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

 

“Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction” at The Museum of Modern Art, New York

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Francis Picabia, Autoportrait (Self-portrait) (1940), oil on board, 22-7/16 x 17-11/16″; Collection Lucien Bilinelli, Brussels and Milan

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“Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction” makes the twentieth century seem very small. At least that’s the observation I came to upon exiting MOMA’s sizable retrospective of paintings, drawings, collages, and ephemera by the self-described “beautiful monster.” The exhibition begins with early forays into Post- Impressionism, and follows with a succession of catch-as-catch-can styles: offshoots of Cubism; diagrammatic paeans to the machine; obtuse riffs on Ingres; a louche Suprematism; absurdist experimentations in film and theater; “monster” couples rendered in gloss and globs; Biblical imagery applied in washy overlays; oil-on-canvas appropriations of nudie magazines; and abstractions that are all thumbs, scrabbled surfaces, and graffitied genitalia. There are additional byways: out-of-left-field pictures of clowns, The Spanish Revolution, Gertrude Stein, and Marlene Dietrich. What really counts is how art and culture, and with them the sweep of history, are rendered frivolous: trifles on the way to oblivion. Individual works of art are less important than the individual himself. How could the twentieth century not take a backseat to, in Picabia’s estimation, the “only complete artist”?

Organized by MOMA’s Anne Umland and Catherine Hug of the Kunsthaus Zürich, “Our Heads Are Round” showcases an artist for whom the adjective “mercurial” could have been coined. Picabia (1879–1953) took a proud and perverse pleasure in being impossible to pin down. In the standard tellings of Modernism, Picabia is listed somewhere alongside Surrealism and Dada; certainly, his contrarian wit is in keeping with the nose-thumbing antics of the latter. Still, even a quick jaunt through MOMA reveals that Picabia was (to paraphrase Groucho Marx) incapable of belonging to any anti-art club that accepted him as a member. Though he had ties to Dadaist circles in Paris, Zürich, and New York City—among Picabia’s confidantes were Paul Éluard, André Breton, and Marcel Duchamp—petty politicking among the group’s members prompted him to jump ship. “I was feeling stifled among them . . . [and] terribly bored.” Picabia formed “Instantism” as a response, but the one-man art movement was little more than a jape. Besides, Picabia knew which way the Dadaist wind blew. The movement, he predicted, “will live forever! And thanks to it, art dealers will make a fortune.”

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Francis Picabia, Minos (1929), oil, watercolor and pencil on wood, 59 x 37-3/16″; Collection Gian Enzo Sperone. Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York

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Picabia could afford to be flighty. His father was a Cuban-born descendant of Spanish nobility; his mother a scion of the French upper-classes. Between the sugar interests of the former and the successful mercantile family on his maternal side, François Marie Martinez Picabia y Davanne grew up in, and sustained, a life of affluence. The young Picabia was encouraged in art by his parents and proved precocious in talent and chutzpah. As a child, he forged the family’s art collection, subsequently selling the originals and replacing them with his own copies. And no one noticed. So the story goes, but it’s best to take Picabia’s sundry anecdotes, aphorisms, and pronunciamentos with the requisite grain of salt. His was a temperament forever on the lookout for preconceptions to be thwarted and standards overturned; critical approbation was much desired. Known for throwing lavish soirées and indulging in mistresses, Picabia traveled widely but ultimately stayed close to home; he died in the Paris house in which he had been born. Not long before the end, Picabia quoted Nietzsche: “Where art ends . . . I am the poet of my own life.”

