Author Archives: Mario Naves
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I’m pleased to announce “Intricate Expanse”, an exhibition I’ve curated for Lesley Heller Workspace.
“Intricate Expanse” features the work of six artists, each of whom creates encompassing compositions without sacrificing a distinct sense of their constituent parts.
Steve Currie, Laura Dodson, Karl Hartman, Tine Lundsfryd, Sangram Majumdar and Maritta Tapanainen don’t miss the proverbial forest for the trees, but embrace both simultaneously–to sometimes tenacious, often ruminative and, at odd moments, comic effect.
The notion of “expanse”, for these artists, includes the physical parameters of pictorial and sculptural space, as well as the sweep of imagery contained within them. “Intricacy” is embodied both through touch and vision, by attention paid to the particularities of surface and process, and the metaphorical allusions that are consequently set into motion.
The resulting pieces unfold and disperse even as they are punctuated by a consistent sense of focus.
The exhibition opens on Sunday, March 15, from 6:00-8:00 p.m. I hope you’re able to stop by.
Charlene Heyl, Carlotta (2013), oil, synthetic polymer paint and charcoal on canvas, 6’10” x 6’4″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art
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I met a sculptor for coffee recently, and the subject of noteworthy exhibitions came up for discussion—as it invariably does for artists working in New York City. The inescapable show on the agenda was “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” at the Museum of Modern Art. Yes, the show was a blatant sop to the box office, but the French master’s late manner is among the most sumptuous achievements of twentieth-century art, and MOMA did Matisse proud, crowd control and all. Woe betide the seventeen artists included in “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” an exhibition sharing the museum’s sixth floor with “The Cut-Outs.” My sculptor friend observed that these painters must be humbled by having their work adjacent to that of Matisse. How could any serious artist not be? After visiting “The Forever Now,” a different question demands to be asked: Are the featured painters even capable of recognizing Matisse’s greatness? Their art is, on the whole, absent the rigor, clarity, and joy inherent in even the least of the collages. A better title for the mish-mosh that is “The Forever Now” might be “Dazed and Confused” or, given that it follows on the heels of “The Cut-Outs,” “Buzzkill.”
That isn’t what Laura Hoptman and Margaret Ewing, respectively the Curator and Curatorial Assistant of MOMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, would like us to believe. “The Forever Now,” they insist, captures a moment in which our cognizance of history has been transformed beyond understanding, largely because of the internet. “What characterizes our cultural moment,” Hoptman writes, “is the inability—or perhaps the refusal—of a great many of our cultural artifacts to define the times in which we live.” Atemporality, a phrase coined by the science-fiction writer William Gibson, denotes a world in which history has been rendered static and diffuse through technological advances. “The atemporal song, story, or painting contains elements of history but isn’t historical; it is innovative but not novel, pertinent rather than prescient.” Utilizing the “connoisseurship of boundless information,” the curators posit the atemporal aesthetic as optimistic, a “hopeful, even invigorating quest . . . [for] a broader, bolder notion of culture.” The irony the curators miss (or ignore) is how temporal their ideas are. The exhibition has hardly been mounted and it already feels out of date.
Joe Bradley, Man Made Dirigible (2008), grease pencil on canvas, 5′ x 8′; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art
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“The Forever Now” is MOMA’s first overview of contemporary painting in thirty years. (That it’s taken the premier museum of modern art that long to get its act together vis-à-vis the artform is its own disheartening statement.) The curators are desperate to prove painting relevant by top-loading it with up-to-the-moment nomenclature and references. Scan the catalogue and wall labels; you’ll come across a daunting amount of heady thinking and sweeping statements. Were you aware that we collectively suffer from “teleologically programmed brains” or that zombies “are perfect embodiments of the atemporal”? The latter is a telling and trendy ploy. Rather than stick their necks out to prove that painting continues to be a viable means of artistic expression, the curators provide themselves with an out. The dead-but-alive trope is beyond convenient, allowing for wiggle room in which to hedge bets about the choices that have been made. Forget William Gibson: the real inspiration here is Vladimir Botol, the Slovenian author who coined the phrase “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” So much for connoisseurship and optimism. “The Forever Now” is an unwitting exercise in, you know, whatever.
