Author Archives: Mario Naves

Back Again: The Art of Andy Warhol

2015_NYR_03739_0019A_000(andy_warhol_silver_liz).jpgAndy Warhol, Silver Liz (diptych), 1963. Silkscreen ink, acrylic, and spray paint on linen, two panels: 40 × 80 in. (101.6 × 203.2 cm) overall. Private collection; promised gift to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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The following review originally appeared in the December 2012 edition of The New Criterion and is reprinted here on the occasion of “Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again” at The Whitney Museum of American Art. 

Whatever else you can say about it, “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years” provides confirmation of a literary adage. Until recently, the aphorism “Art is what you can get away with” had merely been attributed to the Pittsburgh-born artist Andrej Varchola Jr., better known to the world as Andy Warhol (1928–1987). The quote has served as a neat marker of Warhol’s bemused detachment and artistic achievement. For observers not inclined to applaud Warhol’s iterations of celebrity culture and Madison Avenue bromides, the statement is a self-aware petard on which the artist’s platinum wig can be hoisted. Woe should the maxim prove an invention! But it is, in the end, Warhol’s and Warhol’s alone. This fact comes courtesy of, not the organizers of “Regarding Warhol” or some-or-other historian out to establish his Pop Art bona fides, but rather, the museum’s gift shop. That’s where you’ll find block prints emblazoned with the quote, complete with a background reproduction of a Warhol silkscreen. This feat of scholarship will set you back anywhere from ten to two hundred dollars.

Warhol would have relished the irony. He doubtlessly would have admired the other merchandise available for purchase: the books, the postcards, the coffee mugs, the calendars, scarves, and candy bars. Yes, candy bars; the wrappers of which are emblazoned with Warhol self-portraits and additional aphorisms. (“All I ever really want is sugar” being, in this case, the most fitting.) Warhol may have cast a puzzled eye at the skateboards emblazoned with his signature iconography, if only because skateboarding had yet to become a sizable subculture during his lifetime. But Warhol would have recognized his aesthetic in unapologetic full bloom. He was, after all, an entrepreneur par excellence. “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” But would Warhol recognize the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is currently giving his work a berth previously set aside for ancient Egypt, Byzantine reliquaries, fifteenth-century Prague, Renaissance tapestries, and seventeenth-century Delft?

Not that the Met is equating Twenty Marilyns (1962), Warhol’s Day-Glo homage to the dead movie bombshell, with the glories of Byzantium. Museological real estate doesn’t translate into artistic parity. Or does it? The verbiage surrounding Regarding Warhol might lead you to think otherwise. The curator Mark Rosenthal posits Warhol as an artist of “profound psychological depth,” a “revolutionary” who “encouraged the embrace of all possibilities for uninhibited cross-fertilization and hybrid creations.” The exhibition catalogue is replete with far-reaching plaudits, many from artists whose art can be traced directly to Warhol’s example. Did you know that the perpetually aloof painter of Brillo boxes, car crashes, and Chairman Mao is a twentieth-century eminence on the scale of Charlie Chaplin, Louis Armstrong, and Ernest Hemingway? “I think [Warhol is] absolutely a giant,” writes Julian Schnabel. “There’s something at the bottom of all of his work,” the cinema auteur and serial plate smasher continues, “that is absolutely heartbreaking.”

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Andy Warhol, Green Coca-Cola Bottles, 1962. Silkscreen ink, acrylic, and graphite on canvas, 82 3⁄4 × 57 1⁄8 in. (210.2 × 145.1 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art 68.25. © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Schnabel’s right, but not for the reasons he thinks. Warhol is a giant . . . of marketing. As a painter, printmaker, draftsman, photographer, and filmmaker—you know, as an artist—Warhol is, at best, a curiosity. As with Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí, the artists from whom he gleaned lessons in strategy and PR, Warhol’s influence is more consequential than his achievement. He did possess artistic knowhow for layout, color, and recognizing the hypnotic power that could be elicited from repetition and pattern. For line, too: anyone familiar with the shoe drawings Warhol created as a commercial illustrator in the 1950s can attest to their period charm. But Warhol is less an artist than a phenomenon—a cultural tsunami that poached upon the prestige afforded by art while simultaneously undermining its principles. Having your Campbell’s soup and eating it, too—that’s the rule Warhol imparted. The consequences of this legacy have been broad and numbing. “The Warhol Effect,” it’s called and it’s endless.

“Regarding Warhol” is a sprawling, unwieldy exhibition. Though the entire oeuvre is glanced upon, it’s not a retrospective per se, but an overview of Warhol’s impact on contemporary art. Peppered in between forty-five Warhol masterworks are one hundred paintings, drawings, prints, videos, and sculptures by a who’s who of blue chip art stars: John Baldessari, Gerhard Richter, Gilbert & George, Matthew Barney, Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Avedon, Richard Prince, and Sigmar Polke. The work of Jeff Koons is seen in abundance, and why not? Few artists have exploited Warhol’s pro-capitalist ethos with as much cynicism and chutzpah. Also included is the cartoon-based imagery of Takashi Murakami, whose international art industry makes the Factory, Warhol’s famed Union Square studio, look rinky-dink in comparison. (The Factory is partially recreated toward the end of “Regarding Warhol”.) Snippets of reality TV shows are available for viewing—Warhol’s movies having cleared the way, apparently, for The Osbournes. The concluding chapter of the catalogue is an accounting of Warhol-influenced artists not included in the exhibition.

