“Vik Muniz/Afterglow: Pictures of Ruins” at The Palazzo Cini Gallery

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Installation view of “Afterglow: Pictures of Ruins” at Palazzo Cini; courtesy of ArtNews

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Just off Campo San Vio, at roughly the midpoint between the Gallerie dell’Accademia and The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, is The Palazzo Cini Gallery, one of Venice’s less-traveled repositories of art and artifacts. Located in the former house of Vittorio Cini, an industrialist born in Ferrara but devoted to Venice, The Palazzo Cini can’t help but play second fiddle to Cini’s accomplishments on San Giorgio Maggiore, an island across the bay from San Marco. Bequeathed to Cini in 1951 by the Venetian government with the proviso that he restore its war-torn environs, San Giorgio points to how capital can lead to good works—in particular, the reconstruction of the eponymous church designed by the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. The more modest Palazzo Cini isn’t bereft of treasures, however. Predicated on a suite of icons from Cini’s hometown, the museum boasts works by Sassetta, Cosme Tura, Piero della Francesca, Piero Di Cosimo, and Pontormo, as well as three small panels by Ludovico Mazzolino, an artist previously unknown to me whose diverting pictures bear further research. The star of the collection is Dosso Dossi’s Scena Allegorica (1515/16), a diamond-shaped canvas featuring—well, it’s hard to say. Two women fighting; a screaming, harried youth; an arbitrary still-life; and a grimacing face that disrupts the composition like a Jack-in-the-Box. Forget any meaning that accrues from its stated allegory; Dossi’s slapstick grotesquerie appeals on its own oddball terms.

Scena Allegorica—or, rather, a riff on it—is the centerpiece of “Afterglow: Pictures of Ruins,” an exhibition of collages and prints by Vik Muniz. “Afterglow” takes up the entirety of The Palazzo Cini’s top floor, and had its origins in conversations between the artist and Luca Massimo Barbero, the Director of the Institute of Art History at the Fondazione Georgio Cini. Muniz is an art-world eminence, a photographer for whom the lens isn’t an intuitive medium so much as a means to an end. Employing unorthodox and often perishable materials, Muniz cadges upon the image bank of history, lifting specific and often highly identifiable pictures; then he photographs them. There was the play on Hans Namuth’s photo of Jackson Pollock rendered in chocolate syrup; elsewhere, Muniz paid homage to Andy Warhol using peanut butter and jelly. Other materials employed include dust—collected from the vacuum cleaners of The Whitney, no less—and sugar, in which Muniz “painted” portraits of child laborers from St. Kitts tasked to harvest the crop. Muniz cites Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons as influences, along with Buster Keaton and Byzantine mosaics. How the latter two inspirations funnel their way into the work is best explained by Muniz. But Sherman and Koons are clear: immaculate contrivance as a marker of self is the metier. Favoring intellectual strategy over material exploration, Muniz creates art that is forever secondary to his own machinations.

The works in “Afterglow” exhibit considerable pictorial know-how. Muniz’s collages take as their inspiration paintings by Hubert Robert, Francesco Guardi, Cannaletto, Caspar David Friedrich, Giovanni Paolo Pannini, John Constable, and Dossi; a separate series is predicated on the architectural fantasies of Giovanni Batista Piranesi. Muniz’s images are elaborately piecemeal. Innumerable photos encompassing the history of painting, sculpture, and printmaking have been cut, cobbled, ripped, and reconfigured into pictures that iterate the color, composition, and light of the original sources. Attempting to untangle the references in a single piece, let alone the entire exhibition, would tax even the most obsessive art historian. Where to begin inventorying Muniz’s high culture variations on “Where’s Waldo?” I spied the winged skeleton from Jan Van Eyck’s Last Judgment; a portrait by Rembrandt of his wife, Saskia; uncountable cherubim; an “interlocked” composition by Josef Albers; a snippet of Matisse’s The Dessert: Harmony in Red; and on it goes. Pop culture is also in evidence: L.A.’s iconic Hollywood sign, a photo of a Darth Vader wind-up toy, a ticket that reads “Hop On Hop Off,” and the obligatory snippet of porn. The truest connection with Venice lies in Muniz’s gritty textures: perpetual wear-and-tear is a proud emblem of the city’s historical cognizance or, as the artist has it, “fragmented eternity.” The golden-toned ambiance of “Afterglow” would make an impression anywhere, but at The Palazzo Cini it feels like home.

Muniz’s attention to both the small and large scale concerns of image making—that is to say, between ragtag snippets of paper and cinematic compositions—is, I guess, what links the work to mosaics. But the correlation is incomplete, inappropriate, and, in aesthetic terms, nugatory. Remember: Muniz makes collages but presents photographs. Interest that could be taken in how this-or-that Old Master has been re-imagined is quelled by the ersatz nature of Muniz’s vision. At the risk of over-stating the obvious: a photo of a collage is not a collage. It’s something else and, in Muniz’s case, something less. Like most artists influenced by Conceptualism, Muniz is something of a prude. The idea of materiality is more important than its reality. Hands-on sensuality is suspect; pleasure can only be acknowledged by denying it. In an interview with BOMB magazine, Muniz stated that he didn’t “believe in originality as much as . . . individuality,” citing the “aura of originality” as a “mere excuse for copying.” This is standard-brand Post-Modernist fiddle-faddle—high falutin’ talk meant to imbue expert fripperies with the imprimatur of Art. Granted, such an imprimatur plays well in the marketplace—an arena in which reproducible items, pumped up to monumental scale, can make for impressive financial returns. But perhaps I’m being cynical. Didn’t Romare Bearden attempt something similar in the 1960s with his “projections,” enlarged photos of miniaturist collages? Of course, Bearden ultimately abandoned the “projections,” finding the cut-and-paste aesthetic of collage more suitable to his full-bodied brand of humanism. Muniz? He’s into auras. Good luck gleaning anything full or humane from the calculated detachment of “Afterglow.”

© 2017 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the July 7, 2017 edition of “Dispatch”, the blog of The New Criterion.

“Mark Tobey: Threading Light” at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection

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Mark Tobey, Crystallizations (1944), tempera on board, 18 x 13″; courtesy the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University

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There are numerous ironies hovering around “Mark Tobey: Threading Light,” not least of which is that it’s been mounted concurrently with the 2017 edition of The Venice Biennale. The Biennale is, of course, the glitziest event of the international scene, an efflorescence of hype, ego, showmanship and, yes, art. Tobey’s paintings and drawings are, in marked contrast, the anti-glitz: they’re subtle, self-effacing, intricate, and, on the whole, modest in scale. Given the tenor of Tobey’s workreiterated by the stately installation in Peggy Guggenheim’s jewel box galleriesone can’t help but wonder what an art audience inured to Hollywood-budgeted tech-savvy spectacles will make of it. Tobey’s whiplash calligraphiesgleaned from, as the artist had it, “avenues of meditation”can seem foreboding or hermetic. Art is (or should be) about invitation and engagement. Tobey’s art fits the bill, but its rhythms require a level of attention increasingly at odds with much of contemporary life and, in particular, that bewildering subset of culture known as the art world.

Venice figured prominently for Tobey during his own lifetime. He was awarded first prize for painting at the 1958 Biennale, the event’s highest accolade. This was some kind of honor: the previous U.S. painter to win the distinction was the expatriate James Abbott McNeill Whistler some sixty-three years earlier. Tobey’s award was a nod on the part of the international arts community to the primacy of American painting in the post-war era; it was also a pointed, off-topic choice. The chest-thumping verities of The New York School made a noise heard ‘round the globe; the noise made by Tobey was decidedly more muted. Tobey’s art shares pivotal commonalities with Abstract Expressionisma basis in Surrealism, all-over compositional strategies, and gestural mark-making (albeit on a miniaturist scale). It’s worth noting, however, that Tobey had been around the block long before The New York School experienced its triumph. He was thirteen years older than Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock’s senior by twenty-two years. How many Action Painters had experienced the Armory Show of 1913 first-hand?

