the Socialist Offensive followed by another (and another) tends to work against one’s powers of concentration. Artifacts this loud need space and context in which to echo. The installation at MOMA muffles their audacity.

“Engineer, Agitator, Constructor” begins with Russian Constructivism, touching upon its roots in Suprematism with figures like Kazimir Malevich and Lyubov Popova, and then glances upon Dadaism and Neo-Plasticism. Collage and photo-montage are given prominence, as they betoken not only the mixing of mediums, but a concomitant blurring of artistic disciplines. Organized around a discrete set of themes, the exhibition makes a telling shift from subsections titled “Artist as Agitator” and “Activating Data” to “Artist as Adman” and “An Expert in Publicity.” That design innovations predicated on the theories of Karl Marx would funnel their way up—or, depending on how one looks at these things, down—to Madison Avenue is a hindsight rich in irony. Still, the heady atmosphere of “agitation–propaganda” dominates, and the confluence of pictorial innovation and extremist politics is emphasized. In that regard, the MOMA show engenders consternation. The so-called Communist Experiment was an epic catastrophe. Can one commend artists who were in thrall to its illusions for pictorial know-how without making a hash of history?

Solomon Telingater, Untitled (1929), cut-and-pasted printed and painted paper on paper with gouache and pencil, 17-11/16 × 15″; courtesy MOMA

Not a few engineers, agitators, and constructors found themselves crushed by those they sought to lionize. Gustav Klutsis, a gift- ed artist hailing from Latvia and a Stalinist through and through, was summarily executed as “an enemy of the state” in 1938. (No utopian deed, it seems, goes unpunished.) Klutsis’s work is given a prominent berth at MOMA, as are other talents whose work merits consideration, including Natalia Pinus, Nikol Sedelnikov, Elena Semenova, Varvara Stepanova, Wladyslaw Strzemiński, and Valentina Kulagina, but not Lydia Naumova, whose posters commemorating the International Trade Union privilege bureaucratic didactics over visual legibility. The Tbilisi-born Solomon Telingater is a find—his nimble employment of collage brings a rare and welcome wit to the proceedings. Humor, albeit largely unintentional, figures into Bart van der Leck’s studies for an ad campaign commissioned by Delft Salad Oil. Van der Leck applied de Stijl principles to the image of a mustachioed gentleman surrounded by bottles of salad dressing. The corporate overlords were not amused by the resulting array of dancing geometric shapes. Van der Leck lost the job. The moral? Revolutionary impulses will only get you so far—the real world is obstinate in that way. This sobering lesson may not be the starting point of this ambitious and instructive exhibition, but it is the finish line for those with the eyes to see it.

(c) 2021 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the March 2021 edition of The New Criterion.

Mernet Larsen at James Cohan Gallery

Mernet Larsen, Deliverance (after El Lissitzky) (2020), acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 64-1/2 x 52-1/4″; photo courtesy of James Cohan Gallery
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“In their lack of a gravitational hub, the paintings touch on the hallucinogenic. Truth be told, their wibble-and-wobble can try the patience of the eye—and stomach. That our attention and equilibrium aren’t upset is testament to how thoroughly Larsen is in control of compositional vectors. Dislocated as they may be, the pictures hold tight. A line is trod between chaos and calm, rectitude and ping-pong. Incongruity is vital to Larsen’s vision, and she makes something of it.”

The entire article can be found here.

“Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment” at The New Museum, New York, NY

Peter Saul, Art Critic Suicide (1996), acrylic and alkyd on canvas, 66 x 84-1/4″; courtesy George Adams Gallery, New York
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“Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment” is a disappointment in that it omits my favorite Saul painting. Let me amend that: “favorite” is a strong word. Art Critic Suicide (1996) has proven memorable because of the response elicited from its subjects: Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker’s longtime art critic; and Hilton Kramer, the one-time critic for The New York Times and co-founder of The New Criterion. In the painting, both men are rendered with cartoonish hyperbole and set awash in a garish purple-pink, each firing not one, but two guns into his respective temple. In his review of this New Museum show, Schjeldahl mentioned his surprise at coming upon the painting some years back—in particular, having been paired with “an intellectual antagonist of mine.” This irony won’t be lost on anyone conversant with contemporary art criticism. It certainly wasn’t lost on Hilton. “Exactly why we should be linked for the honor of serving as Mr. Saul’s principal villains is a matter I can only guess at,” he wrote in The New York Observer in the year 2000. The artist is seen at the bottom of the canvas, a pimply faced homunculus gleeful at the turn of events. “Is it possible,” Hilton wondered, “that Mr. Saul objects to readable prose?”

Having followed Saul’s work over the years, I can report that objection is, in fact, his modus operandi. Objection to what, you might ask? Pretty much everything, and never are the objections stated mildly or shaded with nuance. The friend with whom I attended the New Museum show described the pictures as “ejaculatory,” and it would be difficult to locate an adjective more apropos to Saul’s over-the-top brand of grotesquerie. The targets of his ire are subject to torturous distensions. Physiognomies are stretched and kneaded to Silly Putty–like extremes. Imagine the sinuous distortions of Mannerism amplified through a Day-Glo prism, and then delineated with the pin-prick intricacy of outré cartoonists like Basil Wolverton and S. Clay Wilson. As a paint-handler, Saul pat-pat-pats at his sizable canvases with what appears to be a cotton ball. In doing so, he wrests light and lyricism away from pointillist facture, bringing squishy dimensionality to ballooning forms. The color palette? Josef Albers undergoing sugar shock. Saturated tones are the rule, eye-popping, acidic, and sickly sweet. Sex and violence, those old things, are constants.

Installation photo of “Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment” at The New Museum; courtesy The New Museum
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Contact with Saul’s paintings can cause nausea. A few years back, I toured the galleries on Manhattan’s Fifty-seventh Street with a group of students; among our stops was a Saul exhibition at the Fifth Avenue branch of Mary Boone Gallery. Shortly after entering the venue, I noticed that one of my charges went missing, ultimately locating her, doubled-over, on the avenue. “Why,” she exclaimed, “would anyone want to paint these things?” Art critics we know about, but what else has Saul seen fit to castigate? The list is long: capital punishment, serial murderers, presidents (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, especially), “Yankee Garbage,” Christianity, capitalism, racial inequity, Joseph Stalin, Chairman Mao, classical antiquity, Manifest Destiny, the modern city-state, “woman’s arts,” spaghetti and meatballs, Andy Warhol, O. J. Simpson, Max Beckmann, and, not least, himself. How much you indulge the work depends on whose ox is being gored. Missing from “Crime and Punishment” is a self-portrait in which Saul is seen using Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain for the purpose it was originally intended–kind of. “Found objects ain’t worth a good shit” reads the caption. You get the idea.

Is it recommended that visitors to “Crime and Punishment” bring an air sickness bag? Saul would likely take it as a compliment, but he is, on the whole, a cheery figure—not hard to like, harder to take seriously. During the afternoon I attended the exhibition, visitors greeted the abundance of pictures, installed salon-style, with joyous exclamations, appreciative laughter, and then deadly quiet. The unrelenting nature of Saul’s vision—a temperament forever at its satiric boiling point—is, over the long haul, dulling. Notwithstanding the histrionics—or, rather, because of them— Saul’s art is resistible, even when you might be on the same page regarding this or that topic. “Consistency,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.” It’s also the pitfall of the exuberantly vituperative. All the same, one can’t help but wonder how the imagery might sit with younger audiences. Taking Republicans, law enforcement, and patriarchy to the cleaners is well and fine, but Saul’s depictions of the Yellow Peril, Angela Davis, and Native Americans are stridently unwoke. Maybe he’s the lone old white guy to get a pass on such things.

Peter Saul, Super Crime Team (1961-62), oil on canvas, 59 x 63″; courtesy the Hall Collection and The New Museum
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Subjecting “Crime and Punishment” to the puritanical requisites of Cancel Culture would only add to Saul’s reputation, of course. As it is, let me put in a brief for Saul’s early paintings–those ramshackle agglomerations of cartoonish glyphs and stray bits of verbiage, put into motion with hasty-bordering-on-slapdash brushwork and compositional strategies derived, albeit in a roundabout manner, from Cubism. Forget canny pasticheurs like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg: Saul is the real bridge between the New York School and Pop Art. His everything-and-the-toilet-seat commentaries on the ubiquity of mass media, the perils of consumerism, and the limitations of civil society retain their antisocial vigor some six decades after the fact. Saul is the rare painter who poaches upon the fly-by-night anarchy of graffiti and manages to retain its outlaw ésprit. (The scratchy appropriations of Jean Dubuffet and Jean Michel-Basquiat are, in comparison, polite conversation pieces.) Super Crime Team (1961–62), Girl #2 (1962), and Superman in the Electric Chair (1963) are as rude and ready as they want to be, employing scatology, iconoclasm, and overkill as a form of vanitas painting. Within these patchwork rebuses lie Saul’s contribution to the culture of our time. The rest is one man’s unrelenting misanthropy—pre-digested, prettified, and taxidermied to perfection.

© 2020 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the December 2020 edition of The New Criterion.

“Jordan Casteel: Within Reach” at The New Museum, New York

Installation of “Jordan Casteel: Within Reach” at The New Museum; courtesy The New Museum
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Strolling through “Jordan Casteel: Within Reach,” I was reminded of my time as a graduate student in the mid-1980s, a moment when Neo-Expressionism was just past its peak and the vacuum-sealed truisms of Post-Modernism were gaining a toehold in the collective consciousness. Among the controversies of the time was whether certain artists deserved their reputations, given their relative youth. David Salle and Julian Schnabel—there are others, but these two are lodged in memory—were fêted with museum exhibitions at the respective ages of thirty-five and thirty-six. Serious Artist–types harrumphed at the audacity. How could a Young Turk survive, let alone carry, a retrospective when history favors late bloomers? Titian, Matisse, Willem de Kooning, and Romare Bearden were settling into middle-age when they became the figures we now esteem. There have been Young Masters, of course: Raphael and Vermeer died before the age of forty, and their achievements were, to put it mildly, remarkable. Still, artists tend to gain in range and depth from prolonged experience with life. Posterity smiles, only occasionally, upon the whipper-snapper.

The Eighties were a signal time in the art world; strange, too. But the New York scene has become stranger still—political grand-standing coupled with a hyperbolic marketplace will do that to a subculture. Young artists are no longer frowned upon, and they are regularly (as a dealer of acquaintance put it) “cradle snatched” by curators, collectors, and critics. Are young folks more in tune with our kaleidoscopic world—as we are often led to believe—or are they more apt to latch onto it? The former connotes prescience; the latter, a chase after the bandwagon. Jordan Casteel is an interesting case in point. She has achieved astonishing success in a short span of time. Months after earning her MFA from Yale in 2014, Casteel had a solo exhibition in Manhattan, went on to a prestigious residency at The Studio Museum of Harlem, and was picked up by the art world macher Casey Kaplan. Jerry Saltz, the art critic for New York magazine, wrote that Casteel is “prepared to take a rightful place on the front lines of contemporary painting.” The New York Times? Casteel has received half a dozen notices—more recognition from our paper of record than most artists get in a lifetime. And since we’re keeping tabs: Casteel is thirty-one years old.

Jordan Casteel, The Baayfalls (2017), oil on canvas, 78 x 90″; courtesy The New Museum

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Good for Casteel: we should all be showered with attention and plaudits. Whether they are earned is another matter. Voluminous press, enviable sales, and the profile that inevitably accompanies them aren’t necessarily indicators of aesthetic quality or staying power. Art ultimately thrives on its independence and integrity, on how adroitly its requisite properties are shaped and how they embody and shade qualities we intuit as human commonalities. How good are Casteel’s paintings? (An impolitic question given the hierarchy-free nostrums of contemporary culture.) Fans of the terminally avant-garde will be taken aback by Casteel’s conservatism. Unlike the usual fare at The New Museum, Casteel doesn’t partake in installations of bric-à-brac or heady nostrums given bare-bones packaging. No bells and whistles, thank you very much: oil on canvas will do. Portraiture is Casteel’s métier: the sitter is the locus of, and inspiration for, the artist’s vision. Upon entering “Within Reach,” one can’t help but take note of the intimacy informing Casteel’s art—something of a paradox given its larger-than-life scale. Empathy and warmth are rare commodities in art as in life. Casteel’s best portraits are suffused with both.

