“The Clamor of Ornament: Exchange, Power, and Joy from the Fifteenth Century to the Present” at The Drawing Center, New York, NY

Owen Jones, Designs (1 of 51) for publication in Examples of Chinese Ornament (London, 1867) (Plates 10, 40, 56), 1866–67. Paper, gouache, gold paint, drawing, 13 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches (34.3 x 24.1 cm) each. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Purchased with the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Art Fund, V&A Members and The Belvedere Trust, ⒸVictoria and Albert Museum, London.
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Pity the poor Drawing Center. Founded in 1977–or, rather, “born into the petri dish of the SoHo art scene in the 1960s and 1970s”–the Center was the pet project of Martha Beck, a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art. She felt that the medium of drawing, being underserved by the arts establishment, needed its own specialized venue. Over the years, this downtown gallery has proved its mettle, mounting a variety of historical and contemporary exhibitions, as well as making a point of reaching out to working artists, some of whom later went on to greater recognition.

But that petri dish? It’s changed mightily since the heyday of industrial lofts rented on the cheap. Though painters and sculptors continue to work in SoHo, it’s no longer the fulcrum of the international art world. Real estate, as the truism has it, follows artists and, as a general rule, displaces them. Galleries are now few and far between in SoHo. As a result, the Drawing Center finds itself marooned among a bevy of luxury boutiques, high-end hotels, pricey eateries and, proving that some things never change, a noisome lineup of traffic going into the Holland Tunnel.

Will culture mavens think twice, then, about going to SoHo or, as an acquaintance put it, “the boonies?” It would be a shame if that’s the case, otherwise they might miss The Clamor of Ornament: Exchange, Power, and Joy from the Fifteenth Century to the Present, a knockout exhibition curated by Emily King, a London-based historian and curator. Bringing together more than two hundred objects that range the world over, King, along with co-curators Margaret Anne Logan and Duncan Tomlin, seek to underline how ornament can be not only “a means of exchange across geographies and cultures,” but the basis for “pleasurable disruption.”

Pleasure? Yes, you read that right. Notwithstanding the obligatory moment of extra-aesthetic harrumphing–the introductory wall text goes on about “power imbalances and exploitation”–The Clamor of Ornament is unapologetic in its emphasis on visual effusion and stylistic fecundity. The curators have assembled an impressive array of media: mostly drawings, textiles and prints, but also photographs, books and even a set of baseball caps originally hawked to pedestrians on nearby Canal Street. A set piece juxtaposing Martin Sharp’s psychedelic homage to Bob Dylan with “The Second Knot, Interlaced Roundel with an Amazon Shield in its Center” (c. 1521), Albrecht Dürer’s woodblock riff on a design originating with Leonardo, sets the stage for a free-for-all of no little resplendence.

Among the primary virtues of The Clamor of Ornament is how thoroughly it confirms the universality of the decorative impulse. Culture and chronology are given the heave-ho for an installation that favors commonalities of rhythm and color, intricacy and generosity of pictorial spirit. “Flowers of Edo: Five Young Men”(1864), a quintet of kaleidoscopic woodblock prints by Toyohara Kunichika, is seen near a tattoo pattern book by an unknown hand from the turn of the last century. Nearby is a 1953 study for eleven ornamental bands done by John deCesare, a work commissioned by that Medici of the supermarket, General Foods. What with its abrupt shifts of locus and intent, the show might sound like a bumpy ride. In fact, it flows like a river.

Which is appropriate, given that a majority of the work is devoted to artworks based, one way or another, on the natural world. Geometry is touched upon, particularly as an organizing principle, and symmetry is a constant. But it’s the sinuousness of organic forms, augmented by extravagant color, that predominates. Hirase Yoichirō’s sketchbook studies of seashells make the point clear, as does an unfinished watercolor, a blueprint for chrysanthemum wallpaper, by the estimable William Morris. The Welsh architect Owen Jones — whose seminal text, The Grammar of Ornament, serves as the exhibition’s lodestone — is seen to stunning chromatic effect in a trio of pieces elaborating on Chinese precedent.

Other notables include Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Louis H. Sullivan and Paul Klee. But star power doesn’t carry The Clamor of Ornament, not with showstopping pieces done by craftsmen who are unknown, anonymous or the purview of specialists. The craft, as you might imagine, is of a high order, and the work on display is, on the whole, put into shape with meticulous and sometimes mind-boggling virtuosity. Should you need a reminder of just how capable the human hand can be, particularly in our age of digital flimflammery, a visit to The Drawing Center is in order. But be warned: once the exhibition has been entered, you won’t want to leave. Splendor is addictive.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of The Spectator World.

“Diego Rivera’s America” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Diego Rivera, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Irene Rich (1941), oil on canvas, 24 x 17″; courtesy Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA), Northampton, MA
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The passage of time can be a merciless arbiter of reputation. Fashions evolve, sometimes double-back, and often peter out altogether. This is as true for art as it is for haute couture. Live long enough, and you’ll see how quickly The Next Big Thing turns into tomorrow’s Never Was, how this morning’s outrage de-evolves into this evening’s commonplace. All of which is worth taking into account when considering the fortunes of the Mexican painter Diego Rivera (1886-1957). 

Dial back the clock fifty- to seventy-years ago, and you’d discover that even the most cursory student of art would have recognized Rivera’s name. He was a star, a hard-charging bigger-than-life talent whose work was sought after by Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller and other captains of industry. A luminary amongst luminaries, Rivera counted among his friends Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Fernand Leger and Chaim Soutine, and served as a link between the avant-garde and the Americas. He was passionate about politics, forever siding with the proletariado at the expense of any coherent social philosophy. And his ego! Forget fools: Rivera suffered no one gladly. His squabbles with all and sundry–the Soviet Union no less than the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, an organization predicated on a woolly brand of occultism–were the stuff of legend. Rivera played life to the hilt. The world paid attention.

But that was then, and this is 2022. Though Rivera isn’t unknown to contemporary audiences, his personality and accomplishments have been overshadowed by those of his wife, Frida Kahlo. Like Rivera, Kahlo was no stranger to celebrity culture, having famously posed for a 1937 photo-spread in Vogue. Still, no one could have predicted the extent of Kahlo’s fame almost seventy years after her death. Movies, books, exhibitions, umbrellas, restaurants, coffee cups and plush-dolls–how hasn’t that legendary unibrow been marketed? The beneficiary of historical revisionism and globalist outreach, Kahlo has become a ubiquitous and, for some, empowering figure–so much so, that not a few wags nowadays refer to Rivera as “Mr. Frida Kahlo.”

Diego Rivera’s America, a traveling exhibition organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is unlikely to stem the tide of Frida-mania. Still, it should do much to re-confirm Rivera’s place in the cultural firmament. Guest curator James Oles, a professor of art history at Wellesley College and a specialist in Latin American Art, has set a scholarly eye on Rivera’s “utopian belief in the power of art.” The exhibition focuses on a 25-year period of Rivera’s output spanning, roughly, from the 1920s through the ’40s.  Not coincidentally, this time-frame captures Rivera at the height of his powers. It was during this phase, Oles writes, that the artist “reimagined Mexican national identity on a vast scale, embraced the industrial age in the United States, and conceived of a greater America in which unity, rather than division was paramount.” 

Diego Rivera, The Flower Carrier (1935), oil and tempera on masonite, 48 x 47-3/4″; courtesy the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
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Oles has a significant collection to cull from: SFMOMA boasts among the world’s largest holdings of Rivera’s art. Along with loans from private institutions and public collections, America includes more than 150 pieces in a variety of media. Art historical staples like The Flower Carrier (1935) and Self-Portrait (1941) will be seen in conjunction with a host of preparatory studies, a smattering of documentary objects, and canvases that have rarely been on public display. 

Context is provided by the inclusion of work by Rivera’s peers, including photographs by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, and paintings by, yes, Frida Kahlo. Three galleries are devoted to video projections of murals done in Mexico and the United States. SFMOMA is touting America as the largest Rivera retrospective in over twenty years. Oles does the museum one better, claiming that the oeuvre hasn’t been as fully accounted for since 1949, the year Rivera was feted with a retrospective at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Whatever the case, the point is clear: America is a big deal.

The artist christened Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez was born in Guanajuato City, a municipality located in Central Mexico. His parents were affluent; his twin brother, dead at age two. Rivera showed artistic promise as a toddler, scrawling upon the walls of the family home. As it turned out, he was something of a prodigy: Rivera was accepted to the prestigious Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City at age 10. He worked with Santiago Rubill, a former student of Ingres, and, one feels, a decisive influence. Rivera’s skills garnered notice: the governor of Veracruz sponsored a European sojourn for the young artist to further his education.

It was during his stays in Spain and, especially, France that Rivera was transformed every which way. How could he not be? Paris, especially, was a hothouse of creative–indeed, revolutionary–fervor. Rivera absorbed the lessons of early Modernism with an enthusiasm that was nothing short of rapacious. He explored a variety of approaches, Post-Impressionism and Cubism in particular, and proved a deft hand at all of them. José Vasconcelos, Mexico’s newly installed Minister of Education, managed to woo Rivera back home, eager to have him take part in an ambitious new program for public painting. It is at this point in Rivera’s life that America begins the accounting of one artist’s attempt to (pace the catalogue) “radically transform the world.” 

Back home, Rivera immersed himself in indigenous cultures, reveling in the people and paying homage to their traditions. In the sections of America titled “South to Tehuantepec” and “Daily Life”, we see Rivera depicting ordinary folk and everyday rituals all the while keying into a distinctly local range of colors. His palette took on a cast indicative of the surrounding landscape and climate. Dance in Tehuantepec and Tehuana (Aurea Procel) (both 1928) are suffused with ripe variations on orange and red, as well as exhibiting a fidelity to native costumery of forbidding complexity. Works like Pneumatic Drill (1931) and Hombre Fumando (1937) evince an eye as attuned to the documentary as it was prone to the exaggerations of caricature. Mexico’s people, Rivera intimates, are of the earth and, as such, immovable.

Rivera’s approach to form became increasingly concrete and weighted. The human figure was subjected to stylizations that hinted at Cubist precedent, but seem more inspired by the totemic effigies of Pre-Columbian cultures and artifacts from prehistory. The woman and child seen solemnly making their daily bread in La Tortillera (1926) are rendered with an uncanny sculptural fortitude. 

Diego Rivera, La Bordadora (1928), oil on canvas, 31-1/4 x 39″; courtesy The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
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La bordadora (The Embroiderer) (1928)–a canvas as iconic in character, if not renown, as The Flower Carrier–is freighted by an almost Giottoesque stolidity, its two women having been wedged within the canvas to emphasize their mass. Monumentality had its symbolic functions: Woman with Calla Lilies (1945), with its mountainous effulgence of flowers, confirms the primacy of the natural world as well as our modest place in it.

Notwithstanding the circumscribed focus of the exhibition, America is wide-ranging in how it touches upon Rivera’s interests and accomplishments. His gifts as a draftsman are in abundant evidence, no more so than in Study for Germination [Tina Modotti] (1926), as nuanced an essay in sensuality as one could hope for. And although Rivera forever thumped the drum of social justice, he wasn’t without a sense of humor. Among the delights–and surprises!–of America is a suite of graphite and watercolor costume designs made for H.P. (Horsepower) (circa 1927-32), a ballet and symphony organized by the musician Carlos Chávez. With their unlikely amalgams of flora and fauna, Rivera divulges a Surrealist bent and a welcome air of whimsy. 


Rivera’s murals, by definition, are less amenable to travel, but a number of working drawings are on display–including a pair of gouache and graphite pieces featuring colorful and compartmentalized designs for the Paramount Theater. And towards the end of the exhibition, you’ll find Self-Portrait, in which the artist, surrounded by a field of luminous yellow, holds a note written in Spanish to the woman who commissioned the painting, actress Irene Rich. Clearly, Rivera’s political leanings didn’t override his communing with the rich and famous. Indeed, anyone familiar with Rivera the man knows that he was far too contradictory a creature to serve as a coherent role model for contemporary activists. But the artist? As Diego Rivera’s America makes plain, he’s a figure worth tussling with–the vagaries of reputation be damned.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article was originally published in the July 2022 edition of Art & Antiques.

“Pleasure”

Sofia Kappel in “Pleasure”
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The most shocking moment in “Pleasure,” a film that doesn’t stint on discomfiting scenes in its depiction of the adult entertainment industry, comes at the beginning. 

In a preamble, director Ninja Thyberg and actress Sofia Kappel face the camera–and, by implication, the audience–to discuss the making of the movie. 

Ms. Thyberg speaks of the process she underwent in casting the lead actress, and commends Ms. Kappel for her performance. Ms. Kappel talks about the working environment overseen by Ms. Thyberg, testifying to a set that had safety uppermost on its mind. Then the movie begins.

There’s a quip making the rounds that any film made before the last six months should automatically be slapped with a trigger warning. Such is the evolutionary speed of contemporary mores. “Gone With the Wind” has famously been tagged with a disclaimer about its presumed endorsement of values that (pace HBO Max) “were wrong then and are wrong today.” 

“Pleasure” isn’t as out-of-date as all that, but it is a bit behind the curve. Filming began in 2018, and the picture’s trip to the box office has been bumpy, not least because of its explicit sexual content. Still, a lot can happen in four years. The much ballyhooed rise-and-fall-and-rise-again of Only Fans being one, as well as a world in which the puritanical diktats of wokery continue apace.

Whether Ms. Thyberg and Ms. Kappel felt compelled to defend “Pleasure” because of nervous theater owners or the wiles of the zeitgeist is moot; either way, they were strong-armed. What does it say about a culture in which artists are perpetually looking over their backs?

Given the travails encountered in “Pleasure,” perhaps a little puritanism is in order. The film is tough-going, clinical in its objectivity and often excruciating to watch. Ms. Thyberg brings us a fiction, but does so with the eye of a documentarian. She strives for verisimilitude–or, depending on how you look at these things, muddies the waters–by casting actual porn stars in supporting roles. 

Among them are Revika Anne Reustle and Chris Cock. Ms. Reustle plays Joy, a veteran of the Los Angeles porn scene who befriends Linnéa (Ms. Kappel), a recent emigre from Sweden who now performs under the nom-de-plume Bella Cherry.

Mr. Cock is Bear, a man who works both behind and in front of the camera. Joy and Bear are among the few sympathetic figures in “Pleasure.” It’s not too much of a stretch to conclude that the vulnerability the actors bring to this picture is predicated on their own been-around-the-block experiences.

Ms. Thyberg, who wrote and directed this, her first feature, should, of course, be given credit. But it is worth noting that other porn world notables–I’m thinking here, especially, of super-agent Mark Spiegler–come off as crass operators, opportunists given to welcoming facades and deep-seated hypocrisy. They’re a curious bunch, this cadre of impresarios.

Our lead is no less curious. Bella is intent on becoming the next big porn star, but why is never made clear. She has no “daddy issues”–the subject of a chummy conversation with Bear–though her relationship with mom may be problematic. After a strenuous bout of filming, Bella calls home seeking solace, and is summarily rebuffed. Then again, mom is oblivious to the true nature of Bella’s “internship.” 

The primary liability of the film is Bella. She’s not a fully-developed character so much as a gauge of the industry’s calculations and callousness. Admittedly, Ms. Kappel, in her film debut, is impressive. She invests her part with deeper currents of feeling than the script necessarily allows for, evincing a moral compass even as Bella capitulates to the stresses and duties peculiar to her career. 

“Pleasure” treads an unflinching, and ultimately ambiguous, pathway between exploitation and exposé. It is, to put it mildly, not a film for all tastes.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

“Memoria”

Among my latest ventures is working as a film critic for the revamped New York Sun. Should you be interested, the website can be found here. In the meantime, I’ll be posting reviews of movies that, for one reason or another, didn’t see print. (I guess that should be “print,” given that the Sun is online-only.) You’ll find below my take on the much-anticipated picture from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, “Memoria.”

Tilda Swinton in “Memoria”; courtesy of Neon

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Rarely has a film needed the talents of Mel Brooks as much as “Memoria,” the most recent effort by director Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Does anyone remember “The Critic,” the 1963 Oscar winner for Best Animated Short Film? Over a screen populated with a compendium of Miró-like abstractions, we hear Mr. Brooks, very much in alte kaker mode, airing the opinions of a disgruntled movie-goer. He doesn’t think much of the filmmaker’s pretensions: “A fella like that could drive a truck; do something constructive–make a shoe.”

As a measure of art-house cinema, this criterion is a sound one. How many pieces of avant-gardist maundering are as good as a shoe? There have been more egregious examples of the genre than “Memoria,” and, to be fair, Mr. Weerasethakul has an impressive track record. “Cemetery of Splendor” earned its plaudits a few years back, and “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” though an imperfect film, is, in many respects, the standard for world cinema. Clearly, Mr. Weerasethakul can do more than make a shoe. 

Until now. In a statement accompanying “Memoria,” the Bangkok-born director writes that the film’s impetus were the hallucinations he experienced while traveling in Colombia. On a mission to collect “expressions and memories,” Mr. Weerasethakul began hearing a loud noise, usually at dawn and the country over. “The massive sierras . . . ,” he observed, “are like the folds of the brain, or the curves of sound waves.” Colombia proved a location where “delusion is the norm.”

Far be it for me to question an individual’s direct response to this-or-that phenomenon. Still, Mr. Weeasthakul’s declamations put me in mind of the old saw about other people’s dreams–you know, that they’re boring. “Memoria” isn’t altogether a bore, but the film’s longueurs, sodden as they are with a peculiarly recalcitrant brand of symbolism, can be a chore to sit through. Not a few people in the polite crowd with whom I attended the picture spent an inordinate amount of time checking their watches. When art becomes a duty something has gone awry.

“Memoria” centers on Jessica Holland, a specialist in orchids played by Tilda Swinton, and, tangentially, her recently hospitalized sister Karen (Agnes Brekke). Jessica and only Jessica hears a sound: a booming mechanical thud that punctuates her psyche–and the film–at random moments. She visits a sound engineer named Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego) who manages to approximate the noise on an audio board.

But, then, Hernán may not be real. When Jessica revisits the recording studio, she discovers that no one by that name works there. Packing her bags, Jessica heads up the Amazon. It is there that she meets a fisherman who is also named Hernán (Elkin Díaz), and spends a lengthy amount of time with him–as does the audience. At this point, “Memoria” slows to a crawl. At moments, Mr. Weerasethakul’s moving picture doesn’t seem to move at all.

As it turns out, Hernan No. 2 and Jessica share a kind of telekinetic connection. Then Hernan No. 2 up-and-dies, except he doesn’t, and did I mention the spaceship? Oh, and anthropologists; they’re here as well, looking into something or other. Ritualistic practices, maybe. Nothing is made clear in “Memoria.” It’s enough to make you think that Mr. Weerasethakul mistakes obscurantism for poetry.

Most of the film’s running time is devoted to Ms. Swinton sitting or walking. Here, she ambles through the center of Medellin; there, she’s ensconced by a window staring at the rainforest. Given that Mr. Weerasethakul moves his camera only reluctantly, the onus is on Ms. Swinton to hold our attention. Would that she were a more generous actress. As it is, her diffidence only makes an already difficult movie close to intolerable. And no one, not even Mr. Brooks’s critic, should have to sit through that.

