“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.

Back Again: The Art of Andy Warhol

2015_NYR_03739_0019A_000(andy_warhol_silver_liz).jpgAndy Warhol, Silver Liz (diptych), 1963. Silkscreen ink, acrylic, and spray paint on linen, two panels: 40 × 80 in. (101.6 × 203.2 cm) overall. Private collection; promised gift to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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The following review originally appeared in the December 2012 edition of The New Criterion and is reprinted here on the occasion of “Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again” at The Whitney Museum of American Art. 

Whatever else you can say about it, “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years” provides confirmation of a literary adage. Until recently, the aphorism “Art is what you can get away with” had merely been attributed to the Pittsburgh-born artist Andrej Varchola Jr., better known to the world as Andy Warhol (1928–1987). The quote has served as a neat marker of Warhol’s bemused detachment and artistic achievement. For observers not inclined to applaud Warhol’s iterations of celebrity culture and Madison Avenue bromides, the statement is a self-aware petard on which the artist’s platinum wig can be hoisted. Woe should the maxim prove an invention! But it is, in the end, Warhol’s and Warhol’s alone. This fact comes courtesy of, not the organizers of “Regarding Warhol” or some-or-other historian out to establish his Pop Art bona fides, but rather, the museum’s gift shop. That’s where you’ll find block prints emblazoned with the quote, complete with a background reproduction of a Warhol silkscreen. This feat of scholarship will set you back anywhere from ten to two hundred dollars.

Warhol would have relished the irony. He doubtlessly would have admired the other merchandise available for purchase: the books, the postcards, the coffee mugs, the calendars, scarves, and candy bars. Yes, candy bars; the wrappers of which are emblazoned with Warhol self-portraits and additional aphorisms. (“All I ever really want is sugar” being, in this case, the most fitting.) Warhol may have cast a puzzled eye at the skateboards emblazoned with his signature iconography, if only because skateboarding had yet to become a sizable subculture during his lifetime. But Warhol would have recognized his aesthetic in unapologetic full bloom. He was, after all, an entrepreneur par excellence. “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” But would Warhol recognize the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is currently giving his work a berth previously set aside for ancient Egypt, Byzantine reliquaries, fifteenth-century Prague, Renaissance tapestries, and seventeenth-century Delft?

Not that the Met is equating Twenty Marilyns (1962), Warhol’s Day-Glo homage to the dead movie bombshell, with the glories of Byzantium. Museological real estate doesn’t translate into artistic parity. Or does it? The verbiage surrounding Regarding Warhol might lead you to think otherwise. The curator Mark Rosenthal posits Warhol as an artist of “profound psychological depth,” a “revolutionary” who “encouraged the embrace of all possibilities for uninhibited cross-fertilization and hybrid creations.” The exhibition catalogue is replete with far-reaching plaudits, many from artists whose art can be traced directly to Warhol’s example. Did you know that the perpetually aloof painter of Brillo boxes, car crashes, and Chairman Mao is a twentieth-century eminence on the scale of Charlie Chaplin, Louis Armstrong, and Ernest Hemingway? “I think [Warhol is] absolutely a giant,” writes Julian Schnabel. “There’s something at the bottom of all of his work,” the cinema auteur and serial plate smasher continues, “that is absolutely heartbreaking.”


Andy Warhol, Green Coca-Cola Bottles, 1962. Silkscreen ink, acrylic, and graphite on canvas, 82 3⁄4 × 57 1⁄8 in. (210.2 × 145.1 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art 68.25. © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Schnabel’s right, but not for the reasons he thinks. Warhol is a giant . . . of marketing. As a painter, printmaker, draftsman, photographer, and filmmaker—you know, as an artist—Warhol is, at best, a curiosity. As with Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí, the artists from whom he gleaned lessons in strategy and PR, Warhol’s influence is more consequential than his achievement. He did possess artistic knowhow for layout, color, and recognizing the hypnotic power that could be elicited from repetition and pattern. For line, too: anyone familiar with the shoe drawings Warhol created as a commercial illustrator in the 1950s can attest to their period charm. But Warhol is less an artist than a phenomenon—a cultural tsunami that poached upon the prestige afforded by art while simultaneously undermining its principles. Having your Campbell’s soup and eating it, too—that’s the rule Warhol imparted. The consequences of this legacy have been broad and numbing. “The Warhol Effect,” it’s called and it’s endless.

