Author Archives: Mario Naves

“The Clamor of Ornament: Exchange, Power, and Joy from the Fifteenth Century to the Present” at The Drawing Center, New York, NY

Owen Jones, Designs (1 of 51) for publication in Examples of Chinese Ornament (London, 1867) (Plates 10, 40, 56), 1866–67. Paper, gouache, gold paint, drawing, 13 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches (34.3 x 24.1 cm) each. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Purchased with the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Art Fund, V&A Members and The Belvedere Trust, ⒸVictoria and Albert Museum, London.
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Pity the poor Drawing Center. Founded in 1977–or, rather, “born into the petri dish of the SoHo art scene in the 1960s and 1970s”–the Center was the pet project of Martha Beck, a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art. She felt that the medium of drawing, being underserved by the arts establishment, needed its own specialized venue. Over the years, this downtown gallery has proved its mettle, mounting a variety of historical and contemporary exhibitions, as well as making a point of reaching out to working artists, some of whom later went on to greater recognition.

But that petri dish? It’s changed mightily since the heyday of industrial lofts rented on the cheap. Though painters and sculptors continue to work in SoHo, it’s no longer the fulcrum of the international art world. Real estate, as the truism has it, follows artists and, as a general rule, displaces them. Galleries are now few and far between in SoHo. As a result, the Drawing Center finds itself marooned among a bevy of luxury boutiques, high-end hotels, pricey eateries and, proving that some things never change, a noisome lineup of traffic going into the Holland Tunnel.

Will culture mavens think twice, then, about going to SoHo or, as an acquaintance put it, “the boonies?” It would be a shame if that’s the case, otherwise they might miss The Clamor of Ornament: Exchange, Power, and Joy from the Fifteenth Century to the Present, a knockout exhibition curated by Emily King, a London-based historian and curator. Bringing together more than two hundred objects that range the world over, King, along with co-curators Margaret Anne Logan and Duncan Tomlin, seek to underline how ornament can be not only “a means of exchange across geographies and cultures,” but the basis for “pleasurable disruption.”

Pleasure? Yes, you read that right. Notwithstanding the obligatory moment of extra-aesthetic harrumphing–the introductory wall text goes on about “power imbalances and exploitation”–The Clamor of Ornament is unapologetic in its emphasis on visual effusion and stylistic fecundity. The curators have assembled an impressive array of media: mostly drawings, textiles and prints, but also photographs, books and even a set of baseball caps originally hawked to pedestrians on nearby Canal Street. A set piece juxtaposing Martin Sharp’s psychedelic homage to Bob Dylan with “The Second Knot, Interlaced Roundel with an Amazon Shield in its Center” (c. 1521), Albrecht Dürer’s woodblock riff on a design originating with Leonardo, sets the stage for a free-for-all of no little resplendence.

Among the primary virtues of The Clamor of Ornament is how thoroughly it confirms the universality of the decorative impulse. Culture and chronology are given the heave-ho for an installation that favors commonalities of rhythm and color, intricacy and generosity of pictorial spirit. “Flowers of Edo: Five Young Men”(1864), a quintet of kaleidoscopic woodblock prints by Toyohara Kunichika, is seen near a tattoo pattern book by an unknown hand from the turn of the last century. Nearby is a 1953 study for eleven ornamental bands done by John deCesare, a work commissioned by that Medici of the supermarket, General Foods. What with its abrupt shifts of locus and intent, the show might sound like a bumpy ride. In fact, it flows like a river.

Which is appropriate, given that a majority of the work is devoted to artworks based, one way or another, on the natural world. Geometry is touched upon, particularly as an organizing principle, and symmetry is a constant. But it’s the sinuousness of organic forms, augmented by extravagant color, that predominates. Hirase Yoichirō’s sketchbook studies of seashells make the point clear, as does an unfinished watercolor, a blueprint for chrysanthemum wallpaper, by the estimable William Morris. The Welsh architect Owen Jones — whose seminal text, The Grammar of Ornament, serves as the exhibition’s lodestone — is seen to stunning chromatic effect in a trio of pieces elaborating on Chinese precedent.

Other notables include Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Louis H. Sullivan and Paul Klee. But star power doesn’t carry The Clamor of Ornament, not with showstopping pieces done by craftsmen who are unknown, anonymous or the purview of specialists. The craft, as you might imagine, is of a high order, and the work on display is, on the whole, put into shape with meticulous and sometimes mind-boggling virtuosity. Should you need a reminder of just how capable the human hand can be, particularly in our age of digital flimflammery, a visit to The Drawing Center is in order. But be warned: once the exhibition has been entered, you won’t want to leave. Splendor is addictive.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of The Spectator World.

“Diego Rivera’s America” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Diego Rivera, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Irene Rich (1941), oil on canvas, 24 x 17″; courtesy Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA), Northampton, MA
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The passage of time can be a merciless arbiter of reputation. Fashions evolve, sometimes double-back, and often peter out altogether. This is as true for art as it is for haute couture. Live long enough, and you’ll see how quickly The Next Big Thing turns into tomorrow’s Never Was, how this morning’s outrage de-evolves into this evening’s commonplace. All of which is worth taking into account when considering the fortunes of the Mexican painter Diego Rivera (1886-1957). 

Dial back the clock fifty- to seventy-years ago, and you’d discover that even the most cursory student of art would have recognized Rivera’s name. He was a star, a hard-charging bigger-than-life talent whose work was sought after by Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller and other captains of industry. A luminary amongst luminaries, Rivera counted among his friends Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Fernand Leger and Chaim Soutine, and served as a link between the avant-garde and the Americas. He was passionate about politics, forever siding with the proletariado at the expense of any coherent social philosophy. And his ego! Forget fools: Rivera suffered no one gladly. His squabbles with all and sundry–the Soviet Union no less than the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, an organization predicated on a woolly brand of occultism–were the stuff of legend. Rivera played life to the hilt. The world paid attention.