It is Picabia’s capricious brand of poetry that is being touted at MOMA, and in no small way. Writing in the catalogue, Umland heralds the “discordant” nature of Picabia’s work and how it “challenges distinctions between good and bad, progressive and regressive, sincerity and parody, high art and kitsch.” Before you go asking just when the shopworn notion of “challenging distinctions” will be permanently excised from the curatorial handbook, take heed of how Picabia’s varied output is “congruent to . . . our hierarchy-exploding digital age.” (In this regard, “Our Heads Are Round” continues in the theoretical footsteps of “Forever Now,” MOMA’s misguided attempt at tapping into the technological zeitgeist.) There can be no doubting the reach of Picabia’s this-that-and-the-other-thing aesthetic amongst contemporary artists. The world-weary pasticherie of the ’80s art star David Salle is inconceivable without the example of Picabia’s “transparencies,” and any provocateur with the savvy both to manipulate and to flatter a paying public can count this consummate gadfly as spiritual kin. Picabia’s “irresistible, unruly, noncomformist genius,” we are told, “offers a powerful alternative model” for artists in the here-and-now. Powerful the model may be, but is it impolite to ask if the model is at all good?

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Francis Picabia, Udnie [Young American Girl; Dance] (1913), oil on canvas, 114-3/16 x 118-1/8″; Centre Pompidou, Paris

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“Our Heads Are Round” is an attempt at promoting Picabia up the totem pole of great artists in the cause of revamping the Modernist “narrative.” As played out in the catalogue, the chief obstacle and villain in this scenario is Pablo Picasso. Once MOMA’s poster boy, the Spanish master is now being placed in direct opposition to Picabia—the upshot being very much in the latter’s favor. “Old-fashioned” Pablo, don’t you know, “believed in his . . . godlike ability to reimagine the world.” Picabia, by contrast, put up the good fight by being bad, upending his gifts so that we attention-deprived denizens of the twenty-first century could feel better about our lowered expectations. What Umland and Hug miss (or ignore) is that arrogance comes in an assortment of flavors. Pissing away one’s talent in the cause of nihilistic hijinkery connotes its own peculiar kind of “godlike” virtuosity. And Picabia did have talent. Take into account Udnie [Young American Girl: Dance] and Edatonis [Ecclestiastic] (both 1913), monumental canvases that propel Cubism into a realm so allusive, muscular, elastic, and funny that they still startle. One can’t help but wonder if the crowning audacity of these encompassing masterworks spooked the artist. Easier to take the low road than risk anything quite so heroic again; better to fail by design than to come by it honestly. After this masterful one-two punch, “Our Heads Are Round” traces forty circuitous years of squandered promise. What a long and pointless trip it is.

© Mario Naves 2017

This review originally appeared in the February 2017 edition of The New Criterion.

“Mario Naves; Paintings” at Pratt Institute

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Mario Naves, Reason in the Grass (2015), acrylic on panel, 28 x 26″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York, NY

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I’m pleased to announce that an exhibition of my paintings will be on display in The President’s Office Gallery at the Brooklyn campus of Pratt Institute. The exhibition will run from January 30 through April 14.

An opening reception will be held on Tuesday, February 7, from 4:30-6:30 p.m.

More information can be found here.

Again, with the Rabbits

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I’m pleased to announce that a painting of mine has been included in Sideshow Gallery’s annual floor-to-ceiling extravaganza. The exhibition is up until the end of February.

“Agnes Martin” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY

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Agnes Martin in her studio (1960); photo by Alexander Liberman

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“Agnes Martin,” a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum of the Canadian-born painter who died in 2004 at the age of ninety-two, has the misfortune of being mounted concurrently with “Mark Rothko; Dark Palette,” an exhibition at the Twenty-fifth Street branch of Pace Gallery. The comparison between Martin and Rothko would be inescapable even if the shows weren’t simultaneously on display. Both painters pursued an art of distillation, exploring just how much could be jettisoned from the art of painting without altogether relinquishing its particulars. Martin was vocal in her admiration of Rothko, extolling how he had “reached zero so that nothing could stand in the way of truth.” Her early work, with its sparely applied geometries and gently stated means, owes a clear debt to Rothko’s mature paintings: those hovering fields of color that radiate heat, light, and mystery. At early points in their respective careers, each painter dabbled in Surrealism and, not coincidentally, sought to uncover archetypes of symbol and form. Though less than a decade separated them— Rothko was born in 1903, Martin in 1912—we think of Martin as belonging to a different generation: Minimalism following on the heels of The New York School.