“Regarding Warhol” is a sprawling, unwieldy exhibition. Though the entire oeuvre is glanced upon, it’s not a retrospective per se, but an overview of Warhol’s impact on contemporary art. Peppered in between forty-five Warhol masterworks are one hundred paintings, drawings, prints, videos, and sculptures by a who’s who of blue chip art stars: John Baldessari, Gerhard Richter, Gilbert & George, Matthew Barney, Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Avedon, Richard Prince, and Sigmar Polke. The work of Jeff Koons is seen in abundance, and why not? Few artists have exploited Warhol’s pro-capitalist ethos with as much cynicism and chutzpah. Also included is the cartoon-based imagery of Takashi Murakami, whose international art industry makes the Factory, Warhol’s famed Union Square studio, look rinky-dink in comparison. (The Factory is partially recreated toward the end of “Regarding Warhol”.) Snippets of reality TV shows are available for viewing—Warhol’s movies having cleared the way, apparently, for The Osbournes. The concluding chapter of the catalogue is an accounting of Warhol-influenced artists not included in the exhibition.

“Regarding Warhol” is divided into five thematic sections: “Daily News: From Banality to Disaster,” “Portraiture: Celebrity and Power,” “Queer Studies: Shifting Identities,” “Consuming Images: Appropriation, Abstraction and Seriality,” and “No Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle.” That the Metropolitan Museum has seen fit to codify a laundry list of politically correct nostrums says much about the utter irrelevance of Postmodernism as an artistic force. A movement that predicates itself on the anti-aesthetic is, by definition, invalidated when given the stamp of approval from an institution dedicated to the preservation of High Art. What we’re left with is a glib array of politicized attitudes buffed to a glossy sheen. These are sometimes clever, often pretentious, and invariably smug. They are, above all, indecipherable without accompanying wall texts. Visitors to Regarding Warhol spend more time reading than looking. Given the paucity of visual interest (forget visual pleasure), can you blame them? So much art, yet nothing to see.

But stuff—well, there’s a lot of that to contend with. Cady Noland fills an aluminum basket with the leftovers from an automobile repair shop; elsewhere, she drills bullet holes into an aluminum cutout of Lee Harvey Oswald. Damien Hirst—can’t have an overview of contemporary art without this diamond-encrusted huckster, can we?—provides a simulacrum of a pharmacy display case. The reliably didactic Hans Haacke is represented with slams against the late North Carolina senator Jesse Helms—Helmsboro Country (1990) is an over-sized package of cigarettes—and Margaret Thatcher. Robert Gober prints a musical score on a wax effigy buttocks—complete with human hair. In this context, the art school primitivism of Jean-Michel Basquiat and tepid stylization of Alex Katz come as a relief. Matisse is also on view, though not in the exhibition proper. Take a minute and watch a snippet of the reality show featuring Ozzy Osbourne and his family—there look to be Matisse drawings hanging in their living room. The heavy metal rocker has good taste in art. Who knew?