But that was then, and this is 2022. Though Rivera isn’t unknown to contemporary audiences, his personality and accomplishments have been overshadowed by those of his wife, Frida Kahlo. Like Rivera, Kahlo was no stranger to celebrity culture, having famously posed for a 1937 photo-spread in Vogue. Still, no one could have predicted the extent of Kahlo’s fame almost seventy years after her death. Movies, books, exhibitions, umbrellas, restaurants, coffee cups and plush-dolls–how hasn’t that legendary unibrow been marketed? The beneficiary of historical revisionism and globalist outreach, Kahlo has become a ubiquitous and, for some, empowering figure–so much so, that not a few wags nowadays refer to Rivera as “Mr. Frida Kahlo.”

Diego Rivera’s America, a traveling exhibition organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is unlikely to stem the tide of Frida-mania. Still, it should do much to re-confirm Rivera’s place in the cultural firmament. Guest curator James Oles, a professor of art history at Wellesley College and a specialist in Latin American Art, has set a scholarly eye on Rivera’s “utopian belief in the power of art.” The exhibition focuses on a 25-year period of Rivera’s output spanning, roughly, from the 1920s through the ’40s.  Not coincidentally, this time-frame captures Rivera at the height of his powers. It was during this phase, Oles writes, that the artist “reimagined Mexican national identity on a vast scale, embraced the industrial age in the United States, and conceived of a greater America in which unity, rather than division was paramount.” 

Diego Rivera, The Flower Carrier (1935), oil and tempera on masonite, 48 x 47-3/4″; courtesy the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
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Oles has a significant collection to cull from: SFMOMA boasts among the world’s largest holdings of Rivera’s art. Along with loans from private institutions and public collections, America includes more than 150 pieces in a variety of media. Art historical staples like The Flower Carrier (1935) and Self-Portrait (1941) will be seen in conjunction with a host of preparatory studies, a smattering of documentary objects, and canvases that have rarely been on public display. 

Context is provided by the inclusion of work by Rivera’s peers, including photographs by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, and paintings by, yes, Frida Kahlo. Three galleries are devoted to video projections of murals done in Mexico and the United States. SFMOMA is touting America as the largest Rivera retrospective in over twenty years. Oles does the museum one better, claiming that the oeuvre hasn’t been as fully accounted for since 1949, the year Rivera was feted with a retrospective at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Whatever the case, the point is clear: America is a big deal.

The artist christened Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez was born in Guanajuato City, a municipality located in Central Mexico. His parents were affluent; his twin brother, dead at age two. Rivera showed artistic promise as a toddler, scrawling upon the walls of the family home. As it turned out, he was something of a prodigy: Rivera was accepted to the prestigious Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City at age 10. He worked with Santiago Rubill, a former student of Ingres, and, one feels, a decisive influence. Rivera’s skills garnered notice: the governor of Veracruz sponsored a European sojourn for the young artist to further his education.

It was during his stays in Spain and, especially, France that Rivera was transformed every which way. How could he not be? Paris, especially, was a hothouse of creative–indeed, revolutionary–fervor. Rivera absorbed the lessons of early Modernism with an enthusiasm that was nothing short of rapacious. He explored a variety of approaches, Post-Impressionism and Cubism in particular, and proved a deft hand at all of them. José Vasconcelos, Mexico’s newly installed Minister of Education, managed to woo Rivera back home, eager to have him take part in an ambitious new program for public painting. It is at this point in Rivera’s life that America begins the accounting of one artist’s attempt to (pace the catalogue) “radically transform the world.” 

Back home, Rivera immersed himself in indigenous cultures, reveling in the people and paying homage to their traditions. In the sections of America titled “South to Tehuantepec” and “Daily Life”, we see Rivera depicting ordinary folk and everyday rituals all the while keying into a distinctly local range of colors. His palette took on a cast indicative of the surrounding landscape and climate. Dance in Tehuantepec and Tehuana (Aurea Procel) (both 1928) are suffused with ripe variations on orange and red, as well as exhibiting a fidelity to native costumery of forbidding complexity. Works like Pneumatic Drill (1931) and Hombre Fumando (1937) evince an eye as attuned to the documentary as it was prone to the exaggerations of caricature. Mexico’s people, Rivera intimates, are of the earth and, as such, immovable.

Rivera’s approach to form became increasingly concrete and weighted. The human figure was subjected to stylizations that hinted at Cubist precedent, but seem more inspired by the totemic effigies of Pre-Columbian cultures and artifacts from prehistory. The woman and child seen solemnly making their daily bread in La Tortillera (1926) are rendered with an uncanny sculptural fortitude. 

Diego Rivera, La Bordadora (1928), oil on canvas, 31-1/4 x 39″; courtesy The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
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La bordadora (The Embroiderer) (1928)–a canvas as iconic in character, if not renown, as The Flower Carrier–is freighted by an almost Giottoesque stolidity, its two women having been wedged within the canvas to emphasize their mass. Monumentality had its symbolic functions: Woman with Calla Lilies (1945), with its mountainous effulgence of flowers, confirms the primacy of the natural world as well as our modest place in it.

Notwithstanding the circumscribed focus of the exhibition, America is wide-ranging in how it touches upon Rivera’s interests and accomplishments. His gifts as a draftsman are in abundant evidence, no more so than in Study for Germination [Tina Modotti] (1926), as nuanced an essay in sensuality as one could hope for. And although Rivera forever thumped the drum of social justice, he wasn’t without a sense of humor. Among the delights–and surprises!–of America is a suite of graphite and watercolor costume designs made for H.P. (Horsepower) (circa 1927-32), a ballet and symphony organized by the musician Carlos Chávez. With their unlikely amalgams of flora and fauna, Rivera divulges a Surrealist bent and a welcome air of whimsy. 

