“Old School” at Zwirner & Wirth

Self Portrait as Tender MercenaryJulie Heffernan, Self Portrait as Tender Mercenary (2006), oil on canvas, 91″ x 68-1/8″; courtesy Zwirner & Wirth

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Any exhibition that includes a painting by the Flemish artist Jan Brueghel is worth visiting and so it is, kind of, with Old School, on view at Zwirner & Wirth. Panoramic Landscape with Travelers (ca. 1600-1625) may not qualify as a signature work, but it’s a doozy all the same. Working in miniature, Brueghel conjured an awesome sweep of space dotted with myriad figures enacting all-too-human vignettes. The meticulously delineated narrative details are amazingly specific. The most powerful among them may be a man in olive-green garb watching a rider whipping a horse. The cruelty and sorrow are all the more astonishing for being encapsulated within an area hardly larger than a postage stamp.

The show features paintings by Jan’s brother Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Lucas Cranach, along with pieces by lesser-known Old Masters: Carlo Dolci, Jan Van Noordt, the School of Caravaggio, Battista Dossi and, er, John Currin. Mr. Currin isn’t an Old Master, of course—he’s a living, breathing painter whose depictions of women have earned accolades from no less a scholarly resource than Juggs magazine. He’s not the only contemporary artist sharing gallery space with Brueghel and company—Hilary Harkness, Karen Kilimnik and Elizabeth Peyton are here, too.

Old School attempts to divine a connection, supposedly deep-seated and true, between then and now. The gallery tells us of a “recent phenomenon” of young artists looking to the past in order to “re-define and re-contextualize… art-historical predecessors.” Forget for a moment how recent this “phenomenon” might be—Old School is interesting primarily as an example of art-world machination. The show illustrates how a cultural subset sustains its sense of worth or, if you’re in a cynical mood, its delusions. It’s not really concerned with the viability and vitality of tradition. It’s about marketing, and it’s pretty shameless about it, too.

A certain amount of shamelessness has always been a necessary part of the artist’s repertoire. Currying favor with the powers that be is the artist’s eternal pursuit; the status art bestows on patrons is a driving factor of equal force. You can witness this game at least as far back as Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, commonly regarded as the first art-historical tract, but also an essay in hyperbole. Vasari was an unapologetic (and not always factual) huckster. Then again, when the wares you’re peddling are Michelangelo, Raphael and Giotto, hucksterism loses its bad name.

But Zwirner & Wirth’s historical tit-for-tat feels calculated solely for monetary gain. Peppering “museum art” with the slick folderol typical of the international scene, the gallery sets out to create equivalencies in quality, intent and value. “See?” they suggest, “living artists can paint densely wrought narratives and figures too. And they do it with a lot of brown! Just like the Old Masters.” A flippant undercurrent is patent in the title’s hip-hop terminology: To describe 17th-century painting as “Old School” presumably transforms Carlo Dolci into the Florentine Kool Moe Dee.

Most of the contemporary painters on view wouldn’t know an Old Master painting if it bit them on their collective 21st-century ass. They know Brueghel as a cultural emblem, not as a consummate and deeply humane artist. If the Flemish master isn’t as ubiquitous as a Campbell’s soup can, the prestige he confers can nonetheless be poached. Brueghel is a brand name. Quality counts when it comes to the profit motive.

Appropriation is a soulless endeavor. It assumes that style is separate from and preferable to substance. Artists operating within this hollow purview are blind to the extent to which materials can be invested with meaning. They see history as a grab bag of pictorial clichés and the process of putting brush to canvas as a rote endeavor. Ms. Harkness, say, or Michaël Borremans are proficient at manipulating paint, but making images isn’t necessarily the same thing as making paintings. Among this coy and arid crowd, Mr. Currin is redeemed by silliness. I mean, we’re not supposed to take his pictures seriously, are we?

The only contemporary to emerge unscathed is Julie Heffernan. Her phantasmagoric Self Portrait as Tender Mercenary (2006) is not completely free of academic tendencies, but it was obviously created by an artist who prioritizes craft and reaches for magic in her symbolism.

There’s a much better exhibition to be made from the Old Master conceit. In the meantime, Brueghel, Cranach and company easily rise above the young masters foisted upon them.

(c) 2007 Mario Naves

Originally published in the July 10, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.

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