“Regarding Warhol” is a veritable obstacle course of knee-high metal bars. Given the preponderance of guardrails, you’d think the organizers were worried about viewers wanting to nose up to, say, Keith Haring’s graffitied poster of Elvis Presley or the wan celebrity portraiture of Karen Kliminik and Elizabeth Peyton—as if their surfaces somehow redeemed each artist’s sticky adolescent nostalgia. But material sensuality is beyond the ken of these artists. They’re too besotted with the slick calculations of mass media and divorced from the possibilities of hands-on media. Notwithstanding the recurring emphasis on sexuality and its “shifts,” artists working in the Warholian tradition are a fairly puritanical bunch. Materials and processes are employed only to the extent that they illustrate a theory. This is a generation of artists for whom materials are objects of distrust—impediments to vision rather than agents in shaping it. No wonder, then, that many of the objects on display are either factory-made or amateurish in execution. The humanity implicit in touch is either denied or deemed pathetic. This is the coldest Met show on record.

Then again, there are those who might argue that it’s also the brainiest. Arthur Danto, the art critic for The Nation and a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, famously posited Warhol as a fellow deep thinker, a “transformative” figure whose silk- screened imitations of Brillo boxes brought about “the end of art”—the “end” being the beginning of “our post-historical era in which, with qualification, anything goes.” Danto and Rosenthal rather welcome this sea of change, not least because it affords promiscuous conjecturing independent of the objects under consideration. As history has proven, Warhol’s noncommittal ironies accept any sort of claptrap thrown at them. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to—and a lot of people aren’t. Rounding the corner of the exhibition’s second gallery, I came across a trio of museum-goers standing in front of Brillo Soap Pads Boxes (1964). Actively discussing Warhol and his role in shaping culture, the most voluble of the three remarked that Warhol “was smarter than most people suppose, but not as smart as a lot of people would like us to think.”

Artists who’ve picked up Warhol’s ball don’t run with it so much as run in place. Tweaking the extra-aesthetic can’t obscure a poverty of invention; certainly, it adds nothing to the development of art. Barbara Kruger channels Madison Avenue in the cause of anti-capitalism, Cindy Sherman pimps the Old Masters as a commentary on identity, and Ryan Trecartin, whose manic videos are located toward the end of “Regarding Warhol”, explores the furthest reaches of self-indulgence because—well, because he can. But all these artists really do is confirm their own lack of imagination. (Confirmation of their nihilism being a foregone conclusion.) Warhol insisted on his own superficiality. Duchamp, whose presence hovers over the proceedings, couldn’t, in the end, stomach “the easy way out” of neo-Dadaism. Thumbing one’s nose is a formula whose frisson is as tired as it is guaranteed. “Regarding Warhol” is an essay in stasis.


Andy Warhol, Mustard Race Riot, 1963. Silkscreen ink, acrylic, and graphite on canvas, two panels: 9 ft. 5 7⁄8 in. × 13 ft. 8 in. (2.89 × 4.17 m) overall. Museum Brandhorst, Munich. © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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That Warhol opened the floodgates for any number of art school navel-gazers, over-intellectualized gadflies, and celebrity-smitten ideologues will come as no surprise to even the most cursory observer of the art scene. When Rosenthal opens his essay by declaring that Warhol “gave permission [for artists] to do virtually anything in the name of art,” you can’t help but think that the curator doth cheerlead too much. How deeply does Rosenthal believes  his own guff ? Arguing that Warhol is a sociological “beacon”’—that he had anything profound to say about mass media, gay rights, and (say what?) the evolution of abstract painting—is to trade in arrant hyperbole. Rosenthal twists himself into knots trying to convince himself that vapidity wasn’t the artist’s true métier or his most damning limitation. Movie stars, newspaper advertisements, and processed food provided this working-class son of Slovakian immigrants readymade pegs on which to hang vaguely formed notions of democratic culture. A distinctly American figure, Warhol had nothing profound to say about American life. There’s a difference between elaborating upon a subject and succumbing to its excesses. Alexis de Tocqueville, Warhol ain’t.