“Regarding Warhol” is divided into five thematic sections: “Daily News: From Banality to Disaster,” “Portraiture: Celebrity and Power,” “Queer Studies: Shifting Identities,” “Consuming Images: Appropriation, Abstraction and Seriality,” and “No Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle.” That the Metropolitan Museum has seen fit to codify a laundry list of politically correct nostrums says much about the utter irrelevance of Postmodernism as an artistic force. A movement that predicates itself on the anti-aesthetic is, by definition, invalidated when given the stamp of approval from an institution dedicated to the preservation of High Art. What we’re left with is a glib array of politicized attitudes buffed to a glossy sheen. These are sometimes clever, often pretentious, and invariably smug. They are, above all, indecipherable without accompanying wall texts. Visitors to Regarding Warhol spend more time reading than looking. Given the paucity of visual interest (forget visual pleasure), can you blame them? So much art, yet nothing to see.

But stuff—well, there’s a lot of that to contend with. Cady Noland fills an aluminum basket with the leftovers from an automobile repair shop; elsewhere, she drills bullet holes into an aluminum cutout of Lee Harvey Oswald. Damien Hirst—can’t have an overview of contemporary art without this diamond-encrusted huckster, can we?—provides a simulacrum of a pharmacy display case. The reliably didactic Hans Haacke is represented with slams against the late North Carolina senator Jesse Helms—Helmsboro Country (1990) is an over-sized package of cigarettes—and Margaret Thatcher. Robert Gober prints a musical score on a wax effigy buttocks—complete with human hair. In this context, the art school primitivism of Jean-Michel Basquiat and tepid stylization of Alex Katz come as a relief. Matisse is also on view, though not in the exhibition proper. Take a minute and watch a snippet of the reality show featuring Ozzy Osbourne and his family—there look to be Matisse drawings hanging in their living room. The heavy metal rocker has good taste in art. Who knew?

“Regarding Warhol” is a veritable obstacle course of knee-high metal bars. Given the preponderance of guardrails, you’d think the organizers were worried about viewers wanting to nose up to, say, Keith Haring’s graffitied poster of Elvis Presley or the wan celebrity portraiture of Karen Kliminik and Elizabeth Peyton—as if their surfaces somehow redeemed each artist’s sticky adolescent nostalgia. But material sensuality is beyond the ken of these artists. They’re too besotted with the slick calculations of mass media and divorced from the possibilities of hands-on media. Notwithstanding the recurring emphasis on sexuality and its “shifts,” artists working in the Warholian tradition are a fairly puritanical bunch. Materials and processes are employed only to the extent that they illustrate a theory. This is a generation of artists for whom materials are objects of distrust—impediments to vision rather than agents in shaping it. No wonder, then, that many of the objects on display are either factory-made or amateurish in execution. The humanity implicit in touch is either denied or deemed pathetic. This is the coldest Met show on record.

Then again, there are those who might argue that it’s also the brainiest. Arthur Danto, the art critic for The Nation and a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, famously posited Warhol as a fellow deep thinker, a “transformative” figure whose silk- screened imitations of Brillo boxes brought about “the end of art”—the “end” being the beginning of “our post-historical era in which, with qualification, anything goes.” Danto and Rosenthal rather welcome this sea of change, not least because it affords promiscuous conjecturing independent of the objects under consideration. As history has proven, Warhol’s noncommittal ironies accept any sort of claptrap thrown at them. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to—and a lot of people aren’t. Rounding the corner of the exhibition’s second gallery, I came across a trio of museum-goers standing in front of Brillo Soap Pads Boxes (1964). Actively discussing Warhol and his role in shaping culture, the most voluble of the three remarked that Warhol “was smarter than most people suppose, but not as smart as a lot of people would like us to think.”

Artists who’ve picked up Warhol’s ball don’t run with it so much as run in place. Tweaking the extra-aesthetic can’t obscure a poverty of invention; certainly, it adds nothing to the development of art. Barbara Kruger channels Madison Avenue in the cause of anti-capitalism, Cindy Sherman pimps the Old Masters as a commentary on identity, and Ryan Trecartin, whose manic videos are located toward the end of “Regarding Warhol”, explores the furthest reaches of self-indulgence because—well, because he can. But all these artists really do is confirm their own lack of imagination. (Confirmation of their nihilism being a foregone conclusion.) Warhol insisted on his own superficiality. Duchamp, whose presence hovers over the proceedings, couldn’t, in the end, stomach “the easy way out” of neo-Dadaism. Thumbing one’s nose is a formula whose frisson is as tired as it is guaranteed. “Regarding Warhol” is an essay in stasis.

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Andy Warhol, Mustard Race Riot, 1963. Silkscreen ink, acrylic, and graphite on canvas, two panels: 9 ft. 5 7⁄8 in. × 13 ft. 8 in. (2.89 × 4.17 m) overall. Museum Brandhorst, Munich. © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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That Warhol opened the floodgates for any number of art school navel-gazers, over-intellectualized gadflies, and celebrity-smitten ideologues will come as no surprise to even the most cursory observer of the art scene. When Rosenthal opens his essay by declaring that Warhol “gave permission [for artists] to do virtually anything in the name of art,” you can’t help but think that the curator doth cheerlead too much. How deeply does Rosenthal believes  his own guff ? Arguing that Warhol is a sociological “beacon”’—that he had anything profound to say about mass media, gay rights, and (say what?) the evolution of abstract painting—is to trade in arrant hyperbole. Rosenthal twists himself into knots trying to convince himself that vapidity wasn’t the artist’s true métier or his most damning limitation. Movie stars, newspaper advertisements, and processed food provided this working-class son of Slovakian immigrants readymade pegs on which to hang vaguely formed notions of democratic culture. A distinctly American figure, Warhol had nothing profound to say about American life. There’s a difference between elaborating upon a subject and succumbing to its excesses. Alexis de Tocqueville, Warhol ain’t.