 Writing in the catalogue, curator Debra Bricker Balken, who organized “Threading Light” in conjunction with the Addison Gallery of American Art, is at pains to separate Tobey from the “assertive,” “nationalistic,” and “homogenous” American avant-garde. Keying into the nomadic arc of his lifeborn in Centerville, Wisconsin, Tobey traveled widely and lived in an array of places, spending his last days in SwitzerlandBalken posits Tobey’s “fierce independence” as an exemplar of globalism-before-the-fact, as well as a flouting of “American ethnocentrism.” Tobey’s abiding fascination with non-Western cultures is a selling pointas it should be. His signature style, the self-described “white writing,” owes as much, and probably more, to Chinese, Japanese and Islamic art than it does to, say, the Automatism of Andre Masson. Tobey’s conversion to the Bahai Faith at age twenty-seven was the beginning of lifelong interest in spiritual pursuits found the world over. Did he succeed at seamlessly meshing “East and West”? Not long before his death in 1976 at the age of eighty-five, Tobey admitted, with palpable chagrin, to be a Westerner through-and-through. Balken won’t have it: Tobey’s embrace of the East endowed his art with “international, rather than local, meaning.”

 Forget for a moment that any work of art worth its saltwhether it be by Veronese, Andrei Rublev, El Anatsui or the peripatetic Tobeyinherently accrues local and international meaning. Critical brickbats lobbed against the trendy cant of catalogue essays shouldn’t obtrude on Balken’s real achievement: “Threading Light” is a superb exhibition. Sensitively paced and keenly selected, the exhibition underscores painterly and metaphorical continuities, all the while tracing a development that, though not without hiccups, is streamlined and, until the end anyway, utterly organic. Tobey’s exquisite traceries of light are evident early on in Fog in the Market (1943), a compartmentalized accumulation of cartoonish grotesques. Hanging directly across the way is the stunning The Void Devouring the Gadget Era (1942), wherein ghostly blurs of pigment both obscure and reveal a clatter of pictographic forms. Tobey’s linear networks, with their grounds of earthy color and charged staccato rhythms, initially coalesce around observed phenomenaNew York City, Gothic churches, and what looks to be a crowded beachthen move on to more philosophical concerns. Titles underline the shiftUniversal Field, Space Intangibles, The Way, like thatbut Tobey never forsook the concrete. Out-and-out abstractions like New York Tablet (1946) and Edge of August (1953) are rooted in the specifics of place and time.

 Tobey spent many years in Seattlenot for nothing did Life magazine dub him a “mystic painter of the Northwest”but his reputation was made in Manhattan. The Upper East Side art dealer Marian Willard recognized Tobey’s gifts when he was working for the WPA and went on to represent the work, eventually egging him on to work larger. The latter directive came in response to the expansive scale employed, with significant notoriety, by The New York School. Tobey was no admirer of the grouphe dismissed their work as “decor”but grew anxious when he learned that Biennale organizers were going to juxtapose his diminutive pictures with Rothko’s more sizable images. Tobey made the leap to larger formats, forsaking his beloved tempera and switching to oilsa medium more conducive to encompassing swaths of canvas. The switch wasn’t fortuitous: the dutiful regularity of the resulting work makes for dull going. (Talk about decor.) Still, if the exhibition ends on a deflationary note, the ride up to it is galvanizing and, ultimately, that’s what lingers in the memory. Tobey’s crystalline accumulations of sensation give body to free-ranging metaphysics, bringing flexibility and focus to often contradictory sources of inspiration. It’s a shame that a New York museum hasn’t seen fit to host Balken’s effortTobey is a painter who deserves a broader audience. Which isn’t at all intended to gainsay the delicate and rigorous beauty of this superlative exhibition.

© 2017 Mario Naves

This review was originally published at “Dispatch”, the blog of The New Criterion.

 

“Wildly Erratic/Utterly Coherent”: The Art of John Graham

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John Graham, Head of a Woman (1954), oil, chalk, ballpoint pen, colored pencil, pencil, brush, pen, and ink on tracing paper, 24-1/4 x 18-7/8″; Collection of Leonard and Louise Riggio, New York. Photo by John Labbe.

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The following review was originally published in the December 11th, 2005 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of “John Graham: Maverick Modernist” at The Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, NY. Additional thoughts on Graham can be found here.

As far as dirty old men go, the American painter John Graham (1886-1961), whose art is the subject of a retrospective at the Allan Stone Gallery, was depressingly pedestrian.

Tucked away in the back, past a lovely courtyard, are 15 of Graham’s erotic drawings. That’s what the folks at Stone call the pictures, but there ain’t nothin’ sexy about ’em. Graham’s scrawled portrayals of enormous penises—impaling women here, wielding 200-pound weights there—hardly merit inclusion in a strip-joint men’s room, let alone a tony Upper East Side gallery. They’re puerile fantasies that would’ve made Freud yawn. Picasso, that horny misogynist, is the height of sensitivity in comparison.

Separating Graham’s celebrations of his almighty member from the rest of the show was presumably meant to protect delicate souls and the stray child tagging along with Mom or Dad. Making them easy to avoid provides an aesthetic service, too, but the gallery deserves credit for more than that. The exhibition, titled Sum Qui Sum, is an all-but-definitive accounting of one of the more singular figures in American art. Anyone with an interest in painting and drawing—or, for that matter, the cultural life of New York City—can ill afford to miss it.

Not that the rest of the oeuvre will quell anyone’s apprehensions about Graham’s character or psyche. Certainly, the pictures of cross-eyed, buck-toothed women won’t win him any admirers among the politically correct. The title figure in Donna Losca (circa 1959), a drawing that showcases Graham’s longstanding debt to Ingres, has a hole in the head, a gash in the neck and a tiny sword drawing blood from her lips; 10 or so doodled penises are superimposed on the neck and torso. An undercurrent of violence is similarly present in Marya (Donna Ferita, Pensive Lady) (1944), a portrait of the artist’s first wife—there’s a neat and bloodied incision on her wrist.

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John Graham, undated photograph

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Elsewhere, Graham’s fixations are less disturbing than bizarre. In a triple self-portrait, a tour de force of pink and purple titled Poussin M’Instruit (1944), he pictures himself as a goggle-eyed philosophe and a belligerent student, both nude. (The third self-portrait is sketched at the upper center of the canvas.) Graham didn’t refrain from some self-mockery—the delineation of musculature, for instance, is ridiculously extravagant—yet neither did he pass up an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. We never doubt for a moment that he thought himself an oracle of sorts. Poussin M’Instruit is grand and silly—Graham makes that mix utterly coherent.

Up the stairs is Sum Qui Sum (I Am That I Am) (circa 1952), a hasty drawing in which the artist imagines himself as a cross between St. George and Marcus Aurelius—but that’s not the half of it. The title comes from Exodus 3:13-14, wherein God states his own name. The Biblical quotation is less Graham’s acknowledgment of a higher power than a communication between equals. You would think it’d be enough for a painter to pattern himself after Uccello, Ingres, Raphael and, for a time, Picasso. Yet Graham considered himself a force of otherworldly proportions. It’s a testament to his wildly erratic accomplishments that we don’t begrudge him his aspirations.

Who was John Graham? Given his flair for self-invention, it’s hard to say. The catalog cautions that a definitive story of his life may be beyond the reach of history. The way Graham told it was often beyond the reach of logic: It began in the Black Sea on a “black barren ghost of a rock, standing there like a dagger thrust into the sky”; it was there that a “gigantic monstrous eagle” deposited him for pickup by his mother. In actuality, Ivan Gratianovich Dombrowski was born in Kiev, Ukraine. He trained as a lawyer and attended the Nikolaev Cavalry Institute in Petrograd. Whether he served in the Russian Cavalry or as a foot guard to Czar Nicholas, as Graham claimed, is less certain.