Of course, any institution attempting to provide a coherent overview of a cultural moment is asking for trouble, and, in that regard, Hoptman and Ewing should be cut some slack. Who doesn’t want to grab a handle, any handle, in these slippery times? Forget artists; everyone is alternately entranced and befuddled by our technological moment. It’s not so much that history is in flux—come on, history is always in flux—but that its reach has become so encompassing and immediate. In a world overrun by virtual imagery, it’s little surprise that makers of pictures and objects have become antsy, looking over their shoulders lest the tide passes them by. This doesn’t mean, however, that an overweening degree of self-consciousness—the chief characteristic defining “The Forever Now”—qualifies this-or-that painter as an oracle or mirror. How does “squatting in [the] foreclosed real estate” of art history qualify as a peculiarly contemporary phenomenon? With the exception of our forebears painting on the cave wall—who, after all, started the whole thing from scratch—artists of every epoch have relied and thrived on the fluidity of history. Sure, the world was once a smaller place. But to conclude that its increasing rapidity and breadth put a stop on culture is to indulge in a short-sighted brand of historical arrogance.
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Then again, perhaps MOMA’s crystal ball is clear in its reflections. If so, our permanent future is blatantly second-hand. Pastiche is the coin of the realm. The artists included in “The Forever Now” can’t see a hard-won individual style for a distracting grab-bag of visual tics. Slacker professionalism is the atemporal rule. Josh Smith has nothing to paint about so he paints everything, including rehashes of Neo-expressionism which was enough of a rehash the first time around. Joe Bradley’s scrawled stick figures make Jean-Michel Basquiat look like Michelangelo; Laura Owens employs Photoshop as a means of resurrecting Abstract Illusionism—you remember, the floating brushstroke school of painting long consigned to the dustbin of kitsch. Oscar Murillo is, I am told, the artist of the moment; the expert riffs on Rauschenbergian assemblage take second place to his unstretched canvases piled on the floor, through which viewers are welcome to rifle. Such gimmickry is typical, and connotes nothing so much as a loss of scope and invention. The lone exceptions are Amy Sillman, Mark Grotjahn, and, maybe, Charlene von Heyl and Michael Williams, each of whom possesses an engagement with the medium that hints at some kind of forward momentum. How well they’ll follow up on it remains to be seen, but, in at least this one pivotal respect, their work exposes the ready-made obsolescence at the core of “The Forever Now.”
© 2015 Mario Naves
This review was originally published in the March 2015 edition of The New Criterion.
Peter Blume, Vegetable Dinner (1927), oil on canvas, 25-1/4 x 30-1/4″; courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum
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There is no place better suited to pondering the attractions and limitations of eccentricity than Philadelphia—at least, during this past fall and into the new year. The city hosted three retrospectives of painters whose oeuvres generate interest less through a command of the medium than through a strident emphasis on (or indulgence in) idiosyncrasy. The Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania mounted “Dear Nemesis; Nicole Eisenman, 1993–2013,” while the venerable Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts presented “David Lynch: The Unified Field” and “Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis.” While each artist can claim a degree of material proficiency, the true litmus test for oddballs is visionary authenticity. Eisenman’s jaded symbolism rarely transcends hipster pastiche, while Lynch’s true métier is film: not one of his mixed-media grotesqueries has the queasy magnetism of Blue Velvet. Blume, however, is a different creature altogether. Even the blandest picture seen in “Nature and Metamorphosis” exposes Eisenman and Lynch as pikers. Blume (1906–92) was the real thing.
Those with a memory that extends beyond the day-glo verities of Pop Art may recall the name Peter Blume and, if so, perhaps dismissively. He’s typically lumped with the Magic Realists, a cadre of mid-twentieth-century painters who pursued Surrealist-inspired imagery with a sobriety that was distinctly American and employed technical finesse that was too fussy by half. They were steamrollered by Abstract Expressionism, of course. Compared to the cinema-scope heroics of the New York School, Paul Cadmus, Jared French, George Tooker, Pavel Tchelitchew, and Blume looked positively retrograde, what with their Renaissance-like rectitude, unembarrassed deployment of narrative, and dreamy portent. But that was before the advent of Post–Modernism. The subsequent loosening of hierarchies did much to cheapen culture, but it also plucked out of obscurity a host of artists—a handful of them deserving of acquaintance. Walking through the Blume retrospective, I couldn’t help but be relieved that I wasn’t suffering the umpteenth iteration of the received wisdom. At moments, relief was transformed into pleasure. “Nature and Metamorphosis” is, in many ways, an unforgettable exhibition.