© 2022 Mario Naves

“Philip Guston Now” @ The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Philip Guston with The Studio in 1969; photo by Frank Lloyd
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The painter Philip Guston (1913-80) likened the creative act to attending a party. “When you’re in the studio painting, there are a lot of people there with you–your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics . . . one by one if you’re really painting, they walk out. And if you’re really painting YOU walk out.” “Philip Guston Now,” a retrospective on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, could be seen as the reverse. Guston hasn’t left the party; he was disinvited.

The exhibition has recently opened after an eleven-month postponement. The organizing institutions–the Boston MFA, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., London’s Tate Modern and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas–put a hold on the July 2021 opening date in response to events surrounding the death of George Floyd. “We are postponing the exhibition,” the organizers stated last fall, “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.”

This announcement met with significant pushback among artists and collectors. An open letter sponsored by The Brooklyn Rail garnered over 2,600 signatures–among the signatories contesting the exhibition’s delay were the choreographer Bill T. Jones, performance artist Laurie Anderson, and Agnes Gund, President Emerita and Life Trustee of the Museum of Modern Art. It’s likely the letter helped occasion the rescheduling of a show that had already been rescheduled. From a projected 2024 opening date, “Philip Guston Now” comes to us in 2022 having been framed within the context of “each viewer’s lived experience.”

What might Guston, a dyed-in-the-wool Lefty who cast a mordant eye on culture and politics, have made of this hubbub? He was no stranger to controversy during his lifetime. The young Guston was an ideological animal, a Social Realist who took a keen interest in the work of Mexican muralists like David Alfaro Siqueros and Jose Clemente Orozco. (Guston’s high school friend, Jackson Pollock, was also a fan.) In 1933, Guston’s painting Conspirators went on public exhibition and was subsequently destroyed by the Ku Klux Klan–not coincidentally, the subject of the painting.

Controversy followed Guston to the end of his days. After having established himself as a painter of luxurious abstractions, a body of work that carried him through the 1950’s and early 60’s, Guston returned to his figurative roots. When the resulting paintings were shown at Marlborough Gallery in 1970 visitors were puzzled when they weren’t shocked. What to make of these pictures of the KKK tootling around town in a boxcar sedan, smoking stogies or flagellating themselves with whips? The images were lumpy and cartoonish; the color palette, a garish range of pink, red and black.

Guston was vilified in the press; friends were lost. Only Willem de Kooning, his AbEx compatriot, took the paintings in stride, commending Guston for exemplifying the freedom inherent in the creative process. “Philip Guston Now” includes a section dedicated to the infamous Marlborough show amongst an overall count of seventy-three paintings and twenty-three drawings. A sharp light is being shone on a headstrong talent.

Guston was born in Montreal, Canada, the youngest of seven children. The family had fled Odessa to escape anti-Semitic persecution, later moving to Los Angeles to seek economic opportunity. It wasn’t forthcoming. Guston’s father committed suicide. Ten-year old Philip discovered the body. Philip’s mother encouraged her son’s interest in painting and drawing, and Guston enrolled in L.A.’s Manual Arts High School. He moved to New York in 1935, joined the Works Project Administration, and married the poet Musa McKim. Guston went on to achieve considerable success as first-generation Abstract Expressionist, but found himself increasingly frustrated by “all that purity.” He and Musa moved to Woodstock. Outside the social whirlpool of the New York City art scene, Guston got down to business.

“Philip Guston Now” traces an oeuvre that underwent a fair share of bumps even as it settled out according to its own ineradicable logic. Stylistic shifts that may have appeared capricious during the artist’s life reveal themselves to be organic and of a piece. That is, of course, the benefit of hindsight. The exhibition begins with Mother and Child (c. 1930), a monumental image that is barely contained by its modest format. In it, we see an attempt to reconcile the pittura metafisica of Giorgio de Chirico with the tight-lipped fortitude of Piero della Francesca, one of many Renaissance Masters Guston revered. The same impulse, albeit inflected by contemporary events, can be gleaned from Drawing for Conspirators (1930) a pencil study for the ill-fated painting.


Guston’s compositions became increasingly complicated during the 1940’s. Figures, objects and spaces became tangled, albeit choreographed with a steely attention to interval and edge. Children appear in the canvases, often seen battling on city streets. Guston’s love of vintage comic strips can be gleaned from the elasticity of form seen in Gladiators (1940). Dynamism eventually gave way to atmosphere. The children in If This Be Not I (1945), not-so-distant kin of Gladiators, line up and face the viewer as if awaiting judgment. Stillness reigns.


Guston found himself increasingly drawn to abstraction. The compositional underpinnings of the figurative work gave way to an infirm and cobbled geometry. The Tormentors (1947-48), a smoldering web of ratcheted forms, was a stepping stone from If This Be Not I to the magisterial “Abstract Impressionism” of canvases like Summer (1954) and Dial (1956). Touch took precedence during this phase, though not at the risk of structure. Imagine Monet meeting Mondrian in a post-Hiroshima milieu.

The 1960’s put paid to Guston’s relationship with abstraction. The era’s political and cultural tumult rankled his inner moralist.  “I was feeling split, schizophrenic . . . what kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.”  For the first time in decades, Guston started painting objects and figures–or parts of figures, anyway. The compositions were blunt in their rendering, close to cack-handed. The signature Guston brushstroke–tha tenderly inquisitive slur of oil paint–took on a klutzy and comedic temper. Guston had always been a fan of George Herriman, the pioneering comic strip artist who created Krazy Kat. Herriman’s inimitable scratchiness came to the fore in Guston’s use of line. Sensuality was up-ended by agitation.


And then came the figures in hoods, galumphing pyramidal shapes that pick up where The Conspirators left off some thirty years earlier. These are the KKK pictures that gave pause to the organizers of “Philip Guston Now”–as well they should have: images are potent bearers of meaning. Certainly, Guston didn’t choose his cast of characters lightly; placing the KKK amongst them was, in no small terms, a freighted decision. It was also a provocation. Guston was never afraid to play with fire or, for that matter, ambiguity. Art was nothing without contradiction.


The Klan were soon overtaken by motifs that were alternately mundane (cherries, cigarettes, cities in the distance), personal (Musa, stuff in the studio), and bizarre (disembodied legs, cyclopean heads, bugs). The late work, in other words, isn’t altogether dependent on imagery that is potentially objectionable. All the same, the Boston MFA is skittish enough to provide an “emotional preparedness” warning for museum visitors. How that will skew the audience’s perception remains to be seen. In the meantime, “Philip Guston Now” offers an overview, circumspect and wary, of a profound and unruly artist.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

The article orignally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Art & Antiques.

“Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott” at the New Museum

Installation of “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott”; courtesy The New Museum, New York, NY
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“Resignation to life’s absurdities likely accounts for the peculiar lack of rancor in an oeuvre that doesn’t exactly stint on scabrous imagery.”

The entirety of the review can be found at “Dispatch,” the blog of The New Criterion.

“Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream (1899/1906), oil on canvas, 28-1/8 x 49-1/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
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The advance buzz on Winslow Homer:Crosscurrents wasn’t good. “Woke Winslow” — that’s how observers, online and through the grapevine, pegged the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition of paintings and watercolors by Winslow Homer (1836-1910). The stalwart purveyor of maritime adventure and manly pursuits, woke? One glance at the enlarged black-and-white photo displayed at the front end of Crosscurrents–a blurred portrait of Homer in his Maine studio–makes clear that the fusty man with the impatient glare is no one’s idea of a social-justice warrior.

Looks aren’t everything, of course.Truth to tell, Homer’s art does touch upon important aspects of American history. But did the summer of 2020 really beg for a “diachronic focus on conflict and struggle in [Homer’s] production?” So promises Sylvia Yount, the Met’s Lawrence A. Fleischman curator-in-charge of the American Wing and co-organizer, along with Stephanie L. Herdrich, of Crosscurrents. Is it possible, in so many words, to reconcile “The Gulf Stream” (1899/1906), among Homer’s most iconographic canvases, with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter?

Consider “‘The Various Colors and Types of Negroes’: Winslow Homer Learns to Paint Race,” an essay in the exhibition catalogue by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Those familiar with Homer’s pictures of black life, whether as seen in the American South or the Caribbean, know they are characterized by a rare and carefully grained objectivity. Shaw knows this, but she’s not happy about it. So after commending Homer for “trusting his own instincts on coloring potently raced bodies,” Shaw puts him in his place for an “oblique reliance on the negatively stereotyped tropes of Black representation.” The professor giveth, and the professor taketh away.

The good thing about Crosscurrents is that it isn’t the catalogue. The begrudgery typifying our curatorial class is outshone at the Met by artistic fact. The show is the largest overview of Homer’s work in twenty-five years, containing eighty-eight pieces. “The Gulf Stream” is at its center, but there are other signal pictures on display. There are so many, in fact, that you begin to realize just how thoroughly Homer’s vision has been absorbed into the body politic. If anything, the work makes a case for the expansiveness of the American spirit. The old Yankee, bless his soul, does not go gently into that woke night.

Winslow Homer was born in Boston, Massachusetts. His father was a businessman prone to bad decisions, his mother an amateur watercolorist. The extent of Homer’s formal training was an eighteen-month apprenticeship to a commercial lithographer. A knack for the anecdotal and a clipped sense of composition, along with a daunting work ethic, led to a career in illustration. During the Civil War, Homer contributed on-site battlefield drawings for Harper’s Weekly. At the age of twenty-three, Homer packed his bags and headed to New York City, intent on becoming a painter.

Crosscurrents is divided into eight sections, each of which is devoted to a theme–the seaside of the Northeastern United States, for instance, or trips taken to tropical climes. “War and Reconstruction” opens the show, and the paintings featured in it are almost Tocquevillian in their perspicacity. Homer’s experience as a journalist, working amid the carnage of war and its aftermath, likely accounts for the sobriety typifying the imagery. Homer was no sentimentalist. The pictures are bare-bones dioramas endowed with almost Biblical portent: a foolhardy soldier taunts the enemy, children attempt to farm wartorn ground, and a pair of young women wander through a field of cotton.

A curator cares for and maintains the items that have been entrusted to her. Political activism–hell, political commentary–shouldn’t be a prerequisite for the job. But let’s not be naive. Politics haven’t just seeped into our institutions; they’ve inundated them. When Herdrich, the Met’s associate curator of American Painting and Sculpture, insists the work be viewed “through the lens of conflict,” you know that Homer is about to be dragooned into the intersectional hothouse.

Winslow Homer, The Cotton Pickers (1876), oil on canvas, 24-1/2 x 38″; courtesy the Lost Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
***

Homer had a pointed, if subtle, sense of irony. “The Cotton Pickers” (1876) is swathed in a beneficent light, but it’s no Arcadian idyll. The women pictured are emancipated slaves; the cotton they carry a reminder of their servitude. It’s an uncanny painting, marked by quietude and suffused with intimacy. The author F. Hopkinson Smith, a friend of Homer’s and a capable painter in his own right, described the canvas as “the whole story of Southern slavery.” Hindsight endows the painting with a preternatural gravitas–a sense of history as a burden foretold.

The most renowned of Homer’s pictures are centered on the ocean and dramatized by storm. Skies are dank and gray; waves surge and then surge some more; boats capsize; and those who sail the sea or live by it–well, good luck to them. Nature is relentless and violent, unforgiving and ominous. Typical is the “Ship’s Boat” (1883), in which a cadre of men grasp onto the side of an upturned lifeboat. The murky distance to which they signal for rescue offers slim chance of hope.

Homer’s paintings of tropical climes are, on the whole, less roiling in character. Certainly, the clarifying Caribbean sun suited Homer’s gift for watercolor, wherein the barest swipe of the brush yoked a radiant sense of climate from the white of the page. Homer thrived on the immediacy offered by the portability of watercolor: “I prefer every time a picture composed and painted outdoors. The thing is done without your knowing it.”

Which isn’t to say that life in the sunshine was without hazard. And here we circle back to “The Gulf Stream.” It’s a gripping image, for sure: a lone black man, shirtless and distracted, lies on a teetering skip, its mast broken off at the base. Blood filters through the surrounding waves; sharks are circling. Pitched on the horizon is a schooner sundering away from the crisis at hand. The canvas brings to mind a host of precedents, not least John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark” (1778) and Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa” (1818-19). Homer’s painting is starker in its theatricality and not tied to a specific narrative– which may account for the consternation engendered upon its initial public display.

Viewers wanted a backstory. Homer did not suffer the public gladly. “The unfortunate negro,” he wrote, “will be rescued & returned to his friends and home, & ever after live happily.” Over and out! He went on: “I have crossed the Gulf Stream ten times & I should know something about it. The boat & sharks are outside matters of very little consequence.”

“Outside matters of very little consequence?” Nonsense. Artists are rarely the best interpreters of their own work. Contrary to Homer’s testy dismissal of narrative, “The Gulf Stream” betrays grim determination, a stoic refusal to grant credence to the most trying of circumstances. Homer’s moralism, like that of Melville or Conrad, is inescapable and weighted, stubbornly independent and elusive in its probity. Like the best art, “The Gulf Stream” resists ideological pigeonholing or the machinations of fashion. Homer will survive the distrust and condescension of our theory-besotted gatekeepers. In the meantime, Crosscurrents is filled with paintings that merit our puzzlement and earn our pleasure.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article was originally published in the June 2022 edition of The Spectator World.

“Jonathan Silver: Matter and Vision” at Victoria Munroe Fine Art

Installation view of Jonathan Silver: Matter & Vision at Victoria Munroe Fine Art
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“Celebrity isn’t the sole litmus test of art, of course, nor should it be. But that an artist of Silver’s distinction remains unheralded is indicative of the benighted parameters within which our tastemakers operate.”

The full review can be found at “Dispatch,” the blog of The New Criterion.

“Picasso: Painting the Blue Period” at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Pablo Picasso, The Soup (1903), oil on canvas, 37 x 48 cm.; courtesy the Art Gallery of Ontario
* * *

What is there left to say about Picasso? This question, posed by a colleague apropos of Picasso: Painting the Blue Period, an exhibition on display at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, is inevitable. There are few cultural figures whose life and accomplishments have been as exhaustively accounted for as the man born–take a breath!–Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. Innumerable exhibitions, books, scholarly tracts and films have been devoted to this relentlessly protean artist. Even after his death almost fifty years ago–Picasso died in 1973 at the age of ninety-one–he looms large in the public consciousness. Picasso’s stature in the upper echelons of the art world has, admittedly, been somewhat diminished by the promotion of Marcel Duchamp and his nose-thumbing progeny. Feminists have taken umbrage at the lionization of Picasso maltratador–which is how he was described last year at Barcelona’s Picasso Museum by a group of students protesting his treatment of women. Certainly, there are few artists less amenable to the unforgiving puritanism of our professional classes.

I mean, what might the woke-adjacent make of the subtext undergirding Painting the Blue Period–that Picasso was a socially conscious individual, an artist acutely aware of his proletarian status and an ally of the poor and the homeless, the underserved, incarcerated and marginalized? In late 1901, Picasso began visiting the Saint-Lazare women’s prison near Montmartre under the offices of Louis Jullien, the facility’s resident doctor and a specialist in venereal diseases. (Dr. Jullien went so far as to forge a medical identity for Picasso so that he could roam the grounds unaccompanied.) The young artist was, we are told, moved by “the struggles faced by poor women and their children in the modern world.” Twenty-first century sophisticates will snigger at this attempt to humanize Pablo the Perpetual Misogynist. And it is worth recalling the story, as related in John Richardson’s four-volume biography of the artist, that Picasso extolled the “models” at Saint-Lazare because they cost him not a centime. Still, human nature is nothing if not contradictory. The rest of us are defined by motives, ignoble and otherwise. Why not extend the benefit of a doubt to Picasso?

Truth to tell, the organizers of Painting the Blue Period have little truck with the moral soundness of Picasso’s moral probity. Co-curators Kenneth Brummel of the Art Gallery of Ontario and Susan Behrends Frank, associate curator of research at the Phillips, are interested in Picasso as–dare one say it?–an artist. Turns out that Brummel and Frank actually like art. Among the blessings of the exhibition is the absence of political posturing–guilt-mongering, really–that is all but de rigueur for curators nowadays. Instead, visitors learn how a given drawing, painting, sculpture or print was influenced by Picasso’s immediate environment or a particular motif (whether sacred or profane), and how it was realized through the accumulation of graphite, charcoal or oil paint. A significant part of the exhibition is, in fact, given over to process, conservation and scientific analysis. Three canvases–“The Soup” (1903), “Crouching Beggarwoman” (1902), and the Phillips’s own “Blue Room” (1901)–were subject to a variety of intensive imaging techniques. Painting aficionados will relish the opportunity to see X-ray photographs displaying how Picasso recycled canvases and imagery. Discovering how he upended a landscape painting and morphed it into “Crouching Beggarwoman” provides an especially telling sidebar. At the age of twenty-one, Picasso was already attuned to the power and possibilities of transformation.

Pablo Picasso, Crouching Beggarwoman (1902), oil on canvas, 101.2 x 66 cm.; courtesy the Art Gallery of Ontario
* * *

Which isn’t to say that Painting the Blue Period highlights a kingpin of the avant-garde. The artist whose radical innovations would reshape the traditions of painting and sculpture? He ain’t here. What we have is Picasso at his most–well, let’s not say “derivative.” Having left Spain in 1901, Picasso traveled to Paris, settling in a studio a stone’s throw from the Moulin Rouge. He shared the apartment (if not the expenses) with his agent Pere Mañach, a transplant from Barcelona and scion of a family of industrialists. “Self-Portrait (Yo)” (1901)–a hardscrabble picture done on cardboard–evinces a man of chiseled good looks and unwavering confidence, a temperament out to make a name for itself in the demi-monde. That, and it divulges a proud reliance on the stylistic mannerisms of Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec. Lautrec died just a few months after Picasso’s arrival in France; from all accounts, the two never met. But Lautrec’s example weighed significantly on Picasso. He adopted many of the older artist’s subjects–cabarets, cafés and brothels–as well as the lifestyle attendant to them. “Catcalls and Capers” and “Lures for Men” (both 1901), comic illustrations Picasso did for the magazine Le Frou-Frou, could be touted as Lautrecs and few people would blink an eye.

Lautrec himself makes an appearance in Painting the Blue Period: his efflorescent “May Milton” (1895), a mixed-media depiction of the English dancer, is hung adjacent to “Catcalls and Capers” and “Lures for Men.” By placing these works in close proximity, Brummel and Frank underscore Picasso’s preternatural ability to absorb and integrate influences. Throughout the exhibition, Picasso’s efforts in oil, graphite, charcoal and bronze–including “Seated Woman” (1902), his first attempt at sculpture–are juxtaposed with works by historical figures, as well as those of artists within his milieu. “Nude Woman Standing, Drying Herself” (1891-92), a lithograph by Edgar Degas, and two sculptures by Auguste Rodin, “Eve” (c. 1881) and “Crouching Woman” (1880-82), are set alongside Picasso’s early explorations into the expressive potential ofthe female form. Elsewhere, Honoré Daumier, Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Luis de Morales and El Greco amplify Picasso’s work in revelatory ways flummoxing ways, too. Who would consider mashing-up Puvis de Chavannes’s arid neoclassicism with the decorative contouring of Vuillard? It’s an endeavor that would strain most imaginations. But imagine Picasso most surely did, particularly with “The Soup.”