Rivera’s murals, by definition, are less amenable to travel, but a number of working drawings are on display–including a pair of gouache and graphite pieces featuring colorful and compartmentalized designs for the Paramount Theater. And towards the end of the exhibition, you’ll find Self-Portrait, in which the artist, surrounded by a field of luminous yellow, holds a note written in Spanish to the woman who commissioned the painting, actress Irene Rich. Clearly, Rivera’s political leanings didn’t override his communing with the rich and famous. Indeed, anyone familiar with Rivera the man knows that he was far too contradictory a creature to serve as a coherent role model for contemporary activists. But the artist? As Diego Rivera’s America makes plain, he’s a figure worth tussling with–the vagaries of reputation be damned.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article was originally published in the July 2022 edition of Art & Antiques.


Sofia Kappel in “Pleasure”
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The most shocking moment in “Pleasure,” a film that doesn’t stint on discomfiting scenes in its depiction of the adult entertainment industry, comes at the beginning. 

In a preamble, director Ninja Thyberg and actress Sofia Kappel face the camera–and, by implication, the audience–to discuss the making of the movie. 

Ms. Thyberg speaks of the process she underwent in casting the lead actress, and commends Ms. Kappel for her performance. Ms. Kappel talks about the working environment overseen by Ms. Thyberg, testifying to a set that had safety uppermost on its mind. Then the movie begins.

There’s a quip making the rounds that any film made before the last six months should automatically be slapped with a trigger warning. Such is the evolutionary speed of contemporary mores. “Gone With the Wind” has famously been tagged with a disclaimer about its presumed endorsement of values that (pace HBO Max) “were wrong then and are wrong today.” 

“Pleasure” isn’t as out-of-date as all that, but it is a bit behind the curve. Filming began in 2018, and the picture’s trip to the box office has been bumpy, not least because of its explicit sexual content. Still, a lot can happen in four years. The much ballyhooed rise-and-fall-and-rise-again of Only Fans being one, as well as a world in which the puritanical diktats of wokery continue apace.

Whether Ms. Thyberg and Ms. Kappel felt compelled to defend “Pleasure” because of nervous theater owners or the wiles of the zeitgeist is moot; either way, they were strong-armed. What does it say about a culture in which artists are perpetually looking over their backs?

Given the travails encountered in “Pleasure,” perhaps a little puritanism is in order. The film is tough-going, clinical in its objectivity and often excruciating to watch. Ms. Thyberg brings us a fiction, but does so with the eye of a documentarian. She strives for verisimilitude–or, depending on how you look at these things, muddies the waters–by casting actual porn stars in supporting roles. 

Among them are Revika Anne Reustle and Chris Cock. Ms. Reustle plays Joy, a veteran of the Los Angeles porn scene who befriends Linnéa (Ms. Kappel), a recent emigre from Sweden who now performs under the nom-de-plume Bella Cherry.

Mr. Cock is Bear, a man who works both behind and in front of the camera. Joy and Bear are among the few sympathetic figures in “Pleasure.” It’s not too much of a stretch to conclude that the vulnerability the actors bring to this picture is predicated on their own been-around-the-block experiences.

Ms. Thyberg, who wrote and directed this, her first feature, should, of course, be given credit. But it is worth noting that other porn world notables–I’m thinking here, especially, of super-agent Mark Spiegler–come off as crass operators, opportunists given to welcoming facades and deep-seated hypocrisy. They’re a curious bunch, this cadre of impresarios.

Our lead is no less curious. Bella is intent on becoming the next big porn star, but why is never made clear. She has no “daddy issues”–the subject of a chummy conversation with Bear–though her relationship with mom may be problematic. After a strenuous bout of filming, Bella calls home seeking solace, and is summarily rebuffed. Then again, mom is oblivious to the true nature of Bella’s “internship.” 

The primary liability of the film is Bella. She’s not a fully-developed character so much as a gauge of the industry’s calculations and callousness. Admittedly, Ms. Kappel, in her film debut, is impressive. She invests her part with deeper currents of feeling than the script necessarily allows for, evincing a moral compass even as Bella capitulates to the stresses and duties peculiar to her career. 

“Pleasure” treads an unflinching, and ultimately ambiguous, pathway between exploitation and exposé. It is, to put it mildly, not a film for all tastes.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves


Among my latest ventures is working as a film critic for the revamped New York Sun. Should you be interested, the website can be found here. In the meantime, I’ll be posting reviews of movies that, for one reason or another, didn’t see print. (I guess that should be “print,” given that the Sun is online-only.) You’ll find below my take on the much-anticipated picture from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, “Memoria.”

Tilda Swinton in “Memoria”; courtesy of Neon

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Rarely has a film needed the talents of Mel Brooks as much as “Memoria,” the most recent effort by director Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Does anyone remember “The Critic,” the 1963 Oscar winner for Best Animated Short Film? Over a screen populated with a compendium of Miró-like abstractions, we hear Mr. Brooks, very much in alte kaker mode, airing the opinions of a disgruntled movie-goer. He doesn’t think much of the filmmaker’s pretensions: “A fella like that could drive a truck; do something constructive–make a shoe.”

As a measure of art-house cinema, this criterion is a sound one. How many pieces of avant-gardist maundering are as good as a shoe? There have been more egregious examples of the genre than “Memoria,” and, to be fair, Mr. Weerasethakul has an impressive track record. “Cemetery of Splendor” earned its plaudits a few years back, and “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” though an imperfect film, is, in many respects, the standard for world cinema. Clearly, Mr. Weerasethakul can do more than make a shoe. 