Peter Blume, The Eternal City (1937), oil on composition board, 34″ x 47-7/8″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art
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Not least because Blume’s pictures can be spectacularly awful. Could even the forgiving embrace of the camp aesthetic welcome Man of Sorrows (1951)? Blume renders a signal moment from the New Testament as if it were a Warner Brothers cartoon, with the requisite exaggerations in form, rhythm, and color; that the image is delineated with finicky expertise makes it all the more brittle. Fobbing off as kitsch Man of Sorrows or, for that matter, Blume’s hallucinatory farmland panoramas from the 1960s doesn’t do justice to their over-the-top vulgarity. Still, if art can’t be redeemed by the artist’s convictions, it can derive power from them, and, whatever else one might say about Blume’s oeuvre, there isn’t a false moment in it. Over the course of fifty-six paintings, some of them real showpieces, and over a hundred drawings, “Nature and Metamorphosis” makes clear the pull of one artist’s preoccupations, and underlines the deliberation and skill with which they were realized. The exhibition is, in pacing and focus, a model of its kind. Credit Robert Cozzolino, the PAFA Senior Curator and Curator of Modern Art, for making a strong case for a quizzical artist.
Born Piotr Sorek-Sabel, Blume immigrated to the United States from Belarus on the initiative of his father who sought to avoid imprisonment for participating in the anti-Czarist revolution of 1905–07. Growing up in the East New York section of Brooklyn, Blume evinced an early interest in art. He studied painting and drawing at the Educational Alliance and the Art Students League, where he struck up a friendship with his fellow student Alexander Calder. By 1924, Blume had rented a studio on 13th Street in Manhattan and became part-and-parcel of the New York scene, encountering an A-list of entrepreneurs, artists, and poets including Alfred Stieglitz, Charles Demuth, Hart Crane, Marcel Duchamp, Buckminster Fuller, Malcolm Cowley, and Constantin Brancusi. Blume met with success—Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Alfred H. Barr Jr. were early supporters—as well as controversy. The Eternal City (1937), Blume’s allegorical take on fascism in which Benito Mussolini is pictured as a jack-in-the-box, was castigated for reasons both pictorial and thematic. For every comment on its artistic shortcomings (“plastically dumb”) there was an accusation of political pandering. The Eternal City was eventually acquired by MOMA after having been rejected for display by the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Peter Blume, The Italian Straw Hat (1952), oil on canvas, 22-1/4 x 30-3/8″; courtesy The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
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At this date, The Eternal City comes off as so much obscurantist moralism. The same goes for The Rock (1945–48) and Tasso’s Oak (1957–60), rickety parables both. Like a lot of fabulists, Blume was better off keeping things simple. Early pieces like Hyacinth (1925), Pig’s Feet and Vinegar (1927), and Vegetable Dinner (1927) assume a dry pictorial clarity that underplays the uncanny to hypnotic effect. Surrealism comes to the fore in kaleidoscopic dreamscapes like Parade (1929–30) and South of Scranton (1930–31), and eventually succumbs to an increasingly fetishistic attention to detail. All the while, Blume’s drawings take in the Old Masters and Automatism, Brueghel and Bosch no less than Masson and Miró, to impressively contradictory effect. He never took his eye off the natural world—the diminutive Study for Summer (1964) could be mistaken for a Rembrandt sketch—even as the works in oil become increasingly unnatural. The finest of the later paintings is The Italian Straw Hat (1952), a tensely rendered depiction of a room in the artist’s house, which includes, among other things, the title object, a sewing basket, and a Calder mobile. Even the aforementioned paeans to country life are arresting, that is if you can stomach their overripe theatricality, slick facture, and lurid coloration. Scratching one’s head may not be the highest form of aesthetic response, but it’s exactly what “Nature and Metamorphosis” elicits and, in the end, that’s enough to make it a diverting and significant exhibition.
© 2015 Mario Naves
This article was originally published in the February 2015 edition of The New Criterion.