The gallery devoted to “The Soup” is among the most gratifying museum installations in recent memory. Brummel and Frank, with tremendous scholarly acumen and no little sense of nuance, set out the genesis of a simple image–a mother providing a bowl of soup for her daughter–and prove just how complex it it. Painting during a return trip to Spain, “The Soup” revisits a motif Picasso had touched on before: motherhood and poverty. Whereas “Science and Charity” (1897)–an earlier painting not included in the exhibition–was couched in nineteenth-century convention, “The Soup” is startlingly modern, if not strictly speaking Modernist. Writing in the catalogue, Brummel describes it as a “pictorial settlement” between Daumier and Puvis de Chavannes. That’s putting it mildly. What Picasso does is streamline Daumier’s muscular caricatures and bypass Puvis de Chavannes’s Hellenism to channel Third Dynasty Egypt. The accompanying studies on display–done in pastel, oil and ink–testify to the tenacity, grit and gravity with which he approached the picture.

The upshot is a painting whose modest scale can’t contain the monumentality of its forms. In point of comparison, the smattering of pieces that close the exhibition–presaging, as they do, the Rose Period–is small beer. Then again, some respite is in order after the intensity of mood that dominates Painting the Blue Period. It’s a great exhibition.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 edition of The Spectator World.

“Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It’s Kept” at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Installation of paintings by James Little at The Whitney Museum of American Art
* * *

Before I begin this review of “Quiet as It’s Kept,” the latest iteration of the Whitney Biennial, let me cite two potential conflicts of interest. One of the artists included in the exhibition is a friend, another an acquaintance. Prior to meeting James Little, I was a fan of his carefully engineered geometric abstractions, proud elaborations on modernist precedent. Since meeting James, I’ve had the pleasure of his company, both in his studio and out on the town. A few years back, Jane Dickson and I shared a lively dinner in the Fells Point section of Baltimore after completing our duties as jurists for the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. (Crabcakes and beer, if memory serves.) James and Jane are veterans of the New York scene: they’ve pursued their art with uncommon persistence, having dealt with the obstacles, and enjoyed the rewards, of an artist’s life. Their inclusion in “Quiet As It’s Kept” is vindication of creative lives productively accounted for. Any artist featured in a Biennial, as the scuttlebutt has it, reaps professional rewards. If so, James and Jane have earned them. They’ve been around the block.

So, too, have the curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards. Breslin, the DeMartini Family Curator and Director of the Collection at the Whitney, earned his wings at Houston’s Menil Drawing Institute and the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Prior to her appointment as the Whitney’s Director of Curatorial Affairs, Edwards headed up Performa, a nonprofit organization dedicated to live performance, and did stints at The Walker Art Center and the Mellon Foundation. Breslin and Edwards are operators; they’re in the know. Which raises the question: why on earth did they want to organize a Biennial? Doing so is among the most thankless of tasks. If the exhibition isn’t subjected to a raft of political controversies, it’s bound to receive a critical drubbing. Charles Craven, writing for the New York Herald Tribune in 1932, started the ball rolling with his assessment of the first Biennial (which was then the Annual): “No more telling evidence of the deplorable state of American art has ever been assembled.” A glance at Twitter on the morning after the 2022 press preview saw one observer likening the Whitney to the Trump administration. (That’s not a good thing, should you be wondering.) Ninety years on, the Biennial still can’t catch a break.

Installation of paintings by Jane Dickson at The Whitney Museum of American Art
* * *

“Quiet as It’s Kept” is mainly spread out over the fifth and sixth floors of the museum. The walls of the sixth floor are almost uniformly black, the walls of the fifth floor white. The artworks on the sixth floor are installed in a fairly traditional manner. The fifth floor is open and airy, subdivided by trellis-like structures on which objects are displayed. The curators have included a preponderance of videos (there are not a few darkened rooms to navigate) and a notable amount of abstract painting. Figurative painting is scant—unless one counts digital media as a form of painting, which some people do. Murmuring voices and other noises filter through the exhibition spaces, the accumulation of soundtracks from various filmed pieces. Artworks utilizing text are numerous. Extension cords, fans, lights, metalwork, lcd screens, and what appears to be plumbing punctuate the installation. Contemporary events and figures are touched upon: George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, and covid. The past, too: Thomas Edison, the Constitution, and the Korean War. There are shelves full of books. On the morning I attended “Quiet as It’s Kept,” there was a battered Chevrolet roped off on the sidewalk in front of the Whitney. Was it part of the exhibition? Maybe. Maybe not.

“Quiet as It’s Kept” contains an abundance of political content, but you knew that. Contemporary art isn’t anything if it doesn’t address an issue—that’s the reasoning. Art does spring from a multitude of sources and sensations, that’s for sure. But the ideologies, grievances, and pronunciamentos typifying this Biennial? They’re depressing. The problem isn’t necessarily this or that theory. Rather, it’s the certitude with which the artists wield them. When did our radicals become such intolerant prigs or, for that matter, willing stooges of corporate interests? There isn’t a social malady, real or imagined, that can’t be winnowed down to its crudest component or expressed in atrocious grammar. One essayist writes about “diasporic Japaneseness,” another of how “in the afterlife all the museum’s (vestigial) wings will be unnamed in ceremonies young artists will perform by letting the dead sing through them in a continuous and uninterrupted tone that sounds like houselights [sic] dimming.” These excerpts, picked at random, are typical. The corresponding artworks are preferable if only because their tendentiousness is cleanly articulated. Sometimes a bumper sticker is preferable to a dissertation.

There’s art in “Quiet as It’s Kept”—some of which is worth communing with, most of which is negligible. But, really, this isn’t an exhibition about individual artworks. Though it’s foolhardy to take the installation aesthetic to task—I mean, the Giotto paintings lining the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel are, after all, “site-specific”—there is a difference between art as an elaboration on architecture and art as background noise. Breslin and Edwards don’t give their selections much credence. The funereal darkness, antiseptic artificial light, chug-a-lugging ambient sound, by-the-book outrage, and diminution of hard-won visions into fly-by-night decor: this is the least accessible Biennial ever, a migraine-inducing assault on the senses and a funhouse of preening elegance. Breslin and Edwards have done a thorough job, but, in the end, they’ve done the wrong job. After traveling extensively, visiting studios, speaking with all and sundry, and making tough decisions, what they’ve arrived at, basically, is a valentine to themselves. One doesn’t have to read their respective catalogue entries—letters to each other posing as essays—to intuit the self-congratulatory tone of “Quiet as It’s Kept.” Best wishes to the artists. Your work will survive the hostility to which it is currently being subjected.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the May 2022 edition of The New Criterion.

“Charles Ray: Figure Ground” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Charles Ray, Huck and Jim (2014), stainless steel, 9 ft. 3 . in. × 54 in. × 53 . in.; collection of Lisa and Steven Tananbaum

An abundance of ironies circulates around the sculpture of the Los Angeles–based artist Charles Ray (born 1953), none of which redound to the work’s benefit. Take the use of floor tape in “Charles Ray: Figure Ground,” a mid-career overview of an “elliptical, often irreverent” talent. We’re familiar with the means by which visitors to museums and galleries are reminded to keep a distance from a work of art, thereby avoiding potential damage to the object on display. At the Met, each of Ray’s sculptures is surrounded by floor tape that is gritty in texture and has been laid out to create a non-violable space measuring about three feet across. “Don’t touch the art”; we get it. Still, my curiosity was piqued. After exiting the show, I strolled past some large Rodin bronzes in the nineteenth-century galleries. They weren’t surrounded by tape. Later, I made a pit stop at two favorite pieces in the Greek and Roman wing: an Aphrodite, rendered in marble, dating to around the second century A.D., and a Hellenistic bronze of a man from about the same time. The courtesy of floor tape had not been extended to these mainstays of the collection. Some works of art, it seems, are more worthy of protection than others.

Lenders to “Figure Ground” likely stipulated that their loans be given adequate security. An internet search reveals that an original Ray can cost as much as $3 million. Given that kind of money, you have to sympathize with the institution or collector making demands. Investments, however, are one thing; art, another. The thing about a Rodin effigy or a piece of antique statuary is that their surfaces elicit a distinct pleasure—of sensuality and sensation, a longing for tactility. That is part of their enduring appeal. The sculptures of Charles Ray— what kind of person would want to touch one of those things? Figurative though they may be, and often nude, the works have all the bodily allure of a newly minted refrigerator or, and this analogy is more to the point, the stainless-steel tables used for autopsies and embalming. Ray’s predominant métier is, in fact, stainless steel—sometimes painted, often polished to a blinding sheen. The artist’s creative process combines “the analog and the digital as well as human and robotic hands.” Any tool or material is fair game; it’s what the artist does with them that matters. What Ray does, along with assistants and craftsmen, is render a given material simultaneously anti-septic and icky, slick and severe. This is an art that makes a fetish of the inhuman.

Ray’s supporters demur. In the catalogue, Brinda Kumar, the Met’s Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, lauds the artist’s “modalities of touch.” In Ray’s sculpture, “the potentiality of material, of matter, is made active, i.e., it is in mattering [emphasis in original] that the object is set into motion through time”—the sentence goes on. Kelly Baum, the museum’s Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Curator of Contemporary Art, invokes the word “pattern”—as noun, verb, and theoretical cornerstone: “Ray’s patterns very often lead to other patterns; behind every prototype is another prototype to which it is related via a chain of signification.” There’s more about pattern in Baum’s essay, most of it murky in definition. Ray himself gives away the game with 81 x 83 x 85 = 86 x 83 x 85 (1989), one of the earliest pieces in the show. Anyone conversant with twentieth-century American art will recognize that it stems from Richard Serra’s “prop” series. In replacing rough-hewn steel with high-gloss aluminum, Minimalist showboating is transmuted into corporate kitsch. Ray, in other words, gilds Serra’s lily. Ever the faithful postmodernist, Ray passes off smug commentary as High Art. It’s enough to make one forgive Serra and his bullying ways.


Charles Ray, Family Romance (1993), painted fiberglass and hair, 53 x 85 x 11″;
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Peter Norton Family Foundation

Minimalism, with its brute insistence on the object and inherent hostility to metaphor, is, nonetheless, Ray’s jumping-off point: material obduracy sets the tone. Admittedly, the work is peppered with post-conceptualist fabulation, and you’d best believe that identity politics enter into it. Be thankful that Baum and Kumar did not include Oh!? Charley, Charley, Charley . . . (1992), a mixed-media piece in which eight life-size figures of the artist engage in a variety of sexual antics. Ray’s most emblematic work, Family Romance (1993), is featured at the Met: mom, dad, little brother, and baby sister are seen holding hands, each of them nude and equal in height and proportion. This not-so-happy family has been manufactured with a mannequin-like verisimilitude. Shifts in scale, particularly when it comes to the human body, are invariably disconcerting. But Ray doesn’t do much more than distort form in order to make a joke about—what, exactly? A wall label informs us that Family Romance “decouples the human and the ‘natural,’ disassociating sex, gender, and race from biology.” There is nothing more reliable than torturous circumlocution when obscuring an achievement of rank stupidity.

Race also figures into Ray’s art—kind of, sort of, almost. Sarah Williams (2021)—that’s right, the guise Huckleberry Finn adopted in Mark Twain’s classic nineteenth-century novel—proves particularly relevant in that it bears comparison with James Earle Fraser’s Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt (1939). You’re familiar with the latter, of course: the bronze effigy of our twenty-sixth president recently removed from its perch at the American Museum of Natural History for its presumed endorsement of racial inferiority. Mores change over time, as do considerations of the body politic. Still, it should be noted that Fraser’s stated intention with the monument was to honor Roosevelt’s “friendliness to all races”—a fact worth reiterating at a cultural moment when intention is privileged over artifact. The intention fueling Sarah Williams is, we are told, a critique of “race-based relations of domination and subordination.” For right now, that will do. But how kindly will forward-thinking Americans esteem Ray’s overscaled depiction of a black man kneeling behind a white boy in 2122? History has its own wiles, and they can be humbling. In the meantime, “Figure Ground” is an exhibition of unremitting nihilism, staggering narcissism, and unapologetic pretension.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the March 2022 edition of The New Criterion.

“Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw” at The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Joseph E. Yoakum Big Hole Pass Jackson Montana (n.d.), graphite pencil and black and blue ballpoint pen on paper 8 x 10″.
Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc. 1173.2011. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

Television isn’t a mainstay of these pages, but let me put in a word for reality TV. Or, rather, reality when it enters into this most manufactured of entertainments. A few years back, I regularly tuned into Project Runway, a hugely popular program in which contestants vie to become “America’s next top designer.” Aspiring fashionistas are put through a series of challenges—in budget, materials, and style—and the resulting finery is then judged by a panel of industry insiders. During the course of the season I watched, each contender had been supplied with a willowy model on which to hang their outfits. One memorable exception was the episode in which designers were assigned models who look like you and me—that is to say, moderately attractive people for whom adjectives like “svelte” and “leggy” aren’t quite the mots justes. The designers were aghast. Foreheads were slapped, teeth gnashed. A worldview defined by attenuation and abstraction had been upended by that most complex and contradictory of things: real life.

I was reminded of Project Runway upon reading the essays in the catalogue accompanying “Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw.” Curators, conservators, historians, academics, and artists ought to shed light on the topic under discussion, to employ their expertise in a way that elaborates on the work and details its parameters. The folks writing about Joseph E. Yoakum (1891–1972)—well, they did fine. Much of the writing is informative, some of it exhaustive, but, oh!, the hand-wringing. The directors of the host institutions—James Rondeau from the Art Institute of Chicago, Glenn D. Lowry at moma, and The Menil Collection’s Rebecca Rabinow—fret about “the power dynamics” surrounding Yoakum’s initial discovery and subsequent reputation. The artist Faheem Majeed can’t get around Yoakum’s absence of political motivation and lack of community involvement: “I want to believe that Yoakum was aware of the explosion of black art happening all around him.” As for Yoakum’s insistence that friends refer to him as “Nava-joe”: it only furthered “the othering and romanticizing of him as a naive so-called outsider artist.” A wall label at MOMA chides Yoakum for “a lack of understanding of a culture with which he purportedly shared a connection.”

Joseph E. Yoakum, Grizzly Gulch Valley Ohansburg Vermont (n.d.), black ballpoint pen and watercolor on paper, 7-7/8 × 9-7/8″;Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc. 1793.2012.
Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

To which one can only respond: Mr. Yoakum, rest in peace. Not because he insisted upon a connection with a Native American heritage that may have been specious or, for that matter, his conviction that the king of England was responsible for the cultural foment of the 1960s. Rather, because Yoakum was a man whose opinions, pursuits, and peccadilloes mark him not as a cardboard cut-out mandated to represent this, that, or the other thing, but as an individual. This is, of course, true for the rest of us, and pray that our lives aren’t subjected to the puritanical dissections that are the modus operandi of our professional classes. And that is, in a roundabout way, the pull of Yoakum’s appeal: his unprofessionalism. Creativity wasn’t fostered by art school or a knowledge of history, but, instead, by a sore shoulder. After praying for the pain to subside, Yoakum settled in for the night. Upon waking, the pain was gone. A debt needed to be honored. At the age of seventy-one, Yoakum began drawing as a form of spiritual recompense. “I’m one of those that don’t figure they know everything,” Yoakum told The Chicago Daily News, “and what I do know, I don’t let it make a fool of me.”

Joseph Elmer Yocum—the change in spelling came later—was born around 1890 in Ash Grove, Missouri. Yoakum’s father claimed Cherokee descent; his mother was born a slave. Yoakum worked on his parents’ farm until he ran away to join the circus at age ten. A stint with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the Sells Floto Circus had him traveling to a variety of destinations, including China. Yoakum was drafted in 1917 and became a member of the 805th Pioneer Infantry, a black regiment sent to Europe during World War I. His return stateside saw him through two marriages, familial estrangements, and a host of jobs, including in sales, cement, and mining. Yoakum ended up in Chicago, moving into a storefront apartment on the South Side. It was there that he began drawing and exhibiting the resulting pieces in his front window. Passersby noticed them, not least a group of young painters affiliated with the School of the Art Institute. The Hairy Who, as these artists became known, saw a link between their own Pop-fueled grotesqueries and Yoakum’s sloping, upended landscapes. They collected the work, found commercial outlets for Yoakum’s art, and did right by the old man. The drawings were exhibited at a variety of venues, including MOMA. Yoakum died at the age of eighty-one—a month after the Whitney Museum opened a retrospective of his work.

Yoakum in front of his drawings at the Whole Coffee Shop in Chicago, 1967. Jeffrey Goldstein Chicago Art Scene Photo Archive; photograph by Edward de Luga, © Chicago Sun-Times, courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.

Yoakum worked with modest materials on modest surfaces at a modest scale: ball- and felt-tip pens of varying hues on cheap paper with oddments of colored pencil and watercolor. His landscapes, flat and frontal, are never truly specific, and they often border on the psychedelic. Surfaces were employed as repositories for a clarified set of marks. The inventiveness with which he rendered natural formations is odd and involving. Whether they be the Twin Crater Mts near Lima Peru (undated) or Mt Cloubelle Jamaca of West India (1969), Yoakum’s mountains contort, snuggle, and sometimes roil, their details set out in patterns that are bodily, rather than geological, in character. Trees are stylized in predictable terms, but what they lack in distinctiveness they gain in multiplicity—this is the case, at least, in the best drawings. Yoakum’s imaginative powers left him when drawing houses or people. Would that his undated portrait of Nat King Cole or Beulah Dudley 1st Negro Woman to Win Golff Record in Year 1927 (1970) were imbued with the flair of the pagoda-like UFOs seen in a pair of undated drawings. As with most folk art, Yoakum’s vision is narrow, favoring eccentricity and intensity over scope and depth. As such, one’s interest stifles before reaching the end of “What I Saw.” Still, Yoakum withstands the contemporary spotlight. His spiritual “unfoldings” will survive the machinations of our contentious cultural moment.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the February 2022 edition of The New Criterion.

“Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle” at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City

Installation view of “Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; all photos courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

The paintings of Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944) have never looked quite as good as they do, right now, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. It’s worth mulling why that is. I mean, Kandinsky is old news, right? He’s a mainstay in the common consciousness of those who make art their livelihood, and the paintings remain on view at any institution that presumes to untangle the story of Modern art. Given the current vogue for politics and inclusivity, Kandinsky seems an unlikely figure for reappraisal: he’s a tough nut to enlist for this-or-that cause. As for excluding him from the canon–forget it. Dead white male though he may be, Kandinsky is immovable. Granted, his status as the first abstract painter has been called into question. A few years back, the Guggenheim mounted a survey of canvases by Hilma af Klint, the Swedish visionary who, we were told, painted the first abstraction in 1906–beating Kandinsky to the punch by a good decade. An interesting factoid, for sure, but making a horse race of history rarely tells us much about the quality of the work under consideration.

“Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle” was organized by Megan Fontanella, the Guggenheim’s Curator of Modern Art. As a peg on which to hang an exhibition, the circle is a no-brainer. Geometry is prominent throughout Kandinsky’s oeuvre, particularly in the later work wherein the principles of Constructivism and the Bauhaus figure prominently. (Kandinsky taught at the Weimar branch of the Bauhaus for over a decade.) Wise to the allegorical connotations of the circle–suns, moons, planets, like that–Kandinsky employed them as adjuncts of his mystical leanings.

Like many early abstractionists, he was prone to abstruse belief systems, and counted himself a devotee of Theosophy, a species of cross-cultural spirituality founded by the redoubtable Madame Blavatsky. Several Circles (1926), a canvas in which an abundance of circles float within milky patches of black, could well serve as a stoner’s riff on the big bang.  Several Circles is a staple of the museum’s collection and, in fact, all the items on display–not only paintings, but watercolors, woodblock prints, and illustrated books–are culled from the Guggenheim’s holdings. 

Vasily Kandinsky, Black Lines (Schwarze Linien) (1913),
oil on canvas, 51-3/8 x 51-5/8″

Fontanella circles Kandinsky in another way: “Around the Circle” is, in significant part, an iteration of the museum’s original mission plan. Ambling amongst Kandinsky’s kaleidoscopic accumulations of glyphs, squiggles and biomorphs, one is reminded that this tourist-laden fixture of Manhattan’s Upper East Side was once something more marginal and considerably less toney. Founded in 1937, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (as it was then known) was the doing of two people: Solomon R. Guggenheim, a businessman who made a fortune in textiles and mining, and Hilla Rebay, his advisor and muse.

Rebay, a full-time connoisseur and sometime painter, left her native Germany with a purpose: to proselytize on behalf of advanced art. Kandinsky was her poster boy. Rebay had Guggenheim by the ear; Guggenheim took Rebay at her word. The industrialist purchased 150 Kandinskys, making his museum the world’s single largest repository of art by the Russian abstractionist. Frank Lloyd Wright’s building, with its vertiginous warp-and-woof, provides a happy environment not only for Kandinsky’s quixotic ambitions, but those of Guggenheim and Rebay as well.

Fontanella uses the museum’s distinctive architecture in a similarly quixotic way. Ascending the Guggenheim’s ramp–beginning at the beginning, as it were–we notice that Kandinsky’s art is set out in reverse order. Museum-goers start at the end of the artist’s working life, and are led up to his early experiments in Post-Impressionist facture and Symbolist form. The installation, we are informed, “reconsiders Kandinsky’s career . . . as a circular passage through persistent themes centered around the pursuit of one dominant ideal: the impulse for spiritual expression.”

How does this bassackwards approach succeed in its goal? Pretty well, I guess. Kandinsky, Fontanella insists, was ever thus. But the same could be said for any artist of note. The commonalities in Ribbon With Squares (1944), a bopping inventory of cartoonish shapes, and the sloping forms and encompassing spatial sweep of The Golden Sail (1903) aren’t made any more evident by up-ending chronology. It’s enough to make you think that some curators are getting a mite bored with their duties.

Vasily Kandinsky, Several Circles (Einige Kreise) (1926),
oil on canvas, 55-3/8 x 55-1/4″

Vasily Kandinsky was born in Moscow to a family of prosperous means: his father was a tea merchant, his mother a scion of the upper-class. After studying law, economics and statistics at the University of Moscow, Kandinsky did fieldwork amongst the Zyrians, a tribe located in North-Western Russia. That experience proved transformative. Upon entering the homes of the local population–architecture rich in color and decorative ornament–he “felt surrounded on all sides by painting.” It wasn’t until Kandinsky reached the age of thirty that lightning or, rather, Claude Monet and Richard Wagner struck. Upon encountering the former’s haystack paintings and the latter’s Lohengrin, Kandinsky felt the pull of art–it resounded, he wrote, like a “wild tuba”.

No time was wasted: Kandinsky packed his bags, bought a ticket to Berlin, attended art classes, and the rest is history. A messy history, to put it mildly, one that includes two World Wars, the Russian Revolution, being flagged as “bourgeois” by the Communists, and dismissed as “degenerate” by the Third Reich. Through daunting circumstances, Kandinsky persevered, longing for an art that would meld the natural world with the transcendental.

A nagging question remains: did Kandinsky achieve this synthesis? Is it true, in the artist’s estimation, that “the impact of the acute angle of a triangle on a circle is actually as overwhelming in effect as the finger of God touching the finger of Adam”? In giving body and form to spiritual yearning, Kandinsky was only partially reinventing the wheel. We don’t know much about our cave-dwelling forebears some 30,000 years ago, but it’s a good bet their paintings of bison, bears and lions were freighted with metaphysical import. And God touching the finger of Adam? Yeah, Michelangelo was wise to art “animated with a spiritual breath.” In jettisoning representation, Kandinsky freed himself to pursue higher modes of knowledge and feeling–or so he thought.

Vasily Kandinsky, Decisive Rose (Entscheidendes Rosa) (1932),
oil on canvas, 31-7/8 × 39-3/8″

But representation benefits from recognizability and, with it, a readier sense of empathy. Can a clean arrangement of ideograms placed upon an encompassing field of buttery yellow–that would be Decisive Rose (1932)–deliver anywhere near the same gravitas as Gerard David’s The Crucifixion (ca. 1945), a painting located a few blocks down Fifth Avenue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? A cruciform bereft of symbolic portent and a recognizable context becomes one sign among others. Decisive Rose is a splendid picture, but convert the wicked or unruly it won’t.

Kandinsky’s ballast-free compositions suggest the otherworldly; his palette evinces an aesthetic informed by Russian icons and stained-glass windows. Shape, space, line and color, in-and-of-themselves, can prompt a multitude of reactions. But does Kandinsky strike a chord because he taps into the divine or is it because the pictures are–how to put it, exactly–fun? Turns out, these world-changing abstractions are not a little whimsical and often downright goofy. From the early forays into fairy tale imagery to the not altogether coherent improvisations of his middle-period to the tightly plotted rebuses that ended his days, Kandinsky discovered a guilt-free reason to play. Much in the same way Piet Mondrian rooted himself in some dubious precincts of the occult so that he could boogie-woogie down Broadway, Kandinsky indulged airy-fairy theorizing in order to follow up on some rather promiscuous caprices. When the brush was put to canvas, in so many words, Madame Blavatsky was given the bum’s rush. Take note of the religious heavy breathing surrounding “Around the Circle”, but don’t let it obscure the way in which a troubled man who lived during troubled times discovered the means by which he could let his hair down. In the end, that may be the most spiritual pursuit of all.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the January 2022 edition of The Spectator World.

“Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle” at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Vasily Kandinsky, Black Lines (Schwarze Linien) (1913), oil on canvas, 51 3/8 x 51 5/8″; courtesy the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

“The paintings of Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944) have never looked quite as good as they do, right now, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. It’s worth mulling why that is.”

Read the entire article in the January 2022 edition of The Spectator World.

“Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing” at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Jennifer Packer, For James (III) (2013), oil on canvas, 72 × 48″; courtesy Private collection. © Jennifer Packer. Photograph by Marcus Leith. Image courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, and Corvi-Mora, London

At the beginning of each semester, I sit my students down, turn off the classroom lights, and have them watch Why Beauty Matters, a 2009 BBC documentary written and narrated by the late philosopher Roger Scruton. In the video, Scruton ponders the fate of art and architecture since the advent of modernism and offers counsel on how art can reclaim its purchase on the beautiful. The young artists in my class invariably dismiss Scruton’s opinions and ideas: the musings of an old white man—British, too!—are deemed woefully out-of-touch. The observations and prescriptions stated in Why Beauty Matters are open to debate, but students do find themselves taken aback when Scruton speaks about how “creativity is about sharing” and “art is a call to others.” Generosity of spirit is the last thing they expect from the presumably censorious Scruton or, for that matter, contemporary art. Attitudes that advocate for the generative instead of the rote or nihilistic are all but unheard of.

How likely it is that the painter Jennifer Packer is familiar with Scruton, I don’t know. But in an interview with Hans Ulbrich Obrist featured in the catalogue accompanying “Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing,” on now at the Whitney, the artist evinces a positivity and receptiveness that is, if not Scrutonian, nonetheless rare in a culture as contentious as our own. Packer’s thoughts on portraiture? “The important thing is that . . . [the sitters] are humans worth thinking about beyond their relationship with me.” How about realism and its relationship to pictorial form? “I’m interested in something that runs through the work despite what the image is.” Packer extolls the visual: “Our eye recognizes things more quickly than our brain.” An artist who doesn’t partake in the gratifications of narcissism and places a premium on her métier—can you imagine such a thing? Packer does bandy about acronyms like “BIPOC” as if they were organic extensions of the language, and she gets in the requisite knocks on colonialism. But she makes a point of abjuring the buzz-word “bodies”—an ugly intersectional trope that diminishes individual worth for theoretical grandstanding. Packer even has kind things to say about Clement Greenberg!

Installation view of Jennifer Packer: The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing with Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!), 2020. Photograph by Filip Wolak

Well, okay, Packer mentions that she’s interested in Greenberg, but the light she shines is favorable. All in all, the interview reveals a painter who thinks hard about the medium, relishes its malleability, is conversant with history, and privileges the independence of her materials. And here we go beyond the catalogue and its accumulation of words, words, words to enter the exhibition itself. “The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing”—the title comes from Ecclesiastes—is among the most heartening displays of contemporary painting seen at a major institution in some time. Packer first appeared at the Whitney as part of the 2019 Biennial; her canvases stood free and clear of the usual postmodernist folderol. Particularly memorable was Jordan (2014), a portrait of the painter Jordan Casteel seated amongst the clutter of an artist’s studio. Packer’s attention to attitude and body language was sharp: Casteel is corporally at ease, mentally not so much. To the right we see a figure in motion, but, then, the entire canvas is abuzz with painterly incident. Using a palette of dusky earth tones along with rough-and-ready brushwork, Packer managed to create a sense of intimacy that, though counterintuitive, was true and earned. The lone holdout in the vaunted Whitney Biennial made a lot of us curious about what else she might be capable of.

Jordan is included in “The Eye is Not Satisfied with Seeing,” an exhibition of thirty-five paintings and drawings that originated at London’s Serpentine Galleries. The earliest pieces are from 2011, during Packer’s time earning her Master of Fine Arts degree at Yale University; a few portraits, rendered largely in monochrome, date from last year. From the evidence on display, Packer has been on some kind of ride over the past decade—in career trajectory, sure, but also painterly acumen. History gets in the way, of course. Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!) (2020) is an encompassing swath of unstretched canvas prompted by the death of Breonna Taylor in the spring of 2020. The painting is, to put it gently, acidic. Suffused in a bilious yellow-green, Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!) depicts a man, clad in boxer shorts, lying on a sofa. The surroundings are mundane—an iron, a fan and cabinetry, things like that—but the mood is meditative. The left portion of the composition is less tangible in its imagery, as Packer engages in some off-the-cuff mark-making. Symbolist portent is seen at top left: a bird soars through a tightly cropped field of azure blue.

Jennifer Packer, Tia (2017), oil on canvas, 39 × 25″; Collection of Joel Wachs. © Jennifer Packer. Photograph by Matt Grubb. Image courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, and Corvi-Mora, London

Packer is a master of the telling detail. Take note of the right hand, the right foot, and the crook of the neck in Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!): they twitch and reach, the body’s tension having been rendered palpable and with no small amount of nuance. A person reclining, Packer tells us, isn’t necessarily a person at peace. Packer’s knowledge of the human form is estimable, and her ability to hold onto the rigors of likeness and anatomy without sacrificing interpretative brio even more so. The sizable charcoal drawings on view are supple in their transitions of mass, line, and volume, but oils are in Packer’s wheelhouse. The art scene is rife with artists who put brush to canvas as if it were a distasteful chore; Packer is an artist who actually likes her medium. The surface of each picture is a compendium of skepticism and possibility, in which gritty slurs of oil coalesce into sharply focused definition, and then devolve into patches of sinuous linearity. A handful of still-life pictures are less convincing, being greasy and cluttered. The figure is Packer’s compositional anchor— a moral anchor too, perhaps. The painterly freedom to which it gives license is bracing to behold, the depths hinted at impressive. “The Eye Is Not Satisfied” is an uncommon and most welcome exhibition.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the January 2022 edition of The New Criterion.

“Magic” at Metaphor Projects in Brooklyn

I’m pleased to have a painting of mine included in “Magic”, a group exhibition at Metaphor Projects in Brooklyn. See the invitation above for more information.

There will be an opening reception this coming Saturday, December 4th, from 5:00-8:00 p.m.

“Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure” at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Installation view of “Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure”at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

“Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure” has to be the most genteel exhibition of art the Guggenheim has ever mounted. Not the most over-hyped; not the worst. Unlike the museum’s recently concluded show of photographs by Deanna Lawson, “Light’s New Measure” avoids overt politics. Nor does it place an emphasis on pictorial innovation like the concurrent show devoted to the pioneering abstractionist Vasily Kandinsky. The Adnan exhibition is just . . . mild. There’s no sin in that. Were contemporary artists inclined more toward gentility than provocation we might be better off. And Adnan’s art—the paintings, in particular; the tapestries, ditto; the videos, not at all—bears suitable merit to invite pause. Pause over what, you might ask? The vagaries of reputation, for one; the primacy of the painted mark, for another. The museum touts Adnan’s work as “an intensely personal distillation of her faith in the human spirit and the beauty of the natural world”—boilerplate PR, you might say, but it’s to the credit of Adnan’s color-saturated pictures that they capture some of that optimism.

Occupying the bottom two rungs of the Guggenheim’s rotunda, “Light’s New Measure” is the first of three exhibitions organized in conjunction with the aforementioned “Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle,” an array of paintings and works on paper culled from the permanent collection. (The other shows will feature the artists Jennie C. Jones and Cecilia Vicuña.) Katherine Brinson, the Daskalopoulos Curator of Contemporary Art, and Lauren Hinkson, an associate curator, have set out to establish commonalities between Adnan and Kandinsky, painters who “explore the potential of abstract form.” Locating a shared purpose between artists living and dead is to be applauded, particularly at a cultural moment in which history is vilified or distorted—that is, when it’s acknowledged at all. Kandinsky would have approved of Adnan’s likening abstraction to music—Kandinsky insisted, after all, that color could convey sound—as well as the goal of creating “depth of meaning that has nothing to do with words.” Great minds think alike, right?

Etel Adnan, Untitled (1983), 0il on canvas, 29 × 29 in. (73.7 × 73.7 cm); courtesy Private Collection and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Adnan’s partner, the sculptor Simone Fattal, extols the work as being reminiscent of icons or talismans, intimating that the paintings embody visionary longings. The pairing with Kandinsky would seem to reinforce the point. At the risk of indulging in semantic nitpickery, let me say that the paintings featured in “Light’s New Measure” aren’t talismanic or iconic. They’re grounded and concrete, predicated, as they are, on specific motifs and spatial relationships gleaned from observed experience. The basis for several of the pictures is Mount Tamalpais, a distinctive peak in the Marin Hills near Adnan’s home in Sausalito, California. Divining mystical portent from the landscape is an age-old pursuit. But notwithstanding some coloristic liberties, Adnan is less a mystic and something closer to a classicist. Structure is her bread and butter. She’s more in the spirit of Nicolas Poussin and Georges Seurat than Caspar David Friedrich or George Inness. A cynic might be forgiven for wondering if some of this supernatural heavy-breathing is an attempt to poach upon the afterglow of Hilma af Klint—the subject of a recent and hugely popular exhibition at the Guggenheim. Now there was a visionary. Adnan’s lack of hocus pocus is, in point of comparison, straight talk. Strong-arming the paintings in the service of their antithesis is the curatorial equivalent of fake news.

Adnan has lived life as a true multiculturalist. She was born in Beirut in 1925. Her father was a Syrian-born military officer in the Ottoman Empire and a non-practicing Muslim, her mother a practicing member of the Greek Orthodox Church. Adnan learned Turkish and Greek at home; in school, she was taught French. After studying philosophy and literature at the Sorbonne, Adnan traveled to the United States to attend Berkeley and Harvard. After teaching at Dominican University of California from 1958 to 1972, Adnan returned to Lebanon to work as a journalist. She fled to Paris at the onset of the Civil War. That conflict served as backdrop for Adnan’s Sitt Marie Rose, a novel based on Marie Rose Boulos, a Syrian social worker who was executed by the Christian militia. The book went on to win a prize from the Association de solidarité franco-arabe but remains Adnan’s only prose work. Poetry is her primary literary focus. Included at the Guggenheim is Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut (1968), an accordion book that features the title poem as well as a surrounding array of watercolor drawings. “I write what I see,” the artist has stated, and “paint what I am.”

Etel Adnan, Mount Tamalpais (1970/2017), wool tapestry, 63 x 78¾”; courtesy the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

And what is Adnan? A ninety-six-year-old dab hand at buttery surfaces and ramshackle geometries, a genial temperament with a tart and sunny palette. Her canvases are small and simple: a few snug forms cobbled together and animated by gently bumptious rhythms. Adnan’s chock-a-block shapes and rich impasto have earned comparisons to Nicolas de Staël; her nudgy insistence on contour recalls Serge Poliakoff. A few years back, Adnan’s art was exhibited alongside that of Paul Klee—a pairing that is, on the whole, more propitious given Adnan’s off-kilter compositions and quirky distillations of shape. An untitled canvas from 1983—a centrifugal composition of staccato marks punctuated by cool greens and anchored by a clarifying white—is Adnan at her most engaging. When she settles for less—a line here, a circle there, a cursory swipe of pigment—the results are not more. The attendant tapestries benefit from an increase in scale, and, with that, greater complexity and dynamism. It’s worth mulling over whether collaboration—in this case, with various weavers—benefits a poet for whom painting is a happy sideline. Isolation can, after all, be limiting. Let’s hope Adnan invites more guests to the studio in the coming years. In the meantime, “Light’s New Measure” provides an amiable enough entry into one of the myriad outskirts of contemporary culture.

(c) 2021 Mario Naves

This review appeared in the December 2021 edition of The New Criterion.

“Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel” at The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

Suzanne Valadon, Nude Sitting on a Sofa (1916), oil on canvas, 32-1/16 x 23-3/4″; courtesy The Weisman & Michel Collection

The woman christened Marie-Clémentine Valadon (1865–1938) earned a number of monikers, both during her lifetime and subsequent to it. History remembers her as Suzanne—a reference to the biblical story of Susannah and the Elders made by her sometimes lover Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: Valadon, you see, began her career modeling for old men like Auguste Renoir and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Edgar Degas, a lifelong friend of Valadon and collector of her art, gave her the nickname “terrible Maria.” The historian Catherine Hewitt titled her 2017 biography of Valadon Renoir’s Dancer, based on Valadon’s having posed for Renoir’s signature canvas, Dance at Bougival (1883). The journalist June Rose referred to the artist as “The Mistress of Montmartre” in recognition of Valadon’s freewheeling lifestyle. The Barnes Foundation, which has mounted the first U.S. retrospective devoted to Valadon, is heralding her as a model and painter, but also as a rebel.