Stylistic categories are often more convenient as journalistic pegs than as accurate quantifiers, but comparing “Dark Palette” and “Agnes Martin” does underscore the difference between the heroic, if fitfully achieved, ambitions of Abstract Expressionism and the deadening certainties of Minimalism. The former approach dramatically foreshortened, but did not expunge, the allusive capabilities of art; the latter put illusionism—and, with it, metaphor—out to pasture, abjuring poetry for literalism. Whatever one may think of Rothko’s tastefully deployed vision, the paintings in “Dark Palette” register as visual experiences of a high order; his exultations of color, at once portentous and otherworldly, are hard to dismiss. Martin’s art is more retiring in temperament, sparse in means, and, in the end, takes too much for granted, not least the viewer’s interest. “Paintings,” she wrote, “are not about what is seen. They are about what is known forever in the mind.” The rub is that paintings are meant to be seen. Otherwise, why bother looking at them in the first place? The gulf that exists between Rothko and Martin lies in the distinction between close-to-nothing and almost something. If Rothko “reached zero,” then Martin aspired to less.

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Agnes Martin, Untitled #2 (1992), acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60″; courtesy the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum/© 2015 Agnes Martin.Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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“Agnes Martin” includes close to 120 pieces, beginning with Mid-Winter (ca. 1954), a lumpish array of shapes reminiscent of the American abstractionist Arthur Dove, and culminates with canvases and works-on-paper dating from the last year of the artist’s life. After flirting with biomorphism, Martin settled into her signature groove: patterning—typically, grids or horizontal stripes—laid out with underplayed concision. The color palette, from the get-go, is limited. Grays and off-whites predominate, so much so that when other colors are introduced—a wan array of purples, pinks, and blues—they register as after-images. Martin’s touch is most apparent in the way she handles graphite, ruling out pencil lines that all but imperceptibly stutter across the weave of the canvas or catch on the tooth of a sheet of paper. Washy runs of paint are employed late in the game, as are triangles, trapezoids, and squares—solid forms that are, in the context of Martin’s pictorial equanimity, gratifyingly rude. Symmetry is the rule and the formats square. Rhythm is maintained at a lulling pace. “I paint,” Martin averred, “with my back to the world.” The problem is that the world is where the rest of us spend our time. Martin, we realize, was painting for an audience of one: herself. It is a consummate but exclusionary body of work.

Writing in the catalogue, Briony Fer, the Professor of History of Art at University College London, notes that “to see a painting by Martin, as it is to look at a Mondrian, is to understand how repetition begets difference.” After ascending the Guggenheim’s ramp to follow the trajectory of Martin’s oeuvre, it’s worth popping into the permanent collection to consider Mondrian’s Composition 8 (1914). Repetition did guide the artist, but did it define the art? When putting brush to canvas, Mondrian remained open to the give-and-take of the medium; repetition gives way to, and is enlivened by, the particularity of relationships. For Martin, compositional variety was hostile to the equilibrium she sought to codify. She likened her paintings to sensations engendered by contact with the natural world; meditative awe was the objective. Sweeping expanses of gray acrylic can serve as antidotes for the chaos of life, but for how long and how effectively? Repetition can get, you know, repetitive. To glean “difference” from the paintings is to parse aesthetic matters so fine that it’s hardly worth the effort. Only those who mistake sameyness for satori could sit in front of a Martin canvas without constantly checking the time.