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If there’s any exhibition whose title warrants three exclamation points it’s the annual extravaganza at Brooklyn’s Sideshow Gallery. A recent painting of mine will be included amongst the hundreds of artworks festooning the walls of this venerable Williamsburg institution. Hope to see you there.
© 2015 Mario Naves
William Glackens, Cape Cod Pier (1908), oil on canvas, 26″ x 32″; Courtesy Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale
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There could be no venue more appropriate for “William Glackens” than The Barnes Foundation. Forget that the exhibition began its run elsewhere and, for that matter, the artist’s hometown status. Consider, instead, the relationship between Glackens (1870–1938) and Albert C. Barnes. The latter befriended “Butts”—Barnes’s nickname for Glackens— while attending Philadelphia’s elite Central High School. Their paths separated upon graduation: Barnes went on to study chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania; Glackens pursued art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, all the while working as an illustrator for the local press. They reconnected some twenty years later under radically different circumstances. Having moved to New York and traveled to Europe, Glackens became associated with “The Eight,” a group of painters dedicated to depicting the less polite environs of urban life—alleyways, burlesque shows, saloons, and tenement life. In the meantime, Barnes invented and put to market Argyrol, an antiseptic best known for its use in gonorrheal infections. He made millions and then took an interest in art.
Though Barnes’s enthusiasm for art was encompassing–he was particularly keen on painting, and his book, The Art in Painting, is essential, if often obstreperous, reading—Glackens steered him toward contemporary French art. Placing faith in Glackens’s eye, Barnes sent him to Europe on a mission to acquire “some good modern paintings.” The working budget was $20,000, the modern-day equivalent of close to half a million dollars. The works with which Glackens returned—canvases by Cézanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Pissarro, and other stellar figures—would form the corpus of Barnes’s collection. (Glackens’s notebook, with a list of available artworks, is on display in the exhibition; a “Pecasso” [sic] would’ve set you back $1,000 in 1912.) Glackens continued to act in an advisory position in the forming of Barnes’s collection—that, and Barnes acquired seventy-one works by his old friend. Glackens’s role in the shaping of The Barnes Foundation is beyond dispute. For that reason alone, history should confer its blessings on the man.
Albert C. Barnes and William Glackens, circa 1920; courtesy The Barnes Foundation
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As “William Glackens” proves, history should also consider him an artist of, if not quite the first rank, then closer than might have been expected. Those inclined to fob off Glackens as the maker of pre-Armory Show period pieces or, as is typically the case, a Renoir-wannabe, should prepare to have their preconceptions dusted off, washed up, and hung out to dry. The Barnes exhibition is revelatory. Over the course of almost one hundred pieces, “William Glackens” confirms what we knew about his skills as draftsman even as it deepens our appreciation of his gifts as paint handler. And then there’s Glackens’s palette! Looking at Cape Cod Pier (1908), with its backdrop of acidic orange, or the rainbow sweep of March Day, Washington Square (1912), we can’t help but succumb to their chromatic grandeur. An out-and-out sensualist, Glackens may have gleaned his painterly tics from Renoir, but he outclassed the Frenchman in terms of chromatic fullness, compositional structure, and, at distinct moments, psychological acuity. Glackens makes his hero seem wan in comparison—an observation reinforced by a subsequent jaunt through the museum’s permanent collection with its many Renoirs.
William Glackens, Family Group (1910/11), oil on canvas, 71-15/16″ x 84″; courtesy The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
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Organized by the art historian and independent curator Avis Berman, “William Glackens” moves chronologically. We follow the young painter as he discovers Hals, Goya, Whistler, and Manet and pays homage to them with brusque and, at times, unruly brushwork—the fashionable women seen parading through In the Luxembourg (ca. 1896) are all but capsized by fleshy slurs of oil paint. Examples of Glackens’s newspaper work are characterized by an impressive brevity of touch, uncanny attention to anecdote, and a tone that is alternately sober and witty; Patriots in the Making (1907) and Far From the Fresh Air Farm (1911), Lower East Side panoramas both, evince a temperament not immune to comedy and resistant to easy sentiment. Sometime around 1908, Glackens the painter abandons a palette keyed to a supple range of grays and blacks, and amps up both light and color. Taking cues from the stern hedonism of Matisse and Bonnard’s tonal fields of knitted color, Glackens put into motion a post-impressionism that is lived-in, luxuriant and punctuated by moments of specificity— the anxious expression of the central figure in Children Rollerskating (ca. 1912–1914), say, or the surprising gust of wind coursing through At The Beach (ca. 1914–1916). Credit such moments to the former journalist and his eye for the telling detail.