Warhol was a willing and eager accomplice to the most callow tendencies in American culture. Which isn’t to say he didn’t know the lay of the land, particularly when it came to currying favor from the rich, famous, and powerful. Notwithstanding the “oh wow” trappings of his deadpan public persona, Warhol was a shrewd operator. Anyone who can navigate downtown bohemia and the Upper East Side with nary a false step knows how to please most people—the right people—most of the time. The art may have initially held up a mirror to the mundane (Dr. Scholl’s foot remedies, for instance) and the glamorous (Monroe again, but also Jackie O. and Marlon Brando), but it soon evolved into the most obsequious form of flattery. Expensive, too. Warhol became a sought-after portraitist by a clientele whose wealth and social standing didn’t prevent them from recognizing the cachet afforded by a mere whiff of the outré. In 1969, Warhol began publishing Interview magazine, in which celebrities were lionized with panting adulation. Andy The Brand became ubiquitous; he seemed to be everywhere, including as a passenger on Love Boat, a 1970s TV sitcom. “How does an artist know when a painting is really successful?” a character asks Warhol-as-Warhol. “When the check clears,” answers the artist. The laugh track responds appreciatively.

But no one’s laughing now. There’s too much money involved. At auction, Warhol’s paintings have garnered staggering amounts of money—absurd amounts of money, really. A work-on-paper, the low medium on the pricing totem pole, could set you back $4 million. In 2005, Christie’s sold a Warhol painting for close to $72 million. This tendency could change. The Andy Warhol Foundation announced the divestiture of its remaining Warhol inventory—twenty thousand pieces that have an estimated worth of $100 million. This move may well devalue the Warhol stock. Alberto Mugrabi, a collector whose family owns a whopping 800 Warhols, was outraged: The Foundation has “a great product, and they’re pushing it out into the market like cattle.” Be that as it may, the Foundation calculated its decision with timing that would have made Warhol envious. It came just as the Met was opening the doors to its “innovative presentation” of his art.

The Foundation, in other words, knows the value of having “a great product” associated with an institution renowned for its august character, its encyclopedic scope, and its Rembrandts. Placing a figure renowned for unrelenting blandness within a stone’s throw of a painter who is nothing if not a benchmark of quality is a smashing career move. Business is the best art and so is ensuring its ongoing viability. But what kind of business do museums conduct? The preservation of culture, ostensibly; separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff. Of course, we’ve reached a stage where the “gate” takes precedence over artistic merit. Today’s mega-museums have wholeheartedly embraced the shopping mall aesthetic. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been, if not entirely innocent of commercial calculations, then cognizant and proud of its role in maintaining the highest standards. Regarding Warhol is something new for our greatest museum—a capitulation to market forces and mass culture that doesn’t think twice about how mendacious, crass, and ugly it is. Rembrandt will always be Rembrandt; his integrity is fixed and true. But the Met’s integrity? Its fate remains to be seen.

© 2012 Mario Naves

“Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist” at The Barnes Foundation


Berthe Morisot, In The Dining Room (1880), oil on canvas, 36-1/8 x 28-3/4″; Collection of Mrs. George Shutt, courtesy of The Barnes Foundation

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In The Dining Room (1880), a painting included in “Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist,” eludes ready explication, in large part because it seems so impossible. As an image, it couldn’t be closer to the mundane: a housemaid tends to some dinnerware. She is shunted to the right of the composition, her back to the viewer. At the bottom left, we see a cropped tabletop featuring an unkempt array of dishes and utensils. Towering over the scene, perched atop a mantle, is a sizable ceramic serving piece. The moment encapsulated—offhand, all but absent of import—recalls the tensile informality of Chardin’s genre paintings, and points to the furtive mises-en-scène of Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. What sets the Morisot apart is its evanescence. Nothing in the painting achieves firm definition; concreteness remains elusive. Shapes are delineated through a scrabbled array of dots, dabs, dashes, and squiggles. Morisot’s brushwork builds form from the inside out: the maid’s skirt is, in painterly terms, a hurricane. The scene gains presence even as it threatens to dissipate. In The Dining Room is a quickening performance.