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Installation of “Agnes Martin”; photography by Hiroko Masuike/courtesy The New York Times

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“Zen” is a description that pops up regularly in discussions of the work. Martin did, in fact, have an abiding fascination with Eastern modes of thought, particularly that of the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu. His concept of wu wei—roughly translated as “action without action”—lends itself to a temperament that believed “sought out suffering is a mistake/ But what comes to you free is enlightening.” But “zen-like” is a phrase best kept at arm’s length; too often it is employed as an alibi for art of undernourished means and overblown pretensions. How well did Martin apply principles culled from Taoism and, for that matter, a Calvinist upbringing to life? Very well, it seems: she left the hurly-burly of Manhattan in 1967 for New Mexico, where she spent the rest of her days in relative isolation and quiet satisfaction. In that regard, Martin’s example has ennobled her to any number of contemporary artists. The worry is that her work has done the same. Art that operates within such a rarefied compass admits more readily to low expectations than possibility, infinite or otherwise. Martin’s art carries with it a stringent integrity, absolutely. But those seeking to tap into “the innocence of trees” are advised to pass on the Guggenheim and head to Central Park, where a stroll through its manicured environs will provide pleasures of a more expansive sort than seen in “Agnes Martin.”

© 2017 Mario Naves

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

Francis Picabia and “The Neurasthenia of Peculiar Obsessions”

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Self-Portrait inside Danse de Saint-Guy (1919)

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My review of “Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Wrong So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction”, a retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, is scheduled to appear in the February 2017 edition of The New Criterion. In the meantime, here is a review of I Am a Beautiful Monster, a compilation of Picabia’s writings, originally published in the January 22, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

The Dadaist painter Francis Picabia (1879-1953) went through life with no shortage of self-generated noms de plume. To name a few: funny guy, imbecile, pickpocket, failure, cannibal, silly willy and “the only complete artist.” He signed off as “Napoleon,” “Saint Augustine” and “The Blessed Virgin.” Anyone familiar with Dada will recognize its nose-thumbing esprit in Picabia’s absurdist designations.

Picabia considered himself the first Dadaist. He was an indispensable component of Dadaist cliques in Paris, Zurich and New York. Marcel Duchamp was a friend, as was Guillaume Apollinaire; the poets Tristan Tzara and André Breton were like-minded anti-aesthetes and eventual nemeses; and the poet Paul Eluard, a founder of Surrealism, was a fan: Picabia, he wrote, was a “divine Marquis de Sade.” New Yorkers know Picabia as the painter of I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie (1914), a staple of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.

I Am a Beautiful Monster, a new compilation of Picabia’s writings, displays a man of infuriating contradictions—an obtuse, belligerent, radical, reactionary, strangely lucid and sometimes hilarious gadfly. Luckily, translator Marc Lowenthal has done a superlative job of placing Picabia’s writing in historical and artistic context. Arranged chronologically, I Am a Beautiful Monster follows Picabia through his early involvement with, and ultimate abandonment of, Dada.

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Francis Picabia, Tableau Rastadada (1920), cut-and-pasted printed paper on paper with ink, 7-1/2 x 6-3/4″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Picabia’s proclamation that “M. Picabia Separates From the Dadas” was spurred, Mr. Lowenthal informs us, over a disagreement between various members as to whether a lost wallet should be returned to its owner. Breton wanted to keep it; Eluard disagreed and returned it anonymously, heightening tensions within the group. Picabia gleaned from this encounter Dada’s “departed spirit.”

Picabia’s pre-Dadaist poetry is all jagged rhythms, haphazard juxtapositions and little punctuation. He fares best when keeping things short. But for every light and lovely homage to Apollinaire, there are a half-dozen fragments like this: “From fortune-tellers of syphilis/ This superstition in the statistics of progress/ Brings bayonets to full strength/ In the language of unpleasant roads.”

Picabia does come up with some striking turns of phrase—“the neurasthenia of peculiar obsessions” is good; “The desire to be placid in love/ Is a veritable sex crime” is better—but poems they’re not.

The doggerel continues through the Dadaist years, but gains momentum and focus. The sprawling “Jésus-Christ Rastaquouère” is, in Mr. Lowenthal’s opinion, Picabia’s “most accomplished literary work.” Despite its title, the closest Picabia’s tract comes to heresy are a few nettlesome sentiments—“Only the Jews are really energetic,” say, or “GOD WAS JEWISH/ HE WAS CONNED/ BY THE CATHOLICS.”

Elsewhere, you’ll find oddball commentary on art world eminences: Fernand Léger “declares that one must always have a foot in the shit.” Picasso was “very eighteenth century, must be completely fed up, French guy.” In “Manifesto of the Dada Movement,” you can feel the rush of an artist temporarily on the side of history: “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT WE’RE DOING DO YOU. WELL DEAR FRIENDS WE UNDERSTAND IT EVEN LESS THAN YOU DO.”

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Francis Picabia, Self-Portrait (1920-24), India ink and pencil on paper, 23 X 16 cm.; courtesy Hauser & Wirth

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“Anti-Dada, 1921-1924” is the most vitriolic chapter. “I parted from certain Dadas because I was feeling stifled among them … [and] terribly bored.” Its “spirit only existed for three or four years, it was expressed by Marcel Duchamp and myself.” (Duchamp was one of the few people who escaped Picabia’s ire.)

Picabia’s short-lived movement, “Instantism,” was little more than a satiric broadside at Dadaism. He makes a stunningly prophetic statement: Dada “will live forever! And thanks to it, art dealers will make a fortune.”

Other than “Chi-Lo-Sa,” wherein Picabia shamelessly cribs from Nietzsche for a string of fortune-cookie nostrums, the later and posthumous writings are notable mainly for sharp flashes of impenetrable wit: “Humor is the cannibalism of vegetarians.” But if history does remember Picabia the man of letters at all, it will be for the aphorisms.

Littered throughout I Am a Beautiful Monster, they are sometimes mordant—“Every conviction is an illness”—and often laugh-out-loud funny: “To those talking behind my back: my ass is looking at you.” “Morality is ill disposed in a pair of trousers.” “Parisians ruin the French.” “If you read André Gide aloud for ten minutes, your breath will stink.”

During “Dada Cannibal Manifesto,” a performance in the early 1920’s, André Breton wore a sandwich board with text by Picabia: “IN ORDER TO LOVE/ SOMETHING YOU HAVE TO/ HAVE SEEN AND HEARD IT/ FOR A LONG TIME YOU BUNCH OF IDIOTS.” The invective here was directed at the bourgeoisie. It would, in time, encompass Picabia’s feelings about his former partners in nihilism.

I Am a Beautiful Monster traces a fascinating trajectory of artistic belief. Biographers and historians will gobble it up. The rest of us will leave it on the bookshelf, read, if at all, in bits and pieces. Still, we’ll be glad to know it’s there.

© 2008 Mario Naves

“Max Beckmann in New York” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

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Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket (1950), oil on canvas, 55-1/8 x 36″; The St. Louis Art Museum, Bequest of Morton D. May/All images are courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

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My students, art majors all, have been complaining about the readings I’ve been assigning as of late. These handouts—essays and excerpted vignettes by writers as diverse as Ernst Gombrich, Fairfield Porter, Camille Paglia, and Robertson Davies—are intended to give students an idea of the sweeping nature of art and art-making, both within academia and out in the much vilified “real world.”The point of these readings—or one of them, anyway—is to encourage students to think beyond mere self-expression and underline that, in the end, art achieves its own wily independence. The complaint is that the handouts are dispiriting. This response is prompted, in part, by the dawning realization—a realization that gains in intensity the closer graduation approaches—that the artist’s life is a tough row to hoe. There’s the cost of studio space in New York City, the vagaries of commerce, the niceties of keeping a roof over one’s head and, not least, the state of the world. What is the worth of art in an age of economic freefall, rampant terrorism, unceasing wars, and distracting technologies? Positivity of some sort would seem to be in order.

And then I found just the reading during an attempt at clearing out my bookshelves. Pulling out a dusty copy of Theories of Modern Art, Herschel B. Chipp’s indispensable compendium of statements, manifestos, and observations by artists, critics, and sundry outliers, I opened it to a random page. There I read that “art is creative for the sake of realization, not for amusement; for transfiguration, not for the sake of play.” The writer continues:

There are two worlds: the world of spiritual life and the world of political reality. Both are manifestations of life which may sometimes coincide but are very different in principle. I must leave it to you to decide what is the more important.

