First Hand: Gary Petersen

Gary Petersen

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Konstantinos Volanakis


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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves


First Hand: Fulvia Plautilla

Fulvia Plautilla

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves


First Hand: Pablo Picasso


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

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Sarah Cockings & Harriet Fleuriot

Cockings & Fleuriot

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Avigdor Arikha

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves



First Hand: Saint George

Saint George Cropped

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Theodore Poulakis

Byzantine Museum.jpg

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Joan Miró


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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Stephen Maine


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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Petrus Christus

Petrus Christus.jpg

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Pietro Calvi

Pietro Calvi.jpg

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Laura Dodson


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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves


First Hand: Mary Didoardo


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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

First-hand; Ted Larsen

Ted Larsen_Clean Boy.jpg

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

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

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

Curiosity Prevails . . . in Woodstock


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

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

Read more here.

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

Open Studios @ The Clemente.jpg

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

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

Talk @ Adelphi University

Naves_Adelphi.jpg* * *

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

Brooklyn College Department of Art Faculty Exhibition

Brooklyn College Invitation

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves


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

“Natural Talent”: The Art of Giovanni Battista Moroni

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Mario Naves


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


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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


Bruce Nauman; courtesy of Phaidon

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

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