Until now. In a statement accompanying “Memoria,” the Bangkok-born director writes that the film’s impetus were the hallucinations he experienced while traveling in Colombia. On a mission to collect “expressions and memories,” Mr. Weerasethakul began hearing a loud noise, usually at dawn and the country over. “The massive sierras . . . ,” he observed, “are like the folds of the brain, or the curves of sound waves.” Colombia proved a location where “delusion is the norm.”

Far be it for me to question an individual’s direct response to this-or-that phenomenon. Still, Mr. Weeasthakul’s declamations put me in mind of the old saw about other people’s dreams–you know, that they’re boring. “Memoria” isn’t altogether a bore, but the film’s longueurs, sodden as they are with a peculiarly recalcitrant brand of symbolism, can be a chore to sit through. Not a few people in the polite crowd with whom I attended the picture spent an inordinate amount of time checking their watches. When art becomes a duty something has gone awry.

“Memoria” centers on Jessica Holland, a specialist in orchids played by Tilda Swinton, and, tangentially, her recently hospitalized sister Karen (Agnes Brekke). Jessica and only Jessica hears a sound: a booming mechanical thud that punctuates her psyche–and the film–at random moments. She visits a sound engineer named Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego) who manages to approximate the noise on an audio board.

But, then, Hernán may not be real. When Jessica revisits the recording studio, she discovers that no one by that name works there. Packing her bags, Jessica heads up the Amazon. It is there that she meets a fisherman who is also named Hernán (Elkin Díaz), and spends a lengthy amount of time with him–as does the audience. At this point, “Memoria” slows to a crawl. At moments, Mr. Weerasethakul’s moving picture doesn’t seem to move at all.

As it turns out, Hernan No. 2 and Jessica share a kind of telekinetic connection. Then Hernan No. 2 up-and-dies, except he doesn’t, and did I mention the spaceship? Oh, and anthropologists; they’re here as well, looking into something or other. Ritualistic practices, maybe. Nothing is made clear in “Memoria.” It’s enough to make you think that Mr. Weerasethakul mistakes obscurantism for poetry.

Most of the film’s running time is devoted to Ms. Swinton sitting or walking. Here, she ambles through the center of Medellin; there, she’s ensconced by a window staring at the rainforest. Given that Mr. Weerasethakul moves his camera only reluctantly, the onus is on Ms. Swinton to hold our attention. Would that she were a more generous actress. As it is, her diffidence only makes an already difficult movie close to intolerable. And no one, not even Mr. Brooks’s critic, should have to sit through that.

© 2022 Mario Naves

“Philip Guston Now” @ The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Philip Guston with The Studio in 1969; photo by Frank Lloyd
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The painter Philip Guston (1913-80) likened the creative act to attending a party. “When you’re in the studio painting, there are a lot of people there with you–your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics . . . one by one if you’re really painting, they walk out. And if you’re really painting YOU walk out.” “Philip Guston Now,” a retrospective on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, could be seen as the reverse. Guston hasn’t left the party; he was disinvited.

The exhibition has recently opened after an eleven-month postponement. The organizing institutions–the Boston MFA, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., London’s Tate Modern and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas–put a hold on the July 2021 opening date in response to events surrounding the death of George Floyd. “We are postponing the exhibition,” the organizers stated last fall, “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.”

This announcement met with significant pushback among artists and collectors. An open letter sponsored by The Brooklyn Rail garnered over 2,600 signatures–among the signatories contesting the exhibition’s delay were the choreographer Bill T. Jones, performance artist Laurie Anderson, and Agnes Gund, President Emerita and Life Trustee of the Museum of Modern Art. It’s likely the letter helped occasion the rescheduling of a show that had already been rescheduled. From a projected 2024 opening date, “Philip Guston Now” comes to us in 2022 having been framed within the context of “each viewer’s lived experience.”

What might Guston, a dyed-in-the-wool Lefty who cast a mordant eye on culture and politics, have made of this hubbub? He was no stranger to controversy during his lifetime. The young Guston was an ideological animal, a Social Realist who took a keen interest in the work of Mexican muralists like David Alfaro Siqueros and Jose Clemente Orozco. (Guston’s high school friend, Jackson Pollock, was also a fan.) In 1933, Guston’s painting Conspirators went on public exhibition and was subsequently destroyed by the Ku Klux Klan–not coincidentally, the subject of the painting.

Controversy followed Guston to the end of his days. After having established himself as a painter of luxurious abstractions, a body of work that carried him through the 1950’s and early 60’s, Guston returned to his figurative roots. When the resulting paintings were shown at Marlborough Gallery in 1970 visitors were puzzled when they weren’t shocked. What to make of these pictures of the KKK tootling around town in a boxcar sedan, smoking stogies or flagellating themselves with whips? The images were lumpy and cartoonish; the color palette, a garish range of pink, red and black.

Guston was vilified in the press; friends were lost. Only Willem de Kooning, his AbEx compatriot, took the paintings in stride, commending Guston for exemplifying the freedom inherent in the creative process. “Philip Guston Now” includes a section dedicated to the infamous Marlborough show amongst an overall count of seventy-three paintings and twenty-three drawings. A sharp light is being shone on a headstrong talent.

Guston was born in Montreal, Canada, the youngest of seven children. The family had fled Odessa to escape anti-Semitic persecution, later moving to Los Angeles to seek economic opportunity. It wasn’t forthcoming. Guston’s father committed suicide. Ten-year old Philip discovered the body. Philip’s mother encouraged her son’s interest in painting and drawing, and Guston enrolled in L.A.’s Manual Arts High School. He moved to New York in 1935, joined the Works Project Administration, and married the poet Musa McKim. Guston went on to achieve considerable success as first-generation Abstract Expressionist, but found himself increasingly frustrated by “all that purity.” He and Musa moved to Woodstock. Outside the social whirlpool of the New York City art scene, Guston got down to business.

“Philip Guston Now” traces an oeuvre that underwent a fair share of bumps even as it settled out according to its own ineradicable logic. Stylistic shifts that may have appeared capricious during the artist’s life reveal themselves to be organic and of a piece. That is, of course, the benefit of hindsight. The exhibition begins with Mother and Child (c. 1930), a monumental image that is barely contained by its modest format. In it, we see an attempt to reconcile the pittura metafisica of Giorgio de Chirico with the tight-lipped fortitude of Piero della Francesca, one of many Renaissance Masters Guston revered. The same impulse, albeit inflected by contemporary events, can be gleaned from Drawing for Conspirators (1930) a pencil study for the ill-fated painting.

Guston’s compositions became increasingly complicated during the 1940’s. Figures, objects and spaces became tangled, albeit choreographed with a steely attention to interval and edge. Children appear in the canvases, often seen battling on city streets. Guston’s love of vintage comic strips can be gleaned from the elasticity of form seen in Gladiators (1940). Dynamism eventually gave way to atmosphere. The children in If This Be Not I (1945), not-so-distant kin of Gladiators, line up and face the viewer as if awaiting judgment. Stillness reigns.

Guston found himself increasingly drawn to abstraction. The compositional underpinnings of the figurative work gave way to an infirm and cobbled geometry. The Tormentors (1947-48), a smoldering web of ratcheted forms, was a stepping stone from If This Be Not I to the magisterial “Abstract Impressionism” of canvases like Summer (1954) and Dial (1956). Touch took precedence during this phase, though not at the risk of structure. Imagine Monet meeting Mondrian in a post-Hiroshima milieu.

The 1960’s put paid to Guston’s relationship with abstraction. The era’s political and cultural tumult rankled his inner moralist.  “I was feeling split, schizophrenic . . . what kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.”  For the first time in decades, Guston started painting objects and figures–or parts of figures, anyway. The compositions were blunt in their rendering, close to cack-handed. The signature Guston brushstroke–tha tenderly inquisitive slur of oil paint–took on a klutzy and comedic temper. Guston had always been a fan of George Herriman, the pioneering comic strip artist who created Krazy Kat. Herriman’s inimitable scratchiness came to the fore in Guston’s use of line. Sensuality was up-ended by agitation.

And then came the figures in hoods, galumphing pyramidal shapes that pick up where The Conspirators left off some thirty years earlier. These are the KKK pictures that gave pause to the organizers of “Philip Guston Now”–as well they should have: images are potent bearers of meaning. Certainly, Guston didn’t choose his cast of characters lightly; placing the KKK amongst them was, in no small terms, a freighted decision. It was also a provocation. Guston was never afraid to play with fire or, for that matter, ambiguity. Art was nothing without contradiction.

The Klan were soon overtaken by motifs that were alternately mundane (cherries, cigarettes, cities in the distance), personal (Musa, stuff in the studio), and bizarre (disembodied legs, cyclopean heads, bugs). The late work, in other words, isn’t altogether dependent on imagery that is potentially objectionable. All the same, the Boston MFA is skittish enough to provide an “emotional preparedness” warning for museum visitors. How that will skew the audience’s perception remains to be seen. In the meantime, “Philip Guston Now” offers an overview, circumspect and wary, of a profound and unruly artist.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

The article orignally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Art & Antiques.

“Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott” at the New Museum

Installation of “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott”; courtesy The New Museum, New York, NY
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“Resignation to life’s absurdities likely accounts for the peculiar lack of rancor in an oeuvre that doesn’t exactly stint on scabrous imagery.”

The entirety of the review can be found at “Dispatch,” the blog of The New Criterion.

“Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream (1899/1906), oil on canvas, 28-1/8 x 49-1/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
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The advance buzz on Winslow Homer:Crosscurrents wasn’t good. “Woke Winslow” — that’s how observers, online and through the grapevine, pegged the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition of paintings and watercolors by Winslow Homer (1836-1910). The stalwart purveyor of maritime adventure and manly pursuits, woke? One glance at the enlarged black-and-white photo displayed at the front end of Crosscurrents–a blurred portrait of Homer in his Maine studio–makes clear that the fusty man with the impatient glare is no one’s idea of a social-justice warrior.

Looks aren’t everything, of course.Truth to tell, Homer’s art does touch upon important aspects of American history. But did the summer of 2020 really beg for a “diachronic focus on conflict and struggle in [Homer’s] production?” So promises Sylvia Yount, the Met’s Lawrence A. Fleischman curator-in-charge of the American Wing and co-organizer, along with Stephanie L. Herdrich, of Crosscurrents. Is it possible, in so many words, to reconcile “The Gulf Stream” (1899/1906), among Homer’s most iconographic canvases, with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter?

Consider “‘The Various Colors and Types of Negroes’: Winslow Homer Learns to Paint Race,” an essay in the exhibition catalogue by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Those familiar with Homer’s pictures of black life, whether as seen in the American South or the Caribbean, know they are characterized by a rare and carefully grained objectivity. Shaw knows this, but she’s not happy about it. So after commending Homer for “trusting his own instincts on coloring potently raced bodies,” Shaw puts him in his place for an “oblique reliance on the negatively stereotyped tropes of Black representation.” The professor giveth, and the professor taketh away.

The good thing about Crosscurrents is that it isn’t the catalogue. The begrudgery typifying our curatorial class is outshone at the Met by artistic fact. The show is the largest overview of Homer’s work in twenty-five years, containing eighty-eight pieces. “The Gulf Stream” is at its center, but there are other signal pictures on display. There are so many, in fact, that you begin to realize just how thoroughly Homer’s vision has been absorbed into the body politic. If anything, the work makes a case for the expansiveness of the American spirit. The old Yankee, bless his soul, does not go gently into that woke night.

Winslow Homer was born in Boston, Massachusetts. His father was a businessman prone to bad decisions, his mother an amateur watercolorist. The extent of Homer’s formal training was an eighteen-month apprenticeship to a commercial lithographer. A knack for the anecdotal and a clipped sense of composition, along with a daunting work ethic, led to a career in illustration. During the Civil War, Homer contributed on-site battlefield drawings for Harper’s Weekly. At the age of twenty-three, Homer packed his bags and headed to New York City, intent on becoming a painter.

Crosscurrents is divided into eight sections, each of which is devoted to a theme–the seaside of the Northeastern United States, for instance, or trips taken to tropical climes. “War and Reconstruction” opens the show, and the paintings featured in it are almost Tocquevillian in their perspicacity. Homer’s experience as a journalist, working amid the carnage of war and its aftermath, likely accounts for the sobriety typifying the imagery. Homer was no sentimentalist. The pictures are bare-bones dioramas endowed with almost Biblical portent: a foolhardy soldier taunts the enemy, children attempt to farm wartorn ground, and a pair of young women wander through a field of cotton.

A curator cares for and maintains the items that have been entrusted to her. Political activism–hell, political commentary–shouldn’t be a prerequisite for the job. But let’s not be naive. Politics haven’t just seeped into our institutions; they’ve inundated them. When Herdrich, the Met’s associate curator of American Painting and Sculpture, insists the work be viewed “through the lens of conflict,” you know that Homer is about to be dragooned into the intersectional hothouse.

Winslow Homer, The Cotton Pickers (1876), oil on canvas, 24-1/2 x 38″; courtesy the Lost Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA

Homer had a pointed, if subtle, sense of irony. “The Cotton Pickers” (1876) is swathed in a beneficent light, but it’s no Arcadian idyll. The women pictured are emancipated slaves; the cotton they carry a reminder of their servitude. It’s an uncanny painting, marked by quietude and suffused with intimacy. The author F. Hopkinson Smith, a friend of Homer’s and a capable painter in his own right, described the canvas as “the whole story of Southern slavery.” Hindsight endows the painting with a preternatural gravitas–a sense of history as a burden foretold.

The most renowned of Homer’s pictures are centered on the ocean and dramatized by storm. Skies are dank and gray; waves surge and then surge some more; boats capsize; and those who sail the sea or live by it–well, good luck to them. Nature is relentless and violent, unforgiving and ominous. Typical is the “Ship’s Boat” (1883), in which a cadre of men grasp onto the side of an upturned lifeboat. The murky distance to which they signal for rescue offers slim chance of hope.

Homer’s paintings of tropical climes are, on the whole, less roiling in character. Certainly, the clarifying Caribbean sun suited Homer’s gift for watercolor, wherein the barest swipe of the brush yoked a radiant sense of climate from the white of the page. Homer thrived on the immediacy offered by the portability of watercolor: “I prefer every time a picture composed and painted outdoors. The thing is done without your knowing it.”

Which isn’t to say that life in the sunshine was without hazard. And here we circle back to “The Gulf Stream.” It’s a gripping image, for sure: a lone black man, shirtless and distracted, lies on a teetering skip, its mast broken off at the base. Blood filters through the surrounding waves; sharks are circling. Pitched on the horizon is a schooner sundering away from the crisis at hand. The canvas brings to mind a host of precedents, not least John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark” (1778) and Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa” (1818-19). Homer’s painting is starker in its theatricality and not tied to a specific narrative– which may account for the consternation engendered upon its initial public display.

Viewers wanted a backstory. Homer did not suffer the public gladly. “The unfortunate negro,” he wrote, “will be rescued & returned to his friends and home, & ever after live happily.” Over and out! He went on: “I have crossed the Gulf Stream ten times & I should know something about it. The boat & sharks are outside matters of very little consequence.”

“Outside matters of very little consequence?” Nonsense. Artists are rarely the best interpreters of their own work. Contrary to Homer’s testy dismissal of narrative, “The Gulf Stream” betrays grim determination, a stoic refusal to grant credence to the most trying of circumstances. Homer’s moralism, like that of Melville or Conrad, is inescapable and weighted, stubbornly independent and elusive in its probity. Like the best art, “The Gulf Stream” resists ideological pigeonholing or the machinations of fashion. Homer will survive the distrust and condescension of our theory-besotted gatekeepers. In the meantime, Crosscurrents is filled with paintings that merit our puzzlement and earn our pleasure.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article was originally published in the June 2022 edition of The Spectator World.

“Jonathan Silver: Matter and Vision” at Victoria Munroe Fine Art

Installation view of Jonathan Silver: Matter & Vision at Victoria Munroe Fine Art
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“Celebrity isn’t the sole litmus test of art, of course, nor should it be. But that an artist of Silver’s distinction remains unheralded is indicative of the benighted parameters within which our tastemakers operate.”

The full review can be found at “Dispatch,” the blog of The New Criterion.

“Picasso: Painting the Blue Period” at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Pablo Picasso, The Soup (1903), oil on canvas, 37 x 48 cm.; courtesy the Art Gallery of Ontario
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What is there left to say about Picasso? This question, posed by a colleague apropos of Picasso: Painting the Blue Period, an exhibition on display at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, is inevitable. There are few cultural figures whose life and accomplishments have been as exhaustively accounted for as the man born–take a breath!–Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. Innumerable exhibitions, books, scholarly tracts and films have been devoted to this relentlessly protean artist. Even after his death almost fifty years ago–Picasso died in 1973 at the age of ninety-one–he looms large in the public consciousness. Picasso’s stature in the upper echelons of the art world has, admittedly, been somewhat diminished by the promotion of Marcel Duchamp and his nose-thumbing progeny. Feminists have taken umbrage at the lionization of Picasso maltratador–which is how he was described last year at Barcelona’s Picasso Museum by a group of students protesting his treatment of women. Certainly, there are few artists less amenable to the unforgiving puritanism of our professional classes.