Along with his second wife, Vera, Graham fled Russia for New York in 1920. Three years later, having worked a spate of odd jobs, he entered the Art Students League. (The school’s files indicate that he’d already begun calling himself “John Graham.”) He studied alongside Alexander Calder, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman, and served as the monitor in a class taught by John Sloan. Before the end of the decade, he had established himself as a formidable connoisseur and a respected player in the New York art world. Along with Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky—impressive company to keep—Graham became known as one of “The Three Musketeers.” Artists eagerly sought his counsel.

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John Graham, Celia (ca. 1944), oil, casein, charcoal, chalk, graphite, and ink on masonite, 48 x 36″;The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Hugo Kastor Fund

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Indeed, it’s the express purpose of the current exhibition to locate a fixed place for Graham within the firmament of American art—not only as a painter, but as a catalyst for the New York School. Harry Rand, a curator at the National Museum of American History, declares in the catalog that “Graham redirected the course of American art.” Mr. Rand cites the artists who looked to Graham for advice and inspiration—Gorky, Willem de Kooning, David Smith and Dorothy Dehner among them—as well as an exhibition of French and American art that Graham organized for the McMillen Gallery in 1942. In it, paintings by Braque, Picasso and Matisse were placed side by side with those by Gorky, Pollock and Lee Krasner. Such a tack was, at the time, indicative of nothing so much as the curator’s chutzpah. For Graham, it was business as usual.

The irony is that Graham’s art ultimately proved at odds with the impulses that would define Abstract Expressionism. The paintings and drawings became increasingly idiosyncratic, their mix of Surrealist portent and Renaissance clarity ever more pronounced and contradictory, as Graham continued to set himself apart from the New York School, the -isms that followed in its wake, and ultimately Modernism itself. Does this make him a harbinger of postmodernism? Mr. Rand implies as much, but that misrepresents Graham’s brainy and peculiar vision. Postmodernism, after all, is distinguished by its contempt for art and history. For Graham, art was about promise, possibility and the deepest reaches of tradition. That it led him down some alleyways the rest of us might avoid should in no way dissuade us from the work’s wit, mastery and intrigue.

© 2005 Mario Naves

“New Gallery/New Work” at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, NY

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I’m pleased to announce that a recent painting of mine will be on display in “New Gallery/New Work”, an exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery. More information can be found here.

“Independent Visions: Helene Schjerfbeck and Her Contemporaries” at Scandinavia House

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Helene Schjerfbeck, Self Portrait with Red Spot (1944), oil on canvas, 45 x 37 cm; courtesy Ateneum Art Museum/Finnish National Gallery

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The magic of painting is in how an accumulation of color can encapsulate and elaborate upon lived experience. A tired observation, perhaps, but when such a moment hits full force it still comes across as something of a miracle. How can so much be embodied by (to quote Symbolist painter Maurice Denis) “a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order”? It seems so improbable, and so rare. This train of thought came to mind while traversing “Independent Visions: Helene Schjerfbeck and Her Contemporaries,” a pleasantly innocuous exhibition of four Finnish painters, all of whom are women. Pleasant and innocuous, that is, until one encounters Self-Portrait with Red Spot (1944) by Schjerfbeck (1862–1946). Has there been a meditation on the depredations of growing older quite as pitiless? You’d have to look to late Rembrandt or Bonnard to find a picture that confronts mortality with as much sobriety and candor. (Schjerfbeck painted it at age eighty-two.) Applying a hurried gray wash and a jab of pink—the “red” in the title— Schjerfbeck created an image of scarifying self-awareness. It likely took five minutes to put Self-Portrait with Red Spot into place, but, really, a lifetime went into its making.

The name “Schjerfbeck” might ring a bell for New Yorkers with some sense of cultural memory. She was the subject of a 1992 retrospective at The National Academy of Design, and the paintings—stylized, astringent and largely unknown on these shores—resonated with devotees of the artform. Schjerfbeck is a national treasure in Finland, and on the evidence at Scandinavia House—around twenty canvases or so—it’s easy to intuit why: she’s an uncompromising, if at times highly affected, talent. At her best, Schjerfbeck holds vulnerability and measure in wiry equilibrium. In Self-Portrait, Black Background (1915), she strikes an imperial pose even as the weathered paint film connotes doubt and, with it, a strain of tenderness. Schjerfbeck’s love of the canvas weave is patent throughout “Independent Visions,” as erased, abraded and revised runs of oil paint are allowed to remain in its tooth. But try nosing up to the paintings—they call for it, after all—and you’ll be thwarted. Electric eyes are installed throughout the gallery: robotic warnings to step back are persistent—and an annoyance. More frustrating is the retractable stanchion placing viewers at a significant distance from Self-Portrait, Black Background and the sumptuous Red Apples (1915). What a cheat.

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Ellen Thesleff, Self-Portrait with Hat (1935), oil on canvas, 44 x 38 cm./courtesy Ateneum Art Museum/Finnish National Gallery

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Granted, neither canvas is protected by glass, and the Ateneum Art Museum, the Finnish collection from which “Independent Visions” is culled, surely wants its masterworks returned in good condition. It is, in fact, an indication of Schjerfbeck’s importance that only the gallery housing her work at Scandinavia House is cordoned off in such a manner. (Still, you’d think there would be better ways to prompt aesthetic reflection than putting viewers in mind of waiting on line at the airport.) The paintings and prints of Sigrid Schauman (1877–1979), Ellen Thesleff (1869–1954), and Elga Sesemann (1922–2007)—“the contemporaries” cited in the exhibition title—aren’t hindered by such restraints, and it’s a boon, particularly given how emphatic texture unites them. Applying pigment with a palette knife seems to have been de rigueur—was its use promoted amongst Finnish ateliers?—and points to an awareness of vanguards outside the country, particularly Post-Impressionism. Brusqueness is the rule. Thesleff ’s rainbow-colored wood-cuts of Italy are no less physical than a pair of scrabbled portraits in oil by Schaumann displayed nearby. The innovations of early Modernism liberated these painters in ways that retain a modicum of edge, of newness and excitement.

Of course, the primary thing that liberated these women was that they were able to pursue viable careers as artists at all. The independence put forth in the title cuts in more ways than one. Yes, the exhibition “delves into the role of the modern woman,” to quote Dr. Susanna Pettersson, the director of the Finnish National Gallery; it has also been mounted in honor of the centennial anniversary of valtalaki, the “Power Law” transferring governmental power from the Russian Empire to the Finnish parliament. Finland had proven itself to be at the forefront of equality, being among the first Western countries to give women the vote in 1906. Which isn’t to say that chauvinism vanished overnight. Writing in the catalogue, the Ateneum curator Anu Utrainen, who, along with Pettersson, organized “Independent Visions,” cites a 1921 Schjerfbeck letter in which she bemoans popular conceptions about what a woman should and should not portray in art. Still, those tempted to foist a “feminist” tag on Schjerfbeck have their work cut out for them. She bristled at the “female artist” tag and wanted no part of gender-specific exhibitions: “Shouldn’t art be all that matters?”