Warhol was a willing and eager accomplice to the most callow tendencies in American culture. Which isn’t to say he didn’t know the lay of the land, particularly when it came to currying favor from the rich, famous, and powerful. Notwithstanding the “oh wow” trappings of his deadpan public persona, Warhol was a shrewd operator. Anyone who can navigate downtown bohemia and the Upper East Side with nary a false step knows how to please most people—the right people—most of the time. The art may have initially held up a mirror to the mundane (Dr. Scholl’s foot remedies, for instance) and the glamorous (Monroe again, but also Jackie O. and Marlon Brando), but it soon evolved into the most obsequious form of flattery. Expensive, too. Warhol became a sought-after portraitist by a clientele whose wealth and social standing didn’t prevent them from recognizing the cachet afforded by a mere whiff of the outré. In 1969, Warhol began publishing Interview magazine, in which celebrities were lionized with panting adulation. Andy The Brand became ubiquitous; he seemed to be everywhere, including as a passenger on Love Boat, a 1970s TV sitcom. “How does an artist know when a painting is really successful?” a character asks Warhol-as-Warhol. “When the check clears,” answers the artist. The laugh track responds appreciatively.

But no one’s laughing now. There’s too much money involved. At auction, Warhol’s paintings have garnered staggering amounts of money—absurd amounts of money, really. A work-on-paper, the low medium on the pricing totem pole, could set you back $4 million. In 2005, Christie’s sold a Warhol painting for close to $72 million. This tendency could change. The Andy Warhol Foundation announced the divestiture of its remaining Warhol inventory—twenty thousand pieces that have an estimated worth of $100 million. This move may well devalue the Warhol stock. Alberto Mugrabi, a collector whose family owns a whopping 800 Warhols, was outraged: The Foundation has “a great product, and they’re pushing it out into the market like cattle.” Be that as it may, the Foundation calculated its decision with timing that would have made Warhol envious. It came just as the Met was opening the doors to its “innovative presentation” of his art.

The Foundation, in other words, knows the value of having “a great product” associated with an institution renowned for its august character, its encyclopedic scope, and its Rembrandts. Placing a figure renowned for unrelenting blandness within a stone’s throw of a painter who is nothing if not a benchmark of quality is a smashing career move. Business is the best art and so is ensuring its ongoing viability. But what kind of business do museums conduct? The preservation of culture, ostensibly; separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff. Of course, we’ve reached a stage where the “gate” takes precedence over artistic merit. Today’s mega-museums have wholeheartedly embraced the shopping mall aesthetic. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been, if not entirely innocent of commercial calculations, then cognizant and proud of its role in maintaining the highest standards. Regarding Warhol is something new for our greatest museum—a capitulation to market forces and mass culture that doesn’t think twice about how mendacious, crass, and ugly it is. Rembrandt will always be Rembrandt; his integrity is fixed and true. But the Met’s integrity? Its fate remains to be seen.

© 2012 Mario Naves

“Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist” at The Barnes Foundation

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Berthe Morisot, In The Dining Room (1880), oil on canvas, 36-1/8 x 28-3/4″; Collection of Mrs. George Shutt, courtesy of The Barnes Foundation

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In The Dining Room (1880), a painting included in “Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist,” eludes ready explication, in large part because it seems so impossible. As an image, it couldn’t be closer to the mundane: a housemaid tends to some dinnerware. She is shunted to the right of the composition, her back to the viewer. At the bottom left, we see a cropped tabletop featuring an unkempt array of dishes and utensils. Towering over the scene, perched atop a mantle, is a sizable ceramic serving piece. The moment encapsulated—offhand, all but absent of import—recalls the tensile informality of Chardin’s genre paintings, and points to the furtive mises-en-scène of Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. What sets the Morisot apart is its evanescence. Nothing in the painting achieves firm definition; concreteness remains elusive. Shapes are delineated through a scrabbled array of dots, dabs, dashes, and squiggles. Morisot’s brushwork builds form from the inside out: the maid’s skirt is, in painterly terms, a hurricane. The scene gains presence even as it threatens to dissipate. In The Dining Room is a quickening performance.

“Performance” is the operative word. Morisot’s pictures move. In their brevity and rhythm, the paintings are unlike those of any Impressionist you could care to name. The work makes that of her peers—Manet, Monet, Degas, and Renoir, each of whom was a friend of Morisot’s—look classical in repose, rigid and composed. When confronted by the whiplash facture of Woman at Her Toilette (1875–80), Reclining Woman in Gray (1879), or Young Girl with Doll (1884), you begin to wonder if the “Impressionist” tag is altogether appropriate. Forget how the paintings were received at the end of the nineteenth century—at least, outside of her cohorts in the avant-garde. Morisot’s art continues to startle, fairly leaping off the walls. Up until the 1890s, when she fell under the (not altogether happy) influence of Renoir and Munch, Morisot is all edge—sometimes impatient, ever acute, curiously dispassionate, and tenacious in the attempt to reconcile the observed world with the often resistant prerequisites of oil painting. Even the most bucolic tableaux—say, the late afternoon leisure of Reading (1888)—are infused with a staccato sense of doubt. Morisot described painting as a “pitched battle with my canvases.” Her best pictures trill with the drama of their making.