The closest “William Glackens” comes to a show-stopper is Family Group (1910–11), a monumental portrait of the artist’s wife, son, sister-in-law, and a family friend in their Fifth Avenue apartment. It’s some kind of machine—Glackens takes the notion of luxe, calme et volupté and goes over the top with it. The surroundings in which the figures are ensconced is not just sumptuous, but ridiculously sumptuous: the image fairly careens with pattern, vigorous brushwork and colors saturated beyond the call of representation. Even as the composition threatens to convulse under its rhythms, the picture is held in place by a wiry tension—a sense of psychological dislocation, really. Family dynamics are ever thus, we surmise, and Glackens never attempted that kind of frisson again (though he hints at it, most markedly, in the Hopperesque The Soda Fountain ). Mostly Glackens was content to revel in the pleasures that only painting can provide—whether it be embodied in a vase of roses, the French seaside, or the play of light against a far-off Statue of Liberty. What he may have lacked in originality (or innovation), Glackens made up for in perspicacity, depth, precision, and pleasure, pure pleasure. The telling of American art will have to make a larger place for William Glackens, as will the rest of us.
© 2015 Mario Naves
This review originally appeared in the January 2015 edition of The New Criterion.
The Lauder Residence; courtesy Habitually Chic
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Leonard A. Lauder has one nice apartment. This observation should be fairly self-evident. Lauder was, after all, chief executive of Estée Lauder, the cosmetics giant for which he is now Chairman Emeritus. His digs are likely to be spectacular—and not worth mentioning, particularly in an exhibition review. Still, the issue will be raised for anyone attending “Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection”: the first items encountered are two huge photographs of the Lauder residence, its elegant environs festooned with myriad blue-chip artworks. Did the Met really need to remind us that the rich lead different lives? This introductory moment of hubris is offset by the exhibition itself and, not least, Lauder’s generosity. Given the supercharged state of the art market, he could have cashed in his collection of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Fernand Léger to the tune of—yes, that’s right—one billion dollars. Instead, the Lauder homestead has been emptied of its treasure trove. The paintings, works-on-paper, and sculptures featured in “Cubism,” eighty-one pieces in total, are a promised gift to the Met and the rest of us as well.
Truth be told, our greatest museum’s collection of twentieth-century art has never been that great. The Met’s relationship with modern and contemporary art has been rife with false starts, misguided decisions, and significant bungles. The collection is renowned as much for glaring omissions as for the scattering of masterworks it can rightfully claim. When the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing—the section of the museum dedicated exclusively to twentieth-century art—opened in 1987, the art critic Hilton Kramer, writing in The New Criterion, bluntly asked: “Who needs it?” The Met, Kramer went on, “does not even have the shadow of a twentieth-century collection of the size and substance which this elephantine facility calls for.” As architecture, the Wallace Wing continues to be a Chinese box of pinched and ungainly galleries. Thomas Campbell, the museum’s current director, has rued its museological unsuitability. Still, the Met’s “shadow” collection has gained substance over the past three decades. The Lauder Collection will bring greater credibility to the Met’s dribs-and-drabs take on Modernism. Lauder’s gift is, in fact, among the most significant in the museum’s history.
Pablo Picasso, Three Nudes (1906), gouache, ink, watercolor and charcoal on white laid paper, 24-3/8″ x 18-7/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Hyperbole? Hardly—if anything, it’s an understatement. Even in a city with no shortage of Cubist masterworks, “Cubism” is a thrilling reminder of the movement’s primacy. It’s exhausting, too. How many great pictures can a body stand? If there are more than a half dozen so-so works in The Lauder Collection, good luck finding them. Lauder came late to Cubism, acquiring the first pieces in 1976. The “shock of the new” had long since dissipated; Cubism was, for those with the cash to spend, an easy sell and increasingly difficult to come by. That didn’t prevent Lauder from amassing a collection that should be the envy of any museum you’d care to name, including the Museum of Modern Art. The consistency of the Lauder Collection is so unremitting that even the most doctrinaire Picassophile may forgive the absence of a seminal work like Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon. Besides, at a historical moment when MOMA’s permanent collection has been reshuffled for the sake of this-or-that trend—not fatally, mind you, but enough to make one worry about its vital signs—who’s to say The Met, with the Lauder gift in tow, won’t become the go-to stop for early Modernism?