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Elga Sesemann, Self-Portrait (1946), oil on canvas, 77 x 68 cm.; courtesy Ateneum Art Museum/Finnish National Gallery

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Absolutely, but circumstance has a sneaky way of funneling into the work. The lot of the artist, let alone a woman artist working outside of a major cultural center, is keenly felt, if not always explicitly stated, at Scandinavia House. (It’s stated plainly enough in the catalogue, wherein we read Schjerfbeck’s advice to Schaumann: “Never become an artist. The world will let an artist perish.”) It can’t be a coincidence that the strongest pieces in “Independent Visions” are the self-portraits. Schjerfbeck deserves a place of prominence in the genre (though her Art Deco–inspired mannerisms are off-putting), but Sesemann, Thesleff and, especially, Schaumann bring to portraiture a dour self-regard and haunting sense of isolation. An undated Schaumann canvas barely brings itself to fruition, threatening to dissipate even as it coalesces into tangible form. Elsewhere, an elegantly appointed Thesleff regards herself with wary dispassion, and Sesemann, the artist seen least in abundance, opts for moody anomie. There are other types of imagery on view—Thesleff ’s mordant and whimsical Marionettes (1907), for example, or her Klimt-like Decorative Landscape (1910)—but they’re absent the nettlesome gravitas brought to bear on the portraits. A fuller accounting of each painter’s oeuvre might prove otherwise, but, in the meantime, “Independent Visions” serves as a noteworthy introduction to a byway of Modernism that will be new to a lot of us.

© 2017 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 edition of The New Criterion.

Candor Not Kitsch; The Paintings of Florine Stettheimer

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Florine Stettheimer, Nude Self-Portrait (ca. 1915), oil on canvas, 48-1/4 x 68-1/4″; courtesy Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer

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The following review originally appeared in the September 1995 edition of The New Criterion. It is posted here on the occasion of “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry” at The Jewish Museum, New York, NY. Additional thoughts on Stettheimer can be found here.

As the end of the century approaches, it becomes increasingly obvious that the standard histories of twentieth-century American art are in need of revision. Reputations that once seemed incontrovertibly major now appear meager, while so-called minor talents are beginning to look substantial, or, at least, more interesting than was once supposed. (This is assuming, of course, that artists are to be judged by their art rather than by extra-aesthetic criteria.) And while the myth of the great lost artist is largely that, there are, undoubtedly, fine painters and sculptors who have not yet met with serious appraisal and are unknown to the general public, as well as to those who make art their vocation.

Such may be the case with Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944). I first encountered Stettheimer’s paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, about four years ago, while meandering through a survey of twentieth-century American painting cobbled together from the museum’s holdings. Her Cathedral paintings, four works that take as their subject the social and cultural life of New York City from the late Twenties to the early Forties, took me by surprise. While the artist’s name was vaguely familiar, the paintings were new to me and curious. Their idiosyncrasies recalled folk art, but the Cathedral paintings were decidedly not the work of an “outsider”: their humor betrayed an artistic temperament as sophisticated as it was acerbic. I found the Cathedral paintings funny and diverting—diverting enough to make me wonder what else Stettheimer had accomplished.

Since then I have learned, from friends and colleagues, that discovering Stettheimer by happenstance is something of a commonplace among her admirers. It was reassuring, then, to read that both Elisabeth Sussman and Barbara J. Bloemink, organizers of the Stettheimer show now up at the Whitney, learned about her as a result of pursuing other projects: Sussman, while writing about Irene Rice Pereira; Bloemink, while researching the correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe. Their shared enthusiasm for Stettheimer’s work has resulted in a most welcome exhibition.

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Marcel Duchamp, Portrait of Florine Stettheimer (1925), charcoal, 20.1 x 13.8″; courtesy of the Jewish Museum

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Manhattan Fantastica is the first full-scale retrospective of Stettheimer’s work since 1946, when her friend Marcel Duchamp organized a posthumous exhibition of her paintings at MOMA. Although she exhibited sporadically during her lifetime, Stettheimer’s only solo exhibition, at M. Knoedler & Company in 1916, was poorly received, an experience which left an indelible mark on her. Subsequently, Stettheimer refused commercial representation, even turning down Alfred Stieglitz’s invitation to exhibit at his gallery, forsaking probable notoriety.

Being of independent means and, one feels, a resolute demeanor, Stettheimer could afford such isolation. For her, painting became an entirely private pursuit, and though she freely showed her work to those in her circle, it was not for sale and she did little to promote herself as an artist. It is fortunate, in fact, that her work still exists at all. Stettheimer intended that her entire artistic output be destroyed upon her death. Her sister Ettie, acting as executor, refused to do so, instead making arrangements to have Stettheimer’s paintings placed in museums throughout the country. In a roundabout way, Manhattan Fantastica has the peculiar distinction of being the product of family disloyalty.

If Stettheimer’s obscurity was, in part, of her own making, her paintings did eventually acquire an enthusiastic, if small, audience. Sussman attributes the rehabilitation of Stettheimer’s reputation to feminism, gay liberation, and Pop Art, taking pains to inform us that Jasper Johns holds her paintings in high esteem, as did Andy Warhol. Those of us less inclined to consider Johns and Warhol as oracles of wisdom are lucky that “Manhattan Fantastica” is as good as it is. By the current standards of the Whitney, the surprisingly no-nonsense presentation of this exhibition must seem hopelessly passé; it treats Stettheimer’s paintings with respect, allowing them breathing room with a minimum of pushy wall labels. Given the “inspiration seen in the installation of Edward Hopper and the American Imagination, up the stairs from Manhattan Fantastica, one should be grateful for small (and uninspired) favors.

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Florine Stettheimer, Family Portrait II (1933), oil on canvas, 46-1/4 x 64-5/8″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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The first painting one sees upon entering Manhattan Fantastica is New York/Liberty (1918), a view of the southern tip of Manhattan, replete with the Staten Island Ferry, the Brooklyn Bridge, Woodrow Wilson, and a lumpish, three-dimensional Statue of Liberty jutting out from the painting’s surface. What is remarkable about New York/ Liberty is neither the picture’s formal resolve—as painting, it has its problems—nor its amusing agglomeration of details, but its heartfelt celebration of the United States and, in particular, New York City. New York/Liberty is a picture about love, and it is indicative of our times that Stettheimer’s patriotic valentine is as unnerving as it is. As unnerving, one might say, as it is moving. While it is easy to see why fans of camp would find an image like New York/Liberty appealing, its corniness, if you will, is genuine. Stettheimer’s paintings carry a candor that shows up most contemporary kitsch-based art for the snobbery that it is.

Florine and her sisters, Ettie and Carrie, along with their mother, Rosetta, opened their home on the Upper West Side to some of the most important artists of the time; among those who attended the Stettheimers’ salons were Charles Demuth, Elie Nadelman, Gaston Lachaise, Marsden Hartley, and Duchamp. It was this milieu that prompted some of Stettheimer’s finest paintings, and Sussman and Bloemink are wise to concentrate on her mature period. Her pre-stylistic paintings, of which there are few on view, are best left to Stettheimer specialists. Certainly, a painting like Family Portrait #1 (1915), with its lackluster drawing and halting brushwork, makes one commiserate with the critics who panned the Knoedler exhibition. Even so, this painting holds a key to understanding the course Stettheimer’s mature work would take and it can be found in the flower arrangement which sits just right of center. It is the one part of Family Portrait #1 where Stettheimer follows the logic of painting and, as such, it delivers, especially in its use of hard, strong color. The flowers are so convincing, in fact, that they have more emotional life than the mannequins which surround them.