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Berthe Morisot, Young Girl with Doll (1884), oil on canvas, 32-1/4 x 9-3/8″; courtesy The Barnes Foundation

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Born in 1841 to well-off parents, the teenage Morisot, along with older sister Edma, took up painting at their mother’s request—for the sole purpose of crafting birthday gifts for Père Morisot. A passion for the art form was consequently instilled in both sisters. After rifling through a spate of instructors, most notably Corot, Berthe and Edma met with early success—exhibiting works in the 1864 Paris Salon and garnering favorable critical notice. Falling in with the advanced circles of Parisian culture, the sœurs Morisot hobnobbed with notables like Henri Fantin-Latour, Charles Baudelaire, Émile Zola, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Edma put down her brushes in 1869 upon marrying Adolphe Pontillon, a naval lieutenant stationed in Lorient. Berthe persevered, notwithstanding the constant—and irksome—hubbub surrounding her eligibility. Edma warned her off marriage, encouraging Berthe to “use all your skill and all your charm to find something more satisfactory to you.” Berthe didn’t need convincing. Flatly dismissing romance—which was, you know, “all very well”—Morisot never wavered in her commitment to painting. This was true even when she did marry in 1874, at the ripe old age of thirty-three, to Eugène Manet, the artist’s brother.

The Morisot and Manet families had long been close, and it’s been the scuttlebutt of art history that Berthe’s true love was not Eugène but Edouard. The two artists were close, with Manet having what seems, in contemporary terms, an unhealthy preoccupation with his friend’s marriageability. All the same, Manet took seriously Morisot’s skills as a painter, and she, in turn, ardently sought his counsel. Morisot figures prominently in Manet’s oeuvre: she’s the stony figure in the foreground of The Balcony (1868–69), and she was the subject of several portraits. Morisot never reciprocated the favor; however, Eugene can be seen in a trio of paintings, each of which features him ensconced in a garden setting with their small daughter. (For what it’s worth, Eugène is also on view at the periphery of a small landscape from 1875.) However much we may want to read into the Manet-Morisot union through the pictures—Eugene comes across as testy and preoccupied—attention should be focused less on romantic rumor than on Morisot’s portrayals of women, not least herself and Edma. A self- portrait from 1885 depicts a temperament that is bracingly self-possessed and markedly bereft of ego. The Cradle (1872), in which Edma gazes upon her newborn daughter, is an image of motherhood that is rarely touched upon in the visual arts. Few paintings have captured the misgivings of parenthood with as much candor and clarity.

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Berthe Morisot, Self-Portrait (1885), oil on canvas, 24 x 19-11/16″; collection of Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, courtesy of The Barnes Foundation

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Women are, in fact, the focus of the Barnes show: not just Morisot herself, but her extended family, fashionable Parisiennes, household help, and sundry models. Is it possible to avoid identity in writing about this show, particularly at this hyper-politicized juncture? The very title of the exhibition—“Woman Impressionist”— raises the question, as does a catalogue that begins enumerating Morisot’s life and achievement by rolling out—mais naturellement!—the Guerilla Girls. Morisot was markedly aware of prevailing cultural attitudes: her diaries and correspondence are rife with pithy observations on the condescension she encountered as a woman artist. It’s also true that the work was highly regarded by her male peers, and that Morisot’s professional career was enviable. That we are only fitfully aware of her accomplishment here in the twenty-first century can be checked off to many things, sexism included. Still, foisting contemporary mores on bygone figures is a fraught venture, if only because it tends to strong-arm history and short-change complexity. Morisot is too individual a painter and personality to fit into anybody’s ideological straitjacket. “Woman Impressionist”? Try “Great Painter.” Ultimately, that’s what the Barnes show delivers. It should not be missed.

© 2018 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the December 2018 edition of The New Criterion.

“Canova’s George Washington” at The Frick Collection

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Antonio Canova, Modello for George Washington (1818), plaster, 66 9/16 × 39 3/8 × 54 3/4″; courtesy Gypsotheca e Museo Antonio Canova, Possagno Fondazione Canova onlus, Possagno and The Frick Collection, NY

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“Canova’s George Washington” is a handsomely mounted exhibition as well as a model of curatorial diligence. This should come as no surprise: it’s been put together by the Frick, a museum that favors such things over the up-to-the-minute-and-gone-in-a-flash verities typical of our age. Which isn’t to say that “Canova’s George Washington” isn’t something of a head-scratcher . . .

The rest of this review can be found at Dispatch, the blog of The New Criterion.