I mean, what might the woke-adjacent make of the subtext undergirding Painting the Blue Period–that Picasso was a socially conscious individual, an artist acutely aware of his proletarian status and an ally of the poor and the homeless, the underserved, incarcerated and marginalized? In late 1901, Picasso began visiting the Saint-Lazare women’s prison near Montmartre under the offices of Louis Jullien, the facility’s resident doctor and a specialist in venereal diseases. (Dr. Jullien went so far as to forge a medical identity for Picasso so that he could roam the grounds unaccompanied.) The young artist was, we are told, moved by “the struggles faced by poor women and their children in the modern world.” Twenty-first century sophisticates will snigger at this attempt to humanize Pablo the Perpetual Misogynist. And it is worth recalling the story, as related in John Richardson’s four-volume biography of the artist, that Picasso extolled the “models” at Saint-Lazare because they cost him not a centime. Still, human nature is nothing if not contradictory. The rest of us are defined by motives, ignoble and otherwise. Why not extend the benefit of a doubt to Picasso?

Truth to tell, the organizers of Painting the Blue Period have little truck with the moral soundness of Picasso’s moral probity. Co-curators Kenneth Brummel of the Art Gallery of Ontario and Susan Behrends Frank, associate curator of research at the Phillips, are interested in Picasso as–dare one say it?–an artist. Turns out that Brummel and Frank actually like art. Among the blessings of the exhibition is the absence of political posturing–guilt-mongering, really–that is all but de rigueur for curators nowadays. Instead, visitors learn how a given drawing, painting, sculpture or print was influenced by Picasso’s immediate environment or a particular motif (whether sacred or profane), and how it was realized through the accumulation of graphite, charcoal or oil paint. A significant part of the exhibition is, in fact, given over to process, conservation and scientific analysis. Three canvases–“The Soup” (1903), “Crouching Beggarwoman” (1902), and the Phillips’s own “Blue Room” (1901)–were subject to a variety of intensive imaging techniques. Painting aficionados will relish the opportunity to see X-ray photographs displaying how Picasso recycled canvases and imagery. Discovering how he upended a landscape painting and morphed it into “Crouching Beggarwoman” provides an especially telling sidebar. At the age of twenty-one, Picasso was already attuned to the power and possibilities of transformation.

Pablo Picasso, Crouching Beggarwoman (1902), oil on canvas, 101.2 x 66 cm.; courtesy the Art Gallery of Ontario
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Which isn’t to say that Painting the Blue Period highlights a kingpin of the avant-garde. The artist whose radical innovations would reshape the traditions of painting and sculpture? He ain’t here. What we have is Picasso at his most–well, let’s not say “derivative.” Having left Spain in 1901, Picasso traveled to Paris, settling in a studio a stone’s throw from the Moulin Rouge. He shared the apartment (if not the expenses) with his agent Pere Mañach, a transplant from Barcelona and scion of a family of industrialists. “Self-Portrait (Yo)” (1901)–a hardscrabble picture done on cardboard–evinces a man of chiseled good looks and unwavering confidence, a temperament out to make a name for itself in the demi-monde. That, and it divulges a proud reliance on the stylistic mannerisms of Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec. Lautrec died just a few months after Picasso’s arrival in France; from all accounts, the two never met. But Lautrec’s example weighed significantly on Picasso. He adopted many of the older artist’s subjects–cabarets, cafés and brothels–as well as the lifestyle attendant to them. “Catcalls and Capers” and “Lures for Men” (both 1901), comic illustrations Picasso did for the magazine Le Frou-Frou, could be touted as Lautrecs and few people would blink an eye.

Lautrec himself makes an appearance in Painting the Blue Period: his efflorescent “May Milton” (1895), a mixed-media depiction of the English dancer, is hung adjacent to “Catcalls and Capers” and “Lures for Men.” By placing these works in close proximity, Brummel and Frank underscore Picasso’s preternatural ability to absorb and integrate influences. Throughout the exhibition, Picasso’s efforts in oil, graphite, charcoal and bronze–including “Seated Woman” (1902), his first attempt at sculpture–are juxtaposed with works by historical figures, as well as those of artists within his milieu. “Nude Woman Standing, Drying Herself” (1891-92), a lithograph by Edgar Degas, and two sculptures by Auguste Rodin, “Eve” (c. 1881) and “Crouching Woman” (1880-82), are set alongside Picasso’s early explorations into the expressive potential ofthe female form. Elsewhere, Honoré Daumier, Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Luis de Morales and El Greco amplify Picasso’s work in revelatory ways flummoxing ways, too. Who would consider mashing-up Puvis de Chavannes’s arid neoclassicism with the decorative contouring of Vuillard? It’s an endeavor that would strain most imaginations. But imagine Picasso most surely did, particularly with “The Soup.”

The gallery devoted to “The Soup” is among the most gratifying museum installations in recent memory. Brummel and Frank, with tremendous scholarly acumen and no little sense of nuance, set out the genesis of a simple image–a mother providing a bowl of soup for her daughter–and prove just how complex it it. Painting during a return trip to Spain, “The Soup” revisits a motif Picasso had touched on before: motherhood and poverty. Whereas “Science and Charity” (1897)–an earlier painting not included in the exhibition–was couched in nineteenth-century convention, “The Soup” is startlingly modern, if not strictly speaking Modernist. Writing in the catalogue, Brummel describes it as a “pictorial settlement” between Daumier and Puvis de Chavannes. That’s putting it mildly. What Picasso does is streamline Daumier’s muscular caricatures and bypass Puvis de Chavannes’s Hellenism to channel Third Dynasty Egypt. The accompanying studies on display–done in pastel, oil and ink–testify to the tenacity, grit and gravity with which he approached the picture.

