Artist’s Talk @ Five Myles

Bete Noire

Installation of “Bete Noire” at Five Myles

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I’m pleased to announce that I will be moderating an artist’s panel to be held in conjunction with “Bete Noire“, the group show currently on display at Five Myles, the exhibition and performance space located in Crown Heights.

The event will be held on Sunday, December 17th at 4:00 p.m. Directions on how to get to Five Myles can be found here. Please bear in mind that there may be service changes in subway service during the weekend.

Please join us for what promises to be a lively conversation!

Catalogue essay accompanying “Bête Noire”, a group exhibition at Five Myles

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Nancy Grimes, Custody (2017), oil on linen, 16 x 32″; courtesy the artist

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When asked to participate in an exhibition centered on the theme of “bête noire”, not a few of the invited artists scratched their heads and furrowed their brows. At least, that seemed to be the gist of their responses.

A French literary trope connoting a person or object that is intensely disagreeable and to be strenuously avoided? What right-minded person would want to be lumped under that rubric? The emphasis of the phrase, however, is as much on degree as substance: intensity and strenuousness figure prominently. There are plenty of things that are irksome, but few of them call to us with something like passion. That damned thing won’t let me go and I insist on holding onto it. That’s the rub of bête noire and why it persists as a vital bit of phrase-making. This vexing quality pervades the work of the artists featured in “Bête Noire”; animates it, too.

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Natasha Hesketh, Portrait of What Is Not Being Said (2016), acrylic on paper, 24 x 18″; courtesy the artist

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How these paintings, photographs and sculptures embody the notion of “bête noire” is as idiosyncratic as the visions informing them. Contradictions are abundant. The digitally manipulated dreamscapes of Laura Dodson mull the intransigence of memory and, along with it, the disappointments of nostalgia. The piecemeal and seemingly dehumanizing nature of contemporary relationships are deftly negotiated in the works-on-paper of Natasha Hesketh. Thomas Nozkowski’s off-kilter abstractions embody sharply felt if distinctly occluded encapsulations of lived experience. David Hornung’s ramshackle iconography–at once, homespun and hieratic–serves as a conduit for a dry and whimsical poetry. Matthew Blackwell and his revolving band of cartoonish grotesques are less given to reverie than a frantic and sometimes enraged form of slapstick.

Comedy filters through the work of more than a few of these artists. A mordant wit can be divined in the vases of Elisa D’Arrigo–gnarled vessels that admit to a balletically contrived pathos. Nancy Cohen’s hobbled amalgamations of biomorphic form and utilitarian purpose are charged with tender irony. Industrial means endow Fara’h Salehi’s sculptures of insect life with a streamlined efficiency that doesn’t waylay biological specificity. Specificity is also Loren Munk’s domain, albeit transferred to the art world, in which the ebb-and-flow of history is inventoried with unyielding diligence and chromatic punch.

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Nancy Cohen, Two-Step (2015), glass, metal, rubber, wire and handmade paper, 22 x 22 x 10″; courtesy the artist

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Other images are moody and mysterious, indicative of nothing so much as the limits of understanding. Stephanie Hightower’s paintings create an enigmatic patience game from diagrammatical overlays of topographical shapes, silhouettes, and fleeting allusions to history. Lee Tribe’s totemic effigies, whether rendered in steel or charcoal, evince a temperament alternately driven by the heroic and the haunting. The myriad and often unsettling complications of family are rendered with luminous clarity in the tableaux of Nancy Grimes.

A laundry list of artists only goes so far in elaborating the overriding theme of a given exhibition. The true test comes with how the works themselves engender and underline surprising commonalities, unbridgeable peculiarities, and nagging attractions. The juxtapositions set out in “Bête Noire” are multivalent, not a little irksome, stubbornly put forth, and undeniable in their integrity. The puzzlement is yours for the taking.

© 2017 Mario Naves

 

 

 

“Bête Noire” curated by Mario Naves @ Five Myles

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Invitation artwork: David Hornung, A View of Monuments (2017), matte acrylic and oil, 40 x 40: courtesy the artist

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I’m pleased to announce “Bête Noire”, a group exhibition I’ve curated for Five Myles, an exhibition and performance space located in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

“There are plenty of things that are irksome,” I write in the essay accompanying the exhibition, “but few of them call to us with something like passion. That damned thing won’t let me go and I insist on holding onto it. That’s the rub of bête noire and why it persists as a vital bit of phrase-making. This vexing quality pervades the work of the artists featured in “Bête Noire”; animates it, too.”

You can read the entire essay in the online catalogue accompanying the show.

The reception will take place on Saturday, November 11th, between 5:00-8:00 p.m.

The exhibition will run until December 17th. For information please check the Five Myles website.