The Lauder Collection includes two studies for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, as well as Three Nudes (1906), a diaphanous Rose Period sketch for a never-realized painting that may depict a brothel, and certainly evinces a young Picasso beginning to disrupt the conventions of pictorial space. Elsewhere, we see Picasso and his fellow “mountaineer” in Cubism, George Braque, tussle with the pictorial fracturing put in motion by Cézanne, and subsequently watch them disrupt representation without sacrificing it altogether. The exhibition is divided into didactic sections that are light in touch: the close relationship between Picasso and Braque is informatively glanced upon, as is the use of color by a notoriously monochromatic movement. The introduction of collage is given significant space, and there are hints of the Constructivism that would follow in its wake. Picasso outnumbers Braque two-to-one in terms of the number of pieces on display, but the latter artist holds his own—testimony, at least in part, to their rigorous interdependence during Cubism’s formative years. Turns out, Braque needed Picasso’s flash as much as Picasso gained rigor from Braque’s more tempered approach.
Juan Gris, Still Life with Checkered Tablecloth (2015), oil and graphite on canvas, 45-7/8″ x 35-1/8″
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If Picasso and Braque were the pioneers of Cubism, Léger and Gris were two of its most accomplished practitioners, codifying stylistic innovation in the service of complete and utterly distinct worldviews. Léger’s machine-based aesthetic is seen at its most elegant within the steely gradations of Three Women (1920), and its most muscular in The Smoker (1914) and Houses Under the Trees (1913), “tubist” masterworks that all but rollick off the wall. The gallery devoted exclusively to Gris is something special, if only because he’s given short shrift in New York museums and, for that matter, the standard telling of art history. A classicist in temperament with a deft hand for pearlescent shifts of tone, Gris brought an exacting intelligence to Cubism that mark him as something more—much more—than a mere follower. Gris’s use of collage carries with it greater wit than Braque ever managed and his palette is not only engagingly discordant, but more structurally sure than anything Léger and, especially, Picasso put into order. Thank Leonard Lauder for not stinting on this sly, sleek, and surprisingly eccentric figure. But thank him mostly for a bit of philanthropy that will continue to provide pleasure (and puzzlement) for generations to come.
© 2014 Mario Naves
This article originally appeared in the December 2014 edition of The New Criterion.
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Having inadvertently entered “Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered” through the exhibition’s exit, I was surprised to see Jackson Pollock’s Pasiphaë (1943), a pre-drip accumulation of hurried pictographs, on prominent display. Actually, I wasn’t that surprised, given that Benton (1889–1975) is probably best known by contemporary audiences as Pollock’s mentor. After studying under Benton at The Art Students League, Pollock became a lifelong friend, though the older artist stated, “the only thing I taught him was how to drink a fifth a day.” The relationship between the archetypal American Regionalist and “Jack the Dripper” has often been remarked upon, largely because of the disparity between the former’s homespun mannerism and the latter’s radical embrace of abstraction. But the commonalities between the two are, in pictorial terms, structural and real. The headlong rhythms of Pasiphaë are identical to those coursing through America Today (1930–31), albeit stripped of Yankee Doodle finery. Turns out “a fifth a day” was only part of the equation.
The Met has done handsomely by Benton, giving America Today—a sprawling, almost Homeric state of the union diorama—ample berth in its American Wing. The Pollock canvas is included as an addendum to the Benton mural, ensconced as it is in a side gallery with works by Stuart Davis, John Steuart Curry, Reginald Marsh, Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, and others. These pieces provide cultural context, just as a gallery featuring studies for America Today offers insight into Benton’s working methods. The main event is squirreled away in a cloistered space redolent of its original site: a boardroom at The New School. The Art Deco leanings of the New School architect Joseph Urban are evident in aluminum-leaf wood moldings that simultaneously frame and snake through the mural. They’re a curious fillip: Urban’s sleek, rectilinear surfaces stand in contrast to Benton’s knotted, organic stylizations. Though both men worked in happy conjunction on the commission, all but irreconcilable strains of Modernism are evident in their respective visions.