“Model, Painter, Rebel” includes close to sixty works, the majority of them oil on canvas, along with a handful of drawings and prints. The pieces we encounter upon entering the exhibition aren’t by Valadon, but, rather, feature her as subject. Paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec, Santiago Rusiñol, Jean Eugène Clary, and Gustav Wertheimer—whose Kiss of the Siren (1882) starts things off with impressive bluster—do much to establish Valadon as an integral presence in the Parisian art scene. Her biographical details are rich and varied and, given Valadon’s tendency for the fanciful, best taken with a degree of skepticism. Her formal education was minimal: she started working at the age of eleven to support her mother and sister. She joined the circus as an acrobat only to be sidelined by an injury. Around 1885, Valadon found employment as an artist’s model and, with it, a measure of financial stability. She wasn’t a passive presence in the studio. Valadon brought energy and enthusiasm to her poses; she also kept an eye on the what and how of art-making. Persistence and ambition led Valadon to become an artist of some notoriety and considerable success. Degas touted the self-taught painter as “one of us.” Given the source, that’s no small praise.

Suzanne Valadon, The Blue Room (La chambre bleue) (1923), oil on canvas, 35-7⁄16 × 45-11⁄16″; Courtesy Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne/CCI, Paris, on deposit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Limoges, State Purchase, 1924

The showpiece of “Model, Artist, Rebel” is The Blue Room (1923), a portrait of a clothed, reclining woman that serves as a tribute, of sorts, to Manet’s Olympia (1863). Like Manet’s consort, Valadon’s model comes across as blunt and aggressive, though less because of a one-on-one confrontation—the woman in The Blue Room looks away from the viewer, lost in a moment’s distraction—than in material physicality and coloristic punch. Clad in green-striped pajama bottoms and a pink halter top, the woman gives off a prole vibe, what with a cigarette cocked in her mouth and hands whose muscularity evinces hard labor. Valadon preferred models who were not Apollonian ideals. No sleek odalisque is our heroine, especially given the steadfastness with which Valadon’s brush pays heed to convex forms and optical weight. Couched within a deep-blue field of floral patterning and set against a backdrop of earth-toned hash marks, The Blue Room nods to Matisse and Gauguin, and, in some regards, is seriously au courant. You want body positivity and gender fluidity? Well, here you go. The reason we can entertain such notions is that Valadon the painter is in bravura form here. Would we be willing to do so were that not the case?


Suzanne Valadon, Black Venus (Vénus noire) (1919), oil on canvas, 63 × 38-3⁄16″; courtesy Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne/CCI, Paris, on deposit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Menton, Gift of M. Charles Wakefield-Mori, 1939

As a marketable term, “rebel” is likely to generate some buzz and contains more than a modicum of truth—particularly given Valadon’s role in the demimonde and, eventually, the avant-garde. Certainly, it’s preferable to “racist”—which is a suggestion that figures in the literature attending “Model, Painter, Rebel.” The scholars participating in the catalogue roundtable do make a point of stating that “we cannot blanketly assume that Valadon was a racist.” Which doesn’t prevent them from “blanketly” assuming that Valadon was deeply suspect in terms of racial matters. The impetus for the discussion is Black Venus (1919), a close-to-life-size portrait of a nude woman of African descent. The model’s name has been lost to history, but Valadon worked with her on a number of occasions: at the Barnes, Seated Woman Holding an Apple (1919), another depiction of the same model, is displayed near Black Venus. Reading through the essays and wall texts accompanying the show, I became certain that Valadon’s sin was not racism—an accusation for which there is no hard evidence—but that she didn’t have a crystal ball into the exacting standards established here in the twenty-first century. Albert C. Barnes, the museum’s founder, is similarly taken to task for a lack of feminist bona fides in not collecting Valadon’s paintings—concentrating, as he did, on the work of her son, Maurice Utrillo. What’s largely absent from all of this pontificating is a discussion of whether Valadon was any good as an artist.

The works comprising the remainder of the show have difficulty matching the authority of The Blue Room or, for that matter, Black Venus. Though Valadon gleaned important lessons from mentors and peers, her paintings are, on the whole, chock-a-block in composition and halting in their navigation of pictorial space. Even with an enduring dedication to figuration, Valadon never fully mastered the human form. Like Gauguin and Van Gogh, she was a ham-handed draftsman with a gift for color, facture, and brio. Unlike her friend Amedeo Modigliani, Valadon didn’t synthesize stylistic tics within cohesive compositional structures. There are, to be sure, arresting images on view—my vote goes to the dour Marie Coca and her Daughter Gilberte (1913) as best in show, with the resplendent Nude Sitting on a Sofa (1916) a close second. What a contemporary audience will make of Valadon’s efforts remains to be seen. One gallerygoer, upon exiting “Model, Painter, Rebel” on the afternoon I visited the Barnes, remarked to a friend: “Now let’s go to the permanent collection and see some real painters.” This remark seems a mite harsh for an exhibition that does a solid job of introducing us to a singular character and her vital relationship to early modernism. For those interested in the quiddities of that heady era, a trip to Philadelphia should be in the cards. And, yes, there is the permanent collection.

(c) 2021 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the November 2021 edition of The New Criterion.

“Fictional Narratives” at Alex Ferrone Gallery

Marisa S. White, Calling Up a Storm (2014), archival print on Canson PrintMaKing Rag paper, 10 x 10″; all images courtesy of Alex Ferrone Gallery

Surrealism, going on a 100-years old now, is as much a period style as any other art movement. Its antecedents–the theories of Sigmund Freud and a Europe devastated by war, in particular–are established to the point of being common knowledge. But surrealism with a small “s”–that is to say, a phenomenon definable not as a distinct style, but as an embodiment of invented worlds–has been with us for centuries. In the visual arts, any number of figures–Bosch, Böcklin, Fuseli and Arcimboldo, to name a few–dealt with images that had no direct equivalent in the observed world. Dreams, in their wildness, have been with us since Day One. Artists haven’t been far behind. Much of the time, they’ve been ahead.

Richard Aardsma, Palm Beach Diner (2021), archival pigment on Moa Entrada Rag Natural fine art paper, 14-1/2 x 14″

“Fictional Narratives”, a three-person exhibition curated by Alex Ferrone, asks the question: what might the surreal look like, here, in the twenty-first century? Technology plays a significant role in the answer. Marisa S. White, Richard Aardsma and Laura Dodson work with photography, but aren’t photographers per se. Their imagery is filtered through the camera’s lens, and subsequently manipulated by digital means. The documentary or the anecdotal—photography’s presumed stock-in-trade–is embellished through nuances in texture, light and juxtapositions of form that could not have been imagined by montage artists tinkering in their darkrooms during the last century. White’s poetic meditations on femininity and evolution, Aardsma’s quixotic mash-ups of retro Americana, and Dodson’s layered orchestrations of discarded snapshots and memorabilia are, as feats of technical acumen, seamless and even painterly. Their images–sometimes kaleidoscopic, invariably enigmatic–are rendered tangible, the stuff of here-and-now.  It’s worth remembering that surrealism doesn’t deny the real so much as unmask and amplify it. And so it is with these artists.

Laura Dodson, It Was (2017), Archival pigment print (Hahnemuehle 100% Photo Rag Sating paper), 20-3/4 x 18-3/4″

The melding of fact and fantasy–the merging of materials and imagination, methodology and abandon–is, of course, an inherent part of the creative process. In White’s Calling Upon a Storm (2014), we see the natural world operating with a logic and precision that creates, and then sustains, an almost mystical lyricism. The ghostly zeppelin seen in the distance of Aardsma’s truck-stop diorama, Palm Springs Diner (2021)? It’s a harbinger from another time and place. In It Was (2017), Dodson suffuses high fashion within Renaissance abundance to create a talisman of unsettling effect and erotic undercurrent. In each case, the artist choreographs a set of motifs that are indicative of an idiosyncratic vision, but also, and not least, a world worth reckoning with. “Fictional Narratives” underscores the ubiquity of the dreamlike, and the pleasures to be gleaned from its caprices.

An online gallery talk with the artists from the “Fictional Narratives” exhibition will take place on Wednesday, September 15th at 6:00 p.m EDT. Clear here to register.

(c) 2021 Mario Naves

“Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities” at The Morgan Library Museum, New York

Installation photo of “Shahzia Sikander: Extraordinary Realities” @ The Morgan Library Museum

“Painting is such an ordinary thing.” That was my initial observation upon entering the mid-career survey of the Pakistan-born artist Shahzia Sikander. This thought occurred without my having registered the “extraordinary” claim found in the exhibition title. As it turns out, the Morgan is right. Sikander is an extraordinary—or, at least, atypical—artist: a miniaturist in an age of multimedia showpieces; a painter during a time when art is embracing the virtual when it isn’t dominating a lot of square footage. Sikander has an uphill row to hoe in a culture of post-everything abundance. It’s understandable that an artist given to virtuosic fantasies that are hardly bigger than a sheet of printer paper should feel the need to make some kind of splash. Take the opening gambit of “Extraordinary Realities”: it isn’t a painting, but a sizable bronze sculpture reiterating motifs found in the paintings. The exhibition centerpiece is a floor-to-ceiling, back-to-front arrangement of paper, fabric, and ideograms. Sikander isn’t the first painter to capitulate to the installation ethos; it’s a run-of-the-mill tack. Do such nods to theatricality prompt genuine engagement with the accompanying pictures? That’s the nagging question.

An additional observation prompted by “Extraordinary Realities” goes to the wall labels accompanying Sikander’s paintings. Text has long been an adjunct to displays of contemporary art. “Didactics,” as they are known in the trade, are touted as an educational tool that provides context for audiences in need of a hand. The truth is that most contemporary art can’t be fathomed without a cheat sheet. Concept is king. The visual? A necessary evil when it isn’t nugatory. Sikander isn’t a conceptual artist, but she fits within the frame-work of an age in which Conceptualism is the smog-like oxygen we all breathe. Consequently, the Morgan show is festooned with didactics—copious blocks of verbiage that, in the immortal locution of Ricky Ricardo, ’splain the images on view. And, boy, are the images ’splained hard. The requisite hot buttons are pushed. Let’s reel them off together, shall we? Colonialism, gender, race, class, globalism, patriarchy, and—catch your breath!—“narratives [that] shatter expected hierarchies, norms, and stereotypes.”

Shahzia Sikander, The Many Faces of Islam (1997-1999), dry pigment, water color, tea wash, gold leaf on wasli paper, 14 x 18″; courtey of The Morgan Library Museum

Given this run of topics, it’s a wonder the museum extols Sikander’s work as “open-ended.” Can there be any room left for interpretation? The aforementioned subjects are fair game for artistic exploration, but what might happen if someone stole into the museum during the wee hours and removed the wall labels? Would an impartial viewer ascertain the true meaning of the rust-red stain obscuring Separate Working Things I (1993–95)—an image rendered in the manner of Mughal painting, a type of picture-making with roots in sixteenth-century Persia? Sikander’s superimposed gesture, we are informed, “shatters the trope of ‘ideal love’ . . . [becoming] the site for rupture, a destabilizing of the motif of heterosexual love itself.” Hermann Rorschach notwithstanding, that’s a lot to ask from a blot. With time, Sikander’s agglomerations of characters and symbols became less vague and more selective, even if one is hard-pressed to say they gained in clarity. There are exceptions: The Many Faces of Islam (1999) is a straightforward accounting of Muslim leaders, including Benazir Bhutto, Hanan Ashrawi, Yasser Arafat, and Saddam Hussein. The piece was commissioned by The New York Times Magazine. Sometimes an editorial nudge can help an artist dot her i’s and cross her t’s.

Truth to tell, Sikander’s ambitions are sizable. Any artist worth her salt works within the parameters of a given tradition even as she explores how to question, broaden, and elaborate upon them. Admittedly, some traditions are more hidebound than others. Sikander raised eyebrows at the National College of the Arts in Lahore when she set out to pursue miniature painting. Members of the administration, as well as her peers, actively discouraged Sikander from doing so. Shrugging off the naysayers, she hitched her pedagogical lot with Bashir Ahmad, a figurative miniaturist of no small repute. In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Sikander praises Ahmad for instilling “tradition at a deeply visceral level” and insisting on the primacy of skill and technique. The Scroll (1989–90), Sikander’s undergraduate thesis project, is on display at the Morgan; good luck trying to look at it. Even at the sparsely attended press preview, visitors crowded around the piece, attempting to unravel its cinematic flow and taking pleasure in its meticulously crafted minutiae. The Scroll is an astonishing accomplishment for a twenty-year-old artist. It would be an astonishing accomplishment for an artist of any age.

Shahzia Sikander, Detail of The Scroll (1989-90), watercolor, gouache, tea wash, gold leaf on wasli paper, 14 x 67″; courtesy The Morgan Library Museum

Sikander left Pakistan to pursue graduate studies at the Rhode Island School of Design—a shift in geographical context that was, in the artist’s estimation, a “pleasing dislocation.” (Subsequent stopovers were made in Glasgow and Houston; ultimately, New York City became home.) “Dislocation” is, in fact, the predominant theme of Sikander’s work. During the ensuing years, obeisance to craft remained a mainstay, as did an abiding stylistic grounding—the pictures never abandon their miniaturist origins. The compositions, however, took a turn, becoming increasingly fragmented and collage-like in their overlays of imagery. Segments of Desire Go Wandering Off—the title of a handsome 1998 accumulation of marks and materials—sums up the trajectory. The pictures are increasingly global in reach, with Sikander appropriating motifs from Botticelli, Greek mythology, Hindu iconography, Renaissance manuscripts, and the Texas art scene. All of which point to the vagaries of a full life lived by one woman—a woman of envious talents and significant accomplishment. Still, it’s worth mulling if that’s enough. Do the paintings pique our attention because, or in spite, of their cross-cultural markers? The challenge for any artist is to rise above the particular—the anecdotal and insular, the temporary and meretricious. “Extraordinary Realities” is testament to the contortions, artistic and otherwise, that can go into that vexing enterprise.

(c) 2021 Mario Naves

This review was originally published the September 2021 issue of The New Criterion.

“Alice Neel: People Come First” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Alice Neel, Margaret Evans Pregnant (1978), oil on canvas, 57 3/4 × 38″. Gift of Barbara Lee, The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women. Courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Let’s talk real estate. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has allocated the same amount of space to the American painter Alice Neel (1900–84) as it did for the art and artifacts of Byzantium; the reign of Hatshepsut, queen and, later, pharaoh of Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt; two outlays of tapestries from medieval and Renaissance Europe; and a career-spanning exhibition of the French romantic painter Eugène Delacroix. However you might esteem the subjects explored in these shows (I’m fairly agnostic on Delacroix, myself), there is little doubt that each body of work merited the grand treatment, that they are subjects worthy of sweeping scholarly focus. But what about a second-tier talent whose aesthetic purview was nowhere near as encompassing as her meanness of spirit? Museums have galleries set aside for temporary exhibitions, and those galleries need to be filled. Square footage, when doled out by an important institution, connotes prestige. “Alice Neel: People Come First” will have repercussions. Notice must be paid.

Not that Neel’s work has been without an audience in the decades since her death; nor did Neel suffer inattention during her working life. Anyone invited to sit and chat with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show had, in one way or another, achieved a notoriety rare in American culture. For a visual artist, this kind of recognition—that is to say, the imprimatur of mainstream media—is all but unheard of. Neel’s fame came relatively late. As with most artists, she sacrificed much in terms of comfort and security to pursue her work. Neel did possess that most vital of traits: tenacity. Where would she have been without it? Painters who worked figuratively during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism had a tough go of it; the advent of neo-Dadaism didn’t exactly provide an accommodating context for an artist taken with the human condition and its many foibles (though Neel did locate a friendly toehold within the irony-laden precincts of Pop Art). Gumption propelled Neel’s art, as did gall. Johnny Carson couldn’t help but bestow his favors on the feisty old lady and her crazy pictures.

Alice Neel on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson

Longevity became Neel; flattery followed on its heels. Few of us get to hear ourselves described as the best at anything. Neel lived to hear herself pegged as “the best portrait painter of the twentieth century.” Given her renowned irascibility, she likely cast a skeptical eye on the sobriquet, knowing full well how wheels are greased in even the most outré precincts of the art world. What, then, would the self-described “Mother Hubbard” make of the claims surrounding “People Come First”? The Met is, after all, touting Neel as “one of the century’s most radical painters.” What century might that be? Before you can say “champion of social justice”—which the museum does, in fact, say—you’ll know the aforementioned century is the current one, despite her death in the 1980s. “In an era of record income inequality, resurgent white nationalism, and xenophobia, Neel’s painterly advocacy of humanity in its multiracial and multicultural manifestations, her inclusive, democratic spirit, and her commitment to social justice all serve to enhance her posthumous reputation, making her art seem all the more relevant, even urgent.” Enter Alice Neel, Patron Marm of All That Is Woke.

None of which is surprising. Diktats and notions that were once the purview of a select group of academics have become part and parcel of everyday life. Joe and Jane Lunchbox are conversant, nowadays, with “hetero-normativity,” “cultural appropriation,” and “privilege.” Anyone who has cracked open an exhibition catalogue in recent years, or cherry-picked through any number of specialized journals, will recognize the type of writing that strong-arms art into the service of political fashion. Try taking a tipple each time the words “justice” or “identity” pop up in the essays and wall labels accompanying the Met show—inebriation will be achieved swiftly. Making light of the strained verbiage typical of our time shouldn’t mitigate its cumulative effect. Reading about Neel’s “female-lived experience,” the “gendered struggles” of her subjects, and the “intersubjectivity” of the resulting portraits is to realize how over-intellectualized argot can become run-of-the-mill. It’s depressing, and a disservice to the liberating capacities of art. Listen to Neel, during the advent of Feminism, tell it: “When I was in my studio, I didn’t give a damn what sex I was . . . I thought art is art.” Neel didn’t suffer ideological grandstanding gladly. Why subject her work to it?

Neel hailed from Merion Square, Pennsylvania, the fourth of five children born to Alice Concross Hartley and George Washington Neel, an accountant by trade. Neel attended the Philadelphia School for Women, purposely setting out to avoid the Impressionist-influenced curriculum fostered at the better-known Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. (Even at a young age, Neel knew her own mind.) While studying painting and drawing, she met and later married the artist Carlos Enriquez, a Cuban émigré of some means. The couple moved to Havana, but the relationship proved rocky. Enriquez left the marriage, taking the couple’s daughter with him. Neel subsequently had a nervous breakdown and was committed to the suicide ward of Philadelphia General Hospital. After having been placed in the care of her mother and father, Neel ended up in New York City, spending a formative period living and working in Spanish Harlem. She moved to Greenwich Village—a neighborhood Neel dismissed as “honky tonk”—and settled on the Upper West Side. Along the way, she worked for the WPA, fellow-traveled with Communist culturati, took a host of often troublesome lovers, and became a fixture of the New York art scene.