“Performance” is the operative word. Morisot’s pictures move. In their brevity and rhythm, the paintings are unlike those of any Impressionist you could care to name. The work makes that of her peers—Manet, Monet, Degas, and Renoir, each of whom was a friend of Morisot’s—look classical in repose, rigid and composed. When confronted by the whiplash facture of Woman at Her Toilette (1875–80), Reclining Woman in Gray (1879), or Young Girl with Doll (1884), you begin to wonder if the “Impressionist” tag is altogether appropriate. Forget how the paintings were received at the end of the nineteenth century—at least, outside of her cohorts in the avant-garde. Morisot’s art continues to startle, fairly leaping off the walls. Up until the 1890s, when she fell under the (not altogether happy) influence of Renoir and Munch, Morisot is all edge—sometimes impatient, ever acute, curiously dispassionate, and tenacious in the attempt to reconcile the observed world with the often resistant prerequisites of oil painting. Even the most bucolic tableaux—say, the late afternoon leisure of Reading (1888)—are infused with a staccato sense of doubt. Morisot described painting as a “pitched battle with my canvases.” Her best pictures trill with the drama of their making.


Berthe Morisot, Young Girl with Doll (1884), oil on canvas, 32-1/4 x 9-3/8″; courtesy The Barnes Foundation

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Born in 1841 to well-off parents, the teenage Morisot, along with older sister Edma, took up painting at their mother’s request—for the sole purpose of crafting birthday gifts for Père Morisot. A passion for the art form was consequently instilled in both sisters. After rifling through a spate of instructors, most notably Corot, Berthe and Edma met with early success—exhibiting works in the 1864 Paris Salon and garnering favorable critical notice. Falling in with the advanced circles of Parisian culture, the sœurs Morisot hobnobbed with notables like Henri Fantin-Latour, Charles Baudelaire, Émile Zola, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Edma put down her brushes in 1869 upon marrying Adolphe Pontillon, a naval lieutenant stationed in Lorient. Berthe persevered, notwithstanding the constant—and irksome—hubbub surrounding her eligibility. Edma warned her off marriage, encouraging Berthe to “use all your skill and all your charm to find something more satisfactory to you.” Berthe didn’t need convincing. Flatly dismissing romance—which was, you know, “all very well”—Morisot never wavered in her commitment to painting. This was true even when she did marry in 1874, at the ripe old age of thirty-three, to Eugène Manet, the artist’s brother.

The Morisot and Manet families had long been close, and it’s been the scuttlebutt of art history that Berthe’s true love was not Eugène but Edouard. The two artists were close, with Manet having what seems, in contemporary terms, an unhealthy preoccupation with his friend’s marriageability. All the same, Manet took seriously Morisot’s skills as a painter, and she, in turn, ardently sought his counsel. Morisot figures prominently in Manet’s oeuvre: she’s the stony figure in the foreground of The Balcony (1868–69), and she was the subject of several portraits. Morisot never reciprocated the favor; however, Eugene can be seen in a trio of paintings, each of which features him ensconced in a garden setting with their small daughter. (For what it’s worth, Eugène is also on view at the periphery of a small landscape from 1875.) However much we may want to read into the Manet-Morisot union through the pictures—Eugene comes across as testy and preoccupied—attention should be focused less on romantic rumor than on Morisot’s portrayals of women, not least herself and Edma. A self- portrait from 1885 depicts a temperament that is bracingly self-possessed and markedly bereft of ego. The Cradle (1872), in which Edma gazes upon her newborn daughter, is an image of motherhood that is rarely touched upon in the visual arts. Few paintings have captured the misgivings of parenthood with as much candor and clarity.