In the catalogue interview, Casteel tells Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator at the Studio Museum, that “being a black artist painting people of color is a nonnegotiable, unchangeable fact.” She goes on to wonder if “it is possible to be a person from a marginalized community and still make ‘art for art’s sake.’ ” Casteel goes some way in answering the question with The Baayfalls (2017), a portrait of a Harlem street vendor and her brother, a recent visitor—or émigré—from Senegal. (The painting was recreated as a large mural adjacent to New York’s High Line on Twenty-second Street.) It’s an unlikely and ambitious inventory of pictorial tacks: representation vies with abstraction; vibrant colors are lodged within encompassing fields of gray, black, and white; volume and mass—that is to say, dimension— coexist with attenuated-bordering-on-blasé linework. The woman pictured, Fallou, makes a devotional gesture derived from the Sufi Brotherhood, but it is the presence of her brother, Baaye Demba Sow, that cinches the painting. Casteel renders his skin with a steely range of blue-blacks and captures a temperament—a moment, really—that is simultaneously world-weary and august. Romare Bearden aimed to “paint the life of my people as I know it . . . as Bruegel painted the life of the Flemish people of his day.” Casteel has accomplished something like this with The Baayfalls.

Jordan Casteel, Serwaa and Amoakohene (2019), oil on canvas, 90 x 78″; courtesy The New Museum * * *

Casteel isn’t up to the Bearden standard— few of us are—and it’s worth mulling if there are better role models for figurative painters than Alice Neel. Casteel is on record extolling Neel’s “freshness and sense of perfection,” and the influence is there to see. Casteel’s art is mercifully free of Neel’s cruel bonhomie, and her serpentine paint-handling is more generous in spirit and momentum. Like Neel, however, Casteel doesn’t carry her pictorial machinations throughout the entirety of the paintings. The backdrops for her subjects are, well, backdrops. Oddly crumpled in character, Casteel’s compositions are patchwork affairs, and the flattened light that defines them betrays too strong a dependence on the photographs that serve as source material. Casteel is liveliest when pattern and color are given a measure of independence: the red-and-green garment glimpsed in Her Turn (2018), for example, or the choppy run of textiles seen in Noelle and Serwaa and Amoakohene (2019). Casteel might take a look at Edouard Vuillard and his melding of portraiture and pattern—or Gwen John, a painter who did away with backdrops altogether. It’s enough to make you think that a bit of art-for-art’s-sake might transform “unchangeable fact” into something richer, wilder, and true. “Within Reach,” indeed: let’s see where Casteel takes us.

© 2020 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the November 2020 edition of The New Criterion.

“Forbidden Realms”

Mario Naves, A Stone Thrown in Athens (2019-20), acrylic on panel, 24 x 30″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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“Serenely joyful, subtly colored and Apollonian in affect”? Wow.

Thanks to Franklin Einspruch–artist, critic and brain trust of Delicious Line, an invaluable resource for mavens of contemporary art–for his review of my current exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery.

Not Having a Cow, Man!

Installation of “Mario Naves: Losing the Cow” at Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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The painter and critic Andrew Shea has posted a review of my current show at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, and I couldn’t ask for a more nuanced eye. Shea’s review can be found at Dispatch, the blog of The New Criterion.

“Losing the Cow”: Paintings by Mario Naves

Bryce Canyon_Blog

Bryce Canyon, Utah; Bryan Mullennix, Getty Images

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The following essay is included in the catalogue accompanying “Mario Naves: Losing the Cow”, an exhibition on display at Elizabeth Harris Gallery. Installation photos of the paintings can be seen here.

“A hell of a place to lose a cow”–that’s how the Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce, back in 1870, described the canyon in southern Utah that would come to bear his name. Almost fifty years later, the Suprematist artist Theo Van Doesburg painted an arrangement of rectangles derived from pencil studies of a cow. In between and surrounding these poles revolve some curious tangents—about perception and subjectivity; nature’s bounty; hierarchies of form; and the transformative pleasures of art.

What can be gained and what might be overlooked in losing the cow? For Bryce, the astonishing landscape of the American West was a hindrance; for van Doesburg, geometry superseded observation. The world, in both cases, proved inescapable.

Van Doesburg_1

Van Doesburg_3

Theo van Doesburg, Study for Compostion VIII (c. 1917) and Composition VIII (The Cow) (c. 1918); courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York

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The paintings in this exhibition don’t begin from anything that specific–there’s not a barnyard in sight of my Lower East Side studio. Rather, each image is the culmination of impulses and allusions that arise during the process of painting.

Chance incident is pivotal. Blind alleys, unexpected digressions and a variety of conundrums are set out, jettisoned, excavated and explored. In pursuing and then clarifying this turn of events, I aim to create paintings that are as puzzling and peculiar as life itself, cows definitely included.

© 2020 Mario Naves

“Losing the Cow” at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York, NY


The Flying Lesson (2019-20), acrylic on paper mounted on panel, 20″ in diameter; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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I am pleased to announce that Elizabeth Harris Gallery will be mounting an exhibition of my recent paintings come this September. “Losing the Cow” was originally scheduled for last April, but–well, you know, the world got in the way. The show will be open on September 5th and run through October 24th. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition.

As for the exhibition title–it involves Mormon pioneers, Theo van Doesburg and the lack of agriculture on the Lower East Side. Check this space in a week or so–I’ll be posting the catalogue essay.


“Marie Cuttoli: The Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray” at the Barnes Foundation


Installation view of ““Marie Cuttoli: The Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray”; photo courtesy of The Barnes Foundation

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“Marie Cuttoli was a businesswoman: an entrepreneur possessed of a sharp eye, savvy marketing skills, and great connections. The redoubtable Albert Barnes vouched for her ‘foresight, courage, and knowledge.’ Lord & Taylor—yes, the department store—extolled her feminist bona fides, proving itself P.C.–prescient in 1927.”

Read the entire article here.

“Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist” at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


Agnes Pelton, Day, 1935. Oil on canvas. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum; Gift of The Melody S. Robidoux Foundation; All photographs courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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Here’s one thing you can say about “Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist”: localism has its benefits. A retrospective of a reclusive and little-known painter has arrived in Manhattan, having originated in Phoenix and traveled to Santa Fe, and with Palm Springs set to be its final destination. Though Pelton (1881–1961) was born in Germany and educated in New York, she spent the last thirty years of her life holed up in southern California—Cathedral City, to be exact. No splashy international credentials here, thank you very much. What about auction house hoopla, ideological grandstanding, and post-modernist theorizing? Though anything can be drafted into the service of irksome trends, Pelton’s work, on the whole, proves resistant. Should we be so gauche, then, to consider matters of art? On those terms, “Desert Transcendentalist” succeeds nicely. What possessed the Whitney—an institution not known for placing a premium on aesthetic worth—to host such an understated, serious, and rewarding venture? Curator Barbara Haskell and senior curatorial assistant Sarah Humphreville must have done considerable strong-arming to convince their corporate bosses that Pelton was worth the real estate. Or maybe they mentioned Hilma af Klint.

You remember af Klint: the Swedish painter fêted by the Guggenheim a little over a year ago, and whose oeuvre was quite the smash. Af Klint’s diagrammatic pictographs found an appreciative audience that would otherwise have had little truck with abstraction. The backstory helped: af Klint (1862–1944) was a visionary who communed with the spirit world; she was a woman who, chronologically speaking, beat pioneering abstractionists like Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian—that is to say, the guys—at their own game; and she had a temperament inimical to the market-place. That the paintings are merely okay hasn’t fazed the cultish following that has amassed in af Klint’s wake. What will these same folks make of Pelton? She, too, immersed herself in the supernatural. Madame Blavatsky was a touchstone, as were astrology, numerology, faith healing, and Agni Yoga, a discipline in which true believers learn that (as per the official literature) “the way to and from other planets is no more difficult than is the passage between the physical and astral bodies.” Those of us leery about the state of our bodies, astral or otherwise, might be forgiven for thinking twice about trekking to the Whitney.

Pelton_The Blest.jpg

Agnes Pelton, The Blest, 1941. Oil on canvas, 37 1/2 × 28 1/4 in. (95.3 × 71.8 cm). Collection of Georgia and Michael de Havenon. Photograph by Martin Seck

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Which would be a shame because Pelton is a find—a painter whose work reveals af Klint as a piker and confirms Georgia O’Keeffe to be a drab hand. The latter comparison is merited not only because Pelton and O’Keeffe took inspiration from the landscape of the American West—Pelton spent a formative season in New Mexico at the behest of the arts patron Mable Dodge—but also because they shared a distinctly homespun mysticism, as well as significant commonalities of form. Scholars conjecture that Pelton’s bent toward New Age nostrums can be traced to a highly publicized family scandal: her grandmother Elizabeth Tilton (already married and with children) was famously exposed as having had an affair with the firebrand evangelist Henry Ward Beecher. Having felt “overshadowed” and “cramped” by this legacy, and suffering from poor health, Pelton sought solace outside of conventional religious and medical practice. This led, interestingly enough, to some noteworthy connections among the culturati—not only Dodge, but also Emma Curtis Hopkins, a practitioner of “alternative feminist theology,” and Alice Brisbane Thursby. Hopkins served as Pelton’s therapist; Thursby as patron and promoter. The latter’s connections to the Parisian avant-garde did much to cement Pelton’s reputation within New York circles. She was no starry-eyed outsider.

large_804_Orbits_copy.jpgAgnes Pelton, Orbits, 1934. Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 × 30 in. (92.1 × 76.2 cm). Oakland Museum of California; gift of Concours d’Antiques, the Art Guild of the Oakland Museum of California

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As I noted in my review of the af Klint exhibition, philosophical loopiness shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand when it comes to art. It has, in fact, occasioned a fair share of significant work, and Pelton is a sterling case in point. Admittedly, “Desert Transcendentalist” does stutter toward the beginning, with pictures like Room Decoration in Purple and Gray (1917), with its fairy tale portent and Futurist mannerisms, and Intimation (1933) and Barna Dilae (1935), saccharine and sticky portraits of imagined “ascended masters.” Even so, these images are characterized by patiently calibrated surfaces and lustrous accumulations of oil paint. Pelton’s brush flutters with a becoming modesty, and her palette is striking in its luminosity. This is an art of bottomless, crystalline color, and spaces so nuanced in their transitions as to occasion double-takes. As a symbolist, Pelton was better off forgoing direct representation; suggestion and distillation were her strengths. In the finest paintings, constellations, flora, and sandstone mesas are subsumed within gentle arabesques, sloping rhythms, and compositional buoyancy. The Whitney’s Sea Change (1931), with its off-center accumulation of bulbous forms nestled within a crepuscular light, is Hudson River School sensationalism melded with Surrealist whimsy. Sounds awful, but it is, in truth, a magnificent picture, and not a little sexy to boot.

Pelton employed Modernist means when adumbrating form, but the chromatic and spatial resonance of the pictures—their clarity, depth, and jewel-like sonorities—are pure Renaissance fortitude. The ascending motes of light in Orbits (1934) and the keening tonality enveloping Challenge (1940) owe less to Arthur Dove—another painter with whom Pelton shares artistic turf—than, say, Raphael. A hyperbolic comparison, sure, but name another twentieth-century artist who created anything close to the infinite yellow of Prelude (1943) or the milky veils of unnameable color that filter through The Blest (1941). Pelton’s more tangible shapes can be cartoony and do edge upon kitsch, but they carry with them a wit and resilience that is appealing and welcome. Gilbert Vicario, the Selig Family Chief Curator at the Phoenix Art Museum and the organizer of “Desert Transcendentalist,” has wisely chosen not to include Pelton’s traditional landscape paintings. Though accomplished, these pictures-done-for-profit are woefully bland when contrasted with even the wobbliest of Pelton’s spiritualist reveries. As for the non-wobbly reveries —of which there are a baker’s dozen or two— they are stunners. Coming into initial contact with them, you can’t help but wonder where they’ve been all your life. Kudos to Haskell and Humphreville for bringing this exhibition to New York, and especially Vicario, for knowing a good painter when he sees one.

© 2020 Mario Naves

This review originally appeard in the May 2020 edition of The New Criterion.

“Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect; Drawings from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France” at The Morgan Library & Museum, New York


Jean-Jacques Lequeu, And We Shall Be Mothers Because . . . ! (1793 or 1974), pen and black ink, black and gray wash; courtesy The Morgan Library and Museum and Bibliothèque nationale de France, Departement des Estampes et de la photographie

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“The obscurity to which Lequeu was subsequently consigned can be attributed, in no small part, to his own doing. Numerous drawings dedicated to sexual preoccupations of a rather peculiar sort don’t readily lend themselves to public display, let alone public acclamation . . .”