Alice Neel, Two Girls, Spanish Harlem (1959), oil on canvas, 30 x 25″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston;
Gift of Barbara Lee

“People Come First” begins with a gambit that is partly a dare and definitely a grabber. Margaret Evans Pregnant (1978) portrays a nude woman toward the end of her term. The sitter, scaled close to life-size, is wedged between the top and bottom edges of the canvas. Evans confronts us with an expression that is both uninhibited and wooden—a mask that portends vulnerability. The posture is rigid, the belly alarmingly convex. Evans appears to be gripping the yellow footstool upon which she’s seated. Neel’s rendering of the hands and arms is awkward, and their tensions unclear. Does Evans hold on because the incipient responsibilities of motherhood are pressing upon her consciousness? Or is it because the floor tilts at an angle parallel to the picture plane? A mirror in the upper right hand of the picture reflects a different woman—or so it seems, anyway; the likeness is iffy. The mirror is, in and of itself, problematic: it’s out of sync with the overall composition. The more time spent with Margaret Evans Pregnant the more its glitches are revealed. Art should withstand the long look, not crumble beneath it.

All of which will strike fans of Neel as moot. Didn’t you read the exhibition title? People come first. “Paint your power,” the catalogue intones, “paint your politics.” In the introductory essay, Kelly Baum and Randall Griffey—who, along with the curatorial assistant Brinda Kumar, organized the Met show—write of how “Neel embraced imperfection as intrinsic to the human condition” and how “we are wrong to assume perfection from her.” Neel’s lack of perfection, in this circumstance, lies in her independence as an individual and as an intellect. (Neel had some choice opinions that wouldn’t withstand the puritanical dictates of our internet overlords.) Forget, for a moment, the curators’ backdoor clarion call for conformity. What might be said about Neel as a painter—as a person involved in an art form with its own distinct history and attributes? It’s worth reiterating that a painting, before it is anything else, is a painting. Once that essential prerequisite has been engaged—once it has been complicated, questioned, and brought to resolution—viewers can move on to the work’s “embedded code[s]” and “innuendo.” Prioritizing theory over matter and political intent over aesthetic fact are convenient means for setting aside critical distinctions. Righteous obfuscation is no substitute for the real thing.

After the ice-breaker that is Margaret Evans Pregnant, the exhibition stumbles precipitously with a showcase of Neel’s early forays into Social Realism. Forever down with the proletariat, Neel depicted protest marches, dock workers, sundry members of the intelligentsia, and unsung corners of the urban landscape with an earnestness that is leaden when it’s not amateurish. Was there an unwritten law at the time that political art had to be awash in that distinctive and deadening brown? If so, Neel’s palette followed suit. Works-on-paper depicting vignettes of bohemian domesticity are preferable in their relative lightness of touch, though they are marred by an uncertain handle on caricature. Max Beckmann looks to have been an influence, along with Chaïm Soutine, the Soyer brothers, and van Gogh. Neel jettisoned the somber affectations of her generation round about the mid-1950s— particularly as she took increased notice of her neighbors in El Barrio. Georgie Acre No. 2 (1955) and, especially, Two Girls, Spanish Harlem (1959) signal a welcome shift—the everyday awakening potentialities of form. Neel’s chromatic range gained in brightness, her brushwork speed and vigor, and the compositions a measure of clarity or, if you prefer, bluntness.

Alice Neel, Black Draftee (James Hunter) (1965), oil on canvas, 60 x 40″; courtesy COMMA Foundation, Belgium

Neel’s signature attribute is unquestioned immediacy—you know: first try, best try. Eschewing preparatory drawings, she painted directly on the canvas and from direct observation. Beginning with a wiry under-drawing, usually keyed to a cool variation of blue, Neel applied flattened patchworks of pigment, juxtaposing warm and cool tonalities and surfaces that are constitutionally resistant to sensuality. Neel’s brusque treatment of the surroundings in which her subjects are ensconced is cursory-bordering-on-negligent, but it can be effective. The settee in Andy Warhol (1970) or the chaise longue upon which the subject of Pregnant Woman (1971) reclines are marvels of bare-bones delineation. Both pictures are, in their own flagrant way, arresting. The tension between painted form and diagrammatic notation is as rude as it wants to be, and adroitly choreographed. Over the long haul, however, Neel’s pictorial flourishes flatten the expressive intent of her art. She puts one in mind of Francis Bacon—another semi-Expressionist swallowed whole by exquisitely cultivated mannerisms. By the time we reach Black Draftee (James Hunter) (1965), a canvas displayed toward the back end of the exhibition, we are grateful to see Neel not take up her brush all that much.

Black Draftee (James Hunter) would make a striking centerpiece for a more concise and, I would argue, better exhibition. As it is, “People Come First” oversells Neel’s achievement and, in particular, her vaunted humanism. Really, who does come first? Notwithstanding an atypical and often eccentric range of sitters, Neel doesn’t do much plumbing of character. Miserabilist superficiality was her gig. There are exceptions: artists like Benny Andrews, Geoffrey Hendricks, and (not included at the Met) Faith Ringgold make themselves felt, as does Richard in the Era of the Corporation (1978–79), a painting of Neel’s son in which he evinces an understandable level of wariness. Even then, it’s the Corporation that is Neel’s starting point; Richard is there as a type. And so it goes: New Yorkers, in all their multiplicity, are rendered goggle-eyed, pasty-skinned, and splayed like butterflies in a curio cabinet. Whatever the initial attraction or relationship between sitter and artist, the resulting paintings are peculiarly neutral in affect. They exist, primarily, as emblems of Neel’s nervy savoir-faire. Denizens of twenty-first century-America shouldn’t mistake representation for “allyship” or “anarchic humanity” for significant art. There are better exemplars for our fractious age than a painter endowed with a cruel and unlovely gift.

(c) 2021 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the June 2021 edition of The New Criterion.

“Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented” at The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Installation photo of “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor” at The Museum of Modern Art; courtesy MOMA/photo by Robert Gerhardt

When notice of “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented” arrived in my inbox, I gave the e-mail a cursory scan and promptly deposited it in my trash folder. Knowing that curators have a tendency to overlay contemporary mores onto historical precedent, I feared this MOMA show would have “Woke” stamped all over it. The exhibition title reminded me of the initial wave of political correctness some thirty years ago. At that time, “cultural worker” had been mooted as a replacement for the word “artist”—the latter carrying with it the gamey stench of elitism. Starry-eyed soul that I am, I thought “cultural worker” had long been consigned to the circular file of post-Marxist assaults on the language. A quick surf of the internet proved otherwise: “cultural worker” has become part of the lingua franca for the enlightened among us. There is, I learned, an organization dubbed Cultural Workers Organize—its stated mission being the fomentation of “collective responses to precarity.” It’s a hop, skip, and click from this kind of thing to engineers, agitators, and constructors.

“Precarity” was, in fact, my state of mind when I visited MOMA and wandered into “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor.” The first thing to be read on the introductory wall text is that “the title ‘artist’ is an insult.” The exhibition catalogue goes further, including what appears to be a snippet of free verse: “No more painters, no more writers, no more musicians . . . no more, no more, no more, nothing, nothing, nothing.” The “artist-proletarian,” we are duly informed, will usher in “the language of the masses, not the individual.” Should one have the stomach for pronuciamentos of this sort, they can be readily gleaned from any number of Twitter feeds, newspapers, and academic journals. The aforementioned quotes? They come not from a usual suspect like The New York Times, but from Georg Grosz, John Heartfield, Louis Aragon, and Raoul Hausmann. Troublemakers all, for a time anyway, and integral figures—dare one say “artists”?—during a signal moment in twentieth-century art. Those with a sense of historical sweep will recognize the names. Or maybe not. Cultural memory ain’t what it used to be. Which is a significant reason “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor” proves to be a noteworthy event.

Valentina Kulagina, Maquette for We Are Building (Stroim) (1929), cut-and-pasted printed and painted paper, sandpaper, gouache, and pencil on paper, 22 5/8 × 14 1/4″; courtesy MOMA

The exhibition serves as a showcase for the museum’s 2018 acquisition of some three hundred works on paper from the collection of Merrill C. Berman, a financial advisor with a predilection for the graphic arts. The curatorial focus is on the international avant-garde—specifically, how it responded to and was shaped by historical events, chief among them World War I and the devastation of Europe, along with the Russian Revolution. The ascendance of mass media is equally attended to, as is its re-imagining by designers whose artistic agenda was no less radical than their politics. As such, “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor” errs on the side of reproducible materials. It contains a handful of paintings, sculptures, and industrial objects; a sampling of collages; and an abundance of brash and propulsive posters—maybe too abundant. The compositional strategies of the Russian Constructivists, as well as those of their followers, were contrived to arrest the passersby’s attention when encountered at a magazine kiosk or on a city wall. As museum pieces, one bullying tract on the Socialist Offensive followed by another (and another) tends to work against one’s powers of concentration. Artifacts this loud need space and context in which to echo. The installation at MOMA muffles their audacity.

“Engineer, Agitator, Constructor” begins with Russian Constructivism, touching upon its roots in Suprematism with figures like Kazimir Malevich and Lyubov Popova, and then glances upon Dadaism and Neo-Plasticism. Collage and photo-montage are given prominence, as they betoken not only the mixing of mediums, but a concomitant blurring of artistic disciplines. Organized around a discrete set of themes, the exhibition makes a telling shift from subsections titled “Artist as Agitator” and “Activating Data” to “Artist as Adman” and “An Expert in Publicity.” That design innovations predicated on the theories of Karl Marx would funnel their way up—or, depending on how one looks at these things, down—to Madison Avenue is a hindsight rich in irony. Still, the heady atmosphere of “agitation–propaganda” dominates, and the confluence of pictorial innovation and extremist politics is emphasized. In that regard, the MOMA show engenders consternation. The so-called Communist Experiment was an epic catastrophe. Can one commend artists who were in thrall to its illusions for pictorial know-how without making a hash of history?

Solomon Telingater, Untitled (1929), cut-and-pasted printed and painted paper on paper with gouache and pencil, 17-11/16 × 15″; courtesy MOMA

Not a few engineers, agitators, and constructors found themselves crushed by those they sought to lionize. Gustav Klutsis, a gift- ed artist hailing from Latvia and a Stalinist through and through, was summarily executed as “an enemy of the state” in 1938. (No utopian deed, it seems, goes unpunished.) Klutsis’s work is given a prominent berth at MOMA, as are other talents whose work merits consideration, including Natalia Pinus, Nikol Sedelnikov, Elena Semenova, Varvara Stepanova, Wladyslaw Strzemiński, and Valentina Kulagina, but not Lydia Naumova, whose posters commemorating the International Trade Union privilege bureaucratic didactics over visual legibility. The Tbilisi-born Solomon Telingater is a find—his nimble employment of collage brings a rare and welcome wit to the proceedings. Humor, albeit largely unintentional, figures into Bart van der Leck’s studies for an ad campaign commissioned by Delft Salad Oil. Van der Leck applied de Stijl principles to the image of a mustachioed gentleman surrounded by bottles of salad dressing. The corporate overlords were not amused by the resulting array of dancing geometric shapes. Van der Leck lost the job. The moral? Revolutionary impulses will only get you so far—the real world is obstinate in that way. This sobering lesson may not be the starting point of this ambitious and instructive exhibition, but it is the finish line for those with the eyes to see it.

(c) 2021 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the March 2021 edition of The New Criterion.

Mernet Larsen at James Cohan Gallery

Mernet Larsen, Deliverance (after El Lissitzky) (2020), acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 64-1/2 x 52-1/4″; photo courtesy of James Cohan Gallery
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“In their lack of a gravitational hub, the paintings touch on the hallucinogenic. Truth be told, their wibble-and-wobble can try the patience of the eye—and stomach. That our attention and equilibrium aren’t upset is testament to how thoroughly Larsen is in control of compositional vectors. Dislocated as they may be, the pictures hold tight. A line is trod between chaos and calm, rectitude and ping-pong. Incongruity is vital to Larsen’s vision, and she makes something of it.”

The entire article can be found here.

“Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment” at The New Museum, New York, NY

Peter Saul, Art Critic Suicide (1996), acrylic and alkyd on canvas, 66 x 84-1/4″; courtesy George Adams Gallery, New York
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“Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment” is a disappointment in that it omits my favorite Saul painting. Let me amend that: “favorite” is a strong word. Art Critic Suicide (1996) has proven memorable because of the response elicited from its subjects: Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker’s longtime art critic; and Hilton Kramer, the one-time critic for The New York Times and co-founder of The New Criterion. In the painting, both men are rendered with cartoonish hyperbole and set awash in a garish purple-pink, each firing not one, but two guns into his respective temple. In his review of this New Museum show, Schjeldahl mentioned his surprise at coming upon the painting some years back—in particular, having been paired with “an intellectual antagonist of mine.” This irony won’t be lost on anyone conversant with contemporary art criticism. It certainly wasn’t lost on Hilton. “Exactly why we should be linked for the honor of serving as Mr. Saul’s principal villains is a matter I can only guess at,” he wrote in The New York Observer in the year 2000. The artist is seen at the bottom of the canvas, a pimply faced homunculus gleeful at the turn of events. “Is it possible,” Hilton wondered, “that Mr. Saul objects to readable prose?”

Having followed Saul’s work over the years, I can report that objection is, in fact, his modus operandi. Objection to what, you might ask? Pretty much everything, and never are the objections stated mildly or shaded with nuance. The friend with whom I attended the New Museum show described the pictures as “ejaculatory,” and it would be difficult to locate an adjective more apropos to Saul’s over-the-top brand of grotesquerie. The targets of his ire are subject to torturous distensions. Physiognomies are stretched and kneaded to Silly Putty–like extremes. Imagine the sinuous distortions of Mannerism amplified through a Day-Glo prism, and then delineated with the pin-prick intricacy of outré cartoonists like Basil Wolverton and S. Clay Wilson. As a paint-handler, Saul pat-pat-pats at his sizable canvases with what appears to be a cotton ball. In doing so, he wrests light and lyricism away from pointillist facture, bringing squishy dimensionality to ballooning forms. The color palette? Josef Albers undergoing sugar shock. Saturated tones are the rule, eye-popping, acidic, and sickly sweet. Sex and violence, those old things, are constants.

Installation photo of “Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment” at The New Museum; courtesy The New Museum
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Contact with Saul’s paintings can cause nausea. A few years back, I toured the galleries on Manhattan’s Fifty-seventh Street with a group of students; among our stops was a Saul exhibition at the Fifth Avenue branch of Mary Boone Gallery. Shortly after entering the venue, I noticed that one of my charges went missing, ultimately locating her, doubled-over, on the avenue. “Why,” she exclaimed, “would anyone want to paint these things?” Art critics we know about, but what else has Saul seen fit to castigate? The list is long: capital punishment, serial murderers, presidents (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, especially), “Yankee Garbage,” Christianity, capitalism, racial inequity, Joseph Stalin, Chairman Mao, classical antiquity, Manifest Destiny, the modern city-state, “woman’s arts,” spaghetti and meatballs, Andy Warhol, O. J. Simpson, Max Beckmann, and, not least, himself. How much you indulge the work depends on whose ox is being gored. Missing from “Crime and Punishment” is a self-portrait in which Saul is seen using Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain for the purpose it was originally intended–kind of. “Found objects ain’t worth a good shit” reads the caption. You get the idea.

Is it recommended that visitors to “Crime and Punishment” bring an air sickness bag? Saul would likely take it as a compliment, but he is, on the whole, a cheery figure—not hard to like, harder to take seriously. During the afternoon I attended the exhibition, visitors greeted the abundance of pictures, installed salon-style, with joyous exclamations, appreciative laughter, and then deadly quiet. The unrelenting nature of Saul’s vision—a temperament forever at its satiric boiling point—is, over the long haul, dulling. Notwithstanding the histrionics—or, rather, because of them— Saul’s art is resistible, even when you might be on the same page regarding this or that topic. “Consistency,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.” It’s also the pitfall of the exuberantly vituperative. All the same, one can’t help but wonder how the imagery might sit with younger audiences. Taking Republicans, law enforcement, and patriarchy to the cleaners is well and fine, but Saul’s depictions of the Yellow Peril, Angela Davis, and Native Americans are stridently unwoke. Maybe he’s the lone old white guy to get a pass on such things.

Peter Saul, Super Crime Team (1961-62), oil on canvas, 59 x 63″; courtesy the Hall Collection and The New Museum
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Subjecting “Crime and Punishment” to the puritanical requisites of Cancel Culture would only add to Saul’s reputation, of course. As it is, let me put in a brief for Saul’s early paintings–those ramshackle agglomerations of cartoonish glyphs and stray bits of verbiage, put into motion with hasty-bordering-on-slapdash brushwork and compositional strategies derived, albeit in a roundabout manner, from Cubism. Forget canny pasticheurs like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg: Saul is the real bridge between the New York School and Pop Art. His everything-and-the-toilet-seat commentaries on the ubiquity of mass media, the perils of consumerism, and the limitations of civil society retain their antisocial vigor some six decades after the fact. Saul is the rare painter who poaches upon the fly-by-night anarchy of graffiti and manages to retain its outlaw ésprit. (The scratchy appropriations of Jean Dubuffet and Jean Michel-Basquiat are, in comparison, polite conversation pieces.) Super Crime Team (1961–62), Girl #2 (1962), and Superman in the Electric Chair (1963) are as rude and ready as they want to be, employing scatology, iconoclasm, and overkill as a form of vanitas painting. Within these patchwork rebuses lie Saul’s contribution to the culture of our time. The rest is one man’s unrelenting misanthropy—pre-digested, prettified, and taxidermied to perfection.

© 2020 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the December 2020 edition of The New Criterion.

“Jordan Casteel: Within Reach” at The New Museum, New York

Installation of “Jordan Casteel: Within Reach” at The New Museum; courtesy The New Museum
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Strolling through “Jordan Casteel: Within Reach,” I was reminded of my time as a graduate student in the mid-1980s, a moment when Neo-Expressionism was just past its peak and the vacuum-sealed truisms of Post-Modernism were gaining a toehold in the collective consciousness. Among the controversies of the time was whether certain artists deserved their reputations, given their relative youth. David Salle and Julian Schnabel—there are others, but these two are lodged in memory—were fêted with museum exhibitions at the respective ages of thirty-five and thirty-six. Serious Artist–types harrumphed at the audacity. How could a Young Turk survive, let alone carry, a retrospective when history favors late bloomers? Titian, Matisse, Willem de Kooning, and Romare Bearden were settling into middle-age when they became the figures we now esteem. There have been Young Masters, of course: Raphael and Vermeer died before the age of forty, and their achievements were, to put it mildly, remarkable. Still, artists tend to gain in range and depth from prolonged experience with life. Posterity smiles, only occasionally, upon the whipper-snapper.

The Eighties were a signal time in the art world; strange, too. But the New York scene has become stranger still—political grand-standing coupled with a hyperbolic marketplace will do that to a subculture. Young artists are no longer frowned upon, and they are regularly (as a dealer of acquaintance put it) “cradle snatched” by curators, collectors, and critics. Are young folks more in tune with our kaleidoscopic world—as we are often led to believe—or are they more apt to latch onto it? The former connotes prescience; the latter, a chase after the bandwagon. Jordan Casteel is an interesting case in point. She has achieved astonishing success in a short span of time. Months after earning her MFA from Yale in 2014, Casteel had a solo exhibition in Manhattan, went on to a prestigious residency at The Studio Museum of Harlem, and was picked up by the art world macher Casey Kaplan. Jerry Saltz, the art critic for New York magazine, wrote that Casteel is “prepared to take a rightful place on the front lines of contemporary painting.” The New York Times? Casteel has received half a dozen notices—more recognition from our paper of record than most artists get in a lifetime. And since we’re keeping tabs: Casteel is thirty-one years old.