“History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (until September 23, 2018)

 

14. Loretta Pettway, Medallion, ca. 1960

Loretta Pettway, Medallion (1960), synthetic knit and cotton sacking material 81 3/4 × 70″; Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The thirty works included in “History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift” are part of a larger donation to The Metropolitan Museum of Art and constitute a noteworthy addition to the collection. Founded in 2010, Souls Grown Deep—the name comes from a poem by Langston Hughes—has its origins in the collection of William S. Arnett, a historian who also dealt in art, primarily from Asia and Africa. Arnett’s emphasis shifted in the mid-1980s, when the Georgia native turned to artists closer to home—specifically, men and women of African descent born during the Jim Crow era. Interest turned to passion after Arnett visited the home of Thornton Dial in 1987. Dial, born into a family of sharecroppers, began making art at age fifty after being laid off from the Pullman Car Company. Taken with the imaginative resourcefulness by which the former machinist reconfigured salvaged materials, Arnett became Dial’s patron, funding the artist until the latter’s death in 2016. With Arnett, “the rich, sym- bolic world of the black rural South” gained an energetic and voluble champion. “I came to realize,” he told The Washington Post, “that the work created by black culture across the board was as good as any work made by white people.” The Souls Grown Deep Foundation builds upon that conviction, advocating for the inclusion of folk artists—that is, artists without formal training or art world imprimatur—into the pantheon of fine arts.

Anyone conversant with the discourse of contemporary art will have noticed some red flags in the previous sentence. “Folk artist”? “Fine arts”? Them’s fightin’ words in some quarters, and, in fact, qualify as examples of “term warfare.” This phrase—a new one to me—pops up in “Self-Taught and Modern,” an essay in the catalogue accompanying “History Refused to Die.” Randall R. Griffey, a Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Met, writes that “art historians have struggled to identify the most accurate and appropriate means of describing work produced by painters and sculptors working outside urban art capitals and without traditional academic artistic training.” The catalogue offers a veritable minefield of terminology around which the essayists tread gingerly. Scare quotes are abundant—and for good reason. Established verbiage becomes suspect when boundaries are in flux. The installation makes plain that artists at the margins of official culture should be included in the canon. At one end of the exhibition, Victory in Iraq (2004), a sizable assemblage by Dial, is placed in the company of signature works by Clyfford Still, Conrad Marca-Relli, Robert Motherwell, and Isamu Noguchi. Point taken. Outsiders are in.

01. Thornton Dial, History Refused to Die, 2004

Thornton Dial, History Refused to Die (2004), okra stalks and roots, clothing, collaged drawings, tin, wire, steel, masonite, steel chain, enamel, and spray paint 8’6″ × 87″ x 23″, Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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As someone who considers Dial’s work impressive in scope but turgid in effect, I find the corresponding bookend to “History Refused to Die” more convincing as an argument for re-writing the history books. Medallion (ca. 1960), a quilt by Loretta Pettway, is as sterling an exploration of color, craft, and pattern as you could hope for. Practicality may have been its impetus (a body needs to keep warm, after all) but the end result achieves a poetry that is—by equal measures—stringent, vulnerable, bumptious, and poignant. Comparisons to certain strains of Modernist abstraction seem unavoidable, but are to be strenuously avoided—or so we are warned. Amelia Peck, the Met’s Marica F. Vilcek Curator of American Decorative Arts, deems as specious any correspondences that could be made between the Pettway quilt and, say, paintings by Josef Albers or Piet Mondrian. “There are other ways to determine that quilts are art without trying to judge them by the same criteria as one would a painting.” To bolster this point of view she ropes in Hilton Kramer. Pause, for a moment, to wonder why Peck is startled that a “highly conservative” critic should be entranced by (in Hilton’s words) the “appealing vigor” of American quilts. Then consider how Peck makes a case for the Gee’s Bend Quilters—of whom Pettway is a member—on purely aesthetic grounds. I mean, really: talk about conservative.

Okay—I’m being snippy. And perhaps less time should be spent mulling the verbiage surrounding “History Refused to Die.” But one does worry that the hand-wringing, proselytizing, and tsk-tsk-tsking that circle around art nowadays—much of it centered around the vicissitudes of political correctness or the marketplace and its machinations—do more to offset (or obscure) aesthetic experience than engender it. Fortunately, art has a way of wriggling out from under those who would seek to control it, and the best work in the exhibition connects—not through theoretical grandstanding or well-intentioned guilt-tripping, but by material audacity, visionary independence, and modesty of affect. The aforementioned quilters of Gee’s Bend—an Alabama community with a population under three hundred—have gained renown for exactly those reasons. A 2002 retrospective of the work was, for many of us, a signal event heralding an important tributary of American culture. The ten quilts included at the Met are typical—and nowhere near enough. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it barely accounts for the wit, sensitivity, and vibrancy brought to bear by, among others, Pettway, Mary Elizabeth Kennedy, and Annie Mae Young.

10. Nellie Mae Rowe. Woman Scolding Her Companion, 1981i

Nellie Mae Rowe, Woman Scolding Her Companion (1981), oil pastel, crayon, colored pencil, ink marker, and graphite on paper board 29 1/4 × 32 in. (74.3 × 81.3 cm) Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The rest of the work on view is nowhere near as nuanced or original, but is diverting nonetheless. Nellie Mae Rowe’s colorful and cartoonish mixed-media pieces touch on human failings, both comic (Woman Scolding Her Companion, 1981) and awful: Atlanta’s Missing Children (1981) memorializes, albeit in a quixotic manner, those murdered in the infamous killing spree of 1979–81. Other pieces are commemorative as well, whether it be Joe Minter’s Four Hundred Years of Free Labor (1995), a sardonic comment on Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930), or Locked Up Their Minds (1972) by Purvis Young, a tumultuous painting that brings to mind James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1888) and the stylizations typical of Ethiopian prayer books. Grown Together in the Midst of the Foundation (1994) by Lonnie Holley evinces a canny understanding of space, metaphor, rhythm, and linearity; it would hold its own in the company of sculptures by Martin Puryear or James Surls. As for Dial—the artist who takes up most of the real estate in “History Refused to Die”—let’s just say that if his amalgamations of detritus manage to supplant those by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Anselm Kiefer in museums far and wide, then his efforts will have been worth their weight in hype.