“Mario Naves: Drawings from Venice” at Rosenberg Gallery, Hofstra University

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After Titian (The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence) (2017), graphite on paper, 24 x 18″

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I’m pleased to announce that a recent spate of drawings–my first in 30 years!–will be on display at the Rosenberg Gallery at Hofstra University. These works-on-paper were done during a stay in Italy this past summer while teaching for Pratt In Venice, an invaluable program instituted and organized by the art historian Diana Gisolfi.

Taking inspiration from direct contact with masterworks of Western art, seen both in museums and in situ at venues like the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, the Arena Chapel and the Palazzo Ducale, I transcribed paintings by Giotto, Titian, Giorgione, Tiepolo, Giovanni Bellini and others.

When asked to write about the work, I stated that “the pictorial, symbolic and narrative richness of Old Master painting is dizzying. Making studies of a specific painting–say, Tintoretto’s Il Paradiso (1588-92)–is an attempt at understanding what makes a composition tick, as well as (fingers crossed) tapping into the magic and majesty of its vision.”

Fingers crossed, indeed!

The exhibition opens on October 30th and continues until November 29th. Information about Rosenberg Gallery can be found here. The opening will take place on Monday, October 30th, at 2:00 p.m.

© 2017 Mario Naves

“World War I and The Visual Arts” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Harry Ryle Hopps, Destroy This Mad Brute (1917), color lithograph, 41 x 27-1/4″; Collection of Mary Ellen Meehan/Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Propaganda elides subtlety. Bluntness is the point: to make expressly clear the message its makers—whether it be a government, political party, or individual—want to impart to the viewer. Which isn’t to suggest that sophistication and craft, often of a high level, don’t figure into propaganda. At the entrance to “World War I and the Visual Arts,” museum visitors encounter Destroy This Mad Brute (1917), a recruitment poster for the U.S. Army designed by Harry Ryle Hopps. As a means of instilling patriotic fervor, Hopps’s image is a far cry from the stern gravitas of Uncle Sam. A slavering gorilla wearing a Kaiser hat charges onto the American shoreline. In its right arm, this proto–King Kong wields a bloodied club that reads “Kultur”; in its left, it holds a writhing, topless woman. The latter is an allusion to Germany’s 1914 invasion—or, as it came to be known, “rape”—of Belgium. One doesn’t have to be a student of history to glean the intent of Hopps’s image: aggression is monstrous. As an argument, it doesn’t carry a lot of nuance, but the flair with which it is embodied is effective and, testament to a job well done, memorable.

Dramatics for the sake of political import is par for the course when it comes to propaganda, particularly during wartime. Jennifer Farrell, an Associate Curator in the Met’s Department of Drawings and Prints, lines the hallway directly outside the exhibition with a run of additional posters from the United States, Russia, France, Italy, and the “mad brute” itself, Germany. Fritz Erler, a painter and designer with Symbolist tendencies, worked on behalf of the German Empire in creating Help us win—buy war bonds! (1916), a stoic portrayal of a soldier surrounded by arabesques of barbed wire. History has bestowed its own ironies on this decidedly non-Aryan visage, especially given that Erler became an artist favored by the Third Reich. (He would, in fact, paint a portrait of the Führer some fifteen years later.) One of the discomfiting aspects of the exhibition is how vividly it encapsulates history, bringing along with it a concomitant sense of fervor, confusion, and righteousness. That it does so with compelling understatement is a credit to Farrell’s selectivity and focus.

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Fritz Erler, Help us win–buy war bonds! (1916), color lithograph, 24-7/8 x 19-3/4″; Collection of Mary Ellen Meehan/Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The Met is playing up the stellar array of artists featured in “World War I and the Visual Arts,” most of whom are inextricably linked with The War To End All Wars. Expressionism was, after all, bolstered and Die Neue Sachlichkeit (The New Objectivity) born of its catastrophes. An exhibition such as this is inconceivable without the work of Kathe Kollwitz, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, and Otto Dix, all of whom make plain their disaffection. Fernand Léger, who served in the Engineer Corps of the French army, may have observed that “trench warfare is full of small murders,” but he was impressed by the “dazzling” efficiency of high-tech warfare. The Italian Futurist Gino Severini was similarly taken with “the marvelous mechanical forms” of modern arms, as was the more equivocal Wyndham Lewis, the British Vorticist, who, unlike Severini, served in the war. There are artists whose inclusion is less expected. George Bellows is known for many things, but War Series (1918), a suite of often gruesome lithographs, isn’t one of them. Then there’s John Singer Sargent, Pierre Bonnard, and the perpetually sunny Raoul Dufy, the latter of whom celebrated the end of hostilities with a lithograph done for Le Mot, a journal published by a friend, the novelist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau.