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Florine Stettheimer, Portrait of My Sister, Ettie Stettheimer (1923), oil on canvas mounted on hardboard, 40 3/8 × 26 1/4″; courtesy The Jewish Museum

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Stettheimer’s portraits of family and friends can be fun, but in a circumscribed way. Each portrait is crammed with incident, sometimes to an almost encyclopedic extent, relating to its subject. Writing in the catalogue, Bloemink deciphers the imagery found in some of the portraits, and it’s colorful stuff: Stettheimer made sure all the relevant information was there, including, for instance, Carl Van Vechten’s favorite tabby. But, as works of art, the portraits miss the forest for the trees. Stettheimer is so intent on making her portraits specific that they become mired in details. Consequently, they function better as rebuses, albeit nutty ones, than as orchestrated works of art. Admittedly, the portraits are filled with morsels of splendid painting—the muffled, nubby landscape seen in the distance of Portrait of My Sister Carrie W. Stettheimer with Dollhouse (1923), for instance— but they also divulge Stettheimer’s folk-art mannerisms as flimsy drawing. The one exception is Portrait of Ettie (1923), a scarily unforgettable portrait of her sister. Lying on a chaise longue while floating in a deep blue space, Ettie is overwhelmed by what appears to be a burning Christmas tree; it is as persuasive a piece of Expressionist-style dabbing as Stettheimer ever did. With Portrait of Ettie, Stettheimer’s obsessiveness achieves the visionary.

Stettheimer became more confident as a painter the more cartoonish her work became. One can see this in Picnic at Bedford Hills (1918), a picture of the artist, her sisters, Nadelman, and Duchamp lunching on what could be described as a skewed Fauvist landscape. Here Stettheimer’s figures take on a caricaturish stylishness not unlike that found in the more upscale cartoons of the time, and this comic exuberance informs her best paintings. While Stettheimer’s work suggests biography—which is, more often than not, exactly what it is—it is not necessary to read her best paintings as such to gain pleasure from them. Her work has its own oddball momentum, and the small dramas played out in the paintings gain comedic and pictorial dimension the less they rely on biographical particulars. This may be why Stettheimer’s finest paintings are her multi-figure compositions. She’s at her best when building rhythms between forms, especially a multiplicity of forms, and using her particulars for emphasis.

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Florine Stettheimer, Spring Sale at Bendel’s (1921), oil on canvas, 50 x 40″; courtesy of The Philadelphia Museum of Art, gift of Miss Ettie Stettheimer

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Such is the case with Lake Placid (1919), Asbury Park South (1920), and Spring Sale at Bendel’s (1921), the latter of which must qualify as Stettheimer’s masterpiece. One of Stettheimer’s great loves was dance—the maquettes for her own unrealized ballet, Orphée of the Quat’z Arts, are impressive and weird—and a strong sense of choreography buoys these paintings. Spring Sale at Bendel’s, in particular, is a ceaseless flow of movement, unified by an acidic pink that has Stettheimer’s name on it. (Stettheimer’s color sense veered toward the poisonous.) Its images of women shopping and trying on outfits have the cadence and theatricality of an MGM musical, and it is made up of silly bits of business: a small yellow dog wearing a sweater emblazoned with a dollar sign, women diving for sale items. Here Stettheimer’s minutiae lend comedy to a painting with an already comic momentum. The final result is an elegant giddiness, cosmopolitan and without pretension.

Sussman and Bloemink conclude Manhattan Fantastica with the Cathedral paintings, perhaps taking their cue from Linda Nochlin’s 1980 essay on the artist, “Rococo Subversive,” wherein they are heralded as Stettheimer’s masterpieces. (The essay is included in the catalogue.) Some four years later, I find the Cathedral paintings—dedicated to Broadway, Fifth Avenue, Wall Street, and Art—still funny and diverting, but something of a letdown. Like the portraits, they are bursting with telling, hilarious details, but the details are clumped together on the canvases in such a way that one’s eye tends to bump into the various scenarios depicted; there’s little pictorial flow. If Asbury Park South achieves the dynamism of dance, a painting like Cathedrals of Wall Street simply strikes a pose. Stettheimer’s spark, so present in her best paintings, is missing here, and her color and paint handling, having become subservient to illustration, are less vital. If the charm of most folk art lies in the anecdotal, then so it is with the Cathedral paintings. Despite their eccentricities, they are tame—tame, that is, for Stettheimer.

The introductory wall label of Manhattan Fantastica states that “no history of American Modernism can truly be complete without Stettheimer’s work.” This is standard curatorial hyperbole, but it is difficult to be unsympathetic all the same. That she was a fascinating character in the cultural life of early-twentieth-century New York is unquestionable. As a painter, however, Stettheimer is a minor, one could say marginal, figure. Marginality, as it has come to be known in the political sense, is, of course, what the contemporary art world finds so appealing about her: Why else would Soirée/Studio Party (1917–19) grace the cover of Artforum? Stettheimer’s marginality, however, is both her chief asset and chief liability, and to politicize her work misses the point and dishonors her art. (I wonder what Stettheimer herself would think of the “social consciousness” Nochlin foists upon her—probably come up with a biting painting or two, I’d imagine.) A handful of these paintings—Spring Sale at Bendel’s, Lake Placid, Asbury Park South, Portrait of Ettie, Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P. T. Barnum (1924), and, maybe, Russian Bank (1921)—are undeniable gems worthy of posterity. But if the artist revealed in Manhattan Fantastica is an erratic one, even the least convincing of her pungent paintings have more to offer than, say, the clever fripperies of her friend and champion Marcel Duchamp. So give the Whitney credit for doing it right. Manhattan Fantastica adds an honorable chapter to the understanding of the art of our misunderstood times.

© 1995 Mario Naves

 

“Alexei Jawlensky” at The Neue Galerie

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Alexei Jawlensky, Portrait of Marie Castell (1906), oil on board, 21 x 19-1/2″; courtesy of The Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, Michigan, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jerome O. Eddy

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Among the initial observations prompted by “Alexei Jawlensky” at the Neue Gallery—the first U.S. retrospective devoted to the Russian-born Expressionist—is that Jawlensky was a better Van Gogh than Van Gogh himself. Toward the beginning of the exhibition, viewers encounter Portrait of Marie Castell (1906), a canvas that could be mistaken for the real thing. The thickly applied brushstrokes, acidic colors, stiffly rendered contours, flattened composition, and prole-ish character of Castell— poor Vincent couldn’t have done as well. And, in significant ways, he didn’t. Sure, Jawlensky followed on the heels of Post-Impressionism; pictorial tics that were revolutionary ten to fifteen years earlier were, if not outmoded, then accepted by advanced painters. Still, it’s worth noting how adept Jawlensky is at navigating space, delineating anatomy, and bringing variety to the picture’s facture and chromatic range. Talk all you want about how Van Gogh’s ham-handedness connotes passion and commitment—he rarely achieved the virtuosity, the light and electricity, of Portrait of Marie Castell. That, and Castell looks at us with a degree of self-possession. Van Gogh smothered sitters with an overheated temperament—his own. For Jawlensky, “heat” was an option, not the sine qua non. So much so that the “Expressionist” tag seems misapplied over the course of the oeuvre.

“Alexei Jawlensky” spotlights a talented stylist of limited scope. Organized by Vivian Endicott Barnett, a curator specializing in German and Russian Modernism, the Neue Galerie exhibition gives Jawlensky (1863–1941) due diligence without having him overstay his welcome. Born in Torzhok, a town located in the province of Tver, Jawlensky was an eighteen-year-old cadet in the Imperial Russian Army when he underwent a transformative experience, discovering his true vocation upon encountering the painting section of the Moscow World Exposition. Strings were pulled—possibly by his father, a colonel—and Jawlensky was re-stationed in St. Petersburg; there he pursued art while fulfilling his military duties. Jawlensky studied with Ilya Repin, the most renowned of nineteenth-century Russian painters, and it was within Repin’s circle that he met, and became involved with, fellow artist Marianne van Werefkin. Feeling stifled by the brand of realism extolled by Repin, Jawlensky and Van Werefkind moved to Munich in search of more progressive environs. Once there, they befriended Wassily Kandinsky, and made the requisite trip to Paris, where Jawlensky became acquainted with the work of Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse, and, yes, Van Gogh.Jawlensky 2.jpg

Alexei Jawlensky, Oberstdorf-Mountains (1912), oil on cardboard, 19-1/2 x 22-1/2″; courtesy Petr Aven Collection

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Jawlensky’s claim on history is guaranteed by his being a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter, a group of like-minds without whom Expressionism is inconceivable. Alongside Van Werefkin, Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Gabriele Munter, and August Macke, Jawlensky sought to embody transcendentalist aims through painterly means, following upon Kandinsky’s dictum that the “beautiful . . . . springs from inner need, which springs from the soul.” One sees this most keenly in a group of mask-like faces Jawlensky painted during the Teens, in which minutely tuned gradations of chroma and light are draped upon compositions reminiscent of Byzantine icons. Though Jawlensky tilted towards abstraction, he never completely abandoned representation. The splotchy landscapes displayed at the center of the exhibition test the limits of recognizability even as Jawlensky continues to hold onto things—hillocks and trees, clouds and sky. Jawlensky’s debt to Kandinsky is patent, particularly in the jewel-like colors and brusque application of oils. Too much of a debt, perhaps. Strolling through “Alexei Jawlensky,” other painters are recalled so vividly that one can’t help but wonder how Jawlensky’s pictures would hold up in the company of his Blaue Reiter colleagues or simpatico figures like Marsden Hartley, Paul Klee, and Robert Delaunay.