Jordan Casteel, The Baayfalls (2017), oil on canvas, 78 x 90″; courtesy The New Museum

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Good for Casteel: we should all be showered with attention and plaudits. Whether they are earned is another matter. Voluminous press, enviable sales, and the profile that inevitably accompanies them aren’t necessarily indicators of aesthetic quality or staying power. Art ultimately thrives on its independence and integrity, on how adroitly its requisite properties are shaped and how they embody and shade qualities we intuit as human commonalities. How good are Casteel’s paintings? (An impolitic question given the hierarchy-free nostrums of contemporary culture.) Fans of the terminally avant-garde will be taken aback by Casteel’s conservatism. Unlike the usual fare at The New Museum, Casteel doesn’t partake in installations of bric-à-brac or heady nostrums given bare-bones packaging. No bells and whistles, thank you very much: oil on canvas will do. Portraiture is Casteel’s métier: the sitter is the locus of, and inspiration for, the artist’s vision. Upon entering “Within Reach,” one can’t help but take note of the intimacy informing Casteel’s art—something of a paradox given its larger-than-life scale. Empathy and warmth are rare commodities in art as in life. Casteel’s best portraits are suffused with both.

In the catalogue interview, Casteel tells Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator at the Studio Museum, that “being a black artist painting people of color is a nonnegotiable, unchangeable fact.” She goes on to wonder if “it is possible to be a person from a marginalized community and still make ‘art for art’s sake.’ ” Casteel goes some way in answering the question with The Baayfalls (2017), a portrait of a Harlem street vendor and her brother, a recent visitor—or émigré—from Senegal. (The painting was recreated as a large mural adjacent to New York’s High Line on Twenty-second Street.) It’s an unlikely and ambitious inventory of pictorial tacks: representation vies with abstraction; vibrant colors are lodged within encompassing fields of gray, black, and white; volume and mass—that is to say, dimension— coexist with attenuated-bordering-on-blasé linework. The woman pictured, Fallou, makes a devotional gesture derived from the Sufi Brotherhood, but it is the presence of her brother, Baaye Demba Sow, that cinches the painting. Casteel renders his skin with a steely range of blue-blacks and captures a temperament—a moment, really—that is simultaneously world-weary and august. Romare Bearden aimed to “paint the life of my people as I know it . . . as Bruegel painted the life of the Flemish people of his day.” Casteel has accomplished something like this with The Baayfalls.

Jordan Casteel, Serwaa and Amoakohene (2019), oil on canvas, 90 x 78″; courtesy The New Museum * * *

Casteel isn’t up to the Bearden standard— few of us are—and it’s worth mulling if there are better role models for figurative painters than Alice Neel. Casteel is on record extolling Neel’s “freshness and sense of perfection,” and the influence is there to see. Casteel’s art is mercifully free of Neel’s cruel bonhomie, and her serpentine paint-handling is more generous in spirit and momentum. Like Neel, however, Casteel doesn’t carry her pictorial machinations throughout the entirety of the paintings. The backdrops for her subjects are, well, backdrops. Oddly crumpled in character, Casteel’s compositions are patchwork affairs, and the flattened light that defines them betrays too strong a dependence on the photographs that serve as source material. Casteel is liveliest when pattern and color are given a measure of independence: the red-and-green garment glimpsed in Her Turn (2018), for example, or the choppy run of textiles seen in Noelle and Serwaa and Amoakohene (2019). Casteel might take a look at Edouard Vuillard and his melding of portraiture and pattern—or Gwen John, a painter who did away with backdrops altogether. It’s enough to make you think that a bit of art-for-art’s-sake might transform “unchangeable fact” into something richer, wilder, and true. “Within Reach,” indeed: let’s see where Casteel takes us.

© 2020 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the November 2020 edition of The New Criterion.

“Forbidden Realms”

Mario Naves, A Stone Thrown in Athens (2019-20), acrylic on panel, 24 x 30″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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“Serenely joyful, subtly colored and Apollonian in affect”? Wow.

Thanks to Franklin Einspruch–artist, critic and brain trust of Delicious Line, an invaluable resource for mavens of contemporary art–for his review of my current exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery.

Not Having a Cow, Man!

Installation of “Mario Naves: Losing the Cow” at Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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The painter and critic Andrew Shea has posted a review of my current show at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, and I couldn’t ask for a more nuanced eye. Shea’s review can be found at Dispatch, the blog of The New Criterion.

“Losing the Cow”: Paintings by Mario Naves

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Bryce Canyon, Utah; Bryan Mullennix, Getty Images

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The following essay is included in the catalogue accompanying “Mario Naves: Losing the Cow”, an exhibition on display at Elizabeth Harris Gallery. Installation photos of the paintings can be seen here.

“A hell of a place to lose a cow”–that’s how the Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce, back in 1870, described the canyon in southern Utah that would come to bear his name. Almost fifty years later, the Suprematist artist Theo Van Doesburg painted an arrangement of rectangles derived from pencil studies of a cow. In between and surrounding these poles revolve some curious tangents—about perception and subjectivity; nature’s bounty; hierarchies of form; and the transformative pleasures of art.

What can be gained and what might be overlooked in losing the cow? For Bryce, the astonishing landscape of the American West was a hindrance; for van Doesburg, geometry superseded observation. The world, in both cases, proved inescapable.

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Theo van Doesburg, Study for Compostion VIII (c. 1917) and Composition VIII (The Cow) (c. 1918); courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York

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The paintings in this exhibition don’t begin from anything that specific–there’s not a barnyard in sight of my Lower East Side studio. Rather, each image is the culmination of impulses and allusions that arise during the process of painting.

Chance incident is pivotal. Blind alleys, unexpected digressions and a variety of conundrums are set out, jettisoned, excavated and explored. In pursuing and then clarifying this turn of events, I aim to create paintings that are as puzzling and peculiar as life itself, cows definitely included.

© 2020 Mario Naves

“Losing the Cow” at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York, NY

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The Flying Lesson (2019-20), acrylic on paper mounted on panel, 20″ in diameter; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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I am pleased to announce that Elizabeth Harris Gallery will be mounting an exhibition of my recent paintings come this September. “Losing the Cow” was originally scheduled for last April, but–well, you know, the world got in the way. The show will be open on September 5th and run through October 24th. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition.

As for the exhibition title–it involves Mormon pioneers, Theo van Doesburg and the lack of agriculture on the Lower East Side. Check this space in a week or so–I’ll be posting the catalogue essay.

 

“Marie Cuttoli: The Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray” at the Barnes Foundation

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Installation view of ““Marie Cuttoli: The Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray”; photo courtesy of The Barnes Foundation

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“Marie Cuttoli was a businesswoman: an entrepreneur possessed of a sharp eye, savvy marketing skills, and great connections. The redoubtable Albert Barnes vouched for her ‘foresight, courage, and knowledge.’ Lord & Taylor—yes, the department store—extolled her feminist bona fides, proving itself P.C.–prescient in 1927.”

Read the entire article here.

“Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist” at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

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Agnes Pelton, Day, 1935. Oil on canvas. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum; Gift of The Melody S. Robidoux Foundation; All photographs courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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Here’s one thing you can say about “Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist”: localism has its benefits. A retrospective of a reclusive and little-known painter has arrived in Manhattan, having originated in Phoenix and traveled to Santa Fe, and with Palm Springs set to be its final destination. Though Pelton (1881–1961) was born in Germany and educated in New York, she spent the last thirty years of her life holed up in southern California—Cathedral City, to be exact. No splashy international credentials here, thank you very much. What about auction house hoopla, ideological grandstanding, and post-modernist theorizing? Though anything can be drafted into the service of irksome trends, Pelton’s work, on the whole, proves resistant. Should we be so gauche, then, to consider matters of art? On those terms, “Desert Transcendentalist” succeeds nicely. What possessed the Whitney—an institution not known for placing a premium on aesthetic worth—to host such an understated, serious, and rewarding venture? Curator Barbara Haskell and senior curatorial assistant Sarah Humphreville must have done considerable strong-arming to convince their corporate bosses that Pelton was worth the real estate. Or maybe they mentioned Hilma af Klint.

You remember af Klint: the Swedish painter fêted by the Guggenheim a little over a year ago, and whose oeuvre was quite the smash. Af Klint’s diagrammatic pictographs found an appreciative audience that would otherwise have had little truck with abstraction. The backstory helped: af Klint (1862–1944) was a visionary who communed with the spirit world; she was a woman who, chronologically speaking, beat pioneering abstractionists like Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian—that is to say, the guys—at their own game; and she had a temperament inimical to the market-place. That the paintings are merely okay hasn’t fazed the cultish following that has amassed in af Klint’s wake. What will these same folks make of Pelton? She, too, immersed herself in the supernatural. Madame Blavatsky was a touchstone, as were astrology, numerology, faith healing, and Agni Yoga, a discipline in which true believers learn that (as per the official literature) “the way to and from other planets is no more difficult than is the passage between the physical and astral bodies.” Those of us leery about the state of our bodies, astral or otherwise, might be forgiven for thinking twice about trekking to the Whitney.

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Agnes Pelton, The Blest, 1941. Oil on canvas, 37 1/2 × 28 1/4 in. (95.3 × 71.8 cm). Collection of Georgia and Michael de Havenon. Photograph by Martin Seck

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Which would be a shame because Pelton is a find—a painter whose work reveals af Klint as a piker and confirms Georgia O’Keeffe to be a drab hand. The latter comparison is merited not only because Pelton and O’Keeffe took inspiration from the landscape of the American West—Pelton spent a formative season in New Mexico at the behest of the arts patron Mable Dodge—but also because they shared a distinctly homespun mysticism, as well as significant commonalities of form. Scholars conjecture that Pelton’s bent toward New Age nostrums can be traced to a highly publicized family scandal: her grandmother Elizabeth Tilton (already married and with children) was famously exposed as having had an affair with the firebrand evangelist Henry Ward Beecher. Having felt “overshadowed” and “cramped” by this legacy, and suffering from poor health, Pelton sought solace outside of conventional religious and medical practice. This led, interestingly enough, to some noteworthy connections among the culturati—not only Dodge, but also Emma Curtis Hopkins, a practitioner of “alternative feminist theology,” and Alice Brisbane Thursby. Hopkins served as Pelton’s therapist; Thursby as patron and promoter. The latter’s connections to the Parisian avant-garde did much to cement Pelton’s reputation within New York circles. She was no starry-eyed outsider.

large_804_Orbits_copy.jpgAgnes Pelton, Orbits, 1934. Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 × 30 in. (92.1 × 76.2 cm). Oakland Museum of California; gift of Concours d’Antiques, the Art Guild of the Oakland Museum of California

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As I noted in my review of the af Klint exhibition, philosophical loopiness shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand when it comes to art. It has, in fact, occasioned a fair share of significant work, and Pelton is a sterling case in point. Admittedly, “Desert Transcendentalist” does stutter toward the beginning, with pictures like Room Decoration in Purple and Gray (1917), with its fairy tale portent and Futurist mannerisms, and Intimation (1933) and Barna Dilae (1935), saccharine and sticky portraits of imagined “ascended masters.” Even so, these images are characterized by patiently calibrated surfaces and lustrous accumulations of oil paint. Pelton’s brush flutters with a becoming modesty, and her palette is striking in its luminosity. This is an art of bottomless, crystalline color, and spaces so nuanced in their transitions as to occasion double-takes. As a symbolist, Pelton was better off forgoing direct representation; suggestion and distillation were her strengths. In the finest paintings, constellations, flora, and sandstone mesas are subsumed within gentle arabesques, sloping rhythms, and compositional buoyancy. The Whitney’s Sea Change (1931), with its off-center accumulation of bulbous forms nestled within a crepuscular light, is Hudson River School sensationalism melded with Surrealist whimsy. Sounds awful, but it is, in truth, a magnificent picture, and not a little sexy to boot.

Pelton employed Modernist means when adumbrating form, but the chromatic and spatial resonance of the pictures—their clarity, depth, and jewel-like sonorities—are pure Renaissance fortitude. The ascending motes of light in Orbits (1934) and the keening tonality enveloping Challenge (1940) owe less to Arthur Dove—another painter with whom Pelton shares artistic turf—than, say, Raphael. A hyperbolic comparison, sure, but name another twentieth-century artist who created anything close to the infinite yellow of Prelude (1943) or the milky veils of unnameable color that filter through The Blest (1941). Pelton’s more tangible shapes can be cartoony and do edge upon kitsch, but they carry with them a wit and resilience that is appealing and welcome. Gilbert Vicario, the Selig Family Chief Curator at the Phoenix Art Museum and the organizer of “Desert Transcendentalist,” has wisely chosen not to include Pelton’s traditional landscape paintings. Though accomplished, these pictures-done-for-profit are woefully bland when contrasted with even the wobbliest of Pelton’s spiritualist reveries. As for the non-wobbly reveries —of which there are a baker’s dozen or two— they are stunners. Coming into initial contact with them, you can’t help but wonder where they’ve been all your life. Kudos to Haskell and Humphreville for bringing this exhibition to New York, and especially Vicario, for knowing a good painter when he sees one.

© 2020 Mario Naves

This review originally appeard in the May 2020 edition of The New Criterion.

“Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect; Drawings from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France” at The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

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Jean-Jacques Lequeu, And We Shall Be Mothers Because . . . ! (1793 or 1974), pen and black ink, black and gray wash; courtesy The Morgan Library and Museum and Bibliothèque nationale de France, Departement des Estampes et de la photographie

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“The obscurity to which Lequeu was subsequently consigned can be attributed, in no small part, to his own doing. Numerous drawings dedicated to sexual preoccupations of a rather peculiar sort don’t readily lend themselves to public display, let alone public acclamation . . .”

Click here to read the entirety of the review at Dispatch, the blog for The New Criterion.

Artist Snapshot

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Mario Naves, Dominant Cultural Narrative (2020), acrylic on canvas over panel, 24″ in diameter; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery, NY (Photo: Adam Reich)

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Thanks to the good graces of painter Jill Nathanson, I’ll be teaching this spring at The Art Students League as part of “Visiting Artists and New Abstraction“. ASL has posted an interview with me on its website as part of the Artist Snapshot series. It can be found here.

“Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Felix Vallotton, The White and the Black (1913), oil on canvas, 44-7/8 x 57-7/8″; courtesy the Kunstmuseum Bern, Hahnloser/Jaeggli Foundation, Villa Flora, Winterthur

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If only for the inclusion of The White and the Black (1913), the retrospective of the Swiss painter and printmaker Félix Vallotton (1865–1925) merits its subtitle. The Met has given special emphasis to the painting, and can you blame it for doing so? It’s an arresting picture. Toward the right of the canvas, a black woman, clad in blue and smoking a cigarette, sits pensively on a bed. The object of her attention is a reclining white woman who is nude and—what exactly? Sleeping, maybe; posing, perhaps. (Her posture suggests a degree of self-awareness.) The title conjures a Whistlerian focus on color harmonies, and the image bears a knowing resemblance to Manet’s Olympia (1863). The relationship between the two women is provocative in its ambiguity. Was Vallotton, a committed leftist and anarchist sympathizer, commenting on class divide—exploring unstated tensions between mistress and servant? He didn’t leave a paper trail regarding intent; the exhibition catalogue is mum on the subject. We are on surer footing in guessing that the curators are keying into contemporary woke culture by bestowing a prominent berth to The White and the Black.

As a feat of painting, The White and the Black owes nothing to Whistler, only nods to Manet, and strays far afield from Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, both of whom Vallotton counted as friends. Paul Gauguin is the nearest correlative, partly for the confluence of eroticism and race, mostly for the elasticity and import given to color—the expanse of sea green serving as the backdrop, especially. That, and the painting isn’t . . . good. Or, rather, not as good as it portends. The longer one stays with The White and the Black the more its shortcomings are revealed. The nude feels as if she has been airlifted from another galaxy. (As a variation on Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, it likely was.) The concomitant disconnect suggests that we’re looking at a painter who hasn’t altogether mastered the intricacies of pictorial space. The disquieting thing about “Painter of Disquiet” is, in fact, how consistently Vallotton misses the mark set by his not inconsiderable ambitions. The critic and artist Patrick Heron memorably dubbed Gauguin a “great bad painter.” Vallotton doesn’t rank that high. Still, the exhibition should pique the interest of those with a taste for idiosyncratic talent and fin de siècle culture.

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Felix Vallotton, Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty (1885), oil on canvas, 70 x 55 cm.; courtesy Cantonal Museum of Fine Arts, Lausanne

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Born in Lausanne to a middle-class Protestant family, the sixteen-year-old Vallotton forsook his studies in Greek and Latin, heading, instead, to Paris in order to pursue art. He enrolled at the Académie Julian and haunted the galleries of the Louvre, becoming enamored with the paintings of da Vinci, Dürer, and Ingres. With a boost from the painter Jules Lefebvre, his teacher at the Académie, Vallotton’s work was exhibited at the Salon des Champs-Élysées in 1885. It wasn’t long before the young artist began exploring less traditional byways. Working as an art critic for the Gazette de Lausanne, Vallotton singled out Henri Rousseau for special praise, and he began doing woodcut illustrations for a variety of periodicals. These caught the collective eye of the Nabis, and Vallotton was invited to join a group that counted among its members Vuillard, Bonnard, and Maurice Denis. Subsequently ensconced within the Parisian avant-garde, Vallotton exhibited in the Salon des Indépendants and socialized with the likes of Félix Fénéon, Gertrude Stein, Paul Verlaine, and Thadée Natanson, the publisher of the influential literary magazine La Revue blanche. Radical politics were a continuing fascination for Vallotton, albeit one tempered by his marriage to Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, a widow of considerable wealth and influence.

Vallotton’s work for the popular press generated notoriety and won admiration. A critic of the time dubbed him the “Baudelaire of wood-engraving.” As a presumed nod to this honorific, the Met exhibition opens with Vallotton’s starkly configured black-and-white prints, largely of events taking place in the streets of Paris. Truth to tell, their cumulative effect is underwhelming. The high-contrast pictures devoted to the World’s Fair have a punchy appeal, as does Vallotton’s use of caricature. But the images are muddled—puzzle pieces that don’t snap into place—and one is reminded that the best cartoonists stylize form with flair and rhythm. The good bourgeois citizens of France, as pictured by Vallotton, are ill-configured stereotypes in compositions with little interior logic. Vallotton was better when sticking to nineteenth-century academic standards of figuration. Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty (1885) and The Sick Girl (1892), though stiff and stagey respectively, are more convincing. Not convincing at all is The Five Painters (1902–03), Vallotton’s portrait of himself, Vuillard, Bonnard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, and Charles Cottet. A cut-rate Madame Tussaud wouldn’t settle for the dour and dusty mannequins Vallotton has shuffled into place.