© 2018 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the September 2018 edition of The New Criterion.

Incomparable: The Quilt-makers of Gee’s Bend

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Annie Mae Young, Strip Medallion Quilt (1976), cotton and cotton/polyester; 8′ 8-1/2 x 77″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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This review was originally published in the June 20, 2005 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of “History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (until September 23rd). My review of the exhibition will appear in the September edition of The New Criterion.

New Yorkers who missed “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend”, an exhibition seen at the Whitney Museum of American Art during the winter of 2002-3, should have their collective knuckles soundly rapped. There can’t have been an excuse good enough to merit by passing a show that documented not only the triumph of American vernacular culture, but the resilience of the human spirit.

Gee’s Bend is a rural community located in Wilcox, Alabama, an all but inaccessible patch of land created by a loop in the Alabama River. Prior to the Civil War, two families, the Gees and the Pettways, took advantage of the area’s rich soil to grow cotton, using slave labor in the harvesting of crops.

After the war, and with emancipation, the Pettway slaves remained in Gee’s Bend as tenant farmers. Though touched by world events–Gee’s Bend was a beneficiary of the New Deal and a stop on Martin Luther King’s 1965 march to Selma–the residents lived in relative isolation for five generations, developing their own patois, religion and music. It is with their quilt-making that the inhabitants of Gee’s Bend–the women, really–have made an incomparable contribution to our common culture.

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Mary Elizabeth Kennedy, Log Cabin quilt (ca. 1935), cotton and rayon, 81-1/4 x 79-1/2″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The nine quilts on display at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art, some of them created within the last few years, are typical of Gee’s Bend–which is to say, not typical at all. Knowledge of established quilt traditions won’t prepare you for the work’s audacity. The Alabama artisans hew to no established pattern; idiosyncrasy is the standard. Maxwell Anderson, former director of the Whitney, lauds the Gee’s Bend quilters for their “unexpected informality in a genre associated with prim formulas.”

Loose-limbed improvisation is an integral component of the Gee’s Bend quilts, as is material necessity: poverty, in this case, is the mother of invention. The fabrics employed (corduroy, paisley, textile remnants from the 40’s onwards and, most memorably, blue jeans) are determined as much by availability as by sensibility. Do we romanticize the women of Gee’s Bend–and, by fiat, the notion of the inspired, untutored outsider–in claiming them as de facto aesthetes? Probably, but that’s not to say romance can’t be predicated on fact.

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Louise T. Pettway, Housetop and Bricklayer with Bars quilt (ca. 1955), cotton and acetate, 91-3/8 x 80-1/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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And beautiful fact it is, too. Little wonder that Ameringer Yohe, a venue dedicated largely to modernist abstraction, chose to feature the quilters of Gee’s Bend. Their expansive geometric patterning, startling and subtle colors, and sophisticated sense of design are reminiscent of the work of any number of renowned abstract painters–none of whom shall be mentioned here. The reputations of those men and women would only be diminished by the comparison.

Pettway–now there’s a name to take note of, particularly as it applies to quilters like Loretta (subtle, resilient), Katie Mae (talismanic, intense) and Allie (quirky, vulnerable). As for Bars variation (c. 1940-50), a magisterial parade of alternating blue and tan stripes: Who would have dared to predict that the back pocket of a pair of pants could achieve the density and emphasis of a slurred dab of oil paint? Amelia Bennett, that’s who; you’ll remember her as well. As for the names Ameringer and Yohe–they should be commended for a public service splendidly performed.

© 2005 Mario Naves

“Glenn Goldberg: Plums and Breezes” at The New York Studio School

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Glenn Goldberg, Guy 2 (Snow) (2011), acrylic and ink on canvas, 9 x 12″; courtesy the artist and The New York Studio School

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To get an idea of the curious byways an artist might find himself exploring, here, in the twenty-first century, you can’t do better than head to the New York Studio School’s “Glenn Goldberg: Plums and Breezes,” an adumbrated, if somewhat bumpy, overview spanning forty years. “Plums and Breezes” begins in 1977, when Goldberg entered the Studio School as a student, and works its way to pieces of a more recent vintage by the now–Associate Professor of Painting at Queens College. Goldberg’s trajectory, and more so his landing place, offer an example of how quixotic the artist’s lot has become . . .

The rest of this review can be found at Dispatch, the blog of The New Criterion.

Tangible, Fleeting and Permanent: The Art of Alberto Giacometti

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Alberto Giacometti, Nose (Le nez), 1947 (cast 1949). Bronze, wire, rope, and steel, 81 x 71.4 x 39.4 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 66.1807. © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP/FAAG, Paris

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The following review was originally published in the November 27, 2005 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of “Giacometti”, an upcoming exhibition at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

The Women of Giacometti, an array of paintings and sculptures by the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), on display at Pace Wildenstein, prompts a kind of yearning that has become familiar at the 57th Street branch of the gallery. Past shows bringing together Bonnard and Rothko, de Kooning and Dubuffet, Mondrian and Ad Reinhardt, and the near-holy trinity of Hans Arp, Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Calder were so good that many wished they could be permanently installed. Now The Women of Giacometti shines a clarifying spotlight on yet another modern master.

