Category Archives: Art & Culture

“Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts” @ The Museum of Modern Art and P.S.1

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Bruce Nauman, Contrapposto Split (2017), 3D projection; courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art (Susanna Carlisle/Copyright Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society, courtesy Sperone Westwater)

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The Museum of Modern Art and PS1 might not want to hear it, but—Bruce Nauman? He is so over. Consider Contrapposto Split (2017), a wall- sized video featured in “Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts,” a retrospective encompassing some fifty years of work. In it, we see the artist walk to and fro in his New Mexico studio. The floor is cluttered with detritus, the wall dotted with photos of horses and rodeo performers. The projection is split horizontally—each half of the screen operates just out of syncopation with the other. Did I mention the 3-D glasses, pairs of which are made available to museum visitors? Watching Nauman saunter back and forth in “real space” functions, I guess, as an indicator of an openness to materials and technologies. It’s all very clever and, in its dry-as-dust humor, diverting. But mostly it’s stale, and—according to the friend with whom I attended the PS1 portion of “Disappearing Acts”—macho. Rolling her eyes, she bemoaned Nauman’s intellectual posturing and cowpoke pretensions. Just what we need right now: another man flaunting his genius.

Employing #MeToo logic as a gauge of artistic worth may seem off the mark, but, truth be told, taking account of Nauman’s oeuvre in aesthetic terms isn’t better. The word “oeuvre” is, in fact, inappropriate here. Looking for stylistic and material consistency? You’d best go elsewhere: Nauman is the anti-oeuvre. His variousness, the catalogue tells us, is “a gravitational force that over time filters out everything unnecessary, leaving behind something of unusual conceptual purity.” What that “something” results in is stuff, and lots of it. Like many artists of his generation—brainy types who straddle the divide between Minimalism and Conceptual Art—Nauman and his work require significant expanses of real estate. Between MOMA and PS1, viewers traverse room upon room filled with drawings, lithographs, neon lights, no lights, whispering voices, shouting voices, water fountains, Sheetrock, videos, wax casts of body parts, fiberglass molds of animals, machinery, music, and Double Steel Cage Piece (1974), in which we are encouraged to squeeze inside the it-is-what-it-says-it-is structure. Only the svelte, petite, and foolhardy need take the challenge.

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Bruce Nauman, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (1967), neon and clear glass tubing suspension supports; 149.86 x 139.7 x 5.08 cm.; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art and PS1 (Photo: Giulia van Pelt)

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And then there are words. If words don’t predominate in Nauman’s art, it is, all the same, nothing without them. I’m not referring to the informational wall texts—though they are abundant, and more verbose than the typical museum standard—but to Nauman’s bent for linguistic hijinks. “The true artist,” we read in an unfurling array of red and blue neon lights, “helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” As a littérateur, Nauman aims for the abstruse and ironic but coasts on the obvious. One Hundred Live and Die (1984) is a list of proscriptions: “Sit and Live,” “Spit and Live,” “Piss and Die,” etc. “Violins,” “violence,” and “silence” flash on-and-off. “None sing” and “neon sign” are transposed. (Neon is as close to a signature medium as Nauman can muster.) In an empty, darkened gallery, a disembodied voice insists that we “get out of this room, get out of my mind.” Let’s not forget Pay Attention Motherfucker, a lithograph from 1973, in which the title is printed in reverse. Nauman’s wordplay is overweening. Pay attention yourself, Bruce. Needy artists we’ve got enough of.

Sex and death are glanced upon, as is scatology, voyeurism, the American West, and, if we are to believe the essayist Nicolás Guagnini, the parlous state of race relations in the United States. Guagnini writes of how Nauman explores the “intersection between self-eroticism and blackness, codifies that which has no name, names that which has no representation, represents in the hyperconscious unreality of slowed-down time”—well, it goes on. Suffice it to say, Nauman established his PC bona fides in 1969, when he painted his scrotum black and proceeded to manipulate himself, in close-up, while filming in grainy black and white. Black Balls is a minor effort in Nauman’s career, but the video bears mentioning in that it underlines the lengths to which art is currently being politicized. Guagnini notes that Nauman was politically disengaged during the 1960s. All the same, Black Balls “matters today” in that “a white male with black balls cannot be instrumentalized in any homogenous form of identity politics.” How prescient; how brave. It’s enough to make you think there was more to young Nauman than the callow exploitation of societal pressure points.

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Bruce Nauman; courtesy of Phaidon

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There wasn’t. Nor has old Nauman—he turned seventy-seven last year—gained in wisdom, though the work has mellowed. It counts as a small mercy when films of shrieking clowns are supplanted by films of sashaying septuagenarians. As for the two-venue approach: the MOMA portion of “Disappearing Acts” is more tolerable. The museum’s gargantuan galleries allow the curators leeway with the installation, making for adroit juxtapositions of Nauman’s avant-gardist bric-à-brac. Better the whole than the sum of its parts, if only because the parts have been expressly manufactured to test the audience’s endurance: the work matters only to the extent that Nauman can insult its intelligence. Actually, that’s being generous—presupposing, as it does, a temperament interested in anything outside its own discursive purview. The artist—to employ nomenclature appropriate to the exhibition’s gestalt—couldn’t give a shit. He’s Bruce Nauman, and you’re not. That such a figure is being heralded by the art world as an innovator and master points to nothing so much as a subculture incapable of self-reflection and beyond the scope of satire. “Disappearing Acts” is a waste of time, a fraud on taste, and, yes, too macho for its own good.

© 2019 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the January 2019 edition of The New Criterion.

Back Again: The Art of Andy Warhol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Mario Naves

“Canova’s George Washington” at The Frick Collection

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

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

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

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

 

14. Loretta Pettway, Medallion, ca. 1960

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

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

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

01. Thornton Dial, History Refused to Die, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2018 Mario Naves

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

Incomparable: The Quilt-makers of Gee’s Bend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2005 Mario Naves

“M.C. Escher: Infinite Dimensions” at The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere (1935), lithograph, 12-1/2 x 8-1/2″; courtesy The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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Is it permissible, at this late date, to prefer the art of Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898–1972) to that of Salvador Dalí or René Magritte, his contemporaries in chronology if not historical standing? At the entrance to “M. C. Escher: Infinite Dimensions,” a wall label tells us that, during his lifetime, the Dutch draftsman and printmaker was “underappreciated by much of the mainstream art world.” As a student, I distinctly remember one of my instructors pooh-poohing Escher, waving his hands and wiggling his fingers to suggest otherworldly hokum. Clearly, here was an artist to be held at a distance. Escher’s mass popularity, an easy mark for the cultivated few, didn’t help. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts makes a point of how Escher is esteemed by “mathematicians, crystallographers, and psychologists,” as well as “experts in fields that range from design to aerospace.” Everybody, that is, except artists. Encomiums to Escher accompany the work on display. Among those extolling his virtues are chefs, poets, astronauts, scientists, communications strategists, and musicians both classical (the cellist Yo-Yo Ma) and not (the proto-punk Ian Hunter). “From dorm-room posters to book jackets,” Escher’s art “has delighted millions of people around the world.”

If the logjam of pedestrians throughout “Infinite Dimensions” is an indication, visitors to the MFA are taking delight as well. For Ronni Baer, the William and Ann Elfers Senior Curator of Paintings, Art of Europe, Escher was a harder sell. She’s a recent convert, if a seemingly recalcitrant one. In an interview with the local public radio affiliate, Baer ad- mitted she once “disdained” Escher, but now she finds that his pictorial obsessions evince “signs of a real artist.” Signs are one thing, achievement another, and it’s worth mulling how much name recognition was a factor in mounting the show. A lot, I would think, though Escher’s notoriety is of a different sort than that of Takashi Murakami, who is the subject of “Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics; A Collaboration with Nobuo

Tsuji and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” a concurrent exhibition at the MFA. Escher achieved gradual renown through the canny deployment of puzzle-like fantasies, Murakami by exploiting an arts establishment that considers the lowest common denominator a badge of courage. Sometimes art is audience-driven; at other times it drives the audience. Not all popular artists are created equal.

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M.C. Escher, Reptiles (1943), lithograph, 13 x 15-1/4″; courtesy The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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In our post-Warholian age, celebrity isn’t the bugaboo it once was, but it’s worth pondering if Escher’s renown distinguishes itself by being—how does one put it, exactly?— commonsensical. In a 2015 interview, Mickey Piller, the former curator of Escher in Het Paleis, a museum located in The Hague, pointed to an insular art world as one factor determining Escher’s appeal. Compared to errant splatters of paint, mute blocks of steel and concrete, and heady admixtures of this, that, and the other thing, who wouldn’t prefer immaculately limned dreamscapes in which the eye is not only entertained and perplexed, but acknowledged? Escher’s work “seemed simple and easy to understand.” The days of dismissing Escher as middle-brow entertainment—the province of stoners, video-game enthusiasts, and science nerds—are on the wane. Blame a value-free culture, if you like, but also credit the march of time, which provides the distance to approach certain artists with a sobriety that may not have been forthcoming during their lifetimes. Yesterday’s snobbery might well be concealing today’s addition to the canon.

Born in Leeuwarden, a city in the north of Holland, Escher was the fifth son of a well-to-do civil engineer. A sickly youth, “Mauk”—Escher’s family nickname—proved an iffy student, excelling only at mathematics. He eventually attended the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem, where an abortive go at architecture led to more fruitful studies in the decorative arts. Notwithstanding the discernible influence of his teacher, the graphic artist Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, Escher didn’t blossom as an artist until he traveled through Italy and Spain in 1922. A trip to the Alhambra, with its Moorish architecture and elaborate tile work, proved decisive. Escher settled in Rome for thirteen years, leaving only when Mussolini’s rule made itself felt on the most apolitical of men. A return to the Alhambra—“the richest source of inspiration I have ever tapped”—intensified Escher’s self-described “mania” for tessellated patterning. The interlocking back and forth of pictorial space defined the work from there on out, albeit cast with a dour Symbolism that is nothing if not northern European in temper. (Think Dürer and Bosch; Van Eyck and Klee.) In the 1950s, Escher became a favorite of mathematicians, who gleaned a kindred spirit within the exacting incongruities that gave structure to the imagery. The work’s trippy elasticity found a new group of admirers in the generation formed by the mind-expanding excesses of the 1960s.