The “visual” nature of the exhibition extends considerably beyond the Fine Arts. Commercial artists figure significantly at the Met; so do, to a lesser extent, industrial designers. Three-dimensional objects are in short supply; those that are included—an assortment of helmets that channel medieval precedent and a tattered gas mask from France—are arresting, not least because they seem alarmingly primitive. An array of medals commemorating the sinking of the Lusitania (Germany), America the Avenger (France), and the barbarism of Kaiser Wilhelm (the United States) are the lone sculptural inclusions. Pictures predominate. Documentary photos pepper “World War I and the Visual Arts” with terse clarity, whether they be aerial views of war-torn France by Edward Steichen (who pioneered surveillance techniques as the Chief of the Photographic Section of the American Expeditionary) or the haunting image by an unknown photographer of Londoners observing two minutes of silence on Armistice Day, 1919. Additional items include textiles, periodicals, montages, a pop-up children’s book (After the Victory), and trading cards published by the American Tobacco Company. A series of Russian postcards stand out for their starkly contrived imagery and subject matter: women in wartime, seen embodying such virtues as “iron discipline” and “precision, accuracy, and prompt fulfillment of order.”

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Otto Dix, Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain (November 1917), (1924), etching and aquatint on paper, 35.5 x 47.7 cm.; Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Otto Dix’s The War (1924), a series of fifty-one etchings, occupies an entire wall of the show and is the rare occasion when a minor artist earns a star turn. Seen on a piecemeal basis, Dix’s paintings provide a chilly dissection of life during the Weimar Republic; seen en masse, their neurasthenia wears quickly. As a printmaker, however, Dix is on more solid footing because his skills as a draftsman and tonalist evince more grit and imagination than when putting brush to canvas. Taking clear inspiration from Goya’s The Disasters of War, Dix’s etchings embrace the grotesque, sometimes to cartoonish extremes, and indulge in a moral rage that glints with bilious black humor. Dix’s masterful handling of the medium brings unseemly beauty to depictions of bodies—whether they be dead, exploited, or disfigured. George Grosz’s drawings, typically the standard-bearer for bitterness of this sort, are tinker-toys in comparison. Dix’s misanthropy is both his gift and greatest liability, but The War occasionally admits to the elegiac. Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain (November 1917) (1924), a depiction of innumerable corpses lying in disarray on the battlefield, is both a mockery of the surrounding landscape and its cruel apotheosis. It’s an image very much in sync with the strong emotions spurred by “World War I and The Visual Arts.”

© 2017 Mario Naves

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

“Richard Gerstl” at The Neue Galerie

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Richard Gerstl, Self-Portrait, Laughing (1907), oil on canvas; courtesy Belvedere, Vienna

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It’s going to happen, trust me: Gerstl: The Movie. How could it not? Within a few minutes of walking into “Richard Gerstl,” museum-goers—at least, those who read the wall labels—could be heard tut-tutting over the artist’s short and scandalous life. Though Gerstl’s reputation doesn’t extend much beyond his native Austria, the biographical particulars are universal in prurient appeal. Imagine: a precocious talent comes of age in a milieu charged with innovation, a society in which cultural, political, and moral norms have been called into question. Genius abounds, as does love between parties which are otherwise involved. Mix in psychological instability, illicit sex, marital abandonment, broken hearts, and an early death, and you’ve got the makings of a great story. A tragic life shouldn’t be trivialized, but Gerstl’s tale is remarkable not only for its drama, but for the significant figures it touches upon, notably the composer Arnold Schoenberg. Then there are the paintings. If the oeuvre is slim for the cruelest of reasons—Gerstl, who was born in 1883, died by his own hand at age twenty-five—it is marked by moments of thrilling lucidity. “Richard Gerstl” is a superb exhibition.

For those of us who have had our curiosity piqued by Portrait of a Man (Green Background) (1908), a painting regularly on display at Neue Galerie, or the stray Gerstl canvas seen here and there, “Richard Gerstl” is a welcome event. Curated by Jill Lloyd, a specialist in Expressionist art, and organized in conjunction with the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, this is the first Gerstl retrospective mounted in the United States. It includes about half of ninety extant pictures, and provides a solid, if frustrating, overview. Whether due to the unavailability of certain pieces or because of space limitations at Neue Galerie, “Richard Gerstl” is skimpier than one would like. (The catalogue provides a more thorough accounting.) Gerstl’s trajectory should be familiar territory to anyone conversant with how an ambitious artist might pursue “entirely new paths” at the turn of the twentieth century. After establishing himself as an adept practitioner of academic painting, Gerstl discovered, and was energized by, a handful of artists out to buck the status quo. How directly familiar he was with Edvard Munch or the Swiss symbolist Ferdinand Hodler is unknown, but the aesthetic turf they shared is clear. More certain is the influence of Vincent van Gogh and Edouard Vuillard, particularly in how each painter animated the pictorial surface with lessons gleaned from Pointillism.