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Felix Vallotton, Box Seats at the Theater, the Gentleman and the Lady (1909), oil on canvas, 18-3/16 x 15″; courtesy Private Collection

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A suite of prints titled Intimités, along with a group of related paintings, explore the quiddities of (mostly illicit) romantic intrigue: men and women, ensconced within well-appointed interiors, rendezvous and embrace. The hothouse atmosphere of The Lie (1897) generates erotic ten- sion, and the stately tones sweeping through The Visit (1899) underscore the unseemly machinations of seduction. Composition, more than mise en scène, was a strong suit. Vallotton employed asymmetry to striking effect, and his cropped vistas and subtle shifts in vantage point add a welcome frisson of modernity. The Bon Marché (1898), a tripartite homage to the venerable department store, is remarkably gutsy in how a slurry of figures is clearly situated within a centralized area of darkness. Box Seats at the Theater, the Gentleman and the Lady (1909) is a study in structural concision and skewed geometry that would have made Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec smile—Guy Pène du Bois, too. And that’s the problem: the work can’t help but recall better painters. The Met’s decision to hang Vallotton’s portrait of Gertrude Stein side by side with Picasso’s depiction of the collector points to how relatively stolid and unadventurous Vallotton was as an artist. The oeuvre, though not without its diversions, makes for a bumpy ride. “Painter of Disquiet” is best considered a curiosity that’s never quite as curious as it wants to be.

© 2020 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the January 2020 edition of The New Criterion.

“John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal” at The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

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John Singer Sargent, Lady Diana Manners (1914), charcoal; Private Collection. Photography by Christopher Calnan

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Charcoal is among the most generous and frustrating of drawing mediums. Generous in that it lends itself to ready manipulation and, as such, is forgiving in its malleability; each mark and erasure increases the depth and tactility of both the image and the sheet of paper itself. Frustrating because its material consistency makes for dirt, and lots of it. Ingraining itself into the nooks and crannies of the hand, charcoal will also leave a halo of black dust on the area surrounding the drawing surface. Anyone who has even briefly experimented with charcoal quickly realizes its potential as well as its liabilities. You either love or hate the stuff. Having said that, bets are that folks on either side of this split will exit “John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal” energized, amazed, and delighted. Sargent had a singular gift for oils and watercolor; we all know that. But charcoal? That comes as a surprise, though less for Sargent’s deftness of touch than for his delving into the medium at all.

The Morgan show is, in fact, the first time a museum has dedicated itself exclusively to Sargent’s efforts in charcoal. Organized by Richard Ormond—the coauthor of the Sargent catalogue raisonné, former director of London’s National Portrait Gallery, and grand-nephew of the artist—along with Laurel Peterson, the Moore Curatorial Fellow in the Morgan’s Department of Drawings and Prints, “Portraits in Charcoal” is an exhibition whose aesthetic reach goes beyond its modest scale. The fifty-some drawings on display have been installed with a gentility that befits the era and milieu in which they were created—that is to say, Victorian, aristocratic, and artistic. Should there be a hue and cry from the politically correct among us regarding the 1 percent for whom Sargent plied his trade, well, they can stand in line behind the artist himself. At the age of fifty-one, the much sought-after portraitist declared there would be “no more paughtraits . . . I abhor and abjure them and hope never to do another especially of the Upper Classe.”

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John Singer Sargent, Henry James (1912), charcoal, 24-5/16 x 16-1/8″; The Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

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This distaste didn’t prevent Sargent from allowing himself some wiggle room. He was, after all, wise to the status and possibility afforded by hobnobbing with the social elite. While Sargent gave up portraiture in oils, he continued doing “a lot of mugs in coke and charcoal.” A “lot”? Think seven hundred and fifty. For the cultured classes, a Sargent charcoal portrait was de rigueur. Writing in the catalogue, Ormond wryly notes that “How do you like your Sargent drawing?” became a query that peppered London dinner parties, practically guaranteeing responses from all and sundry. Not that Sargent’s clients were always pleased by the drawings. Lady Cynthia Asquith summarily dismissed Sargent’s portrayal of her as being “the foulest woman I have ever seen.” The son of Bishop William Lawrence donated a portrait of his father to Washington’s National Gallery, stating that “we would be glad to have it a thousand miles from home.” Sargent was not uncritical of his own work. Writing to Edith Wharton about a charcoal portrait of their mutual friend Henry James, Sargent predicted that “I shall not be surprised if you pronounce it a failure.”

The typical viewer has the advantage of not being personally or professionally invested. We are at a welcome remove, here, in the twenty-first century, even when the portraits are figures whose import still resonates. The aforementioned drawing of Henry James is included in “Portraits in Charcoal”—looking not at all a failure, by the way—as are portraits of the poet William Butler Yeats, a twenty- three-year-old Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother), the actress Ethel Barrymore, and Winston Churchill—who, though somewhat put off by Sargent’s picture, thought one “must not look a gift portrait in the mouth.” A double self-portrait from 1902 opens the show, and it is the stiffest thing on display. Pictured as serious and somewhat cherubic, Sargent doesn’t do much more than skim the shallows of representation. Ormond needn’t remind us of the artist’s reticence while taking in the drawing; it’s there to scan. Virtuosity was wasted on self- portraiture—a point made abundantly clear by Lady Evelyn Charteris Vesey, Viscountess de Vesci (1910), a drawing placed in close vicinity to the Double Self-Portrait.

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John Singer Sargent, Double Self-Portrait (1902), graphite, 6-1/2 x 7-1/2″; Private Collection, Georgia

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Talk about a lack of reticence! Lady de Vesci is a woman to be reckoned with—elegant, to be sure, and possessed of an intellect as keen as it is unforgiving. We tread lightly lest we incur her displeasure. And so it goes: one drawing after another, wiped, smeared, and dabbed at until an uncanny sense of person-hood emerges from the gritty depths of the medium. Portrait commissions tend toward flattery, and Sargent wasn’t averse to confirming youth, beauty, status, and dignity when the occasion called for it. But portraiture, at its finest, discloses and elaborates upon the human spirit—its depths and sorrows, convictions and contradictions. The greatest portraits are put into motion with empathy, acuity, and, on the part of the artist anyway, necessary understatement. Whatever the backstory to the lives of Rabbi Charles Fleischer, Major Henry Lee Higginson, Eugenia Huici Errázuriz, or Ellen Peabody Endicott, you will know them in significant measure after encountering them through Sargent’s hands. Congratulations to all concerned at the Morgan. “Portraits in Charcoal” is an astonishing exhibition.

© 2019 Mario Naves

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

“Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory” at The Met Breuer

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Vija Celmins, Envelope (1964), oil on canvas, 16 x 19″; courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery and The Met Breuer

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What a curious painter Vija Celmins is, so vexing and dry. Two floors of the Met Breuer have been dedicated to an oeuvre spanning some fifty years and not a lot of acreage. The modest size of Celmins’s canvases will come as a surprise to audiences accustomed to the bigger-is-better ethos typical of contemporary art exhibitions. (A smattering of sculptures on display take on a larger scale.) “To Fix the Image in Memory” begins with Envelope (1964), a sixteen-by-nineteen-inch painting sequestered in the entryway to the museum’s fourth floor galleries. As we traverse the show, the work stays within easel-painting range; the largest picture measures about five feet square. The installation is spare and, I’m guessing, was a challenge to choreograph. Certainly, you’d be hard-pressed to recall a show that reinforces just how stark and clean and airless Marcel Breuer’s Seventy-fifth Street edifice is. Celmins’s paintings, drawings, and prints are notably at home in these environs. It’s worth pondering what it is that makes a fairly traditional talent simpatico with the proverbial white cube.

Celmins has long been a steadfast, if decidedly under-the-radar, art world fixture—initially on the West Coast and, later, in New York. Born in Riga in 1938, Celmins had an unsettled childhood. The Soviet invasion of Latvia in 1940 forced the Celmins family—mother and father, along with Vija and an older sister—to seek refuge in Nazi Germany. (“History,” as the artist later noted, “was brutal.”) Having been shuttled from one refugee camp to another, the Celminses came to the United States in 1948 under the auspices of the Church World Service, settling in Indiana. It was the first time, as Celmins told Calvin Tomkins in a New Yorker profile, “that I realized being in fear wasn’t normal.” Celmins attended the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis and found a welcoming niche within its student body. She attended Yale University during the summer of 1961, befriending future art scene mainstays Chuck Close and Brice Marden. Celmins eventually traveled west to study at UCLA. As with many artists of the time, she grappled with the legacy of the New York School even as she kept an eye on recent trends.

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Vija Celmins, Heater (1964), oil on canvas, 47 9/16 × 48″; courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery and The Met Breuer

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“To Fix the Image in Memory” begins promisingly with the aforementioned Envelope, a dexterously executed still life in which understatement vies with painterly sensuality. Comparisons to Morandi are not unwarranted. As we enter the exhibition proper, the focus shifts—not in terms of imagery or composition, but in affect. With two notable exceptions, the images are wan and virtually monochrome, tending toward gray; the painterly approach is detached, muffled. Single objects are set within fields of flattened sfumato. To-the-point titles tell all: Heater, Fan, Two Lamps, like that. Painted from observation, these pictures testify to Celmins’s goal of “get[ting] back to some kind of basic thing where I just look, and paint.” She was nothing if not dutiful in her ambitions. Too dutiful, really. Absent is any sense of discovery. An unforgiving literalism takes precedence. Hot Plate and Heater (both 1964), the coloristic exceptions mentioned above, emit heat with appropriate placements of reddish orange in the grills of each appliance. In both cases, it’s an effective pictorial fillip, but, in the end, devoid of imaginative reach. Magic? It’s not on the agenda.

Painting from observation didn’t last long or, rather, became circumscribed. Three dimensions were winnowed down to two: Celmins began using photographs as source material. Gun with Hand #1 and Gun with Hand #2 (both 1964) are predicated on pictures taken by the artist and depict a bare arm jutting in from the side of the canvas firing a revolver. The lone moment of painterly embellishment is the puff of smoke that gives the images an oddball quietude. TV (1964) and Train (1965), installed nearby, are similarly centered on time and movement having been stifled. What Celmins does to the photo, whether working in graphite or oils, is far from flashy. Photo-realism isn’t quite her métier. Celmins is less overtly crowd-pleasing—less superficial, too. Images of trucks, deserts, war planes, forest fires, and, in recent years, the cosmos evince a Magrittean sense of displacement and a frangibility that a charitable soul might describe as Chardin-esque. “Redescription” is Celmins’s preferred terminology for her use of photography. What might seem a semantic hedge against potential complaints about copying or imitation is, in point of fact, a marker of how an artist can generate poetry through deliberate technique and force of will. Celmins’s way with graphite, especially, is admirable in its subtlety and softness.

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Vija Celmins, Web 2 (2000), mezzotint, 18 x 14-3/4″; courtesy The Met Breuer

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Resistible, too. As poetry, Celmins’s work is distilled and dour—haiku devoid of evocation or resonance. Writing in the catalogue, Briony Fer, an art historian at University College London and a Fellow of the British Academy, cautions against allusions to poetry, preferring “conceptual abstraction” as a more suitable peg on which to hang Celmins’s “haptic, creaturely logic.” Well, maybe. Minimalism is more to the point, I think, and goes to the heart of the art’s metaphorical intractability. Celmins’s pictures of pictures hint at provocation and meditation; what they deliver are immaculate dead-ends. Even within the series of drawings devoted to waves and spider webs—the most evanescent of her subjects—an overriding sense of closure stunts engagement. “What you see is what you see,” indeed. Passive-aggressive is the signature M.O. of her generation, and Celmins partakes of its insolence. Abandoning Abstract Expressionism because “there was no meaning in it for me,” Celmins pursued an artistic strategy in which “no meaning” was both a jumping-off point and final destination. All of which goes some way in explaining the forbidding purity within which Celmins has barricaded herself, as well as the ready adaptability of her work to the Met Breuer.

© 2019 Mario Naves

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

Pratt in Venice 35th Anniversary

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I’m pleased to announce that two of my paintings will be displayed in the exhibition accompanying the 35th anniversary of the indispensable Pratt in Venice program. The opening reception takes place on Monday, October 21st, between 5:00-8:00 p.m. with celebratory remarks at 6:30 pm. The exhibition continues until November 1st.

The exhibition will be in Steuben Gallery on Pratt’s Brooklyn campus; the school is located at 200 Willoughby Avenue in Clinton Hill.

“Picasso and Antiquity: Line and Clay” The Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens, Greece

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Installation shot of “Picasso and Antiquity: Line and Clay”; courtesy The Museum of Cycladic Art

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“Picasso and Antiquity: Line and Clay” brings to mind a cartoon I came across ages ago in (if memory serves correctly) the pages of MAD magazine. It was a parody of the familiar image of Darwinian ascent, tracing, in this case, the evolution of art and artists. From left to right, we follow the step-by-step development, beginning with an ape wielding a brush to, a couple of figures over, a stately Leonardo-like figure holding a palette. Ultimately, we end up on a downhill slope to the original ape, albeit now wearing a beret and splattering paint, Pollock-style. An obvious joke, perhaps, yet like most jokes it contains a hard kernel of truth—about the development of artistic pursuit, say, or the illusory nature of progress. Might the wits at MAD have had Ecclesiastes in mind, placing broad strokes on the observation that there is nothing new under the sun? Certainly, there are immovable facts that refute historical circumstances. An ape wearing a beret? There are better emblems of human constancy. Worse, too.

The line traced by “Picasso and Antiquity” is less encyclopedic and less cynical. It is, in fact, as heartening an exhibition as one could hope for. Art, it insists, is a means by which human beings, however separated by time and culture, can uncover and sustain correspondences of feeling and ambition, vision and thought. “Universal values,” they used to be called, and without employing scare quotes as a crutch. In a culture as identity-riven and politically rebarbative as our own, such an effort might be derided as furthering the wiles of, um, the cisheteropatriarchy. (Yeah, it’s a thing.) Yet by placing works by the foremost innovator of twentieth-century art alongside objects that predate them—by, at times, a good three millennia—“Picasso and Antiquity” places its bets on art as an inclusive and transformative continuum, and wins. Kudos to Nikolaos C. Stampolidis, Director of the Museum of Cycladic Art, and the art historian Olivier Berggruen for assembling a show that posits history as a vital continuity, a resource in which aspiration and accomplishment are forever contemporary, forever relevant.

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Torso from a statue of the Minotaur/Roman copy of an Early Classical prototype, marble, height: 73 cm.; courtesy the National Archeological Museum, Athens, Greece

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Influence is a slippery thing, and not always easy to codify. Stampolidis admits as much, noting that the sundry examples of antiquity featured at the Cycladic Museum are objects the “artist might have . . . encountered, absorbed, digested, adjusted and transformed, or have been to a greater or lesser degree inspired by.” “Might” is the operative word. How versed was the Spaniard in the art and lore of Greece and Rome? The poet and critic Randall Jarrell described Picasso as an artist who “loves the world so much he wants to steal it and eat it.” Picasso was, in artistic terms, an omnivore of unceasing appetite. As a young painter in Paris, he haunted the Louvre’s Campana Collection with its myriad artifacts and sculptures. Recurring motifs in his oeuvre—fauns, minotaurs, and centaurs—testify to Picasso’s knowledge of myth. More specialized references pop up as well—to Silenus, for instance, the drunken semi-divinity who served as tutor to Dionysus. Berggruen suggests that relationships with Efstratios Eleftheriades (better known as Teriade) and Christian Zervos, publishers of Greek extraction and proselytizers for Greek culture, were pivotal in furthering the artist’s immersion in all things antique. Score a point for the home team.

“Picasso and Antiquity” is divided into sections with discrete themes, among them “Line and Light in Space,” “Lysistrata,” “Arcadia,” “The Three Graces,” and “The Minotaur.” The works are modest in scale and sometimes tiny; this is, very much, a jewel-box exhibition. The minotaur introduces the show—with a Roman copy, done in marble, based on an earlier Classical prototype—and rounds it off with a calyx krater, circa 340–300 B.C., in which we see a red-figure diorama of Theseus wrestling and besting the fearsome man-bull. As a curatorial gambit, this is risky. The former piece is a powerhouse of sinew and verisimilitude; the latter a supernal exercise in concision and contour. In between, there are artifacts depicting Aphrodite, Dionysiac revels, sacred fish (the tilapia), powerful animals (the bull), and birds—rendered in clay, silver, bronze, and marble. Any artist worth his salt would be rendered skittish by the majesty—or, in the case of the priapic slapstick seen on the Black Figure Kabirian skyphos (ca. fifth century B.C.), arrant ribaldry—inherent in even the least of these pieces. After my initial run-through of the show, Picasso came off as small potatoes, an overinflated ego out of its depth. Upon subsequent visits, the ego gained muscle and credibility. Talent will out and, as it happens, so can irreverence.

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Pablo Picasso, Silenus in the company of dancers (1933), gouache and ink on paper, 34 x 45 cm.; courtesy the Staatliche Museen Berlin, Nationalgalerie Museum Berggruen

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Irreverence and, it should be noted, generosity of spirit. Rarely has Picasso—that monster! that villain!—been so likable. Was a degree of modesty elicited by the source material—that is to say, the competition? Or is this amiability a factor of curatorial choice— abjuring painting and sculpture for ceramics and drawing? The latter two media encouraged a greater degree of informality and play for Picasso than did painting or sculpture. As a draftsman, he is seen at his most mercurial and, at moments, meticulous: Silenus in the company of dancers (1933) and Lysistrata (Reconciliation Between Sparta and Athens) (1934) are tours-de-force, respectively, of narrative density and lyrical momentum. Ceramics have always seemed the least necessary of Picasso’s various mediums, but it did encourage his sense of humor. At the Cycladic Museum, Picasso the ceramicist is an unexpected head-turner, simultaneously confirming and transforming the spiritual heft and stylistic élan of his forebears. In some cases, it’s hard to tell who did what without a scorecard; the commonalities of form and vision are uncanny. A cabinet dedicated to the owl— helpmeet to Athena and, as such, a symbol of erudition—is a delight. As goofy as Picasso’s owls may be, they tap into the iconographic power embodied within the antique bowls and figurines placed nearby. Such juxtapositions are exciting, revealing, and often very funny. “Picasso and Antiquity” is an achievement of rare and welcome distinction.

© 2019 Mario Naves

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

First Hand: Ibrahim El-Salahi

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Ibrahim El-Salahi, Alphabets No. 2 (1962/re-worked 1968), oil on canvas, 29-3/8 x 24-3/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Among the run of Neo-Conceptualist bric-a-brac that is “Home is A Foreign Place; Recent Acquisitions in Context”, currently at the Met Breuer, Alphabets No. 2 comes as a welcome moment of introspection, quietude and reverie. The Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi (born 1930) is among the chief proponents of hurufiyya, a mode of abstraction in which Arabic script is subsumed within compositional structures derived from Cubism and Surrealism. “I began to break down the letters to find what gave them meaning”. Disassembling the word in service of truths that are expressly visual is a tough row to hoe. El-Salahi does so with becoming modesty.

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Gary Petersen

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Konstantinos Volanakis

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

 

First Hand: Fulvia Plautilla

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

 

First Hand: Pablo Picasso

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

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Sarah Cockings & Harriet Fleuriot

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Avigdor Arikha

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

 

 

First Hand: Saint George

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Theodore Poulakis

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Joan Miró

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Stephen Maine

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

First Hand: Petrus Christus

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves