Sir Gordon Eliot Howard Hodgkin (1932-2017)

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Photo by David Levene, courtesy of The Guardian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 1996 Mario Naves

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Mario Naves 2017

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

“Mario Naves; Paintings” at Pratt Institute

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

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

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

More information can be found here.

Again, with the Rabbits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 Mario Naves

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

Francis Picabia and “The Neurasthenia of Peculiar Obsessions”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2008 Mario Naves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 Mario Naves

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

Unclassifiable, Florid and Frustrating: The Art of William Scharf

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2004 Mario Naves

Stubbornly Independent: Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait With Horn (1938), oil on canvas, 43-1/2″ x 39-3/4″; courtesy The Neue Galerie

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The following review was originally published in the August 5, 2008 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of “Max Beckmann in New York“, an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. My review of that exhibition will be appearing in the December 2016 edition of The New Criterion.

Felix Nussbaum’s Self in Concentration Camp (1940), a painting included in the exhibition Max Beckmann: Self-Portrait With Horn at the Neue Galerie, is as bleak as the title implies. Wearing a wool cap, a tattered jacket and a lean beard, the artist looks askance with steely distrust. In the background, a figure defecates into a large metal can. There’s barbed wire, a sky the color of steel wool and an air of Boschian portent.

Bosch’s hell couldn’t compare with Hitler’s. While studying in Rome, Nussbaum, a German Jew, heard Hitler’s minister of propaganda advocate for the Nazi ideal of art; Nussbaum realized soon enough that neither he nor his paintings fit the standard. Nussbaum spent the majority of the war in hiding, continuing to paint, and ultimately died in Auschwitz at the age of 39. Self in Concentration Camp has the awful clarity of a foregone conclusion.

Nussbaum’s painting is diverting enough to make one curious as to what else he did. It’s included in the Neue Galerie exhibition to provide a sense of social and artistic context. There are paintings, drawings and prints—all portraits—by other Beckmann contemporaries as well, but none can equal the brooding power of Self-Portrait with Horn, not even the magisterially detached Self-Portrait in Front of Red Curtain (1923) by the man himself. As for the rest: Heinrich Hoerle, Georg Scholz, Ludwig Meidner, Otto Dix and George Grosz are little more than historical wallpaper. Beckmann thunders through the gallery.

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Felix Nussbaum, Self-Portrait in Concentration Camp (1940), oil on wood, 52.5 x 41.5 cm.; courtesy The Neue Galerie, NY

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Beckmann (1884-1950) achieved early success; a self-portrait of the time depicts an unctuous talent with a glib hand for self-aggrandizement.

The First World War put an end to Beckmann the Dandy. He suffered a nervous collapse while serving as a medical orderly on the Belgian front. The paintings that followed his recovery were cramped and muscular dioramas rife with bizarre symbols and occluded narratives. Amalgams of the city, the torture chamber, the Garden of Eden, the circus and the King’s tribunal, Beckmann’s world held an unsparing mirror to the horrors and absurdities of the 20th century.

Beckmann kept a skeptical distance from Modernism—the past weighed too heavily for him to fully embrace radical innovation—but that’s not to say he wasn’t interested. Certainly, Beckmann took inspiration from Matisse’s subtle elisions of color and line. But mostly he was stubbornly independent.

Beckmann lumbered through history, fascinated with the eternal ubiquity of humankind’s foibles, illusions and cruelties. Myth haunted his art, as did a florid sense of purpose: Each person must go through life with the knowledge of, as Beckmann put it, “the murder everyone commits … [Y]ou can never rid yourself of your past, you must carry the corpse along, and Life beats the drum.”

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Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait With A Saxophone (1930), oil on canvas, 140.5 x 69.5 cm.; courtesy Kunsthalle, Bremen, Germany

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Beckmann was modern enough for the Nazis to peg him as degenerate. Over 20 of his paintings were included in “Entarte Kunst (Degenerate Art),” the infamous 1937 exhibition mounted expressly to ridicule modern “Jewish” and “Bolshevik” art. A self-described “good German,” Beckmann was bewildered by the rise of National Socialism and conflicted about leaving his home country. But on the opening night of “Entarte Kunst,” he and his wife, Quappi, took a train to Amsterdam, where they would live in exile for the next 10 years. It was there that Beckmann painted Self Portrait with Horn.

We see Beckmann from the waist up, standing slightly off center. He wears an orange and black patterned robe. His right hand reaches up tentatively. His left grasps a white horn. To the right is a red and black bar—a curtain, maybe, or a canvas—that puts us at a distinct remove. A mirror frames his grand pate. Beckmann’s mouth is set with grim determination. His expression is a mix of suspicion, fear and curiosity. Rarely has isolation been rendered as airless and monumental.

The horn is a recurring motif in Beckmann’s art, and its symbolic import is clear even as its meaning is elusive. Writing in the catalog, art historian Jill Lloyd chases down associations and comes up with a provocatively inclusive jumble. There’s sex, of course—Jung is dragged in for a passing reflection on the horn as both a penetrating object and a receptacle—but also memento mori, a Courbet hunting scene, an instrument to summon “conscience and attention,” a gramophone, a clown’s prop and, oh yes, music.

The most disconcerting thing about Self-Portrait with Horn is its silence.Beckmann brings to the horn a weird kind of vulnerability and pathos. Seeming to strain under its own ineffectuality, the horn arcs toward us with something approaching desperation. There’s something fast and mean in how the red and black drape obscures it. Beckmann admired the Courbet painting for its “beautiful clear triumph.” Whatever triumph exists in the stunted space in which the artist and the horn are imprisoned has been rendered moot. It’s a harsh and lonely picture.

Ms. Lloyd likens the Beckmann self-portrait to those of Rembrandt and Van Gogh. The German’s vision was too wide-ranging to settle for Vincent’s narrow self-involvement. Though less charitable than Rembrandt, Beckmann was equally honest, introspective and incisive. The 300 year or so gap between Rembrandt and Beckmann is virtually extinguished by shared conviction, authority and moral truth. What would an exhibition exploring their commonalities reveal? The Neue Galerie could do worse than attempt an answer.

© 2008 Mario Naves

Originally published in the August 5, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

“Material Polyphony” at Pratt Institute’s Schafler Gallery

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I’m pleased that two of my recent paintings will be on display at Schafler Gallery, located on the Brooklyn campus of Pratt Institute.