Click here to read the entirety of the review at Dispatch, the blog for The New Criterion.

Artist Snapshot


Mario Naves, Dominant Cultural Narrative (2020), acrylic on canvas over panel, 24″ in diameter; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery, NY (Photo: Adam Reich)

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Thanks to the good graces of painter Jill Nathanson, I’ll be teaching this spring at The Art Students League as part of “Visiting Artists and New Abstraction“. ASL has posted an interview with me on its website as part of the Artist Snapshot series. It can be found here.

“Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Felix Vallotton, The White and the Black (1913), oil on canvas, 44-7/8 x 57-7/8″; courtesy the Kunstmuseum Bern, Hahnloser/Jaeggli Foundation, Villa Flora, Winterthur

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If only for the inclusion of The White and the Black (1913), the retrospective of the Swiss painter and printmaker Félix Vallotton (1865–1925) merits its subtitle. The Met has given special emphasis to the painting, and can you blame it for doing so? It’s an arresting picture. Toward the right of the canvas, a black woman, clad in blue and smoking a cigarette, sits pensively on a bed. The object of her attention is a reclining white woman who is nude and—what exactly? Sleeping, maybe; posing, perhaps. (Her posture suggests a degree of self-awareness.) The title conjures a Whistlerian focus on color harmonies, and the image bears a knowing resemblance to Manet’s Olympia (1863). The relationship between the two women is provocative in its ambiguity. Was Vallotton, a committed leftist and anarchist sympathizer, commenting on class divide—exploring unstated tensions between mistress and servant? He didn’t leave a paper trail regarding intent; the exhibition catalogue is mum on the subject. We are on surer footing in guessing that the curators are keying into contemporary woke culture by bestowing a prominent berth to The White and the Black.

As a feat of painting, The White and the Black owes nothing to Whistler, only nods to Manet, and strays far afield from Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, both of whom Vallotton counted as friends. Paul Gauguin is the nearest correlative, partly for the confluence of eroticism and race, mostly for the elasticity and import given to color—the expanse of sea green serving as the backdrop, especially. That, and the painting isn’t . . . good. Or, rather, not as good as it portends. The longer one stays with The White and the Black the more its shortcomings are revealed. The nude feels as if she has been airlifted from another galaxy. (As a variation on Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, it likely was.) The concomitant disconnect suggests that we’re looking at a painter who hasn’t altogether mastered the intricacies of pictorial space. The disquieting thing about “Painter of Disquiet” is, in fact, how consistently Vallotton misses the mark set by his not inconsiderable ambitions. The critic and artist Patrick Heron memorably dubbed Gauguin a “great bad painter.” Vallotton doesn’t rank that high. Still, the exhibition should pique the interest of those with a taste for idiosyncratic talent and fin de siècle culture.


Felix Vallotton, Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty (1885), oil on canvas, 70 x 55 cm.; courtesy Cantonal Museum of Fine Arts, Lausanne

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Born in Lausanne to a middle-class Protestant family, the sixteen-year-old Vallotton forsook his studies in Greek and Latin, heading, instead, to Paris in order to pursue art. He enrolled at the Académie Julian and haunted the galleries of the Louvre, becoming enamored with the paintings of da Vinci, Dürer, and Ingres. With a boost from the painter Jules Lefebvre, his teacher at the Académie, Vallotton’s work was exhibited at the Salon des Champs-Élysées in 1885. It wasn’t long before the young artist began exploring less traditional byways. Working as an art critic for the Gazette de Lausanne, Vallotton singled out Henri Rousseau for special praise, and he began doing woodcut illustrations for a variety of periodicals. These caught the collective eye of the Nabis, and Vallotton was invited to join a group that counted among its members Vuillard, Bonnard, and Maurice Denis. Subsequently ensconced within the Parisian avant-garde, Vallotton exhibited in the Salon des Indépendants and socialized with the likes of Félix Fénéon, Gertrude Stein, Paul Verlaine, and Thadée Natanson, the publisher of the influential literary magazine La Revue blanche. Radical politics were a continuing fascination for Vallotton, albeit one tempered by his marriage to Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, a widow of considerable wealth and influence.

Vallotton’s work for the popular press generated notoriety and won admiration. A critic of the time dubbed him the “Baudelaire of wood-engraving.” As a presumed nod to this honorific, the Met exhibition opens with Vallotton’s starkly configured black-and-white prints, largely of events taking place in the streets of Paris. Truth to tell, their cumulative effect is underwhelming. The high-contrast pictures devoted to the World’s Fair have a punchy appeal, as does Vallotton’s use of caricature. But the images are muddled—puzzle pieces that don’t snap into place—and one is reminded that the best cartoonists stylize form with flair and rhythm. The good bourgeois citizens of France, as pictured by Vallotton, are ill-configured stereotypes in compositions with little interior logic. Vallotton was better when sticking to nineteenth-century academic standards of figuration. Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty (1885) and The Sick Girl (1892), though stiff and stagey respectively, are more convincing. Not convincing at all is The Five Painters (1902–03), Vallotton’s portrait of himself, Vuillard, Bonnard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, and Charles Cottet. A cut-rate Madame Tussaud wouldn’t settle for the dour and dusty mannequins Vallotton has shuffled into place.


Felix Vallotton, Box Seats at the Theater, the Gentleman and the Lady (1909), oil on canvas, 18-3/16 x 15″; courtesy Private Collection

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A suite of prints titled Intimités, along with a group of related paintings, explore the quiddities of (mostly illicit) romantic intrigue: men and women, ensconced within well-appointed interiors, rendezvous and embrace. The hothouse atmosphere of The Lie (1897) generates erotic ten- sion, and the stately tones sweeping through The Visit (1899) underscore the unseemly machinations of seduction. Composition, more than mise en scène, was a strong suit. Vallotton employed asymmetry to striking effect, and his cropped vistas and subtle shifts in vantage point add a welcome frisson of modernity. The Bon Marché (1898), a tripartite homage to the venerable department store, is remarkably gutsy in how a slurry of figures is clearly situated within a centralized area of darkness. Box Seats at the Theater, the Gentleman and the Lady (1909) is a study in structural concision and skewed geometry that would have made Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec smile—Guy Pène du Bois, too. And that’s the problem: the work can’t help but recall better painters. The Met’s decision to hang Vallotton’s portrait of Gertrude Stein side by side with Picasso’s depiction of the collector points to how relatively stolid and unadventurous Vallotton was as an artist. The oeuvre, though not without its diversions, makes for a bumpy ride. “Painter of Disquiet” is best considered a curiosity that’s never quite as curious as it wants to be.

© 2020 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the January 2020 edition of The New Criterion.

“John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal” at The Morgan Library & Museum, New York


John Singer Sargent, Lady Diana Manners (1914), charcoal; Private Collection. Photography by Christopher Calnan

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Charcoal is among the most generous and frustrating of drawing mediums. Generous in that it lends itself to ready manipulation and, as such, is forgiving in its malleability; each mark and erasure increases the depth and tactility of both the image and the sheet of paper itself. Frustrating because its material consistency makes for dirt, and lots of it. Ingraining itself into the nooks and crannies of the hand, charcoal will also leave a halo of black dust on the area surrounding the drawing surface. Anyone who has even briefly experimented with charcoal quickly realizes its potential as well as its liabilities. You either love or hate the stuff. Having said that, bets are that folks on either side of this split will exit “John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal” energized, amazed, and delighted. Sargent had a singular gift for oils and watercolor; we all know that. But charcoal? That comes as a surprise, though less for Sargent’s deftness of touch than for his delving into the medium at all.

The Morgan show is, in fact, the first time a museum has dedicated itself exclusively to Sargent’s efforts in charcoal. Organized by Richard Ormond—the coauthor of the Sargent catalogue raisonné, former director of London’s National Portrait Gallery, and grand-nephew of the artist—along with Laurel Peterson, the Moore Curatorial Fellow in the Morgan’s Department of Drawings and Prints, “Portraits in Charcoal” is an exhibition whose aesthetic reach goes beyond its modest scale. The fifty-some drawings on display have been installed with a gentility that befits the era and milieu in which they were created—that is to say, Victorian, aristocratic, and artistic. Should there be a hue and cry from the politically correct among us regarding the 1 percent for whom Sargent plied his trade, well, they can stand in line behind the artist himself. At the age of fifty-one, the much sought-after portraitist declared there would be “no more paughtraits . . . I abhor and abjure them and hope never to do another especially of the Upper Classe.”


John Singer Sargent, Henry James (1912), charcoal, 24-5/16 x 16-1/8″; The Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

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This distaste didn’t prevent Sargent from allowing himself some wiggle room. He was, after all, wise to the status and possibility afforded by hobnobbing with the social elite. While Sargent gave up portraiture in oils, he continued doing “a lot of mugs in coke and charcoal.” A “lot”? Think seven hundred and fifty. For the cultured classes, a Sargent charcoal portrait was de rigueur. Writing in the catalogue, Ormond wryly notes that “How do you like your Sargent drawing?” became a query that peppered London dinner parties, practically guaranteeing responses from all and sundry. Not that Sargent’s clients were always pleased by the drawings. Lady Cynthia Asquith summarily dismissed Sargent’s portrayal of her as being “the foulest woman I have ever seen.” The son of Bishop William Lawrence donated a portrait of his father to Washington’s National Gallery, stating that “we would be glad to have it a thousand miles from home.” Sargent was not uncritical of his own work. Writing to Edith Wharton about a charcoal portrait of their mutual friend Henry James, Sargent predicted that “I shall not be surprised if you pronounce it a failure.”

The typical viewer has the advantage of not being personally or professionally invested. We are at a welcome remove, here, in the twenty-first century, even when the portraits are figures whose import still resonates. The aforementioned drawing of Henry James is included in “Portraits in Charcoal”—looking not at all a failure, by the way—as are portraits of the poet William Butler Yeats, a twenty- three-year-old Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother), the actress Ethel Barrymore, and Winston Churchill—who, though somewhat put off by Sargent’s picture, thought one “must not look a gift portrait in the mouth.” A double self-portrait from 1902 opens the show, and it is the stiffest thing on display. Pictured as serious and somewhat cherubic, Sargent doesn’t do much more than skim the shallows of representation. Ormond needn’t remind us of the artist’s reticence while taking in the drawing; it’s there to scan. Virtuosity was wasted on self- portraiture—a point made abundantly clear by Lady Evelyn Charteris Vesey, Viscountess de Vesci (1910), a drawing placed in close vicinity to the Double Self-Portrait.


John Singer Sargent, Double Self-Portrait (1902), graphite, 6-1/2 x 7-1/2″; Private Collection, Georgia

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Talk about a lack of reticence! Lady de Vesci is a woman to be reckoned with—elegant, to be sure, and possessed of an intellect as keen as it is unforgiving. We tread lightly lest we incur her displeasure. And so it goes: one drawing after another, wiped, smeared, and dabbed at until an uncanny sense of person-hood emerges from the gritty depths of the medium. Portrait commissions tend toward flattery, and Sargent wasn’t averse to confirming youth, beauty, status, and dignity when the occasion called for it. But portraiture, at its finest, discloses and elaborates upon the human spirit—its depths and sorrows, convictions and contradictions. The greatest portraits are put into motion with empathy, acuity, and, on the part of the artist anyway, necessary understatement. Whatever the backstory to the lives of Rabbi Charles Fleischer, Major Henry Lee Higginson, Eugenia Huici Errázuriz, or Ellen Peabody Endicott, you will know them in significant measure after encountering them through Sargent’s hands. Congratulations to all concerned at the Morgan. “Portraits in Charcoal” is an astonishing exhibition.

© 2019 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the December 2019 edition of The New Criterion.

“Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory” at The Met Breuer


Vija Celmins, Envelope (1964), oil on canvas, 16 x 19″; courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery and The Met Breuer

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What a curious painter Vija Celmins is, so vexing and dry. Two floors of the Met Breuer have been dedicated to an oeuvre spanning some fifty years and not a lot of acreage. The modest size of Celmins’s canvases will come as a surprise to audiences accustomed to the bigger-is-better ethos typical of contemporary art exhibitions. (A smattering of sculptures on display take on a larger scale.) “To Fix the Image in Memory” begins with Envelope (1964), a sixteen-by-nineteen-inch painting sequestered in the entryway to the museum’s fourth floor galleries. As we traverse the show, the work stays within easel-painting range; the largest picture measures about five feet square. The installation is spare and, I’m guessing, was a challenge to choreograph. Certainly, you’d be hard-pressed to recall a show that reinforces just how stark and clean and airless Marcel Breuer’s Seventy-fifth Street edifice is. Celmins’s paintings, drawings, and prints are notably at home in these environs. It’s worth pondering what it is that makes a fairly traditional talent simpatico with the proverbial white cube.

Celmins has long been a steadfast, if decidedly under-the-radar, art world fixture—initially on the West Coast and, later, in New York. Born in Riga in 1938, Celmins had an unsettled childhood. The Soviet invasion of Latvia in 1940 forced the Celmins family—mother and father, along with Vija and an older sister—to seek refuge in Nazi Germany. (“History,” as the artist later noted, “was brutal.”) Having been shuttled from one refugee camp to another, the Celminses came to the United States in 1948 under the auspices of the Church World Service, settling in Indiana. It was the first time, as Celmins told Calvin Tomkins in a New Yorker profile, “that I realized being in fear wasn’t normal.” Celmins attended the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis and found a welcoming niche within its student body. She attended Yale University during the summer of 1961, befriending future art scene mainstays Chuck Close and Brice Marden. Celmins eventually traveled west to study at UCLA. As with many artists of the time, she grappled with the legacy of the New York School even as she kept an eye on recent trends.


Vija Celmins, Heater (1964), oil on canvas, 47 9/16 × 48″; courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery and The Met Breuer

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“To Fix the Image in Memory” begins promisingly with the aforementioned Envelope, a dexterously executed still life in which understatement vies with painterly sensuality. Comparisons to Morandi are not unwarranted. As we enter the exhibition proper, the focus shifts—not in terms of imagery or composition, but in affect. With two notable exceptions, the images are wan and virtually monochrome, tending toward gray; the painterly approach is detached, muffled. Single objects are set within fields of flattened sfumato. To-the-point titles tell all: Heater, Fan, Two Lamps, like that. Painted from observation, these pictures testify to Celmins’s goal of “get[ting] back to some kind of basic thing where I just look, and paint.” She was nothing if not dutiful in her ambitions. Too dutiful, really. Absent is any sense of discovery. An unforgiving literalism takes precedence. Hot Plate and Heater (both 1964), the coloristic exceptions mentioned above, emit heat with appropriate placements of reddish orange in the grills of each appliance. In both cases, it’s an effective pictorial fillip, but, in the end, devoid of imaginative reach. Magic? It’s not on the agenda.

Painting from observation didn’t last long or, rather, became circumscribed. Three dimensions were winnowed down to two: Celmins began using photographs as source material. Gun with Hand #1 and Gun with Hand #2 (both 1964) are predicated on pictures taken by the artist and depict a bare arm jutting in from the side of the canvas firing a revolver. The lone moment of painterly embellishment is the puff of smoke that gives the images an oddball quietude. TV (1964) and Train (1965), installed nearby, are similarly centered on time and movement having been stifled. What Celmins does to the photo, whether working in graphite or oils, is far from flashy. Photo-realism isn’t quite her métier. Celmins is less overtly crowd-pleasing—less superficial, too. Images of trucks, deserts, war planes, forest fires, and, in recent years, the cosmos evince a Magrittean sense of displacement and a frangibility that a charitable soul might describe as Chardin-esque. “Redescription” is Celmins’s preferred terminology for her use of photography. What might seem a semantic hedge against potential complaints about copying or imitation is, in point of fact, a marker of how an artist can generate poetry through deliberate technique and force of will. Celmins’s way with graphite, especially, is admirable in its subtlety and softness.


Vija Celmins, Web 2 (2000), mezzotint, 18 x 14-3/4″; courtesy The Met Breuer

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Resistible, too. As poetry, Celmins’s work is distilled and dour—haiku devoid of evocation or resonance. Writing in the catalogue, Briony Fer, an art historian at University College London and a Fellow of the British Academy, cautions against allusions to poetry, preferring “conceptual abstraction” as a more suitable peg on which to hang Celmins’s “haptic, creaturely logic.” Well, maybe. Minimalism is more to the point, I think, and goes to the heart of the art’s metaphorical intractability. Celmins’s pictures of pictures hint at provocation and meditation; what they deliver are immaculate dead-ends. Even within the series of drawings devoted to waves and spider webs—the most evanescent of her subjects—an overriding sense of closure stunts engagement. “What you see is what you see,” indeed. Passive-aggressive is the signature M.O. of her generation, and Celmins partakes of its insolence. Abandoning Abstract Expressionism because “there was no meaning in it for me,” Celmins pursued an artistic strategy in which “no meaning” was both a jumping-off point and final destination. All of which goes some way in explaining the forbidding purity within which Celmins has barricaded herself, as well as the ready adaptability of her work to the Met Breuer.

© 2019 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the November 2019 edition of The New Criterion.

Pratt in Venice 35th Anniversary

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I’m pleased to announce that two of my paintings will be displayed in the exhibition accompanying the 35th anniversary of the indispensable Pratt in Venice program. The opening reception takes place on Monday, October 21st, between 5:00-8:00 p.m. with celebratory remarks at 6:30 pm. The exhibition continues until November 1st.

The exhibition will be in Steuben Gallery on Pratt’s Brooklyn campus; the school is located at 200 Willoughby Avenue in Clinton Hill.

“Picasso and Antiquity: Line and Clay” The Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens, Greece


Installation shot of “Picasso and Antiquity: Line and Clay”; courtesy The Museum of Cycladic Art

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“Picasso and Antiquity: Line and Clay” brings to mind a cartoon I came across ages ago in (if memory serves correctly) the pages of MAD magazine. It was a parody of the familiar image of Darwinian ascent, tracing, in this case, the evolution of art and artists. From left to right, we follow the step-by-step development, beginning with an ape wielding a brush to, a couple of figures over, a stately Leonardo-like figure holding a palette. Ultimately, we end up on a downhill slope to the original ape, albeit now wearing a beret and splattering paint, Pollock-style. An obvious joke, perhaps, yet like most jokes it contains a hard kernel of truth—about the development of artistic pursuit, say, or the illusory nature of progress. Might the wits at MAD have had Ecclesiastes in mind, placing broad strokes on the observation that there is nothing new under the sun? Certainly, there are immovable facts that refute historical circumstances. An ape wearing a beret? There are better emblems of human constancy. Worse, too.

The line traced by “Picasso and Antiquity” is less encyclopedic and less cynical. It is, in fact, as heartening an exhibition as one could hope for. Art, it insists, is a means by which human beings, however separated by time and culture, can uncover and sustain correspondences of feeling and ambition, vision and thought. “Universal values,” they used to be called, and without employing scare quotes as a crutch. In a culture as identity-riven and politically rebarbative as our own, such an effort might be derided as furthering the wiles of, um, the cisheteropatriarchy. (Yeah, it’s a thing.) Yet by placing works by the foremost innovator of twentieth-century art alongside objects that predate them—by, at times, a good three millennia—“Picasso and Antiquity” places its bets on art as an inclusive and transformative continuum, and wins. Kudos to Nikolaos C. Stampolidis, Director of the Museum of Cycladic Art, and the art historian Olivier Berggruen for assembling a show that posits history as a vital continuity, a resource in which aspiration and accomplishment are forever contemporary, forever relevant.


Torso from a statue of the Minotaur/Roman copy of an Early Classical prototype, marble, height: 73 cm.; courtesy the National Archeological Museum, Athens, Greece

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Influence is a slippery thing, and not always easy to codify. Stampolidis admits as much, noting that the sundry examples of antiquity featured at the Cycladic Museum are objects the “artist might have . . . encountered, absorbed, digested, adjusted and transformed, or have been to a greater or lesser degree inspired by.” “Might” is the operative word. How versed was the Spaniard in the art and lore of Greece and Rome? The poet and critic Randall Jarrell described Picasso as an artist who “loves the world so much he wants to steal it and eat it.” Picasso was, in artistic terms, an omnivore of unceasing appetite. As a young painter in Paris, he haunted the Louvre’s Campana Collection with its myriad artifacts and sculptures. Recurring motifs in his oeuvre—fauns, minotaurs, and centaurs—testify to Picasso’s knowledge of myth. More specialized references pop up as well—to Silenus, for instance, the drunken semi-divinity who served as tutor to Dionysus. Berggruen suggests that relationships with Efstratios Eleftheriades (better known as Teriade) and Christian Zervos, publishers of Greek extraction and proselytizers for Greek culture, were pivotal in furthering the artist’s immersion in all things antique. Score a point for the home team.

“Picasso and Antiquity” is divided into sections with discrete themes, among them “Line and Light in Space,” “Lysistrata,” “Arcadia,” “The Three Graces,” and “The Minotaur.” The works are modest in scale and sometimes tiny; this is, very much, a jewel-box exhibition. The minotaur introduces the show—with a Roman copy, done in marble, based on an earlier Classical prototype—and rounds it off with a calyx krater, circa 340–300 B.C., in which we see a red-figure diorama of Theseus wrestling and besting the fearsome man-bull. As a curatorial gambit, this is risky. The former piece is a powerhouse of sinew and verisimilitude; the latter a supernal exercise in concision and contour. In between, there are artifacts depicting Aphrodite, Dionysiac revels, sacred fish (the tilapia), powerful animals (the bull), and birds—rendered in clay, silver, bronze, and marble. Any artist worth his salt would be rendered skittish by the majesty—or, in the case of the priapic slapstick seen on the Black Figure Kabirian skyphos (ca. fifth century B.C.), arrant ribaldry—inherent in even the least of these pieces. After my initial run-through of the show, Picasso came off as small potatoes, an overinflated ego out of its depth. Upon subsequent visits, the ego gained muscle and credibility. Talent will out and, as it happens, so can irreverence.

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Pablo Picasso, Silenus in the company of dancers (1933), gouache and ink on paper, 34 x 45 cm.; courtesy the Staatliche Museen Berlin, Nationalgalerie Museum Berggruen

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Irreverence and, it should be noted, generosity of spirit. Rarely has Picasso—that monster! that villain!—been so likable. Was a degree of modesty elicited by the source material—that is to say, the competition? Or is this amiability a factor of curatorial choice— abjuring painting and sculpture for ceramics and drawing? The latter two media encouraged a greater degree of informality and play for Picasso than did painting or sculpture. As a draftsman, he is seen at his most mercurial and, at moments, meticulous: Silenus in the company of dancers (1933) and Lysistrata (Reconciliation Between Sparta and Athens) (1934) are tours-de-force, respectively, of narrative density and lyrical momentum. Ceramics have always seemed the least necessary of Picasso’s various mediums, but it did encourage his sense of humor. At the Cycladic Museum, Picasso the ceramicist is an unexpected head-turner, simultaneously confirming and transforming the spiritual heft and stylistic élan of his forebears. In some cases, it’s hard to tell who did what without a scorecard; the commonalities of form and vision are uncanny. A cabinet dedicated to the owl— helpmeet to Athena and, as such, a symbol of erudition—is a delight. As goofy as Picasso’s owls may be, they tap into the iconographic power embodied within the antique bowls and figurines placed nearby. Such juxtapositions are exciting, revealing, and often very funny. “Picasso and Antiquity” is an achievement of rare and welcome distinction.

© 2019 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the October 2019 edition of The New Criterion.

First Hand: Ibrahim El-Salahi

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Ibrahim El-Salahi, Alphabets No. 2 (1962/re-worked 1968), oil on canvas, 29-3/8 x 24-3/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Among the run of Neo-Conceptualist bric-a-brac that is “Home is A Foreign Place; Recent Acquisitions in Context”, currently at the Met Breuer, Alphabets No. 2 comes as a welcome moment of introspection, quietude and reverie. The Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi (born 1930) is among the chief proponents of hurufiyya, a mode of abstraction in which Arabic script is subsumed within compositional structures derived from Cubism and Surrealism. “I began to break down the letters to find what gave them meaning”. Disassembling the word in service of truths that are expressly visual is a tough row to hoe. El-Salahi does so with becoming modesty.