Thomas Hart Benton, Instruments of Power (1930-31), oil on canvas; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Benton’s relationship to Modernism was complicated. Regionalism was as much anti-European (and anti-urban) as it was pro-American or, perhaps it is better said, pro-midwest American; its best known practitioners were based in Missouri (Benton), Kansas (Curry), and Iowa (Grant Wood). Boosters of the style viewed it as a bulwark against the oncoming tide of abstraction from across the Atlantic. It was no small irony that Regionalism was eventually ousted from the limelight by The New York School, a movement for which Benton’s former student was poster boy. Still, Benton was no bumpkin. Though he claimed himself “an enemy of Modernism,” his formative years were spent in Paris palling around with Stanton MacDonald-Wright and Diego Rivera. The influence of Cubism, Futurism, and Surrealism is evident in even his most doctrinaire slices of Americana. Instruments of Power, the center panel of America Today, is a collage-like amalgam of veering industrial forms. Francis Picabia would’ve approved of Benton’s paean to the machine; it is, after all, close kin to I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie (1914), the Dadaist gadfly’s masterwork.
America Today consists of ten panels, the majority of them measuring close to eight feet high, and each focusing on a specific theme: among them, the coal and steel industries, the “changing West,” the “deep South,” and “city activities,” both on the subway and in the dance hall. The compositions are kaleidoscopic in effect, and their torsions supple and transitions fluid, notwithstanding abrupt disjunctions in scale, setting, and anecdote. Race relations are touched upon, as are disparities in wealth and moral stricture. In one panel, a burlesque show coexists with a revival meeting, a boxing match and a couple kissing passionately on a park bench. Benton’s symbolism is ham-handed, but his juxtapositions of imagery can be droll. Note, for instance, how the postures of hoochie-coochie girls, a woman in prayer and a fashionable strap-hanger rhyme even as their curvilinearity becomes less pronounced as the composition moves toward the picture’s edge. Benton’s knack for caricature is too hospitable to melodrama and invariably emits a whiff of hoke. America Today doesn’t quite escape period-piece status.
Thomas Hart Benton, City Activities with Subway (1930-31), oil on canvas; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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In an accompanying video, happily sequestered in a separate room, Thomas P.Campbell, the museum’s Director and CEO, makes a case for Benton’s relevance—the inequity of capital, the shifting landscape, sexual mores, that kind of thing. The aesthetic relevance of America Today is, however, more problematic, if only because (as a painter friend has it) “there is something to Benton after all, godammit.” Undeniable sophistication doesn’t altogether redeem florid, willful, and—let’s just say it— silly theatricality. Benton is hard to take seriously even as we have to grant him a degree of seriousness. The most damning moment at the Met comes in the aforementioned exit gallery. Down the wall from Pasiphaë is a painting by the sixteenth-century Netherlandish artist Abraham Bloemaert. Moses Striking the Rock (1596) is the chronological odd canvas out, but its mannerisms are as extravagant, stilted, and cornpone as Benton’s. Point taken: the reach of art traverses centuries. Still, dragging a not-so-good painting out of storage is an odd way to bolster the star attraction. Benton, ever ornery, doesn’t need help in thwarting his own gifts.
© 2014 Mario Naves
This review originally appeared in the November 2014 edition of The New Criterion.
Trevor Winkfield “Georges Braque & Others: The Selected Art Writings of Trevor Winkfield, 1990–2009.” The Song Cave, 204 pages.
Johannes Vermeer, The Allegory of Faith (ca. 1670-72), oil on canvas, 45″ x 35″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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The Allegory of Faith (ca. 1670–72) is the Vermeer painting no one likes to talk about. At least that’s the consensus amongst those of us who regularly visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in order to commune with Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca. 1662) and Study of a Young Woman (ca. 1665–67)—staples of the collection that encapsulate everything we hold dear about the most evanescent of Dutch Masters. Turning to The Allegory of Faith hanging nearby, we continue to marvel at the artist’s crystalline technique even as the heart drops in response to its stilted imagery. Vermeer’s avowal of religious principle is encumbered by ham-handed symbolism, melodramatic beyond the call of duty. Who could find anything redeemable in this monumental lapse of magic, in such cluttered and over-the-top hokum? Trevor Winkfield, that’s who.