Berthe Morisot, Self-Portrait (1885), oil on canvas, 24 x 19-11/16″; collection of Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, courtesy of The Barnes Foundation

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Women are, in fact, the focus of the Barnes show: not just Morisot herself, but her extended family, fashionable Parisiennes, household help, and sundry models. Is it possible to avoid identity in writing about this show, particularly at this hyper-politicized juncture? The very title of the exhibition—“Woman Impressionist”— raises the question, as does a catalogue that begins enumerating Morisot’s life and achievement by rolling out—mais naturellement!—the Guerilla Girls. Morisot was markedly aware of prevailing cultural attitudes: her diaries and correspondence are rife with pithy observations on the condescension she encountered as a woman artist. It’s also true that the work was highly regarded by her male peers, and that Morisot’s professional career was enviable. That we are only fitfully aware of her accomplishment here in the twenty-first century can be checked off to many things, sexism included. Still, foisting contemporary mores on bygone figures is a fraught venture, if only because it tends to strong-arm history and short-change complexity. Morisot is too individual a painter and personality to fit into anybody’s ideological straitjacket. “Woman Impressionist”? Try “Great Painter.” Ultimately, that’s what the Barnes show delivers. It should not be missed.

© 2018 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the December 2018 edition of The New Criterion.

“Canova’s George Washington” at The Frick Collection


Antonio Canova, Modello for George Washington (1818), plaster, 66 9/16 × 39 3/8 × 54 3/4″; courtesy Gypsotheca e Museo Antonio Canova, Possagno Fondazione Canova onlus, Possagno and The Frick Collection, NY

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“Canova’s George Washington” is a handsomely mounted exhibition as well as a model of curatorial diligence. This should come as no surprise: it’s been put together by the Frick, a museum that favors such things over the up-to-the-minute-and-gone-in-a-flash verities typical of our age. Which isn’t to say that “Canova’s George Washington” isn’t something of a head-scratcher . . .

The rest of this review can be found at Dispatch, the blog of The New Criterion.

“History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (until September 23, 2018)


14. Loretta Pettway, Medallion, ca. 1960

Loretta Pettway, Medallion (1960), synthetic knit and cotton sacking material 81 3/4 × 70″; Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The thirty works included in “History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift” are part of a larger donation to The Metropolitan Museum of Art and constitute a noteworthy addition to the collection. Founded in 2010, Souls Grown Deep—the name comes from a poem by Langston Hughes—has its origins in the collection of William S. Arnett, a historian who also dealt in art, primarily from Asia and Africa. Arnett’s emphasis shifted in the mid-1980s, when the Georgia native turned to artists closer to home—specifically, men and women of African descent born during the Jim Crow era. Interest turned to passion after Arnett visited the home of Thornton Dial in 1987. Dial, born into a family of sharecroppers, began making art at age fifty after being laid off from the Pullman Car Company. Taken with the imaginative resourcefulness by which the former machinist reconfigured salvaged materials, Arnett became Dial’s patron, funding the artist until the latter’s death in 2016. With Arnett, “the rich, sym- bolic world of the black rural South” gained an energetic and voluble champion. “I came to realize,” he told The Washington Post, “that the work created by black culture across the board was as good as any work made by white people.” The Souls Grown Deep Foundation builds upon that conviction, advocating for the inclusion of folk artists—that is, artists without formal training or art world imprimatur—into the pantheon of fine arts.

Anyone conversant with the discourse of contemporary art will have noticed some red flags in the previous sentence. “Folk artist”? “Fine arts”? Them’s fightin’ words in some quarters, and, in fact, qualify as examples of “term warfare.” This phrase—a new one to me—pops up in “Self-Taught and Modern,” an essay in the catalogue accompanying “History Refused to Die.” Randall R. Griffey, a Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Met, writes that “art historians have struggled to identify the most accurate and appropriate means of describing work produced by painters and sculptors working outside urban art capitals and without traditional academic artistic training.” The catalogue offers a veritable minefield of terminology around which the essayists tread gingerly. Scare quotes are abundant—and for good reason. Established verbiage becomes suspect when boundaries are in flux. The installation makes plain that artists at the margins of official culture should be included in the canon. At one end of the exhibition, Victory in Iraq (2004), a sizable assemblage by Dial, is placed in the company of signature works by Clyfford Still, Conrad Marca-Relli, Robert Motherwell, and Isamu Noguchi. Point taken. Outsiders are in.