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Richard Gerstl, Self-Portrait (1908), oil on canvas; courtesy Leopold Museum/Neue Galerie

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As a means of providing context, The Neue Galerie juxtaposes Gerstl’s pictures with those of fellow countrymen Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka, as well as the American William Clarke Rice. The latter is included for his portrait of the twenty-four- year-old Gerst, whom Rice met while on holiday in Austria. Portrait of Richard Gerstl (1907) captures a sharp and lively intelligence, and serves as a counterpoint, as well as a corrective, to Gerstl’s self-portraits, of which there are many. Chalk it up to youthful arrogance or the limitations of Expressionism, but Gerstl’s self-portraits can be a bit much. The earliest is Semi-Nude Self-Portrait (1902–04), wherein the lanky painter, partially draped in a white robe, surrounds himself with divine light. In the last self-portrait, from 1908, religious portent is jettisoned, as well as any remaining clothing, for an unseemly mediation on the flesh. In between Gerstl relishes his good looks, radiates moody introspection, immerses himself in a flurry of minty blue, and embodies madness in Self-Portrait Laughing (1907), an over-the-top image that makes Van Gogh seem like Winnie the Pooh. All are marked by heady self-infatuation and, at crucial moments, self-loathing. If these are the pictures of an unapologetic narcissist, they also favor painting over pure expression. As unsavory as we might find Gerstl as a type, his love of oil paint is patent. Gerstl’s bravura is never unearned.

Born in Vienna to wealthy parents, Gerstl showed artistic promise early on, eventually going on to study at the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts. (He preceded another Academy pupil, Egon Schiele, by eight years.) During the summer of 1900, Gerstl attended the Nagybanya artist’s colony, where the Hungarian painter Simon Hollosy introduced him to Impressionism. A taste of radical art soured Gerstl on the conservatism advocated at the Academy, and he quit his studies—not once, but twice. Gerstl bristled easily, and didn’t suffer authority figures gladly or to his benefit: Gerstl refused an opportunity to show at the vanguardist Galerie Miethke when he discovered that the proposed exhibition would also include Klimt, whom Gerstl dismissed as a “society operator.” In 1906, Schoenberg hired Gerstl to provide private lessons in painting, and the young artist was subsequently welcomed into the “Schoenberg Circle,” an exclusive and close-knit company of musicians, composers, and historians. Gerstl grew closest to Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde—too close. Their relationship proved disastrous. The abortive affair resulted in Gerstl’s expulsion from a nurturing social environment and prompted his messy suicide. Hanging wasn’t enough for Gerstl; stabbing was involved, as was the burning of papers and artwork. A posthumous declaration of insanity, requested by the Gerstl family, allowed for a Christian burial.

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Richard Gerstl, The Schönberg Family (1908), oil on canvas; courtesy Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien/Gift of the Kamm Family, Zug 1969

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It’s not entirely coincidental that the two strongest paintings in “Richard Gerstl”— masterpieces, out-and-out—center on the Schoenberg family. Wax as one might about the expressive possibilities of paint, words fall short in describing the coarse, hyperbolic power of The Schoenberg Family and Half-Portrait of Mathilde Schoenberg (both 1908). At the time, these pictures must have seemed reckless bordering on inchoate; today, they are no less shocking. In the group portrait, Gerstl conjures up Arnold, Mathilde, and their children Trudi and Gorgi, with a lava-like slathering of acidic yellows, sharp greens, and a deceivingly placid pink. Gerstl’s portrayal of his inamorata is wilder and weirder, going in-and-out of focus with keening, off-kilter rhythms, and pitiless attention paid to likeness. Neither painting is devoid of humor; both are harsh and hypnotic. Pity Schoenberg, the amateur dauber: the pictures of his included at Neue Galerie barely register as trifles compared to Gerstl’s furied images. Then again, the attendant pictures by Klimt, Schiele, and Kokoschka come off as pretty mild as well. Six years—that’s all the time Gerstl allowed himself to pursue his art. Does a place in history serve as recompense for a life of confusion and pain? “Richard Gerstl” provides a riveting opportunity to mull that sad and sobering question.

© 2017 Mario Naves

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

Interview at “Savvy Painter”

Savvy Painter

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I’m pleased to announce that Antrese Wood, host of the invaluable podcast Savvy Painter, has posted a conversation we had a while back about the vagaries of representation, abstraction and other pictorial concerns. I hope you give it a listen!

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 Mario Naves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 Mario Naves

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John Graham, undated photograph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2005 Mario Naves