The upshot is a painting whose modest scale can’t contain the monumentality of its forms. In point of comparison, the smattering of pieces that close the exhibition–presaging, as they do, the Rose Period–is small beer. Then again, some respite is in order after the intensity of mood that dominates Painting the Blue Period. It’s a great exhibition.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 edition of The Spectator World.

“Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It’s Kept” at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Installation of paintings by James Little at The Whitney Museum of American Art
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Before I begin this review of “Quiet as It’s Kept,” the latest iteration of the Whitney Biennial, let me cite two potential conflicts of interest. One of the artists included in the exhibition is a friend, another an acquaintance. Prior to meeting James Little, I was a fan of his carefully engineered geometric abstractions, proud elaborations on modernist precedent. Since meeting James, I’ve had the pleasure of his company, both in his studio and out on the town. A few years back, Jane Dickson and I shared a lively dinner in the Fells Point section of Baltimore after completing our duties as jurists for the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. (Crabcakes and beer, if memory serves.) James and Jane are veterans of the New York scene: they’ve pursued their art with uncommon persistence, having dealt with the obstacles, and enjoyed the rewards, of an artist’s life. Their inclusion in “Quiet As It’s Kept” is vindication of creative lives productively accounted for. Any artist featured in a Biennial, as the scuttlebutt has it, reaps professional rewards. If so, James and Jane have earned them. They’ve been around the block.

So, too, have the curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards. Breslin, the DeMartini Family Curator and Director of the Collection at the Whitney, earned his wings at Houston’s Menil Drawing Institute and the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Prior to her appointment as the Whitney’s Director of Curatorial Affairs, Edwards headed up Performa, a nonprofit organization dedicated to live performance, and did stints at The Walker Art Center and the Mellon Foundation. Breslin and Edwards are operators; they’re in the know. Which raises the question: why on earth did they want to organize a Biennial? Doing so is among the most thankless of tasks. If the exhibition isn’t subjected to a raft of political controversies, it’s bound to receive a critical drubbing. Charles Craven, writing for the New York Herald Tribune in 1932, started the ball rolling with his assessment of the first Biennial (which was then the Annual): “No more telling evidence of the deplorable state of American art has ever been assembled.” A glance at Twitter on the morning after the 2022 press preview saw one observer likening the Whitney to the Trump administration. (That’s not a good thing, should you be wondering.) Ninety years on, the Biennial still can’t catch a break.

Installation of paintings by Jane Dickson at The Whitney Museum of American Art
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“Quiet as It’s Kept” is mainly spread out over the fifth and sixth floors of the museum. The walls of the sixth floor are almost uniformly black, the walls of the fifth floor white. The artworks on the sixth floor are installed in a fairly traditional manner. The fifth floor is open and airy, subdivided by trellis-like structures on which objects are displayed. The curators have included a preponderance of videos (there are not a few darkened rooms to navigate) and a notable amount of abstract painting. Figurative painting is scant—unless one counts digital media as a form of painting, which some people do. Murmuring voices and other noises filter through the exhibition spaces, the accumulation of soundtracks from various filmed pieces. Artworks utilizing text are numerous. Extension cords, fans, lights, metalwork, lcd screens, and what appears to be plumbing punctuate the installation. Contemporary events and figures are touched upon: George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, and covid. The past, too: Thomas Edison, the Constitution, and the Korean War. There are shelves full of books. On the morning I attended “Quiet as It’s Kept,” there was a battered Chevrolet roped off on the sidewalk in front of the Whitney. Was it part of the exhibition? Maybe. Maybe not.

“Quiet as It’s Kept” contains an abundance of political content, but you knew that. Contemporary art isn’t anything if it doesn’t address an issue—that’s the reasoning. Art does spring from a multitude of sources and sensations, that’s for sure. But the ideologies, grievances, and pronunciamentos typifying this Biennial? They’re depressing. The problem isn’t necessarily this or that theory. Rather, it’s the certitude with which the artists wield them. When did our radicals become such intolerant prigs or, for that matter, willing stooges of corporate interests? There isn’t a social malady, real or imagined, that can’t be winnowed down to its crudest component or expressed in atrocious grammar. One essayist writes about “diasporic Japaneseness,” another of how “in the afterlife all the museum’s (vestigial) wings will be unnamed in ceremonies young artists will perform by letting the dead sing through them in a continuous and uninterrupted tone that sounds like houselights [sic] dimming.” These excerpts, picked at random, are typical. The corresponding artworks are preferable if only because their tendentiousness is cleanly articulated. Sometimes a bumper sticker is preferable to a dissertation.

There’s art in “Quiet as It’s Kept”—some of which is worth communing with, most of which is negligible. But, really, this isn’t an exhibition about individual artworks. Though it’s foolhardy to take the installation aesthetic to task—I mean, the Giotto paintings lining the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel are, after all, “site-specific”—there is a difference between art as an elaboration on architecture and art as background noise. Breslin and Edwards don’t give their selections much credence. The funereal darkness, antiseptic artificial light, chug-a-lugging ambient sound, by-the-book outrage, and diminution of hard-won visions into fly-by-night decor: this is the least accessible Biennial ever, a migraine-inducing assault on the senses and a funhouse of preening elegance. Breslin and Edwards have done a thorough job, but, in the end, they’ve done the wrong job. After traveling extensively, visiting studios, speaking with all and sundry, and making tough decisions, what they’ve arrived at, basically, is a valentine to themselves. One doesn’t have to read their respective catalogue entries—letters to each other posing as essays—to intuit the self-congratulatory tone of “Quiet as It’s Kept.” Best wishes to the artists. Your work will survive the hostility to which it is currently being subjected.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the May 2022 edition of The New Criterion.