Robert Schwartz, Life of Birds (1991), gouache on paper, 6″ x 6″; courtesy Babcock Galleries
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New Yorkers who make a fetish of artistic technique—of traditional verities adroitly set into place—should make a beeline for Babcock Galleries to view a handful of diminutive paintings-on-paper by Robert Schwartz (1947–2000).
Schwartz employed gouache, an opaque form of watercolor, to meticulously representational ends, obscuring overt handiwork in the service of rounded volumes, uninflected surfaces and a pearlescent array of earth tones. Bring a magnifying glass to glimpse even the slightest evidence of touch: Schwartz’s precision was inseparable from a self-effacing temperament. He was a devotee of miniatures—of illuminated manuscripts, Netherlandish art and, I would guess, Indian painting. The crystalline approach inherent in The Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves is brought to bear on Living on Grasshoppers (1990), Schwartz’s metaphorical tableau about—well, it’s hard to say.
Consider the scene: a proscenium is set up in the center of a courtyard surrounded by vaguely Mediterranean buildings. The stage is littered with art historical reproductions and occupied by four nudes—one woman and three men. A clothed woman of regal bearing sits on a stone column. She’s being presented with a series of canvases for her approval; she responds to one canvas with a highly affected gesture. (We don’t see what’s on any of these paintings.)
Leaning on the stage are two older, working-class women; one engages in a fruitless conversation with the nude woman, the other gazes with admiration at a beefy male. At stage right is a middle-manager type, hand to his forehead, looking askance. The picture is airless, the context trans-historical, the tenor homoerotic and the humor mock-satiric. Metaphor is wrapped tightly within so many different guises that its purpose is confirmed even as its range is rendered moot.
Robert Schwartz, Living On Grasshoppers (1990), gouache on paper, 8″ x 8-1/2″; courtesy Babcock Galleries
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Some of Schwartz’s figures—his actors, really—appear in several pictures. The gray-haired woman at the center of Living On Grasshoppers is also seen in Three Virtues, Civil in Domestic (1991). A burly gent with curly hair can be seen striking a heroic pose in Perspective At The Foot of the Tower (1992) and tolerating the lament of a friend in While You Are Waiting, It Is Only Fitting (1993). Viewing Schwartz’s pieces en masse strengthens the theatrical nature of the compositions. Imagine an impeccably choreographed blend of the High Renaissance, Giorgio de Chirico and Tom of Finland, and you’ll get a good idea of Schwartz’s quixotic accomplishment.
Actually, it’s not that quixotic. Schwartz can be fairly neatly fitted into the tradition of Magical Realism, a loosely aligned group of American painters— Jared French is one; Paul Cadmus, another— drawn to enigmatic narratives, hushed symbolism, painstaking craft and the male nude, both as historical touchstone (cf. Michelangelo) and object of adoration.
Schwartz’s cloistered dioramas don’t necessarily trigger a “been there, done that” response. Their crisp detachment is preferable to French’s treacly mysticism and, for that matter, John Currin’s unctuous pastiches of Durer and Internet porn. But Schwartz’s pursuit of “certain truths about being human” is too occluded, too remote and finite, for philosophical access. Which means they subsist primarily as feats of painterly virtuosity and, as such, have much to recommend.
© 2011 Mario Naves
Originally published in the September 28, 2011 edition of City Arts.