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Gary Petersen

Gary Petersen

Gary Petersen, Split Screen (2018), acrylic on canvas, 64 x 84″; courtesy McKenzie Fine Art, New York

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Linear perspective–long a mainstay of Gary Petersen’s distinctive brand of geometric abstraction–gives way to stacking-and-packing in Split Screen (2018). This shift in emphasis can be gleaned from a title that references the digital revolution and, by fiat, how it has come to both dominate and upset the social fabric. If that seems a lot to chew on for paintings whose color palette seems to have been co-opted from The Jetsons–well, that’s how one observer put it–so be it. Better to confront the brave new world with humor than despair.

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Konstantinos Volanakis


Konstantinos Volanakis, Seascape, courtesy the Historical Archives Museum of Hydra and Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation Collection, Hydra, Greece

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Think Canaletto by way of Turner and you’ll get an idea of what Konstantinos Volanakis (1837-1907) brings to the table. A national treasure in his home country, “the father of Greek seascape painting” was also admired by Franz Josef I–so much so, that the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire awarded Volanakis two years of free travel (courtesy of the Austrian navy) on top of the 1,000 florins paid for a canvas commemorating the imperial rout of an armada from Italy. An exhibition at the Historical Archives Museum of Hydra shines an appreciative light on the specialized niche Volanakis made his own.

© 2019 Mario Naves


First Hand: Fulvia Plautilla

Fulvia Plautilla

Anonymous, Portrait of Fulvia Plautilla, wife of the Emperor Caracalla (Late 2nd-early 3rd Century AD), marble; courtesy The Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece

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Fulvia Plautilla’s marriage to the Roman Emperor Caracalla was predicated upon political calculation–calculation to which the brutal Caracalla wasn’t privy. The results weren’t happy. Not only did Caracalla eventually exile the 16-year old Empress, but (as some accounts have it) he strangled her to death as well. Fulvia’s short reign resulted in more portraits than you might think, the most tender of which is at The Acropolis Museum. In art, at least, Fulvia was granted a quietude that went notably missing from her life.

© 2019 Mario Naves


First Hand: Pablo Picasso


Pablo Picasso, Silenus in the Company of Dancers (1933), gouache and India ink on paper, courtesy of the Staatliche Muzeen zu Berlin, Germany, and the Cycladic Museum, Athens, Greece

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The central figure in this Dionysian reverie–he of the ample-bellied contraposto and oddly distant stare–is Silenus, tutor to Dionysus himself. Something of a dirty old man, definitely a drunkard, and a seer, Silenus was a salacious semi-divinity tailor-made for a man of Picasso’s inclinations. It’s Silenus you’ll want to thank for yoking the lyrical side of the Spaniard’s (not always generous) sense of humor.

My thoughts on “Picasso & Antiquity”, in which Silenus in the Company of Dancers serves as both culmination and aperçu, will appear in an upcoming edition of The New Criterion.

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Sarah Cockings & Harriet Fleuriot

Cockings & Fleuriot

Plasma Vista (2016), HD video with audio, 7 minutes 05 seconds; courtesy the artists and K-Gold Temporary Gallery, Lesbos, Greece

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Cockings and Fleuriot bend genres as cagily as they do genders in Plasma Vista (2016), a haute couture horror show featured at K-Gold Contemporary Gallery, a venue located on the Greek isle of Lesbos founded by curator Nikolas Vamvouklis. Channeling Hans Bellmer, Mickey Mouse, pulling a rabbit out of a hat, and MTV–that is, when MTV dedicated itself to music videos–Plasma Vista is the work of “total control freaks and huge maximalists” who don’t know how to say when. Thank goodness, then, for a sense of humor that brings unity to an effulgence of images, rhythms and attitudes.

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Avigdor Arikha

Arikha BreadAvigdor Arikha, Bread and Knife (1973), Sumi ink on paper, 11-4/5 x 15-3/5″; courtesy the Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece

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As scrupulous (if not as tenacious) as Giacometti and as terse (if more substantive) than Luc Tuymans, Avigdor Arikha (1929-2010) dubbed himself a “post-abstract representational artist”. A survivor of the concentration camps and Israel’s War of Independence–where he was almost left for dead–the Romanian-born Arikha studied art in Jerusalem and Paris, eventually establishing an international reputation as a painter and draftsman. Though sought after as a portraitist–among his sitters were Queen Elizabeth and Catherine Deneueve–Arikha found his true forte when depicting objects, divining within them a tenderness and wit that was no less apparent for being anxiety riven.

© 2019 Mario Naves



First Hand: Saint George

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Unknown Artist, Saint George (14th Century), oil and gold on wood, 29-1/2 x 19-1/2″; courtesy the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, Greece

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There’s a reason these posts are called “first hand”: the reproduction above doesn’t do justice to the real thing, not even close. Forget surface attributes like the crystalline hatching of pigment or pictorial quiddities like the suit of armor with its contradictory architectural allusions. It’s the overall tonality of the picture that’s absent. The chromatic depth of Saint George is staggering, suffused, as it is, with a coppery resonance that seems impossible even as it meets the eye. There are myriad icons vying for attention at the Byzantine and Christian Museum. None are quite as fulsome as this one.

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Theodore Poulakis

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Theodore Poulakis, Icon with the Ascension of the Prophet Elijah and Scenes From His Life (circa 2nd half of 17th century), oil and gold on wood, 74-1/4 x 48-1/2″; courtesy the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, Greece

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Theodore who? you might ask, and even scholars versed in the byways of Byzantine art might have a hard time pinning down the name. But Poulakis (1622-1692)–a painter hailing from Crete but whose professional life was spent in Venice–is a staple of the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens. Or, rather, it’s the quartet of fiery steeds that steals the show from the miracle worker who is, ostensibly, the focus of the painting.  You’d have to look to Delacroix or Blake to find horses possessed of similar muscle, majesty and purpose.

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Joan Miró


Joan Miró, Untitled (1931), oil and ink on wood, 7-1/2 × 10-5/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Miró the miniaturist is preferable to Miró the proto-Abstract Expressionist. Modest formats endowed his line with a resiliency and wit that went noticeably slack over more expansive surfaces. Untitled (1931) is an irresistible case in point–a creation myth seemingly culled from a Petri dish.

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Stephen Maine


Stephen Maine, P19-0303 (2019), acrylic on canvas, 50 x 40″; courtesy the artist and ODETTA

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“How did he do that?” shouldn’t be the sole criteria for judging a work of art, but the paintings of Stephen Maine, currently at ODETTA, prompt the question and then stray into thornier territory–about the vagaries of representation; color and its provocations; and, yes, the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In P19-0303 (2019) we watch as all-over incident dissolves into something resembling a composition. The result is quizzical, heady and allusive.

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Petrus Christus

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Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop (1449), 39 x 33″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Compared to Portrait of a Carthusian and the supernal The Lamentation, both of which are within a 10-minute walk at the Met, A Goldsmith in his Shop (1449) isn’t much more than an inventory populated by a trio of marionettes. But what an inventory it is! The reflection in the convex mirror at bottom right is the least of it. The cabinet of goods on the back wall, along with the cloth ribbon unfurling at stage right, are beguiling enough to transform a higgledy-piggledy composition into a tour de force.

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Pietro Calvi

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Pietro Calvi, Othello (ca. 1873), marble and bronze, 34-5/8 x 22-1/16 x 22-13/16″; courtesy of The Walters Art Museum

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Those who decry Orientalism will have a tough time of it with Pietro Calvi’s Othello. Calvi brings to the piece a gravity befitting Shakepeare’s Moor and does so without a scintilla of cultural or racial condescension. The juxtaposition of black and white marble may give pause in our hyper-sensitive times, but its formal audacity brings along with it a humanism that is all the more welcome for its nuance and rarity.

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Laura Dodson


Laura Dodson, It Was (2016), pigment print, 15 x 15″ image on 17 x 22″ paper; courtesy the artist and Davis Orton Gallery

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Laura Dodson’s photographs, which can be seen at Davis Orton Gallery, have always occupied a curious space between photography and painting. Dodson’s use of digital technology divests photography of its documentary function, imbuing densely layered imagery with a richness and tactility more typical of painting. It Was is, in fact, based on a 17th-century Dutch still-life painting–a fillip that both keys into and elaborates upon Dodson’s love for the meticulous and the symbolic.

© 2019 Mario Naves


First Hand: Mary Didoardo


Mary Didoardo, Mirage (2018), oil on wood, 30 x 40″; courtesy Kathryn Markel Fine Arts

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The press release accompanying “Reckless in the Lab”, an exhibition of paintings by Mary Didoardo at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, extols the “serious and celebratory” nature of the work. I’d also note that Didoardo’s abstractions are characterized by a bracing sense of freedom. They evince an artist working not only with an enviable surety, but one welcoming of risk–which, of course, puts surety to the test. That approach may be standard operating procedure for certain strains of abstract painting, but it’s one thing to make the claim, another to pull it off. Didoardo pulls it off, and then some.

© 2019 Mario Naves

First-hand; Ted Larsen

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Ted Larsen, Clean Boy (2019), salvage steel, marine-grade plywood, silicone and vulcanized rubber, 10 x 12-1/2 x 8″; courtesy Joshua Liner Gallery

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As a means of keeping my critical and pedagogical houses in order, I’m instituting “First Hand”, a series dedicated to single works-of-art encountered during my sundry travels. The verbiage will be kept to a minimum, and the choices all over the map in terms of chronology. But each featured piece will have, in one way or another, tweaked my pleasure center. Hopefully, they’ll tweak yours as well.

As for Ted Larsen: I caught sight of his wall pieces through the window of Liner Gallery while walking the dog. Upon entering the exhibition, they proved even better when seen, yes, first hand.

© 2019 Mario Naves

“The Self-Portrait, from Schiele to Beckmann” at The Neue Galerie


Georg Scholz, Self-Portrait in Front of an Advertising Column (1926), oil on canvas, 23-5/8 x 30-5/8″; Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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Every cultural institution takes on the role of being its own cheerleader. Rooting for the home team is an integral factor in keeping on the up and up, both PR-wise and financially. It’s understandable, then, that the Neue Galerie is touting “The Self-Portrait, from Schiele to Beckmann” as “groundbreaking.” Who doesn’t want to be seen at the forefront of culture? The truth, however, is quite the opposite. “From Schiele to Beckmann” is, for the Neue Galerie, standard fare. Given the pivotal role self-portraiture held for the Expressionists—German Expressionism not being the sole purview of the Neue Galerie, but a significant component of it—claims to being “unprecedented” come off as hollow and somewhat defensive. If anything, “From Schiele to Beckmann” finds the Neue Galerie cruising on autopilot, promoting mainstays of the collection—among them Self-Portrait in the Camp (1940) by Felix Nussbaum and Self-Portrait with Horn (1938), in which the greatest of German modernists, Max Beckmann, is pictured at his most formidable—while nestling them within a host of like minds. There is little that is surprising about “From Schiele to Beckmann.” Old Home Week is more like it.

Don’t get me wrong: “From Schiele to Beckmann” is a worthy exhibition; considerable legwork was invested in its shaping. Organized by Tobias G. Natter, a specialist in Viennese modernism, the show is dutiful in setting up the parameters of self-portraiture. Rembrandt, the sole non-Germanic artist featured here, is roped in along with other pre- nineteenth-century precursors like Hans von Aachen, Anton Raphael Mengs, and, in spirit if not in actuality, Albrecht Dürer. (The last can be gleaned, Where’s Waldo–style, among the myriad figures pictured in the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand Christians, 1653, by Johann Christian Ruprecht.) Once “the long tradition” has been established (albeit in a more attenuated form than one might hope), “From Schiele to Beckmann” makes the requisite pit stops at Expressionism and Die Neue Sachlichkeit. Breathing room is provided by a smattering of works-on-paper in the small room just off the main galleries. Gems among the latter include a prismatic Self-Portrait as a Gardener (1935–40) by Emil Nolde and Paul Klee’s Self-Portrait, Full Face, Hand Supporting Head (1909), a black-and-white watercolor as terse and determined as its title.


Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait (c. 1917), patinated bronze, 11″ high; courtesy of The Neue Galerie

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The headlining artists are amply represented. If Beckmann is a painter whose imagistic density and narrative complexities are infinitely plumbable, then Schiele remains Schiele: the doomed hero of adolescents the globe over and, as such, off-putting in his self-involvement. Of course, Schiele wouldn’t grate if his talent weren’t formidable. The barbed-wire concision of his line is irresistible when Schiele is at his most straightforward, and tolerable even when capitulating to a signature schtick—witness the torturous preening in Self-Portrait with Arm Twisted Above Head and Self-Portrait in Brown Coat (both 1910). There is a Schiele surprise, however: a sculpture—that’s right, a sculpture—circa 1917, a cast of which was made fifty years after the fact. Self-Portrait is, if not as distinct in style as the paintings or drawings, then a convincing work all the same, particularly in its planar analysis of the human head. How many people will take note of this atypical Schiele? If my afternoon at the Neue Galerie is an indication, most viewers will pass by the sculpture unaware of its author.