On the morning I went to see it, each visitor accorded Giacometti’s art an almost religious obeisance, whether it was a student clad in tattered jeans or a well-heeled gent with (one imagines) money to burn. Everyone spoke in whispers; the stray ringing of a cell phone set off reproachful looks and ardent apologies. The installation, deliberately paced and dramatically lit, encourages reverence. And the work itself commands the sort of grave attention that cuts the chatter.

If the unhurried tour offered by The Women of Giacometti doesn’t glance upon every facet of the artist’s career, it comes close. The earliest piece on view was painted when he was 19 years old; it’s a Cézanne-like painting of his sister Ottilia. Early efforts in sculpture—a plaster bust of Ottilia; a roughhewn, Cubist-inspired portrayal of Flora Mayo, an American who studied alongside him—are more convincing. (Both pieces date from around 1926.) A preternatural, if still unrefined, gift for working in three dimensions is clearly evident.

A representative sampling of the primitivist sculptures that put Giacometti in good standing with the Surrealists is on display, including the Guggenheim’s renowned Woman with Her Throat Cut (1932). There’s a better selection of the late work, with its anxious, skeptical tone and solitary figures (elongated in the sculpture, ghost-like in the paintings). These latter pieces famously induced André Breton’s ire. The “Black Pope of Surrealism” found them insufficiently radical and booted Giacometti from the camp. Giacometti happily took his leave: He’d had his fill of what he called Surrealist “masturbation,” pegging the failings of that crowd with devastating accuracy.

Few painters in the history of art have been as relentless as Giacometti in exploring the meaning of perception. His self-appointed task was the accurate transcription of observed phenomenon, but it was his belief that attempting to fix an always-mutable physical reality, whether it be in oils or plaster, was folly. It’s well known—among his admirers, at least—that he considered himself a failure. A profound sense of despair permeates the work, but it wasn’t the existentialist romance foisted upon it by Jean-Paul Sartre, Giacometti’s friend and booster. Rather, it was occasioned by the vexing pursuit of giving tangible and permanent form to fleeting, ever-changing incident.

Alberto Giacometti in the studio; © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

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In paintings like Portrait of Caroline (1962) and Caroline Seated with a Red Dress (1965), he entombs the title character within jittery skeins of oil paint. Overlapping and lilting lines are typically left loose in the torso, but they coalesce into an almost sculptural mass in the face. The effect is discomfiting, even nerve-wracking, but irresistible in its pull. Giacometti makes his doubt plain. No brushstroke is arbitrary; no hesitation escapes comment. Caroline Seated with a Red Dress has an almost expressionist fervor, yet it stubbornly retains a clinical adherence to physical fact—a thrilling paradox.

Alas, The Women of Giacometti also makes plain what MoMA’s 2001 retrospective intimated: History has been kinder to the painter than to the sculptor. You hate to say it, particularly given the somber majesty of Giacometti’s achievement, but, boy, are those lumpy, spindly figures looking hokey. They’re even worse when they’re placed atop carriages or inside boxes: Giacometti’s attempt to locate the sculptures in space can be self-conscious and, at times, alarmingly arch. The paintings can come precariously close to mannerism; the sculptures don’t fight it off at all. An innate knack for sculpture led to a slackening of aesthetic vigilance, which in turn led to indulgence—albeit of a dour variety.

The extreme exaggeration of anatomy, the frazzled and theatrical textures, the bathetic dénouement—the sculptures aren’t much ado about nothing exactly, but Giacometti striving for effect is something less than Giacometti the master. When comparisons to Rodin flit into one’s mind, second thoughts follow soon thereafter. Fortunately, the painter responsible for canvases as unflinching and grand as The Artist’s Mother (1950) and Seated Woman (1958) emerges unscathed. That’s reason enough to cherish this splendidly conceived, intelligently executed exhibition.

© 2005 Mario Naves

 

Open Studios 2018 @ The Clemente

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I will be participating in Open Studios at The Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The event takes place on the evenings of Thursday, May 17th, and Friday, May 18th.

The hours are 6:00-9:00 p.m. on both nights. Open Studios is free to the public.

​Please click here for more information.

I hope to see you there!

“Leon Golub: Raw Nerve” at The Met Breuer, New York

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Leon Golub, Giantomachy II (1966), acrylic on linen, 9′ 11-1/2″ x 24′ 10-1/2″; courtesy of The Met Breuer; Gift of The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts and Stephen, Philip, and Paul Golub, 2016

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Say this for the brutalist environs of The Met Breuer: its limitations encourage curatorial rigor. When you’re stuck with a shoebox, expansiveness isn’t an option, particularly when the works on display are encompassing in size. Take “Leon Golub: Raw Nerve.” The canvas greeting viewers as they enter the exhibition, Gigantomachy II (1966), is typical, measuring close to ten by twenty-five feet. As a consequence, Kelly Baum, the Met’s Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Curator of Contemporary Art, couldn’t indulge the scope of the artist’s achievement or memory. (Golub died in 2004 at the age of eighty-two.) Choices had to be made. As a retrospective, then, “Raw Nerve” is sharply circumscribed: a rat-a-tat-tat overview rather than a scholarly accounting. Not ideal, you might think, but Golub’s work benefits from the approach. Once he hit his stride, Golub didn’t evolve much as a painter. A career-making turn to political content in the 1970s added density and context, but not nuance or variety. Golub’s art was forever astringent in its pictorial strategies and relentless in its vitriol. His work would be poorer without either, but how much righteous hammering can a body stand?