What follows is an avowal, albeit a quixotic one, of art’s primacy in the face of devastation—written, no less, by a refugee fleeing a culture upended by a group of demagogues bent on world domination, ethnic purity, and with few qualms about the cost these goals might take in human life. “Human sympathy and understanding must be reinstated . . . in the midst of a boundless world turmoil.” “On My Painting,” a 1938 lecture by the German artist Max Beckmann, carries with it echoes of life, here, in the twenty-first century.

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Max Beckmann, Family Picture (1920), oil on canvas, 22-5/8 x 39-13″;The Museum of Modern Art

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Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Beckmann’s art knows that it doesn’t trade in easy optimism. There are sunnier exemplars for artists seeking a reason to keep on keepin’ on. Beckmann’s densely packed compositions are, after all, visited by nightmarish visions marked by displacement, violence, and anomie. Torture is a commonplace and claustrophobia the rule. Chronology is over-turned; historical touchstones shuffled. Myth permeates the proceedings, as does the theater. Mummers, harlots, royalty, and socialites engage in ritualistic narratives whose meaning remains occluded even as they take on grave momentum. If Beckmann’s hybrids of man and beast aren’t quite as elastic as those of Hieronymus Bosch or Francesco Goya, it’s indicative less of a lack of imagination than of an age in which faith was supplanted by doubt. Then there are the numerous self-portraits. Beckmann is pictured as ever confrontational, his terse slip of a mouth evincing a temperament hostile to, if not unamused by, nonsense. They are among the most daunting portraits in the history of art.

It came as a shock, then, to encounter a photo of an early version of Self-Portrait with Horn (1938) reproduced in the catalogue accompanying “Max Beckmann in New York.” Originally owned by Beckmann’s friend Stephan Lackner, the author and collector, the painting has since been acquired by, and become a staple of, the Neue Galerie, the museum of Germanic art located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. On the occasion of its 2008 exhibition, “Max Beckmann: Self- Portrait with Horn,” I commented on the picture’s “silence”:

Beckmann brings to the horn a weird kind of vulnerability and pathos. Seeming to strain under its own ineffectuality, the horn arcs toward us with something approaching desperation.

It’s hard to believe that an image haunted by an indelible mix of skepticism and sobriety was once light-hearted. But there it is, in not-so-vivid black-and-white: Beckmann smiling. Why was the image transformed, and in no small way? Sabine Rewald, the Met’s Jacques and Natasha Gelman Curator for Modern Art and organizer of “Max Beckmann in New York,” conjectures that “confronting his so relentlessly cheerful self every day in the studio must have irritated [the artist].” As it stands, Self-Portrait with Horn is a powerhouse, even by Beckmann’s rigorous standards.

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Max  Beckmann, Paris Society (1925/1931/1947), oil on canvas, 43 x 69-1/8″; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY

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The Neue Galerie painting is one of seven self-portraits viewers encounter upon entering “Max Beckmann in New York.” As opening gambits go, it’s pretty bracing and divulges a surprising admixture of whimsy and artifice. The earliest self-portraits on display are dated 1923; the last is from 1950, the year of Beckmann’s death at sixty-six. Stylistically, Beckmann moved from softly modeled forms to flattened areas of color held in check by brushy black lines. (With the exception of Matisse, and including Picasso, no other twentieth-century painter employed black with as much dexterity or nuance.) Beckmann is revealed to have been more of a showman than some of us previously thought. Cognizant of the status conferred upon The Artist, Beckmann toyed with its presumptions. Whether donning a sailor suit or what looks to be a pair of pajamas, or even (and this is the giveaway) surrounding himself with circus trappings, Beckmann engages in a hugely underplayed form of self-deprecation. His “disdain for people was considerable,” wrote a journalist taking note of the artist in the early twenties, but “under his prickly shell he concealed a highly vulnerable sensitivity, one that he sometimes mockingly exposed.”