Fans of Expressionism will find much to relish in “From Schiele to Beckmann.” The exhibition is dotted with major players of the movement, including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Lyonel Feininger, Otto Dix, Käthe Kollwitz, and Oskar Kokoschka, each of whom is represented by a top-drawer work or two. Of the pair of canvases by the earnest but overrated Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self-Portrait on Her Sixth Wedding Anniversary (1906) is the more striking, not least because the artist is pictured topless and pregnant. An odd and vaguely dogmatic fillip is provided by two paintings from the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler: the same image painted the same year, 1916, but in different sizes. Lovis Corinth, a painter whose aesthetic straddles the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is a figure American audiences don’t have much opportunity to see. A drawing done in graphite from 1921 finds him treading a perilous line between portraiture and cartoon, but the flurried brushwork and silty colors of Last Self-Portrait (1925) make one hanker for more. The same can’t be said for Otto Dix’s Self-Portrait with Easel (1926), in which introspection is indistinguishable from self-aggrandizement.

The most diverting works are by artists who have been lost or obscured by history. Herbert Boeckl, Anton Räderscheidt, Ludwig Meidner, Herbert Ploberger, and Niklaus Stoeklin bring a welcome novelty to a standard accounting of usual suspects. How well their oeuvres hold up under sustained scrutiny is another matter; every genre, after all, has its share of journeymen. One does have to wonder what else Karl Hubbuch might have had up his sleeve. His Self-Portrait with Marianne (1933) provides the sole moment of comedy to the proceedings—Marianne being a ghostly presence who doesn’t haunt Hubbuch so much as call him out on his pretensions. Along the same wall is Self-Portrait in front of an Advertising Column (1926) by Georg Scholz. In its meticulous execution and crystalline attention to detail, the Scholz painting could serve as a textbook example of The New Objectivity. Granted, it lacks the bitterness typical of the style, but what is gained is a razor-sharp clarity that sneaks up on the surreal. The Neue Galerie could do for Scholz what it did for Franz Xaver Messerschmidt and Richard Gerstl: mount a retrospective that shines light on an unheralded and, perhaps, very real achievement. If that’s the upshot of “From Schiele to Beckmann,” then its relative humdrumness will have been worth it.

© 2019 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the June 2019 edition of The New Criterion.

Curiosity Prevails . . . in Woodstock


Pema Rinzin, Peace Booom I, 2015, Ground mineral pigments, gold and copper leaf, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 58″; courtesy of the Artist and Joshua Liner Gallery, New York City

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“Art was the last thing on my mind as I sauntered through the village green of Woodstock, New York—particularly given that my trip upstate followed upon a visit to the 2019 Whitney Biennial. The received truths proffered on Gansevoort Street left me in no mood for gallery-going. A stopover at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts of the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild wasn’t high on the agenda. Curiosity prevailed, however, and with a happy upshot. ”

Read more here.

“Open Doors/Open Studios 2019” @ The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural & Educational Center

Open Studios @ The Clemente.jpg

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I will be participating in “Open Doors Open Studios”, the 23rd annual open studios event at The Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center. Please stop by on either Friday, May 31st, between 6:00-9:00 p.m., or Saturday, June 1st, between 4:00-8:00 p.m. My studio is located on the fourth floor. 
For more information, click here.

“Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture” at The Frick Collection, New York


Giovanni Battista Moroni, Portrait of a Young Woman (ca. 1575), oil on canvas, 20-3/8 x 16-3/8″; Private Collection courtesy of The Frick Collection/photo by Michael Bodycomb

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We all know the Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Lisa del Giocondo is among the most recognizable images in the history of world art, perhaps the most recognizable. Has it been altogether proved that del Giocondo was the sitter? Historical accuracy is important, but it’s clear that verifiable fact—or its fuzziness—hasn’t stifled the painting’s allure. Ambiguity is woven into the fabric of the image, just as it is in Girl with a Pearl Earring, another portrait of an unknown and, in many respects, unknowable personality. Vermeer’s masterwork belongs to a subgenre of art I call “The Almost Mona Lisa”: portraits of women whose identities are obscured by history, but whose presence remains indelible and undeniable. Other examples are Raphael’s La Fornarina and Parmigianino’s Antea (Portrait of a Young Woman)—both of which were subjects of past exhibitions at the Frick, as was Girl with a Pearl Earring—along with Giorgione’s Portrait of a Young Bride (Laura) and Portrait of a Young Girl by the Netherlandish artist Petrus Christus. Add to this far-from-encyclopedic list Portrait of a Young Woman (ca. 1575) by the Italian painter Giovanni Battista Moroni (1520/24–1579/80).

Portrait of a Young Woman is the centerpiece of “Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture” and is installed with appropriate emphasis—smack dab in the center of the Frick’s oval gallery. Appropriate but not ideal. The Moroni canvas, measuring less than two feet in both height and width, has been cordoned off, presumably due to safety and conservation concerns. Fans of painting can expect to be frustrated, because close inspection of the picture’s surface is impossible. And inspection is inseparable from delectation—as is made clear from the rest of the paintings, which one can nose right up to. And, boy, is it worth nosing up: Moroni is a paint-handler of rare dexterity and astonishing variety, a virtuoso deserving of the name. Whether his brush alights upon flesh or fabric, or gives shape and fullness to pictorial space, Moroni applies oils with a suppleness that is documentary in focus and sensual in effect. Titian is said to have considered Moroni’s skills as a portraitist superior to his own. Given the distinctiveness of character evident in Portrait of a Young Woman—an individual of keen intelligence and no little skepticism—you can’t help but think this apocryphal footnote is God’s honest truth.


Giovanni Battista Moroni, The Tailor (1565-70), oil on canvas, 99-1/2 x 77 cm.; courtesy The National Gallery, London

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“The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture” is the first major show of Moroni’s art mounted in North America. It hasn’t come soon enough. A few years back, the Met hosted “Bellini, Titian, and Lotto: North Italian Paintings from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo,” an exhibition in which two Moroni works, Portrait of a Little Girl of the Redetti Family (ca. 1570) and Portrait of a Twenty-Nine-Year-Old Man (1567), stole the thunder from the title luminaries. Coming across the stern rectitude of Bartolomeo Bonghi (1553) in the permanent collection of the Met prompts a similar head-turning. No mere gallery-filler is Moroni. He’s a master who has been given short shrift almost from the get-go. Writing in 1648, Carlo Ridolfi, the artist’s biographer, claimed that while Moroni “can only be praised,” his art lacked “the vivacity of his genius, being obliged to imitation.” Note Moroni’s absence from The Lives of the Artists. Did Vasari consider him too much of a bumpkin, ensconced, as Moroni was, in either Bergamo or his native Albino? Closer to our time, the art historian and connoisseur Bernard Berenson flatly dismissed Moroni as an “uninventive” painter who “gives us sitters no doubt as they looked.” Yeah, well: even the most discerning eye can mistake a master for a journeyman.

Lucky for us, the exhibition organizers— Aimee Ng, Associate Curator at the Frick; Simone Facchinetti, Curator at the Museo Adriano Bernareggi in Bergamo; and Arturo Galansino, Director General at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence—know what they’ve got in the bag. “The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture” features twenty-three Moroni canvases, along with an array of objects that elaborate upon the work’s costumery, props, and settings. These include a sixteenth-century Spanish pendant, a marble sculpture of a male nude circa second-century Rome, a bejeweled marten’s head from sixteenth-century Venice, and a pair of iron shears from sixteenth-century France. The latter are displayed in proximity to The Tailor (ca. 1570), the painting considered Moroni’s signature work. Unlike the upstanding men and fine ladies typical of the genre, here is a tradesman caught both at work and in a moment of reflection. There continues to be discussion as to what, exactly, the social standing of the title figure might have been, but the class consciousness of the picture was remarked upon early on. In the 1660 poem honoring Venetian painting, Le Carta del navigar pitoresco, the artist and engraver Marco Boschini praised The Tailor as being “so beautiful and well painted that he’s more eloquent than a lawyer.”


Giovanni Battista Moroni, Isotta Brembati (ca. 1555-56), oil on canvas, 63 x 45-1/4″; courtesy Fondazione Museo di Palazzo Moroni

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The Tailor is a fine picture, but privilege and power—with their finery, opulence, and arrogance—gave Moroni license to delve into the sumptuousness of the material world. Fabric, especially, prompted consummate painterly extravagance. Really, try taking in the gown worn by Lucia Albani Avogadro (ca. 1554–57) or the elaborately patterned raiment of Isotta Brembati (ca. 1555–56) without undergoing palpitations. When subtlety was called for, Moroni was no less formidable. Only Frans Hals and Velázquez used black with as much nuance, and it is seen at the Frick in stunning abundance. Attention to the tactility of things is matched by Moroni’s skill at navigating character. Though he’s no Rembrandt in terms of empathy or acuity, Moroni did possess a distinct gift for locating the willfulness typical of our species. Haven’t we all had to suffer the confident impetuosity inherent in Bust Portrait of a Young Man with an Inscription (ca. 1560)? The lone off-note in the exhibition is a trio of “sacred portraits,” wherein wealthy patrons are pictured alongside devotional imagery; the contrivance of these compositions is overplayed and will strike contemporary viewers as self-aggrandizing and silly. Otherwise, make no mistake: “The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture” is what it says, and, as such, qualifies as a prize.

© 2019 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the May 2019 edition of The New Criterion.

Talk @ Adelphi University

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I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be traveling to Garden City, NY, to talk about my work and influences at Adelphi University.

Brooklyn College Department of Art Faculty Exhibition

Brooklyn College Invitation

I’m pleased to announce that a painting of mine will be on display as part of a faculty exhibition at Brooklyn College. The reception will take place during the college’s MFA Open Studios event: Saturday, April 13th, from 12:00-8:00 p.m.

“Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” at The Brooklyn Museum


Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Monkeys (1943), oil on canvas, 32 x 24-3/4″; courtesy of The Jack and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation

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Saint Frida has landed in Brooklyn. “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” is an expanded version of “Making Her Self Up,” an exhibition mounted last year by the Victoria & Albert Museum. Culled from the Casa Azul, Kahlo’s home in Mexico City, the London exhibition was the first comprehensive showing of its contents outside the artist’s native country. “Comprehensive,” in the case of the Brooklyn exhibition, is all but commensurate with “obsessive.” Upon her death in 1954, Kahlo’s former husband, the painter and muralist Diego Rivera, sealed up her personal belongings at Casa Azul, stipulating that they remain untouched until fifteen years after his passing. It wasn’t until 2003—forty-six years after Rivera’s death—that access was granted; it took another four years to complete the inventory. And quite the inventory it is, including, as it does, family photographs, hand-painted plaster corsets, an array of Mexican and Central American garments known as huipils, a pre-Columbian pendant, a bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume, and a prosthetic leg with a customized ankle boot. Did you know Kahlo favored Revlon products? The company’s ebony eyebrow pencil, ca. 1948–54, is on display for visitors to marvel at.

And marvel they will. My religious analogy above may seem snarky, but Kahlo is widely revered as a cultural icon. She is, in fact, one of the most recognizable artists on the face of the planet. Gone are the days when she was blithely referred to as “Señora Diego Rivera”— which is how Kahlo is listed in a photo spread from the October 1937 edition of Vogue, as seen in Brooklyn. History, fashion, and reputation have circled around to the point where Rivera, once a bulwark of twentieth-century art, is now obscured by Kahlo’s shadow. This shift, occurring over the last forty or so years, can be attributed to a number of factors, not least feminism and identity politics. Frida-philes are up-front about how neatly Kahlo’s biography, turbulent and tragic as it was, dovetails with contemporary notions of sexuality, ethnicity, disability, radicalism, and marketing as social phenomena and self-expression. Lost in this heady mélange is—what was that thing called again? Oh, yes: art. Those expecting light to be shed on Kahlo’s oeuvre will note that, among the three hundred–odd artifacts featured in “Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” only eleven are paintings.


