“Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling” at The Walters Art Museum

 

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Manuscript formerly used as a book cover: German, Two Leaves from the Mirror of Human Salvation (late 14th century), ink and pigments on medium weight, cream-colored parchment, 12-3/16 x 9″; courtesy The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

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“Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling” isn’t much of an exhibition in terms of scale. Rounding out at twenty-four items, most of which are bantam in size and many being fragments, “Waste Not” doesn’t even merit anti-blockbuster status, squirreled away, as it is, in a side gallery. Then again, who would want spectacle-for-spectacle’s-sake at an institution as quixotic as this one? The Walters is a world-class museum and claims a healthy share of masterworks—credit goes to its founding collectors, the iron magnate William Thompson Walters (1820–1894) and his son Henry (1848–1931). Yet the appeal of the museum has less to do with star attractions than with an overriding and idiosyncratic catholicism. Does any single of work at the Walters register as forcefully as its wunderkammern: kaleidoscopic installations of paintings, sculpture, furniture, arms, armor, taxidermied animals, fossils, you-name-it–we-got-it? The Walters’ impressive array of works by Delacroix can barely muster the will to compete with such splendid excess.

“Waste Not” is of a piece with the Walters ethos; that is to say, it’s both encompassing and highly specialized. To get an idea of just how specialized, consider the source of the show’s opening quote: the third-century theologian Clement of Alexandria, not exactly a household name. In the fourteenth chapter of Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, a tract that takes heedless wealth to task, Clement advises that “riches, then, which benefit also our neighbors are not to be thrown away . . . they are useful and provided by God for the use of men.” Lynley Anne Herbert, the Robert and Nancy Hall Assistant Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, picks up Clement’s ball and runs with it, linking his notion of usefulness to concerns about “our planet’s limited resources.” (One can almost hear the public relations folks at the Walters breathing a collective sigh of thanks for a marketable angle.) “Waste Not” addresses not only material scarcity, but how that scarcity is transformed, as well as elaborated upon, because of significant changes in culture. There’s big stuff afoot in this small exhibition.

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Venetian, Colossal Head in the Guise of Hercules (2nd Century/re-worked 14th century), marble, 18-3/16 X 15-5/16″; courtesy The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

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Chief among them being the advent and rise of Christianity. Among the most notable pieces in “Waste Not” is a second-century marble bust of Hercules that was re-carved some twelve hundred years later to represent a Biblical figure—who it might be isn’t certain—for the baptistery in Florence, whence it was excavated. The shift in symbolism wasn’t merely contextual. Christian artisans augmented the mythical strongman, presumably investing (or disguising) him with up-to-date spiritual significance; just how this was achieved through the relatively ham-handed re-drilling of Hercules’ hair is a good question. Elsewhere, the god Pan, he of the goat horns and hindquarters, is seen on a gold cameo over which a quote from Psalm Twenty-Six—“Lord, my Light and my Savior, whom shall I fear?”—was superimposed a millennium later. Other transformations we know about not through image or text, but through connoisseurship and chemistry. Turns out that a shard of blue enamel from a thirteenth-century Cross of the Mourning Virgin employed Roman glassware. As might have already been surmised, the exhibition labels, so often an annoyance, are a necessity here.

How else would we know that portraits of the original donors featured in a Dutch Book of Hours had been all but obliterated when the manuscript was acquired, down the line, by another family? Altering works of art is likely to strike twenty-first-century sensibilities as somewhat brutish, but it was standard practice during medieval times. Certainly, the role and reputation of the artist was less hallowed and, as such, art didn’t carry the hands-off imprimatur we experience today. Fair is fair, particularly for craftsmen with limited resources. In a recent interview, Herbert likened the melding of cultures and eras to the cut-and-paste verities of collage—a comparison that sounds relevant enough, but goes nowhere fast, particularly considering the comparative seamlessness of the objects seen at The Walters. We relish collage for its disjuncture. The medieval artisans re-imagining a painting or reliquary worked hard—or cleverly—to smooth out prohibitive discrepancies in style and import.

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Byzantine, Ring with an Intaglio of Pan (12th century), gold cameo, 1-1/6 x 1 x 1/2″; courtesy The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

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A certain degree of hyperbole is forgivable—it’s part of a curator’s job, after all—and, on the whole, Herbert has brought a nuanced sense of observation to “Waste Not”. Besides, who can resist such keen and, at times, surprising detective work? The most arresting object in the exhibition owes its existence to the want-not proclivities of medieval society, but also, in part, to dumb luck. You’d think that a 1455 edition of Aesop’s Fables, published not long after the invention of the printing press and purchased at the time at no small cost, would have its own intrinsic merits. But it’s the cover that’s the real prize—a twelfth-century page of parchment taken from an early Talmud subsequently used to protect the unbound pages of the Fables. Theory has it that the binder, having no knowledge of Aramaic, took a liking to the decorative lilt of the calligraphy and considered it choice material to work with. Whether that’s the case or not is, if not moot, then too appealing to dismiss altogether. It is within these kind of fine distinctions that “Waste Not” establishes itself as a scholarly exemplar of its kind.