01. Thornton Dial, History Refused to Die, 2004

Thornton Dial, History Refused to Die (2004), okra stalks and roots, clothing, collaged drawings, tin, wire, steel, masonite, steel chain, enamel, and spray paint 8’6″ × 87″ x 23″, Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

* * *

As someone who considers Dial’s work impressive in scope but turgid in effect, I find the corresponding bookend to “History Refused to Die” more convincing as an argument for re-writing the history books. Medallion (ca. 1960), a quilt by Loretta Pettway, is as sterling an exploration of color, craft, and pattern as you could hope for. Practicality may have been its impetus (a body needs to keep warm, after all) but the end result achieves a poetry that is—by equal measures—stringent, vulnerable, bumptious, and poignant. Comparisons to certain strains of Modernist abstraction seem unavoidable, but are to be strenuously avoided—or so we are warned. Amelia Peck, the Met’s Marica F. Vilcek Curator of American Decorative Arts, deems as specious any correspondences that could be made between the Pettway quilt and, say, paintings by Josef Albers or Piet Mondrian. “There are other ways to determine that quilts are art without trying to judge them by the same criteria as one would a painting.” To bolster this point of view she ropes in Hilton Kramer. Pause, for a moment, to wonder why Peck is startled that a “highly conservative” critic should be entranced by (in Hilton’s words) the “appealing vigor” of American quilts. Then consider how Peck makes a case for the Gee’s Bend Quilters—of whom Pettway is a member—on purely aesthetic grounds. I mean, really: talk about conservative.

Okay—I’m being snippy. And perhaps less time should be spent mulling the verbiage surrounding “History Refused to Die.” But one does worry that the hand-wringing, proselytizing, and tsk-tsk-tsking that circle around art nowadays—much of it centered around the vicissitudes of political correctness or the marketplace and its machinations—do more to offset (or obscure) aesthetic experience than engender it. Fortunately, art has a way of wriggling out from under those who would seek to control it, and the best work in the exhibition connects—not through theoretical grandstanding or well-intentioned guilt-tripping, but by material audacity, visionary independence, and modesty of affect. The aforementioned quilters of Gee’s Bend—an Alabama community with a population under three hundred—have gained renown for exactly those reasons. A 2002 retrospective of the work was, for many of us, a signal event heralding an important tributary of American culture. The ten quilts included at the Met are typical—and nowhere near enough. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it barely accounts for the wit, sensitivity, and vibrancy brought to bear by, among others, Pettway, Mary Elizabeth Kennedy, and Annie Mae Young.

10. Nellie Mae Rowe. Woman Scolding Her Companion, 1981i

Nellie Mae Rowe, Woman Scolding Her Companion (1981), oil pastel, crayon, colored pencil, ink marker, and graphite on paper board 29 1/4 × 32 in. (74.3 × 81.3 cm) Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

* * *

The rest of the work on view is nowhere near as nuanced or original, but is diverting nonetheless. Nellie Mae Rowe’s colorful and cartoonish mixed-media pieces touch on human failings, both comic (Woman Scolding Her Companion, 1981) and awful: Atlanta’s Missing Children (1981) memorializes, albeit in a quixotic manner, those murdered in the infamous killing spree of 1979–81. Other pieces are commemorative as well, whether it be Joe Minter’s Four Hundred Years of Free Labor (1995), a sardonic comment on Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930), or Locked Up Their Minds (1972) by Purvis Young, a tumultuous painting that brings to mind James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1888) and the stylizations typical of Ethiopian prayer books. Grown Together in the Midst of the Foundation (1994) by Lonnie Holley evinces a canny understanding of space, metaphor, rhythm, and linearity; it would hold its own in the company of sculptures by Martin Puryear or James Surls. As for Dial—the artist who takes up most of the real estate in “History Refused to Die”—let’s just say that if his amalgamations of detritus manage to supplant those by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Anselm Kiefer in museums far and wide, then his efforts will have been worth their weight in hype.