The show-stoppers in “Alexei Jawlensky” are few, but the exhibition never truly lags. New Yorkers may recognize Helene with Colored Turban (1920) on loan from the Guggenheim, a Matissean play of fulsome shapes and smoky reds held in check by a sweeping neutral green. Oberstdorf-Mountains (1912), with its bulky outlines, fatty slurs of paint and glowing color, threatens to muscle its way out of the canvas. The portion of the show titled “Working in Series” puts into focus what is, aesthetically if not chronologically, the culmination of Jawlensky’s art. These paintings of faces aren’t portraits in the traditional sense, but are structural armatures—often mannered and, at their best, highly streamlined. Early examples like The Old Man (Yellow Beard) (1912) and Byzantine Woman (Bright Lips) (1913) have their gruff charms, but they rehash, rather than vitalize, the verities of Expressionism; they’re period pieces of a generic sort. The line-up of “mystical” heads fares better because they break free of the particulars of anatomy, settling for ideograms of the human face. “Settling,” however, is the problem. It didn’t occur to Jawlensky that a composition could be made as variable as the colors that prompted him to put brush to canvas in the first place.

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Alexei Jawlensky, Meditation: My Spirit Will Live On (1935), oil on cardboard, 7-7/8 x 5-7/8″; courtesy Museum Wiesbaden

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The exhibition concludes with an artist who has been vilified as “degenerate” by the Third Reich, and suffers from an arthritis that would ultimately still his art. The paintings become smaller, distilled, and clouded—pointing to a loss of manual dexterity, and likely indicative of a hostile political climate. In the intimate final gallery, viewers encounter the “meditation” pictures, images that further reduce the portrait schemata to what are, essentially, cruciforms; not a few observers have likened their back-lit surfaces and linear scaffolding to stained glass windows. Learning that Jawlensky guided his brush using crippled hands can’t help but put pause to criticism; all the same, it’s a mercy that Orenstein culled only a handful from a series that numbers close to a thousand. Variety and invention were not Jawlensky’s strong suits. And neither, in the end, was Modernism. The picture that lingers most vividly in the memory is Helene at the Age of Fifteen (1900), the earliest canvas on display and the most fluent, haunting, and conservative. Its fetching slurs of ochre, umber, and dusty pink coalesce in a manner that shows up Jawlensky’s “advanced” pictures as brittle exercises in form. Not everything the avant-garde alighted upon turned to gold—the upshot, however inadvertent, of “Alexei Jawlensky.”

© 2017 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the May 2017 edition of The New Criterion.

Barkley L. Hendricks (1945-2017)

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Barkley L. Hendricks, Slick (Self-Portrait) (1977), oil on canvas; Collection of the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA

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This review was originally published in the December 16, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

In an interview with Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, the painter Barkley L. Hendricks states that there aren’t “too many contemporary painters I get inspiration from.” Ms. Golden, citing Mr. Hendricks’ “resonance” in the art scene, seems taken aback. He has, after all, benefited from a marketplace that currently smiles upon figurative art. Money, it would seem, has made Mr. Hendricks’ stark brand of portraiture relevant.

Or, at least, au courant. Given the laconic expression in Slick (Self-Portrait) (1977), Mr. Hendricks probably views this development with no small measure of bemusement. He knows the convolutions of fashion. Mr. Hendricks’ art came into its own some 40 years ago and shortly thereafter gained in renown. As someone who once appeared in an advertisement for Dewar’s Scotch, he’s experienced “resonance” firsthand.

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Barkley L. Hendricks, Bid ‘Em In/Slave (Angie) (1973), acrylic and oil on canvas, 72 x 50″; courtesy Swann Auction Galleries

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Birth of the Cool—the title comes from Miles Davis’ seminal LP—is a selective overview of Mr. Hendricks’ art at the Studio Museum. He’s made still-lifes, watercolors, photos, assemblages and (huh?) black light drawings, but it’s portrait paintings for which he’s best known—and rightfully so: They’re assured, taut and true. The work’s in-your-face immediacy is startling, but that’s not all. Each picture unfolds with, yes, cool deliberation.

Mr. Hendricks’ subjects are painted life size, maybe a little larger. They’re rendered with consummate skill: Mr. Hendricks applies paint with deadpan economy. Rigorous attention is paid to likeness, as is conveying the specifics of gesture, attitude, fashion and, if not necessarily character, then type. To a significant extent, raiment takes precedence. Mr. Hendricks isn’t an effusive temperament; nonetheless, you can feel the pleasure he takes in limning wide collars, hot pants or the sloping overcoat in Steve (1976).

Associations peculiar to the period—the late 1960s and early ’70s—abound: Try not thinking Superfly or recalling then-burgeoning Afrocentrism. Politics are alluded to—Icon for My Man Superman (Superman never saved any black people—Bobby Seale) (1969), for instance, or in the oddly beatific visage of a Vietnam-era soldier in FTA(1968). The work evinces an artist peculiarly aware of, and not unamused by, the sociological and historical ramifications in painting black Americans. As catalog essayist Richard J. Powell notes, Mr. Hendricks’ perplexing interest in stereotypes reveals an intellect attuned to devastating ironies.

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Barkley L. Hendricks, Lawdy Mama (1969), oil and gold leaf on canvas, 53-3/4 x 36-1/4″; courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery

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All the same, Mr. Hendricks is a pure painter. Though his figures are representational, the space in which they are situated is not: Each is surrounded by expanses of flat and uninflected color. The abrupt disconnect between figure and ground recalls Byzantine icons—Lawdy Mama (1969), with its domed format and field of metallic gold, is a blatant reference—and, in the work’s billboard-like punch, Pop Art. Some may want to lump Mr. Hendricks in with Photorealism, but, as an artist trained in working directly from life, mechanical reproduction isn’t an overriding concern. It’s the actual he’s after.

A daunting concentration to detail worthy of Netherlandish painters can be seen in the studio windows reflected in the sunglasses worn by Mr. Hendricks in Slick. But relentless pictorial honing can make him seem an abstract painter. Mr. Hendricks carefully situates each model within the parameters of the canvas; the way they’re juxtaposed within its edges is exacting, as are his subtle elisions in color. In What Goes On (1974), Mr. Hendricks orchestrates white ground, white clothing and brown skin to thrilling effect. Somewhere, Malevich is smiling.

Ms. Golden describes Mr. Hendricks’ achievement as “somewhat timeless.” Somewhat? What a curious aside. Artists play for keeps; their work thrives long after its historical context has come and gone. Mr. Hendricks is wise to this truth. His great loves are timeless through and through: Rembrandt and Caravaggio. In fundamental ways, they’re Mr. Hendricks’ true contemporaries. Birth of the Cool is a long overdue recognition of what is likely to be a timeless achievement. In the short term, it’s wry, pointed and something to see.