In Georges Braque & Others: The Selected Art Writings of Trevor Winkfield, 1990–2009, Winkfield declares The Allegory of Faith as nothing less than Vermeer’s “greatest achievement.” Citing the picture’s “suppressed manic overtones,” Winkfield elaborates on “the hilarity of [Vermeer’s] amateur operatic performance”:
As the eye ricochets from one object to another to the other, a veritable connect-the-dots constellation of spheres and curves emerges, starting with [the title figure’s] beady eyes.
Writing an encomium to a picture that’s long been dismissed as a minor effort—the Met itself gently chastises The Allegory of Faith by calling it “atypical”—might seem a post-modernist jape, but Winkfield isn’t out to glorify kitsch. He takes the painting seriously. Reading on, he adroitly guides us through the intricacies of the painting, culminating in “one of the most voluptuous objects in Dutch art”: the globe on which Faith has placed her foot. Okay, well—that globe is something special. Maybe the same could be said about the painting in which it appears? Disagree all you want with the “excitement” Winkfield divines in The Allegory of Faith; there’s no doubting he has looked at the picture with a penetrating and appreciative eye.
Lubin Baugin, Still-life with Chessboard (The Five Senses) (1630), oil on wood, 55 cm. x 73 cm.; courtesy Musée du Louvre, Paris
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A painter’s eye, actually. Though not a household name (and keeping in mind that fame is rarely a reliable barometer of artistic worth), Winkfield has garnered an ardent following for his paintings—kaleidoscopic pictures that combine playing card iconography, Neo-plasticist rigor, Dadaist disjunction, and unapologetic cheek. While Winkfield has made New York City home since 1969, his British roots are palpable in all his work—whether sitting at the keyboard or ensconced in the studio, his eccentricity is front-and-center. As such, he’s prone to particular, not to say “private,” enthusiasms and is keenly attuned to artists who are idiosyncratic or little known. Florine Stettheimer, Gerald Murphy, and Albert Pinkham Ryder are favorites, as is “the tortoise that wins,” Myron Stout. Have you heard of the seventeenth-century French painter Lubin Baugin? Neither had I, but after reading Winkfield’s thoughts on Baugin’s still-lifes, you’ll want to see them—like, now.
Winkfield is a convincing writer, even when he dedicates time to subjects of quizzical merit—not just The Allegory of Faith, but Marcel Duchamp, Paul Signac, and Jasper Johns. Winkfield is acute enough in his observations to prompt second thoughts on these and other subjects. Conversational and witty, biting when necessary, and generous when deserving, Winkfield is a rarity: an art critic whose prose is a pleasure to read. Neither as terse as Fairfield Porter or as frothy as Henry McBride, Winkfield nevertheless recalls both in his independence and clarity. He has little patience for received pieties. After likening Abstract Expressionism to a “garrulous uncle whose bulky form hogs both fireplace and conversation,” he concludes that it should be considered “a transitory phenomenon and not the be-all and end-all of a national aesthetic.” Winkfield dismisses as “piffle” the notion of art’s immortality, describes the Last Supper as “one of Leonardo’s most boring conceptions,” and bemoans the Victorians’ use of oil paint: “it had to be battered into the slickness of an illustration for them to understand it.”
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Failed art lends itself more readily to words than good art, so it’s a measure of Winkfield’s literary abilities that he’s at his best when waxing enthusiastic. An encompassing sense of historical, biographical, and aesthetic measure is brought to each essay, all without sacrificing an engaging bonhomie. Winkfield’s gift for the turn of phrase—for the sound, as well as the sense of words—is delightful and sharp. Gerald Murphy could “evoke melting butter on a pewter plate” simply by painting a wedge of yellow. Braque’s late Studio paintings “are illuminated only by calcium shafts of moonlight.” Chardin “delved into the personality of a plum more astutely than anyone before him.” In an unforgettable commendation, Graham Sutherland’s landscapes are described as so “densely umbrageous we might be staring at the lining of a bowel.” It is at moments like these—chatty yet incisive, slightly off-kilter and deeply perceptive—that Georges Braque and Others establishes itself as that rarest of animals: an indispensable addition to the corpus of art criticism.
© 2014 Mario Naves
This review originally appeared in the October 2014 edition of The New Criterion.