Bored With Modernism

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players (ca. 1892-96), oil on canvas, 23-5/8″ x 28-3/4″; courtesy The Courtald Gallery, London

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art has mounted a Cézanne exhibition and I’m in no mood to see it.

Oh, critical duty will have me ascending the great stairway soon enough; artistic duty, too, I suppose. Who knows? The pictures may (as my students tell it) rock my world. But it’s been a while since Cézanne and, for that matter, modernism have excited me.

Visiting MOMA, the Met’s Lila Acheson Wallace wing, the Guggenheim or any venue with a significant collection of modern art has increasingly become to seem like work. When was it that modern art started to look so . . . dusty? Brancusi, Miró, Arp, Klee, Picasso, Braque, de Kooning, Matisse–boy, have they become resistible.

Chalk it up to post-millennial blues, critical burn-out, modernist over-saturation or some irksome combination of the lot. Still, it’s weird and unexpected. I’m not about to embrace post-modernism–cheapjack nihilism isn’t an option. (Besides, PoMo was, by its very nature, D.O.A.) I’m not unaware that a certain level of self-delusion is at play: as a painter, I’m beholden to modernist precedent. But what’s excited me the past few years isn’t modern at all. It’s newer than all that.

Here, for example, is a work by one of my favorite contemporary artists:

Petrus Christus, The Lamentation (ca. 1450), oil on wood, 10-1/8″ x 14″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Here’s another, a fellow countryman of the popular Takashi Murakami:

Five Beauties

Katsushika Hokusai, Five Beauties (ca. 1805-13), hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, 34″ x 13-1/2″; courtesy Seattle Art Museum

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I’m being cute, but not really. A friend suggests that great works of art aren’t timeless so much as forever contemporary. That’s a nice distinction. The former conceit suggests relics stuck in amber; the latter, the pulse of life. Notwithstanding the stray artist or colleague who considers history disposable, we value artists of the past. Nothing new in that. That’s why we have museums.

Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels by Piero della FrancescaPiero della Francesca, Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels (c. 1460-70), oil on panel, 107.8 x 784. cm.; courtesy The Sterling & Francis Clark Institute

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Seeing Bacchanal of the Andrians (1523-25) in the Titian retrospective at London’s National Gallery was pivotal. It was rich with incident, ambition and life–like I had never seen a painting before. Then there was Hunt for Paradise; Court Arts of Safavid Iran, 1501-1576 at The Asia Society; its astonishing array of Persian miniatures left me giddy. Piero’s Madonna and Child Attended by Angels (1460-1470), a picture seen in a Met show dedicated to the (rightfully) unheralded Fra Carnevale, was similarly stunning. Watching that painting morph before my eyes, taking stock of and thrilling to its radical elisions of space and scale, I was flabbergasted. “You can’t do that“, I remember telling Piero.

Mondrian. Yeah, so what about him? I know what he’s up to. What Mondrian does–it’s so old.

beth reisman  acrylic on panel

Beth Reisman, Nike (2007), acrylic on panel, 48″ x 48″; courtesy the artist

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Some of the most interesting living artists (“living” as opposed to “contemporary” here; Memling’s dead, but he’s still the competition) channel traditions and currents that, while not altogether outside of the modernist purview, are nonetheless–how to put it?–impure. Julie Evans, Sharon Horvath, Beth Reisman, David Fertig, Thomas Nozkowski, Frances Barth, Martin Puryear, John Dubrow, even, in his own cloistered way, Neo Rauch–refuse to kowtow to a tradition that would place blinders on ambition. These artists aren’t modernists per se. What they are exactly, I don’t know. It’s enough that the work is exciting.

It was with some interest, then, that I read Peter Schjeldahl’s take on the Met’s current Cézanne exhibition in a recent edition of The New Yorker. Here’s what Schjeldahl had to say about the French master:

“The only way into [Cézanne’s] art is to track his technical decisions, like a painting student receiving instruction. Cézanne became the beau ideal of modernist values–as exemplary for the twentieth century of what art should be like as Raphael had been for previous epochs–by making our perceptions of art inextricable from how it comes to be. Our eyes and minds, as we look, repaint the picture. But what if we’d rather not? What about transcendence? Cézanne never lets go.”

Elsewhere, Schjeldahl describes the pleasure derived from Cézanne’s “clutter of coarse, arbitrary seeming brushstrokes” as “punishingly astringent.” The redoubtable New Yorker critic was able to muster more of a response to Cézanne than I have in recent years. Truth to tell, Cézanne has begun to bore me.

Schjeldahl dubs modernism “an endgame”. It’s not a new conceit. Wasn’t Hal Foster or some other brainy theoretician peddling that line years ago? Haven’t we been suffering the consequences of Conceptualism and Minimalism, endgame schools both, for almost half a century? Reading modernism as a race to the finish is simplistic, but I can’t help but think it’s true.

History has revealed that modernism revived tradition at the expense of art’s metaphorical depth and range. Do I recall correctly that Matisse rued the course modernism had taken? Picasso’s late paintings–those frantic attempts at channeling Rembrandt and Velasquez–were, I think, an attempt to reclaim all that was lost in the wake of innovations he, more than anyone, had put into motion.

Never say never to art’s independence and vitality. I haven’t forgotten how I was knocked flat on my ass by the big Cézanne retrospective at The Philadelphia Museum some years ago. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to seeing this hot young artist, at which point I might mosey over to the current Cézanne show and see what the big deal is all about.

© 2011 Mario Naves

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