Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss–Kind Of

In & Out, Out & In; from left to right: Egon Schiele, Salvador Dalí, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Ben Shahn

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The first assignment of the semester is to have students bring in ten photocopies or print-outs of works by artists from whom they seek inspiration–artists they like. It’s a good way to get to know each student, as well as to get an indication of what I’m in for as a teacher. The following week, pictures are pinned up on the wall and I get to hear why it is, exactly, that the fate of the cosmos rests squarely on the shoulders of Lisa Yuskavage.

If recent years are an indication, the long-standing reigns of Salvador Dalí and Jean-Michel Basquiat are coming to an end amongst fledgling artists, having been usurped by that eternal adolescent Egon Schiele and his mentor, the over-hyped and over-priced Gustav Klimt. Marcel Duchamp and Damien Hirst pop up, albeit not to the degree you might think. Twenty-somethings nowadays tend to favor the profitable antics of graffiti entrepreneurs like David Choe.

But then, out of the blue, Ben Shahn has been appearing in these informal surveys. How many years has it been since you’ve heard that name? Shahn’s expertly contrived pastiches of modernist precedent, channeled into a woolly political progressivism, have been shuffled to the margins of history when not slid directly into the storage racks. Or so I thought. But it is Shahn’s cobbling together of stylistic tics that has his work floating this or that student’s boat.

My review of The Jewish Museum’s 1999 Shahn retrospective, found in this gallery round-up from the archives, is harsher than I remember. Still, pegging Shahn as “proficient and sentimental” seems right, as do my comments, further along in the piece, on Brice Marden.

As for Nell Blaine: The kind words about her domestic mise-en-scene were, in retrospect, fueled more by my fondness for marmalade than for the paintings themselves.  History will remember Blaine’s abstractions, pictures that make more of modernism’s tropes than Shahn, for one, could have imagined.

© 2011 Mario Naves


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