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review was originally published for the August 10, 2016 edition of “Dispatch”, the blog of The New Criterion.

 

 

“Excruciating to Behold”: The Art of Diane Arbus

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Diane Arbus, A Castle in Disneyland, Cal. (1962), gelatin silver print, 20″ x 16″, courtesy the Estate of Diane Arbus

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My review of “diane arbus: in the beginning”, an exhibition currently on display at The Met Breuer, will be appearing in an upcoming issue of The New Criterion. In the meantime, here’s my take on “Diane Arbus: Revelations”, a show mounted by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005. The review was originally published in the March 21, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.

The photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971), on the evidence of “Revelations”, a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was incapable of taking a bad picture. Each and every photograph on display is, in its own way, riveting and, for that matter, definitive.

Arbus’ photos of drag queens, Jewish giants, James Brown and acne-scarred patriots are the stuff of legend–a fact fostered, in part, by her suicide in 1971. The work has become startlingly ubiquitous. (As someone who doesn’t consider himself an Arbus aficionado, I was surprised by how many of the photographs I was familiar with.) The mere mention of her name instantly brings to mind images that are clinical, unseemly and grotesque. Arbus’ fascination with the marginal and the dispossessed, with artifice, ethnicity and sex, is part of our culture’s common currency.

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Allan Arbus, Diane Arbus (a film test), c. 1949

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Unlike August Sander or Walker Evans, two photographers without whom Arbus’ work is inconceivable, she is an identifiable type, a personality. The work, though distant, is aggressively individual. Arbus employed her subjects–however various, bizarre or banal–as a mirror to the self; she was, essentially, an expressionist. All the same, there are fine gradations to the art. A pair of photographs at the Met stand out as examples of everything that makes her a significant figure and everything that makes her a troubling artist. You can trace the sad and subtle arc of Arbus’ career from A Castle in Disneyland, Cal. (1962) to an untitled picture from 1970-71 of a woman from a “retarded school” with an attendant

Disneyland is a richly atmospheric picture. Arbus’ Disneyland is toy-like and rickety, a doll’s home, not a place for human beings. The quality of displacement is emphasized by diffuse, theatrical lighting–it’s as artificial as the title subject. Rather than commenting upon Disneyland’s cheesy allure, Arbus divines within it wisps of not unwelcome emotions. The photo has the temerity to suggest that illusions can embody longings that all of us–each of us–require to get by. Disneyland, though equivocal, is an unexpectedly merciful image.

Diane Arbus, Jewish Giant, taken at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, New York (1970), gelatin silver print, 19-7/8″ x 16″; courtesy The Estate of Diane Arbus

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And so it is with Arbus’ early photographs devoted to burlesque comediennes, persons of indeterminate gender, human pincushions and four Santas from Albion, N.Y. In each of them, Arbus acts as an enlightened voyeur and is dispassionate in her curiosity. In the process, she engenders within the viewer acceptance, if not outright sympathy, for what are often literally freakish personages.

Almost imperceptibly, however, a sharper tone enters the work. Arbus’ photographs become willful in their focus on the extremities of type and behavior. We become conscious that her subjects are less persons to be engaged than objects for exploitation. Who is looking through the camera lens is more important than the “who” being photographed. In the process of making herself the center of attention, Arbus purges her models of individuality. They are pegs upon which to hang the prerequisites of obsession. It’s no wonder the catalog superimposes an Arbus self-portrait over a scene of New York City–the artist, not the art, is predominant.

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Diane Arbus, Untitled (7) (1970-71), gelatin silver print; courtesy The Estate of Diane Arbus

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The aforementioned photograph from 1970-71 is an example of this disconcerting phenomenon. The alarm we read in the face of the older woman as she walks with her disabled companion is heartbreaking. Open-mouthed, she jerks her head upward, rendering it a blur. Her ward looks toward Arbus (and, by fiat, us), distracted. The photographer, we realize, has violated their privacy–and, worse, their humanity. The photograph is excruciating to behold.

At some point in Arbus’ development–it’s hard to tell when, given the Met’s non-chronological installation–this dull strain of cruelty takes over and, in the end, overwhelms the work. The curators know this: That’s why the walls and lighting in the final gallery are brighter–some measure of uplift is necessary. It doesn’t work. Arbus, having come to the conclusion that life is cheap, cheapens us in the process. Walking into “Revelations”, you’re likely to think her status as a major artist is deserved. Walking out, you’ll despair that Arbus, whether through artistic choice or psychological need, had so thoroughly misapplied her gift.

© 2005 Mario Naves

“Turner’s Whaling Pictures” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

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James Mallord William Turner, Whalers (circa 1845), oil on canvas, 36-1/8″ X 48-1/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

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Forget what you know about Action Painting. Compared to the British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Jackson Pollock trifled in decoration, Willem de Kooning was deliberate to a fault, and Franz Kline played it safe. Has there been an artist who called into question the material properties of his art with as much ferocity and concentration? The four canvases included in “Turner’s Whaling Pictures”, as well as the suite of Turner works featured in “Unfinished,” a concurrent exhibition at Met Breuer, are marked by an astonishing painterly abandon. Scrabbled, roughhewn, and impossibly rich, the surfaces of the pictures feature any number of approaches to mark-making, all the while—and seemingly against the odds—conjuring up bracing fields of light, atmosphere, and place. As compendia of painterly incident, Turner’s work can’t help but make the surfaces of most art look like thin gruel.

Turner’s bravura is unmistakable and, for fans of painting, irresistible, but it’s not the curatorial focus here. As is hinted by the exhibition title, the virtuoso paint-handler plays second fiddle to the—well, documentarian isn’t quite the mot juste. Whaling may be the impetus for the pictures—sales, too; Turner was courting a collector whose business involved refining whale spermaceti into oil and wax—but it wasn’t the upshot, at least not explicitly. Turner embodied the spectacle inherent in a particularly hazardous sideline; still, few will look to the paintings for historical or scientific veracity. Leave that to Robert Brandard, whose Whalers in a series entitled From The Turner Gallery (1879–80), an engraving made after Turner’s oil-on-canvasHurrah! For the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish! (ca. 1846), neatly underscores the distinction between factual diligence and visionary splendor. Brandard’s is a dull piece of work, cataloguing objects at the expense of drama.

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James Mallord William Turner, “Hurrah! For the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!” (ca. 1846), oil on canvas, 35-1/2″ X 47-12″; courtesy Tate, London

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Drama was Turner’s forte; narrative, less so. That doesn’t stop Alison Hokanson, the Met’s Assistant Curator in the Department of European Paintings and the organizer of “Turner’s Whaling Pictures,” from attempting to uncover a causal link between the paintings and Moby Dick. Melville knew about Turner’s whaling pictures, though there’s no proof he actually encountered them; Turner died shortly after Melville’s masterwork was published, making it unlikely that he read it. Hokanson’s self-admitted “world of speculation” is overplayed—especially in the essay published in the Met’s spring “Bulletin”—but understandable and, in the end, no great liability. Alongside the Turners, Hokanson has included: tools of the trade (a harpoon and oil lamps); brisk and all-but-abstract watercolor studies; an 1839 edition of The Natural History of the Sperm Whale by Thomas Beale (a book Turner was conversant with); and, yes, a copy of Moby Dick, from which is displayed an illustration of the great white whale by Rockwell Kent.

Kent put the whale front and center, but good luck gleaning the animal in question from the Turner paintings. Only Whalers (ca. 1845), from the Met’s own collection, presents a whale with any clarity, and then just barely. The dense gray blur rearing its mountainous bulk at bottom left, seen only fleetingly, confirms that the paintings function more as verbs than as nouns. Were it not for an accompanying wall label, would viewers be able to discern the whale in another canvas titled Whalers, this one from London’s Tate? Probably not, but there it is, a blur of misty gray and dull pink—the latter being evidence that the whalers’ harpoon has hit its mark. In an earlier watercolor, Turner gives us a more concrete view of the whale, but, still, the emphasis is on the manner in which it dives into the waters. The whale, in Turner’s hands, is an unknowable force of nature. Lack of definition adds to its terrifying majesty.Turner 3.jpg

James Mallord William Turner, Wreck on the Goodwin Sands: Sunset (circa 1845), watercolor and graphite, with black chalk on paper, 9-1/8″ X 13-1/8″; courtesy The Morgan Library and Museum, Bequest of Miss Alice Tully

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It seems fitting, then, that Turner was something of a furtive presence in the art world of nineteenth-century Britain. The most charming item included in “Turner’s Whaling Pictures” is The Fallacy of Hope (1851), a lithographic portrait-cum-caricature of Turner by Alfred Guillaume Gabriel. (The title is taken from Turner’s self-stated postulate on the perils of art-making.) The original sketch was done at a social event and without the subject’s knowledge; Turner was notoriously reluctant to sit himself down for a proper portrait. Seen stirring a cup of tea, Turner stands to the side, taking in his surroundings with an air of sharp bemusement. The art critic John Ruskin, having heard about this “coarse, boorish, unintellectual, [and] vulgar” figure, ultimately found Turner to be a “somewhat eccentric, keen-mannered, matter-of-fact, English gentleman”. One might quibble with “gentleman”; if anything, Gabriel’s fond portrayal is something altogether more prole-ish. Otherwise, Ruskin pretty much hits the mark. Contrary to what the man himself believed, the Met’s exhibition proves that hope, when coupled by a huge talent, can pay off when it comes to the making of art.

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review was originally published for the July 6, 2016 edition of “Dispatch”, the blog of The New Criterion.

“Munch and Expressionism” at The Neue Galerie, New York

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Edvard Munch, The Scream (1895), pastel and board on the original frame; courtesy The Neue Galerie, New York

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Is there any pocket of culture that isn’t conversant with, if not the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863–1944) himself, then his signature canvas The Scream? Few images have filtered through the popular imagination with as much persistence. Like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Grant Wood’s American Gothic, and Alberto Gorda’s photograph of Che Guevara, Munch’s paean to psychological distress has been honored, quoted, and parodied; it’s proven infinitely parrot-able. Here in the twenty-first century, The Scream has been co-opted by the digital zeitgeist: those who send bad news electronically can do so with an emoji dubbed “Face Screaming in Fear.” Given the contemporary prevalence of Munch’s image, it comes as a surprise to learn that The Scream didn’t have the same currency during the artist’s lifetime. In a radio interview, Jill Lloyd, the co-curator with Reinhold Heller of “Munch and Expressionism,” stated that our reigning emblem of hellish anxiety didn’t gain traction until after Munch’s death. That The Scream continues to resonate with audiences says much about the primal emotions it embodies.

Munch did four variations of The Scream, as well as a suite of prints; the best known of these, an oil on canvas from 1893, is the star attraction of The National Gallery in Oslo. That painting, it should be noted, is not on view at The Neue Galerie. The version of The Scream squirreled away in a side gallery of “Munch and Expressionism” was done in pastel two years later and is more stylized and less discordant. It is, in so many words, fairly underwhelming, but it does serve, albeit inadvertently, a curatorial purpose: to place Munch in a historical context that extends beyond a single iconographic picture. In the catalogue, Lloyd states that while Vincent Van Gogh “is justly deemed a precursor or ‘father’ of Expressionism, Munch, by contrast, inspired and participated in the movement.” Munch’s notoriety in Germany helped kick-start Expressionism. An exhibition of his work held at the Verein Berliner Künstler in 1892 garnered the kind of press best measured in column inches, not praise. Roundly drubbed as a “mockery of art,” the show was shuttered before the closing date due to the controversy it generated. Munch was pleased by this turn of events; the scandal was “the best advertisement I could have hoped for.” He subsequently made Germany his home for sixteen years.

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Erich Heckel, Girl with Doll (Fränzi) (1910), oil on canvas; courtesy The Neue Galerie, New York

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Playing upon his newfound fame, Munch organized a series of German exhibitions that helped solidify his outré reputation among a local cadre of forward-thinking patrons, critics, and collectors. Munch’s status was codified by the critic Julius Meier-Graefe, who featured him alongside Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin in Modern Art, a 1904 text that served as a touchstone for the burgeoning Expressionist movement and, especially, the painters of Die Brücke. This group of Dresden-based artists—its members included Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, and Emil Nolde—shared “similar yearning[s]” with Munch, and repeatedly invited the older artist to participate in its annual exhibitions. Munch demurred every time. These rebuffs did little to staunch Die Brücke’s admiration, though you can’t help but wonder why Munch held himself apart. Arne Eggum, an art historian and the former director of The Munch Museum, conjectures that Munch had his eye on establishing a reputation in Paris—Dresden being a veritable Podunk in comparison to the City of Light. Munch and the Expressionists wouldn’t be exhibited together in Germany until 1912, at which point the Norwegian had returned to his native land.

“Munch and Expressionism” makes no bones about mixing-and-matching the recalcitrant master with his progeny. Divided into sections according to specific motifs—among them, “Portraits,” “Adolescence,” “Experiments in Printmaking,” and that reliable chestnut “Battle Between the Sexes”—Munch’s art is placed alongside that of Die Brücke, as well as pictures by Egon Schiele, Gabriel Munter, Oskar Kokoschka, and the uncategorizable Max Beckmann. The inevitable comparisons aren’t revelatory—at least, for those conversant with the by-ways of twentieth century art—but they are satisfyingly predictable. Nor do they always favor Munch. In the “Urban Scenes” portion of the show, Munch is overshadowed by Kirchner, whose Street Dresden (1908) retains its punch some hundred years after the fact. Its acidic palette and lava-like rhythms make Munch canvases like Midsummer Night’s Eve (1901–03) and The Book Family (1901) look woefully polite. Admittedly, the exhibition doesn’t include Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892), a moody canvas that is a precursor to The Scream and a Munch masterpiece. A lithographic take on Karl Johan Street at The Neue Galerie has much to recommend to it, but even on the attenuated evidence found in “Munch and Expressionism,” it’s clear that Munch was far more innovative as a printmaker than as a painter.

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Richard Gerstl, Self-Portrait in Front of a Stove (1907), oil on canvas on board; courtesy of The Neue Galerie, New York

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Truth be told, Munch remained very much a nineteenth-century painter until the end of his life. An inherent parochialism both powered his vision and prevented a full reckoning with Modernism. Post-Impressionism clearly threw him for a loop, and his experiments with its pictorial liberties are ham-handed when they aren’t over-heated. (Lord only knows what he made of Cubism and its offshoots.) The artist we see in pictures like Christian Gierloff (1909), Puberty (1914–16), and Bathing Man (1918) is wildly out of his depth: pictorial space warps-and-woofs with no discernible purpose, the palette turns muddy when it doesn’t chalk out altogether, and the brushwork flails where previously it had snuck up on the images with a brooding, understated sensuality. The post-1900 canvases, even the much-lauded self-portrait The Night Wanderer (1923–24), are enough of a mish-mosh to make a minor figure like Erich Heckel seem a contender. And then there’s the Austrian painter Richard Gerstl, dead by his own hand at the age of twenty-five: his canvases all but steal the spotlight of “Munch and Expressionism.” His was a powerhouse talent and is too little known. The name “Gerstl” may not generate the same buzz or box office as “Munch,” but this is a museum with the means and institutional interest to organize an overview of the work. Who knows? That exhibition may be a revelation.

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the June 2016 edition of The New Criterion.

“Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, February 15–May 15, 2016

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Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self-portrait (1790), oil on canvas, 39-3/8 x 31-7/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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“Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” is a fascinating exhibition for reasons made plain by its title. Gender and context shouldn’t be the ultimate arbiters for why we value an artist, but they are inescapable factors when considering Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842). Much like Artemisia Gentileschi, another figure beloved by those who view the history of art through the lens of political correctness, Vigée Le Brun is an anomaly: a painter—and a successful one, at that—working at a time when women weren’t encouraged to pursue a career in the arts. It helped that Vigée Le Brun was to the studio born: her father, Louis Vigée, was a society portraitist and provided lessons at home. “You will be a painter, my child, or never will there be one” may be a statement indicative of paternal bias, but Vigée Le Brun’s talent was evident early on. Jeanne Maissin, the artist’s mother, pushed Vigée Le Brun to undertake more formal studies as a means of combating the depression she underwent upon the death of her father in 1767. Trips to the Louvre were supplemented by guidance from Gabriel François Doyen and Joseph Vernet, painters of considerable repute.

Maissin provided working space at home as well as financial support. But Vigée Le Brun achieved significant notice even as a teenager and helped supplement the family’s income through portrait commissions. After the studio was shut down by authorities in 1774—Vigée Le Brun had been operating without a license—the artist gained admittance to the Académie de Saint-Luc, an association guaranteeing a level of prestige, as well as that the studio remained open. Two years later she married Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, a distant cousin who had studied with François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and earned his keep as an art dealer. It was a difficult union. Vigée Le Brun realized fairly quickly that her husband’s appetite for collecting superseded the niceties of the bottom line. Le Brun couldn’t hold on to money. In recompense, he attempted to boost his wife’s reputation, hiking the prices of the work above those of her contemporaries. But Le Brun’s sway paled next to that of Marie Antoinette. How could it not? The young queen had a decisive if, ultimately, tumultuous effect on Vigée Le Brun’s art and life.

Marie Antoinette in Court Dress (1778) isn’t the first painting viewers encounter upon entering the exhibition, but its impact makes swift work of the surrounding pictures. Commissioned as a gift for the queen’s mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, this monumental showpiece codifies the requisite hauteur but, more so, evinces an ambitious artist eager to please. And please Vigée Le Brun most certainly did. The Empress was delighted with the canvas, and Marie Antoinette, having run through a disappointing series of portraitists, finally found a painter who did not “drive me to despair.” Marie Antoinette in Court Dress isn’t very good—its elision of pictorial space is vague when it isn’t flat-footed, and the attention to texture inconsistent—but as a piece of theater, it’s a tour-de-force, particularly for an artist who was all of twenty-two years of age. Indeed, one of the pleasures of “Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” is watching Vigée Le Brun develop while on the job, gaining surety in her rendering of the human form and pulling off portraits that are, in their attention to detail and character, more than documents of a doomed aristocracy.

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Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787), oil on canvas, 108-1/4 x 85-1/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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By the time we reach Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787) at the show’s midpoint, Vigée Le Brun has become a deeper artist in terms of skill and mood. A greater intimacy with her subjects, particularly the queen, accounts for the air of tender sobriety suffusing its portrayal of a mother and her three children. Here, Marie Antoinette is less a coquettish figurine seemingly molded from porcelain than a flesh-and-blood woman humbled by motherhood. (An empty bassinet at the right of the composition signifies the death of a fourth child.) Though the children are too moppet-like by half, Vigée Le Brun brought an unnerving degree of self-awareness and introspection to the gaze of Marie Antoinette. Vigée Le Brun would never altogether shed a brittleness of affect—the conventionality of her settings is a nagging constant—but the painterly approach became more fluid and precise. Rubens was a pivotal influence, and one can intuit his sensuality and esprit in the silky brushwork of Comtesse de la Châtre (1789) and the comic eroticism of Madame Dugazon in the Role of “Nina” (1787). Vigée Le Brun doesn’t achieve the heights set by the Flemish Master, but neither does she suffer from the comparison—at least, that is, in her finest efforts.

The finest of them all is the justifiably iconic Self-Portrait (1790). Political turmoil at home caused Vigée Le Brun to flee France in 1789; close association with the recently imprisoned queen did not, to put it mildly, put her in good stead with the revolution. Setting up shop in Rome, Vigée Le Brun was asked by the Uffizi to contribute a canvas to its gallery of self- portraits. The result earned plaudits from the top down: “All of Rome,” wrote the museum’s director, “is in awe of her talent.” It’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with the painting. Turning to the viewer as she daubs at a portrait of her deposed patron, Vigée Le Brun is fresh-faced, confident and without guile; beautiful, too. Though she went on to achieve fame and fortune throughout Europe and Russia, Vigée Le Brun never topped it and the work turned spotty and slick. Her subsequent portraiture traded too easily in mannerisms; particularly cloying are the kewpie-doll eyes and standard-issue pursed lips bequeathed to sundry courtesans, princesses, and queens. Flattery might elicit commissions, but it’s hell on art. Vigée Le Brun cruised on her mastery rather than expanding its parameters. Still, any show that includes a painting as winning as Self-Portrait, not to mention twenty or so additional pictures that are almost as good, deserves must-see status. And so it is with “Woman Artist in Revolutionary France.”

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the May 2016 edition of The New Criterion.

The Artist’s Life

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Detail of cartoon from the February 1, 1989 edition of Irish World and Industrial Liberator

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I am one of myriad artists to have been interviewed by Noah Davis for his article, “How To Make It As An Artist in New York”, as seen in the current issue of Crain’s. You can hear an interview with the author and myself on a corresponding podcast, found here.

“Greater New York” at MOMA PS1, New York (October 11, 2015–March 7, 2016)

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Robert Kushner, Torrid Dreams (1984), acrylic, silk and cotton applique on cotton; courtesy Pablo Enrique and MOMA PS1.

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What is there to say about the 2015 edition of “Greater New York” that hasn’t been said about any number of exhibitions intent on bringing some kind of definition to the dizzying state of contemporary art? Yeah, sure, this variant of the once-every-five-years pseudo- Biennial is emphatically New York-centric, particularly with numerous pieces dedicated to the city’s changing landscape. It’s also less smitten with the latest batch of bright young things. “Opportunities for younger artists,” the press release avers, “ . . . have grown alongside a burgeoning interest in artists who may have been overlooked in the histories of their time.” If this was cause enough to include works by artists as diverse, accomplished, and of a certain age as Robert Bordo, Robert Kushner, Joyce Robins, Nancy Shaver, and Rosalind Solomon, well, that’s all to the good. Dead artists are given a berth in Long Island City as well: among them, Alvin Baltrop, Rudy Burckhardt, Scott Burton, and Gordon Matta-Clark, whose photographs of industrial spaces punctuate the galleries. All of which is an attempt at satisfying—or engendering— the viewer’s “desire for the new and nostalgia for that which it displaces.”

So why does “Greater New York” feel like more of the same—that is to say, an undifferentiated amalgam of poses, politics, and attitudes? Peg it on too-many-cooks-in-the- kitchen, if you’d like. Four curators, along with an additional pair of curators who have organized an accompanying series of live events, all but guarantee an exhibition marked by compromises and second-guessing. Yet however much one’s taste might veer from that of the curator Douglas Crimp—the theorist and art historian who was an early and influential trumpeter of postmodernism—the failings of “Greater New York” are more indicative of a pervasive cultural complacency. Some thirty years back, the critic Hilton Kramer coined the phrase “the revenge of the philistines” to describe the inroads the Camp aesthetic and a concomitant abrogation of standards had made into the realm of “High Art.” That the latter term can hardly be used without scare quotes here in the twenty-first century is an indication of how thoroughly the anti-aesthetic has been mainstreamed. “It’s all good”—the slacker’s response to anything untoward, has become the dominant credo. Acquiescence to all things artistic might betoken an open mind, but it’s a stance that has resulted in a scene marked by toothless anonymity. Give “Greater New York” this much: it is symptomatic of the times.

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Installation shot of “Greater New York”; courtesy Hyperallergic

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Admittedly, any venture as encompassing as “Greater New York” is asking for it. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, especially with a laundry list of artists as variegated as this one. You want your mixing of medias? Painting, sculpture, photography, installation, video, music, fashion, documentary bric-à-brac, and a “dystopian sci-fi street dance” film—it’s there to see at PS1. There’s enough “content” on display—about identity politics, consumerist critiques, welfare reform, and what-have-you—to cover some of everybody’s bases. Or so you would think. The general response to “Greater New York” has, in fact, been tepid, and characterized by a sense of fatigue borne of commercial calculation and artistic overabundance. Forget the careerist snark of artists who weren’t invited to participate or the musings of cranks who pine for good old days that never were. Relatively copacetic members of the scene have been underwhelmed by PS1’s attempt to hold the moment. Howard Halle, writing in Time Out New York, describes how the show “largely feels exhausted, even as it exhausts your attention.” Holland Cotter’s take in The New York Times was summarized in its introductory sentence: “‘Greater New York’ has come to sound like a wish, and not a statement of fact.” Writing for ArtNews, Andrew Russeth extols the “sunny disposition of so much here,” but admits that “[‘Greater New York’] feels off.” Run of the mill is more like it. It’s a sprawling exhibition of predictable rewards.

A fairly good rule of thumb is that an exhibition in which the sound of ominous clanking greets the viewer, as it does at “Greater New York,” should be treated with a degree of skepticism. Funhouse sensationalism is the defining characteristic of a lot of new art, and PS1 has made a specialty of the genre—largely, one feels, because the venue makes curators and artists a bit nervous. The towering environs and period-piece charm of the re-purposed school have proven a tough row for art to hoe. Exhibitions tend toward overkill or over-weening stylishness. The latter tack is taken by the organizers of “Greater New York.” The results are impeccable and airless, gleaming with cruelly tuned clarity. What happened to the avant-garde? It’s been rendered just as hygienic, streamlined, and efficient as the display units at IKEA. Little wonder that ample space has been set aside for the maze-like installation dedicated to KIOSK, an internationalist gift shop run by Alisa Grifo and Marco Romeny. This inclusion may have been done with tongue in cheek, but what does it say when the (often kitschy) items featured for sale are more inventively crafted and more visually compelling than the artworks on display?

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Installation shot of KIOSK display at “Greater New York”; courtesy Hyperallergic

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A cynic might reply that commodity culture has won out, plain and simple. We are what we buy, and art is just one more product amongst many, many others. But I suspect the real answer has less to do with money— although that’s certainly a factor—than with creative capability, ideological conformity, and lack of initiative. Take into account the uncredited package designers whose work is seen in KIOSK. They are, by definition, intent on reaching an audience and, if the examples seen at PS1 are any indication, that audience has a pronounced, self-aware, and often elevated sense of taste. Outreach is the marketer’s purview. For the contemporary artist, outreach plays a distinct second-fiddle to navel-gazing. Narcissism, particularly when glossed over with politics, carries more integrity than anything so crass as engaging the viewer. Self-indulgence reigns—putting a glossy face on it, the career move. Exquisitely contrived sensibilities—high-end brands for the Chelsea-set—are the rule. “Like many New Yorkers, I lack imagination.” So says Glenn Ligon, an artist whose sentiment can be gleaned from inside PS1’s all-too-tidy grab-bag. Rarely has an exhibition been criticized from within with such uncanny, if unintentional, specificity.

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the February 2016 edition of The New Criterion.

“Recent Paintings” at The Ohio State University at Lima

Sunny Day Hotsy Totsy.jpgMario Naves, Sunny Day Hotsy Totsy (2015), acrylic on panel, 16″ x 20″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery, NY

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I’m pleased to announce an upcoming solo exhibition at The Farmer Family Gallery in Reed Hall at The Ohio State University at Lima. The show will include sixteen paintings created between 2014-2015. The opening takes place on Thursday, January 21, between 4:30-6:30 p.m. The exhibition continues until February 19.

“Thru the Rabbit Hole”

Sideshow Invitation.jpg* * *

It’s that time of year: Sideshow Gallery will be mounting its annual exercise in inclusivity. Can there really be too much art? Apparently not. A recent painting of mine will be included amongst the myriad pieces on display. Hope to see you at the opening–that is, if you can navigate the maddening crowd. There’s also an attendant exhibition at Bushwick’s Life on Mars Gallery, Sideshow’s new partner in artistic abundance.

“Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

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Archibald Motley, Self-Portrait (Myself at Work) (1933), oil on canvas; courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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“Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist,” a wildly uneven exhibition devoted to the African-American painter Archibald Motley (1891–1981), is bookended by two Major Statements, pictures strong in tenor if different in focus. Upon entering the retrospective, viewers encounter Self-Portrait (Myself at Work) (1933), a take-it-or-leave-it avowal of artistic purpose. Motley faces us holding in his left hand a palette imbued with an otherworldly purple and in his right a brush that conjures forth a nude woman from a canvas. The composition is compartmentalized and clear: a crucifix hangs on the back wall; a neo-classical sculpture is placed next to the painter’s palette; and, hanging from a window is a grotesque profile bust similar to those seen in Leonardo’s sketchbooks. With movie-star good looks and unflinching gaze, Motley is every inch the bohemian. This may have been a pose—an adjacent self-portrait depicts a stodgier personage—but the resulting picture radiates authority.

The conclusion of “Jazz Age Modernist” is The First One Hundred Years, a canvas begun around 1963 and completed in 1972. Good luck getting a look at it. The days I attended the show, there was a logjam of viewers around the painting. Who can blame them for taking their time? The image is filled with myriad details, and those details are plain in their symbolism—and harsh. The luminous blue suffusing the painting is typical of Motley’s color sensibility, but the overtly polemical bent isn’t. Situated within a nightmarish backdrop are emblems of the United States and its painful history of race relations: a hulking member of the Ku Klux Klan, the Confederate flag, a lynching, the Statue of Liberty, a “Whites Only” sign, and the disembodied heads of Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Subtle The First One Hundred Years isn’t, and one wonders if Motley didn’t overtax himself—psychologically, politically, and, as a practicing Catholic, spiritually—in pursuing it. After putting the last touch on the canvas, Motley never again picked up a brush. He died nine years later.

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Archibald Motley, The First One Hundred Years (1963-72), oil on canvas; courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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Between these poles, Motley emerges as an incisive realist who was entranced, if ultimately hobbled, by Modernism. Born in New Orleans, Motley and his family moved to Chicago when he was three years old. When Motley graduated from Englewood High School, a family friend offered to pay his way through college should he study architecture. The offer was turned down; Motley’s passion was art. Among the first black students to attend The Art Institute of Chicago, Motley went on to experience a significant level of success, not least being the first African-American painter to have a solo show in New York City. While at the Institute, he witnessed the arrival of the infamous Armory exhibition of 1913, as well as the vitriolic reaction to it. Students demonstrated against the new art. Did Motley join them? While he would continue painting in a fairly traditional manner—Thomas Eakins would seem an inspiration and Guy Pène du Bois the nearest comparison—the trajectory of Motley’s oeuvre puts him on the side of Modernism.

But not firmly, not really. Motley’s absorption of the avant-garde is indicative more of the freedom to embrace vernacular art forms—folk painting and comic strips—than in the structural innovations of Cubism or the chromatic liberties put into motion by the Fauvists. The early portion of “Jazz Age Modernist” focuses on Motley’s straightforward forays into portraiture and does so to impressive and often moving effect. Renaissance lucidity typifies paintings like Portrait of a Cultured Lady (1948) and Portrait of Mrs. A. J. Motley, Jr. (1930) and is filtered through with an unsettling strain of alienation in Nude (Portrait of My Wife) (1930). Family inspired Motley’s richest pictures—Uncle Bob (1928) and Portrait of My Grandmother (1922) have more to tell us about our national character than Grant Wood’s American Gothic—as did specific meditations on type. Portrayals of an “octoroon girl,” a “mulatress,” a “brown girl,” and “mammy” may have contemporary viewers bristling at their attendant terminology, but Motley’s stern humanism makes an appropriate hash of such distinctions.

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Archibald Motley, Brown Girl After the Bath (1931), oil on canvas; courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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The majority of the exhibition is devoted to Motley’s rambunctious panoramas of black life in America, with a notable pit stop made in Paris. Though religion and slavery are touched upon, the subjects are largely secular: gambling, singing, drinking, and dancing— all shot through with a lubricious sensuality. The elasticity of form and cadence in Saturday Night (1935) is difficult to resist, and Motley does capture some of the careening “hot rhythm” of jazz music. But the majority of paintings aren’t far removed from being tourist kitsch. Motley’s palette becomes perfumey and cloying, the compositions bunchy, and the paint-handling glib. The “irreverent humor” claimed for Motley’s dependence on racial caricature is evident, but it doesn’t excuse the work’s too-close-for-comfort relationship with minstrelsy. Not every artist has to trade in cultural uplift, and stereotypes may well have been Motley’s right to claim as a black man. But the “downhome” paintings don’t illuminate (or satirize) unfortunate archetypes so much as cruise on them. Not one of these paintings approaches Brown Girl After the Bath (1931) in terms of pictorial nuance, tenderness, and gravitas. It is in pictures like this, and there are not a few of them in “Jazz Age Modernist,” where Motley earns a rightful place in the history of American art.

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the January 2016 edition of The New Criterion.

 

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