Numbness is never an enlightening aesthetic response, and, as the exhibition’s title insinuates, Golub insisted on its opposite. “The nightmare of history” was his subject, and the canvases are embodiments of “how power is demonstrated through the body and in human actions, and in our time, how power and stress and political and industrial powers are shown.” The body came before the nightmare or, to be precise, the figure before ideology. Golub never trafficked in abstraction. For an artist coming of age during the heyday of The New York School, this marked him as an outlier, not least geographically. A native of Chicago—he studied at the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute— Golub was keenly aware of his hometown’s second city status. Chicago was, in fact, host to a number of painters and sculptors dedicated to an idiosyncratic brand of figuration, including the “Monster Roster”: an informal group that included Golub, his wife Nancy Spero, Seymour Rosofsky, H. C. Westermann, and June Leaf. For inspiration, they looked to artists whose work fell outside the AbEx orbit: Jean Dubuffet, Georges Rouault, Max Beckmann, and the local fixture Ivan Albright.

Golub_2.jpgLeon Golub in the 1950s; courtesy The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts

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Golub was a prickly member of the opposition; vocal, too. He had little patience for the grand claims made about Abstract Expressionism. Writing in 1954, Golub averred that “the creative act is a moral commitment transcending any formalistic disengagement.” Which isn’t to say that Golub rejected everything “formalistic” about The New York School—an argument could be made that he effectively gleaned its brute use of materials and sweeping scale. Golub’s first mature works—cobbled amalgamations of body parts—looked to antiquity and pre-Columbian art for impetus: the former for its majesty; the latter because of its abrupt distillations of form and unyielding frontality. Golub steeped himself in history, making sojourns to Italy in the mid-1950s and later Paris, where he lived from 1959 to 1964. By then a signature manner of working had been arrived at: imagery pitched to a towering scale; terse juxtapositions of figure and ground; and surfaces that were scabby, tenuous, and abraded. Golub’s compositions owe much of their grit to having been repeatedly scraped down with, of all things, a meat cleaver. Not for nothing do his paintings recall the dried skins of animals.

This latter association became more pronounced when Golub began displaying the paintings on unstretched canvases punctured with grommets and hung from hooks. This move added considerably to the work’s potency. For Golub, stretcher bars were too conventional, too polite; a degree of material aggression was required. When the art became political—roughly congruent with his return to the United States in the mid-1960s—Golub’s vision became more specific in focus. Haggard universalism gave way to exegesis on the abuses of political power, inequities in justice, war and its calamities, and, most disturbingly, the tension-filled interstices that can accrue between race and sex. Granted, few of Golub’s paintings fail to underline the moral limitations of mankind. (And I do mean mankind; Golub’s ire was aimed primarily at his own gender.) Still, paintings like Horsing Around IV (1983), with its drunken white protagonist groping at an African-American woman, and Two Black Women and a White Man (1986) are infused with queasy ambiguity—they put into question just how much our own preconceptions might skew the image. Absent a clear-cut target of approbation, these pictures get beyond rage, arriving at places more unsettling.

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Leon Golub, Two Black Women and a White Man (1986), acrylic on linen, 120 x 85″; courtesy The Met Breuer

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Still, the work is unsettling enough, and it’s to Golub’s credit as a painter that the pieces earn their ugliness. The grating play of complementaries in Horsing Around amplifies its synthesis of threat and sexuality. The grubby pinks and yellows in The Conversation (1990), a disjointed composition that is both an avowal of radicalism and an indictment of it, underline its caustic ironies. As Golub aged, he was less physically capable of distressing the surfaces of his paintings. He consequently engineered a manner of working that created a similar sense of wear-and-tear: the meat cleaver was supplanted by a dry brush. Paintings like All Bets Are Off (1994) and Bite Your Tongue (2001) are characterized by expanses of raw linen and washes of paint applied with knowing theatricality. Backtracking from the topical, late Golub opted for doom-laden patchworks of skulls, tattoo designs, propaganda (“Loyalty/ Discipline/ Renewal”), and dogs, all of which are grounded in brushy swipes of black. As compositions, the late paintings are adroit in their making and pat in their symbolism; as elegies, they all but come off as admissions of defeat. Given how thoroughly Golub explored and excoriated the thuggish depths to which the human animal could descend, it’s a wonder he was able to keep at it for as long, and as convincingly, as he did. “Raw Nerve” is testament to one man’s indomitable rage, as well as to its limitations.

© 2018 Mario Naves

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

“Joseph Fiore: Small Collages” at Meredith Ward Fine Art

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Joseph Fiore, Untitled (c. 1995-2000), collage on board, 8-1/2 x 11-1/4″; courtesy Meredith Ward Fine Art

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I’m pleased to announce that an essay of mine is included in the catalogue accompanying “Joseph Fiore: Small Collages”, an exhibition currently on display at Meredith Ward Fine Art. The online catalogue can be found here, an excerpt of which follows below:

“Attempting to deduce the personality of an artist from the art itself is always an iffy proposition, but Fiore the man comes across as something of a mensch . . . The good cheer Fiore’s collages radiate is impossible to deny and harder to resist. Even at their most austere–which happens when the collages are explicitly representational–the pieces have a dreamy, offhand elan.”

“Joseph Fiore: Small Collages” continues until May 25, 2018.