© 2018 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the September 2018 edition of The New Criterion.

Incomparable: The Quilt-makers of Gee’s Bend

Annie Mae Young.jpg

Annie Mae Young, Strip Medallion Quilt (1976), cotton and cotton/polyester; 8′ 8-1/2 x 77″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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This review was originally published in the June 20, 2005 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of “History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (until September 23rd). My review of the exhibition will appear in the September edition of The New Criterion.

New Yorkers who missed “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend”, an exhibition seen at the Whitney Museum of American Art during the winter of 2002-3, should have their collective knuckles soundly rapped. There can’t have been an excuse good enough to merit by passing a show that documented not only the triumph of American vernacular culture, but the resilience of the human spirit.

Gee’s Bend is a rural community located in Wilcox, Alabama, an all but inaccessible patch of land created by a loop in the Alabama River. Prior to the Civil War, two families, the Gees and the Pettways, took advantage of the area’s rich soil to grow cotton, using slave labor in the harvesting of crops.

After the war, and with emancipation, the Pettway slaves remained in Gee’s Bend as tenant farmers. Though touched by world events–Gee’s Bend was a beneficiary of the New Deal and a stop on Martin Luther King’s 1965 march to Selma–the residents lived in relative isolation for five generations, developing their own patois, religion and music. It is with their quilt-making that the inhabitants of Gee’s Bend–the women, really–have made an incomparable contribution to our common culture.


Mary Elizabeth Kennedy, Log Cabin quilt (ca. 1935), cotton and rayon, 81-1/4 x 79-1/2″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The nine quilts on display at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art, some of them created within the last few years, are typical of Gee’s Bend–which is to say, not typical at all. Knowledge of established quilt traditions won’t prepare you for the work’s audacity. The Alabama artisans hew to no established pattern; idiosyncrasy is the standard. Maxwell Anderson, former director of the Whitney, lauds the Gee’s Bend quilters for their “unexpected informality in a genre associated with prim formulas.”

Loose-limbed improvisation is an integral component of the Gee’s Bend quilts, as is material necessity: poverty, in this case, is the mother of invention. The fabrics employed (corduroy, paisley, textile remnants from the 40’s onwards and, most memorably, blue jeans) are determined as much by availability as by sensibility. Do we romanticize the women of Gee’s Bend–and, by fiat, the notion of the inspired, untutored outsider–in claiming them as de facto aesthetes? Probably, but that’s not to say romance can’t be predicated on fact.


Louise T. Pettway, Housetop and Bricklayer with Bars quilt (ca. 1955), cotton and acetate, 91-3/8 x 80-1/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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And beautiful fact it is, too. Little wonder that Ameringer Yohe, a venue dedicated largely to modernist abstraction, chose to feature the quilters of Gee’s Bend. Their expansive geometric patterning, startling and subtle colors, and sophisticated sense of design are reminiscent of the work of any number of renowned abstract painters–none of whom shall be mentioned here. The reputations of those men and women would only be diminished by the comparison.

Pettway–now there’s a name to take note of, particularly as it applies to quilters like Loretta (subtle, resilient), Katie Mae (talismanic, intense) and Allie (quirky, vulnerable). As for Bars variation (c. 1940-50), a magisterial parade of alternating blue and tan stripes: Who would have dared to predict that the back pocket of a pair of pants could achieve the density and emphasis of a slurred dab of oil paint? Amelia Bennett, that’s who; you’ll remember her as well. As for the names Ameringer and Yohe–they should be commended for a public service splendidly performed.

© 2005 Mario Naves