The impetus for “Max Beckmann in New York” is Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket, the afore-mentioned canvas from 1950. Painted during the winter and spring of that year, Beckmann depicted himself as being more vigorous and virile than the rumpled figure seen in photographs of the time. The stony visage and ever-present cigarette we know about, but Beckmann’s torso swells upward like those of the warriors seen on the red Attic vases of ancient Greece, heroic images from which he took inspiration. The painting isn’t without its well-played ironies: an insomniac suffering from heart ailments and given to anxiety should be allowed some license when translating physical frailty into pictorial muscle. Beckmann’s health gave out on the corner of Sixty-ninth Street and Central Park West–he died of a heart attack on the way to see “American Painting 1950,” an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Among that show’s featured attractions? Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket. The story is poignant (as Ms. Rewald notes), but am I alone in feeling that the artist might have derived a grim pleasure in its you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up circumstances?

Beckmann’s time as a New Yorker was brief: sixteen months. The road to the city was circuitous. Born in Leipzig in 1884, he studied at the Weimar Academy as a teenager and subsequently made his way to Berlin. Beckmann was ambitious from the get-go, setting himself up against the Old Masters he revered. (Early on, a critic described him as the “German Delacroix,” an appellation that must have been the source of no small pride for the young painter.) Beckmann was attuned to contemporary trends in art as well, taking note of the paintings by his countryman Louis Corinth, as well as those by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. Renown came early for Beckmann and continued after his stint as a medic during the First World War. He was discharged from the army due to exhaustion—PTSD in contemporary parlance—and who can wonder that the work became caustic, blunt, and forbidding? His success as a painter and teacher came to a halt with the advent of National Socialism. The Nazis tarred Beckmann as a “cultural Bolshevik” and “degenerate.” He fled to Holland with his second wife, Mathilde, known by the nickname Quappi. After ten years squirreled away in Amsterdam, Beckmann and Quappi were granted visas to the United States in 1947. They settled first in St. Louis and then New York.

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Max Beckmann, center panel of Beginning (1949), oil on canvas, 69 x 59″; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Miss Adelaide de Groot

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“Max Beckmann in New York” includes fourteen paintings Beckmann created while living in the city, along with twenty-five works borrowed from New York collections. The show is by no means a retrospective, but it’s a reasonably full accounting all the same. The pictures span thirty years and include Beckmann’s best-known work: the magisterial Departure (1932–33), a triptych that has long been a mainstay of The Museum of Modern Art. This format was a favorite of Beckmann’s, recalling, as it did, Renaissance altarpieces. Among the highlights of the Met’s own collection is Beginning (1946–49), a triptych begun while Beckmann was exiled in Holland. A meditation on childhood (the original title was, in fact, L’Enfance), the work is beyond the bounds of rational analysis, particularly the crammed-to-the-rafters center panel in which, among much else, a sultry Amazon blows bubbles, a clown skulks in an alcove, and a cat wearing army boots is suspended, upside-down, from the ceiling. Beckmann was adamant that his art leave the studio with its mysteries intact. Responding to an American dealer who asked if a picture could be, you know, explained—presumably to aid in marketing—Beckmann ordered him to “take the picture away or send it back.”

New York City offered the kind of spectacle this most cosmopolitan of artists thrived on: “All in all, New York represents the most extreme case of grotesque gigantism until now achieved by mankind. It suits me just fine.” It’s odd that Beckmann never painted the city, at least directly. The Met show includes pictures of Frankfurt, Oakland, and San Francisco—but Manhattan? It’s seen only tangentially in Cafe Interior with Mirror-Play (1949), a vertiginous depiction of the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel, and Plaza (Hotel Lobby) (1950), a favorite watering hole of Beckmann’s. Ms. Rewald posits The Town (City Night) (1950) as an “‘homage’ to nocturnal New York,” taking as her cue the image of an envelope addressed to “Mr M Beckmann New York USA” located at the lower left of the canvas. It’s a reasonable supposition given the painting’s kaleidoscopic jumble and clash of cultural references. Beckmann was a devotee of New York nightlife—the clubs, dives, and stage shows in which “vulgarity reigned.” It’s an appropriately noisy picture, but not one of Beckmann’s finest efforts. The composition doesn’t quite hold true; it heaves and stutters, and the juxtapositions in scale are clunky and cramped. Over the top by even the standards of a sturdy fabulist, The Town (City Night) is a mish-mosh of demons, troubadours, commissars, phallic symbols, and, in dead center, a bound female nude. Sometimes splendid excess is less than splendid.

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Max Beckmann, Quappi in Grey (1948), oil on canvas, 42-1/2 x 31-1/8″; Private Collection, NY

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Among the most striking aspects of Beckmann’s vision is that, notwithstanding his meditations on human folly and vice, it never descends into nihilism or despair. The paintings bristle and bump with appetite—for life’s absurdities, absolutely, but primarily for life itself. It’s worth mentioning that a number of Beckmann pictures concern themselves with everyday epiphanies—the ocean as seen from a hotel terrace; the forest surrounding a university town; an untended corner of the studio; and his beloved Quappi, whose handsome countenance appears repeatedly in the oeuvre. The center panel of Departure has famously—and rightfully—been cited as a marker of Beckmann’s holistic worldview. Blue skies and family, the painting would seem to suggest, sustain us in the midst of history’s cruelest turns. It’s no surprise that Beckmann disliked being lumped in with the Expressionists: self-pity and narcissism were antithetical to the “fullness, roundness, and the vitally pulsing” to which he aspired. The stern and heady embrace of “essential things” is palpable throughout “Max Beckmann in New York,” and is but one reason we should look to this demanding artist as a guidepost in our troubled times.

© 2016 Mario Naves

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

Unclassifiable, Florid and Frustrating: The Art of William Scharf

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William Scharf, The Giver Threatened (1993), acrylic on canvas, 68 x 77″; courtesy Hollis-Taggart Galleries

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The following review was originally published in the February 16, 2004 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of “William Scharf: Imagining the Actual“, an exhibition that recently closed at Hollis-Taggart Galleries.

The last time New Yorkers had the opportunity to see the paintings of William Scharf was a couple of years back when they were included in “Painting Report; Plane: The Essential of Painting”, an exhibition of four artists seen at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center–MoMA. Mr. Scharf didn’t make much of an impression. His large, floating conglomerations of biomorphic blips were pleasantly out of place amid the surrounding clatter typical of the Long Island City institution. The paintings came off as tepid rehashes of the sort of Jungian pictograph produced in Manhattan in the middle of the last century. It seemed obvious that Mr. Scharf had been included in the exhibition as a favor to a friend, as an exercise in curatorial privilege–artistic talent had nothing to do with it.

Or so I supposed. Upon encountering Mr. Scharf’s recent pictures, on display at the Richard York Gallery, I did a whiplash-inducing double take. Was this the same William Scharf? The Surrealist-inspired mood was vaguely familiar, but that was about it. Nothing prepared me for the lurid pull of the paintings, the velvety palette and glowing, spongy light. Each image is a languid collision of contradictory events. Blissful biomorphs and invasive geometry; arid surfaces and livid color; open atmosphere and confined spaces; Symbolist reverie and visceral excess–there’s no getting a hold of these paintings. They keep shifting and transforming right under your gaze. They don’t sit still.

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William Scharf, The Sigh Weapons (2002-06), acrylic on canvas, 56 x 32″; courtesy Hollis-Taggart Galleries

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They don’t always sit well, either. Mr. Scharf refuses to square the belligerent elements that populate the paintings. Each canvas clunks along like the hodgepodge it is. Like other artists with a mystical bent–William Blake, say, or Arthur Dove and William Baziotes–Mr. Scharf is intent on tapping into otherworldly forces; tightening composition is a lesser priority. Mr. Scharf cuts a fascinating figure: He’s unclassifiable, florid, frustrating–and not in need of favors. I recommend the art and, more so, the artist. We should all be so singular and true.

© 2004 Mario Naves