©  2008 Mario Naves

“The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Hercules Segers, The Mossy Tree (ca. 1625-30), lift-ground etching printed in green, on a light pink ground, colored with brush/unique impression, 6-5/8 x 3-7/8″; Collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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As much as a person might try, it’s impossible to escape the imprimatur and influence–some might say “taint”–of Hollywood. At the entrance to“The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers,” museum-goers encounter an introductory video narrated by the actor John Malkovich. It is, admittedly, an adroit fit: Malkovich has cultivated an air of idiosyncrasy and affectlessness in his choice of roles and in his public demeanor. Who better to introduce contemporary viewers to an intensely quixotic painter and printmaker known primarily to specialists of seventeenth-century Dutch art? Notwithstanding Malkovich’s stated admiration for Rembrandt, there’s something condescending, not to mention tiresome and predictable, in trotting out a movie star to clue us into the dimly remembered Hercules Segers (ca. 1589–ca. 1638). The Met wouldn’t be the first museum to poach upon the glitz of showbiz, and it won’t be the last. But do curators really think they need to goose the audience with a frisson of celebrity for it to sit up and take notice?

Having said that, “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers” does bring scholarly focus to a singular talent. Organized by Nadine M. Orenstein, the Met’s Drue Heinz Curator in Charge of the Department of Drawings and Prints, the exhibition draws heavily on European collections, especially the Rijksmuseum: its entire holdings of Segers work— seventy-four prints, two oil sketches, and one canvas—are currently ensconced on the Upper East Side. The scarcity of Segers’s art stateside accounts, in some measure, for this being the first American overview. Still, he’s never truly been an approachable artist—in our day or his own. Writing in 1678, the painter Samuel van Hoogstraten cited Segers as a “disregarded . . . great artist” who was “murdered by poverty”—this, in a cautionary text titled “How an Artist Should Conduct Himself Against the Blows of Fortune.” Van Hoogstraten’s interest may have been prompted by his teacher Rembrandt, who is known to have owned (and re-worked) Segers’s art. Certainly, van Hoogstraten’s telling of Segers’s fate and reputation is clouded by hearsay and romance. For decades following his death, poems and prints mourned and/or celebrated Segers’s “abject poverty.” Tragic stories die hard: Segers became (as the catalogue has it) the “poster child” for starving, misunderstood artists.

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Hercules Segers, The Tomb of the Horatii and Curiatii (ca. 1628-29), line etching printed with tone and highlights, colored with brush; unique impression, 5-1/16 × 7-11/16″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The historical record has been fleshed out some since Van Hoogstraten’s time, but it remains fragmentary, and somewhat contradictory. Writing in the catalogue, the historian Jaap Van Der Veen undergoes—and the pun will be forgiven, I hope—Herculean contortions in the attempt to hone in on the particulars of Segers’s life. Though peppered with qualifiers, Van Der Veen’s essay explains that Segers came from a moneyed family—his parents, Pieter and Cathelijne, were merchants—and was a student of the Flemish landscapist Gillis van Coninxloo. Segers eventually established himself as an artist and art dealer in Amsterdam, and experienced enough success to purchase a house on the Lindengracht in 1619. A few years later, however, Segers underwent financial distress: the house was put under foreclosure and his workshop dismantled. Van Hoogstraten’s claim that no one “wanted to look at [Segers’s] works in his lifetime” has been viewed as an indicator of the extreme indigence into which he had fallen. The support of Segers’ admirers and collectors couldn’t save him. Segers took to drinking and fell to his death down a flight of stairs. He was forty-nine.

Which would make Segers a run-of-the-mill character if his accomplishment didn’t extend beyond a ragged mythos. As it is, Segers’s art—and even more so the prints than the paintings—has a sneaking, slow-burning fascination. Though limited in scope and subject, Segers’s work is prone to moody flashes of ecstasy and marked by an overriding, somewhat cloistered eccentricity. Notwithstanding the stray still-life or Biblical scene, panoramic landscapes were the man’s métier. The bowl-shaped compositions are fairly pedestrian, and rarely veer from a foreground/middle ground/background orientation—a pictorial foundation that must have already seemed pat in the age of van Ruisdael, van Goyen, and Hobbema. Most of these vistas were, in fact, gleaned from second-hand sources. Their hyperbolic crags and tors are unlike other Netherlandish landscapes (and unlike the landscape of the Netherlands), and were pinched from Pieter Bruegel the Elder or, more likely, copies after Bruegel. Segers’s dependence on Bruegel’s example did allow a certain freedom, serving as a reliable armature for textural indulgence and experiments in blending the boundaries between painting and printmaking. It says quite a lot about Segers’s methodology that his mixed-media pieces retain an unpredictable élan some four hundred years after the fact.

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Rembrandt van Rijn and Hercules Segers, Flight into Egypt altered from Tobias and the Angel by Segers (ca. 1653), etching reworked with drypoint and burin by Rembrandt; sixth state of seven Plate: 8-7/16 × 11″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The most exciting moments in “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers” occur when Segers takes a single etched image and calls it dramatically into question—making multiple impressions, wildly changing tonality and color, and, not a few times, dabbing at the print with colored ink and paint. The diminutive Valley with a River and a Town with Four Towers (ca. 1627–27) is seen in six distinct variations, the most startling of which is all but obscured by an immeasurably rich blue. Segers’s attention to texture, particularly in the geological formations, veers from being irritably delicate to coarse—bordering on clumsy—often within a single piece. As a printmaker, Segers was clearly not given to preciosity; so much so, that one can’t help but wonder if some pieces were one-offs that Segers never got around to discarding. Whatever the case, the prints pulse, and thrive, with risk. The paintings, and there are only a handful on display, are considerably less arresting—a reflection based, perhaps, on contemporary taste, but it is more likely that Segers brought a sharper sense of invention while at the printing press than when in front of an easel. Our narrator, John Malkovich, goes so far as to describe Segers’s prints as “avant-garde.” And you know what? For once that outmoded adjective is rightfully earned. Here in the far-flung twenty-first century, the outré character of Segers’s art may well be the most mysterious thing about him.

© 2017 Mario Naves

This article was originally published in the April 2017 edition of The New Criterion.

Sir Gordon Eliot Howard Hodgkin (1932-2017)

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Photo by David Levene, courtesy of The Guardian

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The following review was originally published in the January 1996 edition of The New Criterion.

There are few brushstrokes in contemporary painting that announce themselves as impudently as those of Howard Hodgkin. Ranging from swirling swathes to patterned splotches, Hodgkin’s brushstrokes are at once an homage to the act of painting and a tweaking of it. His splotch, a younger relative of the Pointillist dot, is gratifyingly childlike, and Hodgkin clearly delights in its obviousness. We know how these splotches are made—the artist presses his loaded brush onto the painting’s surface, then lifts it—and we smile to imagine making them ourselves.

There is ample opportunity to view Hodgkin’s brushwork in the fifty paintings included in the exhibition Howard Hodgkin: Paintings 1975–1995. Hodgkin is a British painter who has received international recognition and critical accolades, but who isn’t exactly a known quantity to American audiences. A lot of people will be seeing his work for the first time at the Met and it will probably strike them as exotic. The crowds I attended the show with were positively buoyed by Hodgkin’s paintings. How could they not be? Hodgkin’s work is snazzy. His colors are brassy, and the theatricality of the work tends toward farce. While Hodgkin’s paintings are abstract they retain enough representational clues to give the uninitiated a hook into the painting; when they don’t, his chatty titles prod us into finding them. Hodgkin’s cheeky updating of Intimism seems to offer that rarest of entities: contemporary art that trades in pleasure.