Nickolas Muray, Frida with Idol (1939), carbon print, 11-1/4 x 16-1/4″; courtesy Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

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Admittedly, one of them is definitive—that would be Self-Portrait with Monkeys (1943)— and two are of inescapable biographical interest: Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego on My Mind) (1943) and Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940), in which a freshly shorn Kahlo bends her gender. The remaining canvases range from inscrutable to obvious to mediocre, and they don’t do the legend proud. Not that the legend isn’t seen in abundance. Films and photographs carry “Appearances Can Be Deceiving” in ways that would have pleased an artist wise to the value of an expertly contrived image. From the brooding pre-teen pictured in a 1918 photo to the starkly handsome woman seen in Giselle Freund’s Hollywood-style tableau some thirty years later, Kahlo had a preternatural relationship with the camera. The pain and infirmity she suffered throughout life—the result, primarily, of a near-fatal bus crash at age eighteen—fostered abiding self-awareness, but also fierce determination. Kahlo knew that vulnerability can be girded, as well as made alluring, by bracing self-possession. A touch of exotica didn’t hurt either. Even photographers who didn’t have affairs with Kahlo, as the glamour portraitist Nickolas Muray did for over a decade, couldn’t help but valorize her authority and presence.

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón (1907–54) was one of four daughters born to Guillermo Kahlo, a German photographer who immigrated to Mexico in 1891, and Matilde Calderón y González, a mestiza whose roots lay as much in Spain as in Oaxaca. Kahlo did not recall her childhood fondly, plagued as it was by economic hardship, illness (she contracted polio at the age of six), and the aforementioned crash in 1925. Given the catastrophe visited upon her body by the latter—which included broken bones, shifted vertebrae, and impalement—Kahlo thought it best to abandon plans for medical school. Instead she took up painting, employing a specialized easel that allowed her to work while on bed rest. It wasn’t until 1927 that she was able to get out and about, meeting up with school friends and, through them, becoming involved in politics. Kahlo joined the Mexican Communist Party, and it was through its offices that she met Rivera. The tempestuous nature of their relationship is the stuff of myth—Frida famously referred to Diego as “the other accident”—and both had numerous extramarital liaisons. The couple divorced after ten years of marriage, but they remained friendly and inseparable, remarrying only a year later.


Frida Kahlo, The Bride Who Becomes Frightened at Seeing Life Opened (1943), oil on canvas; courtesy of The Jack and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation

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Rivera’s fame helped edge Kahlo into the spotlight, but, in time, she achieved her own independent notoriety, earning the favor of luminaries like André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, the designer Elsa Schiaparelli, and the art dealer (and sometime paramour) Julian Levy, who gave Kahlo her first solo exhibition at his Fifty-seventh Street gallery. Kahlo’s health continued to deteriorate, and her death at the age of forty-seven is a matter of dispute: the official cause was pulmonary embolism, but a nurse claimed Kahlo had overdosed on painkillers. “Appearances Can Be Deceiving” touches upon these facets and more, and it does so with scholarly rigor. That the museum has installed items from its collection of Mesoamerican art as a means of providing national context is a generous fillip. But this is an exhibition that coasts on pop stardom, and, as such, it sells the artist short. There are no revelations to be had in Brooklyn. As it stands, the strongest Kahlo on view is The Bride Who Becomes Frightened at Seeing Life Opened (1943), a still life whose pictorial invention and painterly sensuality puts the narcissism powering the self-portraits into grim relief. It’s likely to be some time before the fog of celebrity dissipates to the extent to which we can gain a firm handle on Kahlo’s accomplishment. Given the fractious state of contemporary culture, it seems prudent not to hold one’s breath.

© 2019 Mario Naves


This review was originally published in the April 2019 edition of The New Criterion.

“Natural Talent”: The Art of Giovanni Battista Moroni

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Giovanni Battista Moroni, Lucia Albani Avogrado, called La Dama in Rosso (The Lady in Red) (ca. 1554-57), oil on canvas, 61 x 42″; courtesy The National Gallery, London

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The following article was originally published in the May 23, 2012 edition of City Arts and is posted here on the occasion of “Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture”, an exhibition currently on display at The Frick Collection. My review of the Frick show will appear in an upcoming issue of The New Criterion.

Blink during your next visit to the Met and you’re likely to miss Bellini, Titian, And Lotto; North Italian Paintings from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, an exhibition snuggled almost imperceptibly into the museum’s collection of European art. As the Accademia Carrara undergoes renovation, the Met is hosting fifteen of its paintings as a means to “expand [the Accademia’s] reputation internationally.”

The last time the Met and the Accademia Carrera joined forces was with a revelatory exhibition of still-life paintings by local hero Evaristo Baschenis (1617-1677). The current venture doesn’t pack the same punch. The star names might lead you to believe otherwise, but the lone Titian canvas is, at best, a curio and–what’s that again?–an attribution. Bellini’s Pieta With The Virgin and Saint John (ca. 1455-60) is–well, it’s a dud. Compare it to the Met’s own Madonna and Child (ca. 1480) and weep.

Lotto justifies marquee billing. Three altarpiece panels originally installed in the Church of San Bartolomeo evince a showman of impeccable concision, if not at the top of his powers. That distinction is earned with Portrait of Lucina Brembati (1518-23), wherein Lotto adroitly concentrates his knack for rendering finery and tapping into the psyche. The more time you spend with Ms. Brembati, the more intimate, and unnerving, the encounter. Wow, you think–the things a painting can do.

The same sentiment can be applied to canvases by Giovanni Battista Moroni, a lesser-known “natural talent” whose gift for portraiture won Titian’s recommendation. Moroni’s Portrait of a Little Girl of the Redetti Family (ca. 1570) is a remarkable evocation (or illusion) of a child wiser than her years. But Portrait of a Twenty-nine-year-old Man (1567) is the triumph, the sitter’s wary individuality having been distilled with no consequent loss in mystery.

The remainder of Bellini, Titian and Lotto is filled out with drab talents (Bergognone), by-the-book tradesmen (Giovanni Cariani) and flashy pasticheurs (Andrea Previtali). On the slim evidence at hand, it’s difficult to know whether Vincenzo Foppa or Moretto Da Brescia are more than that. Is Da Brescia’s Christ and a Devotee (1518) a happy one-off or does it herald a minor master? The Met and the Accademia Carrara should join forces again to answer that question for the rest of us.

© 2012 Mario Naves


“Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Ilona Keserü, Wall Hanging With Tombstone Forms (Tapestry) (1969), stitching on chemically dyed linen, 62 x 147-1/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

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“If you’re going to do something, do it right”— so goes the old adage. Would that Randall Griffey, a curator in the Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, had heeded the advice. The exhibition he’s organized, “Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera,” is touted as a “fresh and perhaps surprising” take on “artists who have adopted, adapted, and even critiqued” the New York School. It is, in actuality, much ado about nothing—nothing, that is, spread over acres of canvas. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, particularly given some of the featured artists. These include significant figures like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, David Smith, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Kline, along with artists tangential to, or following upon, Abstract Expressionism: Alfonso Ossorio, Joan Mitchell, Morris Louis, Isamu Noguchi, and others. There are also outliers—the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely, for instance, and Ilona Keserü, a Hungarian artist who will be new to a lot of us—as well as artists whose ties to the New York School are, if not altogether tenuous, then markedly anachronistic. “Epic Abstraction” is all over the place, yet, in the end, not in as many places as it should be.

Griffey is, admittedly, working with limited means. “Epic Abstraction” is predominantly composed of work from the museum’s holdings, as well as promised gifts; loans are few and far between. Having long had a fractious relationship with modernism proper and contemporary art specifically, the Met can’t boast a comprehensive collection of either. A history of caution bordering on suspicion makes for a spotty acquisition record. The museum’s array of pre-war modern art has filled out, and for the better, since the establishment of the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing in 1987. The “contemporary” Met, in marked contrast, continues to have a bumpy adolescence. The exhibition program at the soon-to-be-vacated Met Breuer is a case in point: it has veered from breathtaking and brilliant to cluelessly au courant. None of us possesses a crystal ball; divining the staying power of this or that figure is tough work. Still, one wishes curators would exhibit even a scintilla of moxie and independence. How many roll-outs of auction-house darlings or iterations of ideological fashion do we need? “Epic Abstraction” capitulates to these tendencies.


Chakaia Booker, Raw Attraction (2001), rubber tire, steel and wood, 42 x 32 x 40; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

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The show begins with a negligible sculptor and ends with a willful painter—no, not Pol- lock and Carmen Herrera, as the exhibition title suggests, but Dan Flavin and Elizabeth Murray. Murray’s multi-paneled relief painting can make a claim to being epic—or, at least, big— and is suitably abstract. But Flavin? Industrial lighting—the métier is “cool white fluorescent light”—doesn’t count as either. Turning a corner, viewers encounter an untitled 1958 canvas by Kazuo Shiraga, a proponent of Gutai, the Japanese equivalent of Abstract Expressionism. Shiraga’s painting—a visceral accumulation of gestural brushstrokes—sends a signal, softly stated but emphatic all the same, that what’s to follow is a reimagining of the canon. The shift isn’t radical or abrupt. Pollock follows in some abundance, as does Mark Rothko and, to a lesser degree, Clyfford Still. The trajectory of “Epic Abstraction” is, in fact, fairly predictable. Repeat after me: the excesses of the New York School are winnowed down into the ephemeral expanses of Color Field painting, which, in turn, devolves into the obdurate literalism of Minimal Art. All of which receives pushback from the anything-goes ethos of Pluralism, culminating in . . . Alexander Calder? Well, that’s unpredictable.

The inclusion of the Calder mobile has, one feels, less to do with enlarging on stylistic or chronological continuity than with scrambling to fill precious exhibition space. Too bad Four Directions (1956) is Calder in crowd-pleasing mode: bland doesn’t equal epic. Or does it? That does seem to be the upshot of “Epic Abstraction.” With the exception of a spectacular set piece—Mrs. N’s Palace (1964–77), in which the sculptor Louise Nevelson is seen at her most theatrical—wishy-washiness predominates. This is true even when taking into account the nods to globalism and identity politics—neither of which is inherently bad as long as the indicative works are inherently good. As it is, pieces by Mark Bradford, Alma Thomas, and Thornton Dial— African-Americans, all—are as stately, static, and dull as Kenneth Noland’s October (1961), Robert Mangold’s Column Structure (VIII) (2006), Anne Truitt’s Goldsborough (1974), and anything by Barnett Newman and Ellsworth Kelly, the oeuvres of whom are looking more underwhelming with each passing year. Kudos to the Hortense and William A. Mohr Sculpture Purchase Fund for recognizing the imagination and grit coursing through Raw Attraction by Chakaia Booker (2001). Though relatively modest in size, the Booker piece—a muscular accumulation of rubber tires, steel, and wood—reverberates beyond its physical scale. Now we’re talking epic.



Joan Snyder, Smashed Strokes Hope (1971), oil on canvas, 72 x 144″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The Met exhibition would be improved in diversity and quality through the addition of artists like Ed Clark, Martin Puryear, James Little, Melvin Edwards, Terry Adkins, Lisa Corinne Davis, and Nanette Carter. Are any of them in the permanent collection? They should be. And what about the painter Jack Whitten, whose three-dimensional work was recently fêted at the Met Breuer? Since I’m making a wish list, let me mention The Flesh Eaters by William Baziotes (1952), The Battle by Conrad Marca-Relli (1956), Rising Green by Lee Krasner (1972), and Diva by Marthe Keller (1993). The Met owns all of them, and they are of a size, scope, and merit to have supplanted pictures by the overly eclectic Jennifer Bartlett, the relentlessly stringent Bridget Riley, and the just-plain-dreadful Yayoi Kusama. It’s a boon that Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Snyder are seen at the top of their games (Snyder’s 1971 Smashed Strokes Hope is the most cohesive and nuanced work I’ve seen by the artist), and the Keserü tapestry is idiosyncratic enough in rhythm and construction to prompt one’s curiosity for more. If only “Epic Abstraction” had built upon that idiosyncrasy. There are better methods of adoption, adaptation, and critique than settling for blissful and boring.

© 2019 Mario Naves


This review originally appeared in the March 2019 edition of The New Criterion.

“Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum


Installation view of “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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Among the many remarkable things about “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” is the goodwill it has generated. Has there recently been an exhibition of art quite as popular with both the culturati and the public at large? Notwithstanding a few curmudgeons grumbling at the sidelines, “Paintings for the Future” is an out-and-out winner. Forget the huzzahs in the press; consider the visitors trawling up the Guggenheim’s ramp. They’re markedly enraptured, taking in the byways of one artist’s vision. You can’t help but eavesdrop as museum-goers chat about the intricacies of af Klint’s hieratic compositions and occluded symbolism. That “Paintings for the Future” features an unheralded figure who devoted the majority of her life to abstraction makes the show’s appeal somewhat unexpected. No art stars here, thank you, and though abstraction has a long and storied history, it’s a mode of working still widely held in suspicion. What is it about af Klint (1862–1944)—a Swedish modernist who has only recently gained international attention—that is goosing our collective pleasure center?

Kudos to Tracey Bashkoff, the Director of Collections and Senior Curator, along with the Curatorial Assistant David Horowitz, for mounting a show that patiently lays out an often hermetic artistic output, capturing its momentum and elaborating on its logic. Certainly, these two know how to wow an audience. The opening gambit is impressive: nine towering canvases, each measuring around ten by eight feet, overpower the first gallery up the museum’s ramp. Each picture is a candy-colored array of diagrammatic glyphs flexible enough in their allusions to encompass nature and mathematics, the astronomical, the cellular, and the sexual. The pictures are inventories, bumptious and random, of shape, line, and stray bits of verbiage. A clouded pedantry can be discerned: af Klint’s pictographs recall the discrete cataloging of items typical of nineteenth-century botanical illustrations. Their loop-the-loop iconography also brings to mind the later, geometrically inclined imagery of the pioneering abstract painter, Vasily Kandinsky. Actually, make that one of the pioneers. “Paintings for the Future” makes a case for af Klint as the first abstract painter (she began working non-representationally a good half decade before Kandinsky) and, as such, deserving of a prominent berth within the Modernist canon.


Hilma af Klint in her studio at Hamngatan 5, circa 1895; photo courtesy of Hilma af Klint Archive

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Af Klint was the fourth of five children born to Victor af Klint, an instructor at the Military Academy Karlberg, and Mathilda Sontag, an immigrant from Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority. She went on to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, earning not only honors upon graduation, but also studio space provided by the school. The latter privilege gives an indication of the esteem in which af Klint was held by the faculty and administration. Their authority paled, however, next to that of Amaliel, Ananda, Clemens, Esther, Georg, and Gregor, otherworldly powers known as The High Masters. Though af Klint participated in seances as a teenager, she didn’t become an acolyte of spiritualism until her late twenties, joining the Swedish branch of the Theosophical Society and the similarly inclined Edelweissförbundet. Along with a cadre of like-minded friends, af Klint founded “The Five” in 1896—a group given to Biblical interpretation, meditation, phrenology, and communing with the dead. At one such communion, Georg and Ananda told of a temple to be built at a distant point in the future, a temple in need of paintings for its interior. Which of “The Five” would receive the commission? A message came from the ether; af Klint got the nod. In 1906, she began working on The Paintings of the Temple—among them, the spectacular pictures mentioned above.

Scoff all you want at the hocus-pocus informing af Klint’s life and work. Woozy theorizing needn’t lead to woozy results. It’s worth recalling that the Guggenheim began as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, an institution that had spiritualist aims at its foundation. Mondrian and Kandinsky took their cues from Madame Blavatsky, the pan-cultural guru of Theosophist doctrine, though, ultimately, they hewed to the strictures of the studio and the integrity of their artforms. Af Klint had integrity as well. Those weary of the cynicism engendered by the contemporary scene can’t help but root for a figure who stipulated that her work not be exhibited until twenty years after her death. No marketing, branding, or hype for af Klint; the work would find its time when the time was right. An art of endurance, introspection, and foresight—can you imagine such a thing? Af Klint’s work has since been filtering its way into the world, making its presence felt and gathering an enthusiastic following. The connection between af Klint and audiences here in the twenty-first century should not be lightly dismissed. Nor should it be accepted uncritically.


Hilma af Klint, Group IX/SUW, The Swan, No. 9 (Grupp IX/SUW, Svanen, nr 9) (1915), oil on canvas, 149.5 × 149 cm. The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm. Photo: Albin Dahlström, The Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

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A smattering of early representational work is included at the Guggenheim, including portraits done in charcoal, crayon, and graphite; a light-filled landscape done in oils; and Ketty, an irresistible portrait of a dog rendered in lush and filmy blacks. It is after this skillful prelude that “Paintings for the Future” stumbles into the supernatural. Pictorial niceties are forsaken, if not entirely jettisoned, for a symbolism so byzantine it’s difficult to navigate without crib notes. That af Klint’s radiating mandalas, pyramidal forms, and geometric rebuses catch the eye speaks to an abiding knack for design and decoration. But these are the efforts of a visionary, not a painter. Color is subjugated to the emblematic, brushwork is pro forma, light is non-existent, and, with the stunning exception of Group IX/SUW, the Swan, No. 9, and, maybe, No. 22 and No. 23 from the same series (all 1915), elasticity of space is cursorily set into motion, if attended to at all. A painter friend described the Guggenheim show as “amateur hour”—an overly harsh assessment, I think, but not wholly inapt. Credit af Klint as the first abstract artist, and grant that “Paintings for the Future” highlights an intriguing alleyway of twentieth-century art. In the end, however, af Klint’s quizzical achievement only goes to confirm that originality has its limits, and that quality will win out.

© 2019 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the February 2019 edition of The New Criterion.

“On The Street: Works by Carol Diamond” @ The Painting Center


Carol Diamond, Tilt Turn (2018), digital photo, pastel, charcoal and archival paper, 22 x 30″; courtesy the artist and The Painting Center

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The following essay accompanies an exhibition of Carol Diamond’s work at The Painting Center (January 29-February 23).

Artists are sponges, absorbing the world around them and doing so in ways that are often mystifying and sometimes contradictory. The recent work of Carol Diamond is a case in point. Those familiar with the paintings and drawings of the veteran New York artist might be taken aback by the surfaces of the new pieces. They are, after all, abundant with stuff.

Not just paint and charcoal, but detritus gleaned from the streets of her hometown: shards of glass, flattened soda cans, concrete chunks and other castaway oddments of everyday life. The addition of these objects into Diamond’s distinctive iconography–a heady admixture of Piranesian recesses, Mannerist rhythms and Neoplasticist rigor–has rendered her surfaces peculiarly abrupt and not a little aggressive. Pictorial coherence, when not called into question, is now complicated in ways that are curious, off-center and compelling.

Evocative, too. Diamond’s art might have its basis in Modernism, but it’s worth noting that she once worked as a restorer of antiquities. History as a hands-on endeavor is part-and-parcel of her aesthetic. The work functions as a kind of archaeology even as one realizes that the civilization being unearthed is our own. A quizzical feat, that: digging through time in order to divulge the here-and-now. That Diamond endows this venture with a lyricism that in no way undercuts its grit or tenacity speaks to a vision welcoming of paradox. Powered by it as well: her’s is an art to puzzle over and take pleasure in.

© 2019 Mario Naves

“Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts” @ The Museum of Modern Art and P.S.1


Bruce Nauman, Contrapposto Split (2017), 3D projection; courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art (Susanna Carlisle/Copyright Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society, courtesy Sperone Westwater)

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The Museum of Modern Art and PS1 might not want to hear it, but—Bruce Nauman? He is so over. Consider Contrapposto Split (2017), a wall- sized video featured in “Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts,” a retrospective encompassing some fifty years of work. In it, we see the artist walk to and fro in his New Mexico studio. The floor is cluttered with detritus, the wall dotted with photos of horses and rodeo performers. The projection is split horizontally—each half of the screen operates just out of syncopation with the other. Did I mention the 3-D glasses, pairs of which are made available to museum visitors? Watching Nauman saunter back and forth in “real space” functions, I guess, as an indicator of an openness to materials and technologies. It’s all very clever and, in its dry-as-dust humor, diverting. But mostly it’s stale, and—according to the friend with whom I attended the PS1 portion of “Disappearing Acts”—macho. Rolling her eyes, she bemoaned Nauman’s intellectual posturing and cowpoke pretensions. Just what we need right now: another man flaunting his genius.

Employing #MeToo logic as a gauge of artistic worth may seem off the mark, but, truth be told, taking account of Nauman’s oeuvre in aesthetic terms isn’t better. The word “oeuvre” is, in fact, inappropriate here. Looking for stylistic and material consistency? You’d best go elsewhere: Nauman is the anti-oeuvre. His variousness, the catalogue tells us, is “a gravitational force that over time filters out everything unnecessary, leaving behind something of unusual conceptual purity.” What that “something” results in is stuff, and lots of it. Like many artists of his generation—brainy types who straddle the divide between Minimalism and Conceptual Art—Nauman and his work require significant expanses of real estate. Between MOMA and PS1, viewers traverse room upon room filled with drawings, lithographs, neon lights, no lights, whispering voices, shouting voices, water fountains, Sheetrock, videos, wax casts of body parts, fiberglass molds of animals, machinery, music, and Double Steel Cage Piece (1974), in which we are encouraged to squeeze inside the it-is-what-it-says-it-is structure. Only the svelte, petite, and foolhardy need take the challenge.


Bruce Nauman, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (1967), neon and clear glass tubing suspension supports; 149.86 x 139.7 x 5.08 cm.; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art and PS1 (Photo: Giulia van Pelt)

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And then there are words. If words don’t predominate in Nauman’s art, it is, all the same, nothing without them. I’m not referring to the informational wall texts—though they are abundant, and more verbose than the typical museum standard—but to Nauman’s bent for linguistic hijinks. “The true artist,” we read in an unfurling array of red and blue neon lights, “helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” As a littérateur, Nauman aims for the abstruse and ironic but coasts on the obvious. One Hundred Live and Die (1984) is a list of proscriptions: “Sit and Live,” “Spit and Live,” “Piss and Die,” etc. “Violins,” “violence,” and “silence” flash on-and-off. “None sing” and “neon sign” are transposed. (Neon is as close to a signature medium as Nauman can muster.) In an empty, darkened gallery, a disembodied voice insists that we “get out of this room, get out of my mind.” Let’s not forget Pay Attention Motherfucker, a lithograph from 1973, in which the title is printed in reverse. Nauman’s wordplay is overweening. Pay attention yourself, Bruce. Needy artists we’ve got enough of.

Sex and death are glanced upon, as is scatology, voyeurism, the American West, and, if we are to believe the essayist Nicolás Guagnini, the parlous state of race relations in the United States. Guagnini writes of how Nauman explores the “intersection between self-eroticism and blackness, codifies that which has no name, names that which has no representation, represents in the hyperconscious unreality of slowed-down time”—well, it goes on. Suffice it to say, Nauman established his PC bona fides in 1969, when he painted his scrotum black and proceeded to manipulate himself, in close-up, while filming in grainy black and white. Black Balls is a minor effort in Nauman’s career, but the video bears mentioning in that it underlines the lengths to which art is currently being politicized. Guagnini notes that Nauman was politically disengaged during the 1960s. All the same, Black Balls “matters today” in that “a white male with black balls cannot be instrumentalized in any homogenous form of identity politics.” How prescient; how brave. It’s enough to make you think there was more to young Nauman than the callow exploitation of societal pressure points.


Bruce Nauman; courtesy of Phaidon

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There wasn’t. Nor has old Nauman—he turned seventy-seven last year—gained in wisdom, though the work has mellowed. It counts as a small mercy when films of shrieking clowns are supplanted by films of sashaying septuagenarians. As for the two-venue approach: the MOMA portion of “Disappearing Acts” is more tolerable. The museum’s gargantuan galleries allow the curators leeway with the installation, making for adroit juxtapositions of Nauman’s avant-gardist bric-à-brac. Better the whole than the sum of its parts, if only because the parts have been expressly manufactured to test the audience’s endurance: the work matters only to the extent that Nauman can insult its intelligence. Actually, that’s being generous—presupposing, as it does, a temperament interested in anything outside its own discursive purview. The artist—to employ nomenclature appropriate to the exhibition’s gestalt—couldn’t give a shit. He’s Bruce Nauman, and you’re not. That such a figure is being heralded by the art world as an innovator and master points to nothing so much as a subculture incapable of self-reflection and beyond the scope of satire. “Disappearing Acts” is a waste of time, a fraud on taste, and, yes, too macho for its own good.

© 2019 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the January 2019 edition of The New Criterion.