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Sir Howard Hodgkin, Grantchester Road (1975), oil on wood, 49 x 57″; courtesy HowardHodgkin.com

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Yet Hodgkin’s work is less an extension of Intimism than a cartoon of it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If only his best paintings have the pull of art, his whole oeuvre is genuinely engaging. The exhibition, however, confirms what a lot of us who have followed Hodgkin’s work have suspected for some time: that he is an artist whose paintings are best appreciated one at a time. In her catalogue essay, Susan Sontag quotes the artist as saying, “My pictures tend to destroy each other when they are hung too closely together.” He’s right, but not for the reasons he thinks. Each of his paintings may have as its basis its own unique emotional and narrative impulses, but when seen in the company of fifty fellow-Hodgkins, the painting’s uniqueness vanishes. Hodgkin is a great homogenizer. It’s unlikely that anyone who leaves the exhibit will do so without knowing what a “Hodgkin” looks like, but it’s even more unlikely that they will carry with them the memory of any one specific painting.

Hodgkin’s finest paintings come early in the exhibition, when the energy of an artist reaching maturity is apparent. Grantchester Road (1975) serves as a virtual blueprint for the work to come. In it, a figure obscured by a black brushstroke stands within an interior, which itself sits within a painted frame, complete with black and cream “curtains.” With its architectonic structure and bracketed areas of splotches, Grantchester Road updates Vuillard in an appealingly punchy manner. It’s as cute as Hodgkin wants it to be. (If we must have Pop Art, let it be as chummy as this.) Some may feel that its “recognizable” imagery—is that a painting by Jules Olitski?—lays out its intentions too blatantly. Yet in comparison to Hodgkin’s later work, which becomes more abstract as his brushwork gains independence, Grantchester Road seems successful because of its spatial and figurative concreteness. Hodgkin needs representational markers and geometric scaffolding to focus his painting. Without them he descends into a sloppy mannerism.

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Sir Howard Hodgkin, Sad Flowers (1979-85), oil on wood, 43-1/2 x 55-1/2″; courtesy HowardHodgkin.com

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Hodgkin’s paintings are worked and re-worked over long stretches of time—Sad Flowers (1979–85) alone took six years to complete—and so the surfaces can sometimes be knotty. They also can sometimes be arid; there’s often an unattractive matte quality to his paint. (An artist friend attributes this to Hodgkin’s use of Liquin, a painting medium that enhances the fluidity of oils but deadens their body and sheen.) Certainly the colors and brushwork are there, but not like they are in reproduction. In photos, the work sings: the surfaces become streamlined and the colors thrive. But this leaves the museum visitor deflated. Hodgkin has the queer distinction of being a painter whose work improves in reproduction.

Nevertheless, Hodgkin’s brushwork does have the ability to delight, and it gathers strength the more it insists on the density of oil paint. In his more modestly scaled paintings, Hodgkin’s marks exist within a space appropriate to the size of his brush. He relies on an intimate—an Intimist—scale to keep his splotches reigned in and his paintings knitted together. When Hodgkin increases the size of his paintings he lapses into self-parody. Hodgkin’s brushstrokes have always come with quotation marks–he may be more of a postmodernist than we think—and their gentle irony plays well in small formats. When Hodgkin attempts to translate his painterly repertoire to larger paintings, his irony wears thin and fast. When Did We Go to Morocco? (1988–93), for instance, measures 77 ½ x 106 inches. Where once his paint-handling inhabited the work, here it just fills up a lot of space, and Hodgkin flailing away with paint is not an easy thing to look at. He simply isn’t capable of pulling off (or pulling together) a painting of this scale, and the increase in brush size serves only to exaggerate the affectation inherent in his paint-handling.

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Sir Howard Hodgkin, When Did We Go To Morocco? (1988-93), oil on wood, 77-1/2 x 106″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The better part of Hodgkin’s reputation rests on his gift as a colorist, and, to quote one museum-goer’s exclamation, what “nice and bright” colors there are to be found in his paintings! Intense reds, blues, greens, and oranges jostle one another in the work. This is why his paintings hold the ground-floor galleries of the Lila Acheson Wallace wing so well: Hodgkin’s colors shout for attention and get it. While Hodgkin employs a veritable rainbow, he doesn’t give his colors much personality. They feel arbitrary and, I would guess, are straight from the tube. Certainly, there are colors that Hodgkin prefers–permanent green, for one—but we never think of them as “his” colors. We don’t call to mind, oh, a Hodgkin orange the same way we do a Matisse blue or a Philip Guston pink. Hodgkin uses colors he likes, that’s all. He isn’t a colorist so much as he is a painter who uses a lot of color.

The curators neatly, if inadvertently, underscore this distinction by closing the exhibition with After Morandi (1989–94), a row of colored vertical stripes surrounded by a gray border. It might be said that Morandi was an artist who painted with no-color. Yet, this is precisely what makes Morandi a master and Hodgkin an enthusiast. The limited nature of Morandi’s palette, and the subtle shifts in weight, light, and space he gleaned from it, let us know that he knew a thing or two about color. The mistake Hodgkin and his admirers make is believing that merely “pumping up the volume” necessarily constitutes using color well. There are times he gets away with it. D. H. in Hollywood (1980–84), a “portrait” of his friend David Hockney, has a glowing, bleached-out tonality that puts a stamp on Hodgkin’s coloristic brashness, and there are other paintings here whose colors add up to something more than the sum of their parts. But mostly Hodgkin’s colors bash into one another. The only thing that helps us in connecting After Morandi with its inspiration, after all, is the title.

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Sir Howard Hodgkin, Patrick Caulfield in Italy (1987-1992), oil on wood, 43-1/2 x 57-1/2″; courtesy HowardHodgkin.com

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The paintings do hold together compositionally, however, and Hodgkin gets them to do so through the device of the frame. The Hopes at Home (1973–77) is the first painting one sees upon entering the exhibition, and not just for reasons of chronology: it’s there because it’s one of Hodgkin’s best. Here he orchestrates his greens, reds, and oranges by framing them with a wide blackish-green brushstroke. By wrapping the work, so to speak, Hodgkin forces the painting to cohere.

It should be reiterated that the frame of The Hopes at Home is made of paint and paint alone. When Hodgkin uses actual frames, often painting directly over them so that the painting itself overlaps onto it, it is the sheerest gimmickry and an annoyance. We are told that the frame reinforces each painting’s status as an object, but that’s just Conceptualist fiddle-faddle: an artist should be able to refer to a painting’s physicality without resorting to trickery. The lateral layering of wide stretcher bars around the wooden panel at the center of On the Riviera (1987–88), for instance, is not only obtrusive, it’s a stunt worthy of the most audacious graduate painting student. Hodgkin’s frames don’t enhance the painting; they impede it. And when he dabs orange splotches on an ornamental octagonal frame, as in Keith and Kathy Sachs (1988–91), Hodgkin doesn’t flirt with kitsch, he is subsumed by it. The frame is a pictorial gimcrack a better artist wouldn’t think twice about.

A lot of us, however, have thought twice about Hodgkin, and this is what makes Paintings 1975–1995 such a frustrating affair. One senses that Hodgkin has (or had) the goods to be a more substantial painter than the one revealed here, and a dozen or so of these paintings do make the case convincingly. I loved Patrick Caulfield in Italy (1987–92) when I saw it at Knoedler & Company two years ago—and I still do, inverted frame and all. But the company it keeps here all but drains it of individuality, wit, and spunk. By the time one reaches the end of the exhibition, Hodgkin’s cheekiness has become as chafing as Lucian Freud’s misanthropy. There is no doubt that Hodgkin is a gifted artist with taste and a sense of tradition. But he is also one too comfortable within the confines of a formula. Howard Hodgkin: Paintings 1975–1995 does him no favors.

© 1996 Mario Naves