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M.C. Escher, Order and Chaos (1950), lithograph, 11 x 11″; courtesy The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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Escher, in other words, became hip. Mick Jagger sought his talents for a Rolling Stones album cover. Stanley Kubrick asked Escher to help design a “fourth dimensional film,” presumably 2001: A Space Odyssey. Escher demurred on both counts, finding, perhaps, that the pull of his topsy-turvy world proved absorbing enough. Since then, images like Relativity (1953), with its Piranesi-like play of perspective, and the self-generating conundrum that is Drawing Hands (1948) have seeped into the common culture. What’s surprising about “Infinite Dimensions” is how familiarity breeds not contempt but the freedom to focus on aspects other than Escher’s clever machinations of image and space. His touch, especially in the lithographs, rewards close attention. Rarely has a crayon been manipulated with such tender diligence. Yes, tender: the surfaces of Contrast (Order and Chaos) (1950) and the warp-and-weft illusionism of Hand with a Reflecting Sphere (1935) have an underplayed sensuality that offers recompense for the hermetic nature of Escher’s work. Who knows? Perhaps Escher will be adopted by the art world as an outsider—a loner ineluctably caught in a web of his own distractions. Stranger things have happened. In the meantime, “Infinite Dimensions” is a welcome exception to the run-of-the-mill iterations of our oh-so-tired and increasingly politicized status quo.

This review was originally published in the April 2018 edition of The New Criterion.

© 2018 Mario Naves

“Half Human” @ The Clemente

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Marsha Gold Gayer, Philip’s Head and Feet (2010), charcoal and pastel on paper, 11-1/2 x 9″

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I’m pleased to announce “Half Human”, a group exhibition I’ve curated for The Clemente Soto Velez and Cultural and Education Center on The Lower East Side of Manhattan.

“Few questions have proved as persistent—or as frustrating—than those that surround the meaning of what it is, exactly, to be human,” I write in the essay included in the accompanying online catalogue. The artists featured in “Half Human”–Diyan Achjadi, Laura Dodson, Pat Lay, Maria de los Angeles, Artemis Alcalay, Marsha Gold Gayer and Stephanie Hightower–elaborate upon this predicament in ways that reaffirm its primacy.

The opening reception takes place on Saturday, March 3rd, from 6:00-8:00 p.m. The exhibition continues until April 6th.

“Laura Owens” at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

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Installation of “Laura Owens” at The Whitney Museum of American Art; Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

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Wandering through “Laura Owens,” I couldn’t help but wonder when The Whitney (or MOMA) (or The New Museum) (or name the venue) will be mounting a retrospective of paintings by James Havard. Should the name not ring a bell, perhaps the art movement of which Havard is an exemplar will: Abstract Illusionism. Should that strike a similarly muffled note, consider the floating brushstroke—a thick slur of paint, typically rendered in acrylic, with a cast shadow airbrushed below it. During the mid-1970s, Abstract Illusionism—a showy amalgam of The New York School, Pop Art, commercial illustration, and trompe-l’oeil painting—was, if not the rage, then notable enough to elicit its fair share of adherents and collectors. The style isn’t without its gratifications—an attraction to novelty seems to be woven into our DNA—but there’s a reason Abstract Illusionism has a slim purchase on popular memory: contrivance and trickery don’t tend to have legs. Illusionism may be an integral component of the art of painting, but when it’s put forth as style—denatured, slick, and wholly self-referential—it can make for vacuous going.

How familiar Laura Owens (b. 1970) is with Abstract Illusionism, I don’t know. She must be: the correspondences between her work and that of Havard are uncanny. The most consistent motif in Owens’s oeuvre is, after all, the floating brushstroke—endowed, at this historical juncture, with a glossy sheen redolent of digital technology. Impastoed patches of oil paint hover over the surfaces of the pictures; “under,” too—Owens enjoys trading in now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t perceptual games. How the accompanying shadows are painted is a mystery. In the age of Photoshop, do people still use airbrushes? In terms of media or genre, Owens is up for anything. No methodology or style, whether high tech or old school, is out of bounds. Threading needle through canvas and color correcting on the computer; imagining Morris Louis by way of Damien Hirst; advertising intimacy while embracing anonymity; flouting idiosyncrasy and poaching upon the industrial; positing superficiality as abundance—it’s all good. “I really believe,” Owens stated in a recent interview, “that art can do things that other things don’t do.” So how come “Laura Owens” is marked by a fizzy air of desperation?

Owens’s art doesn’t usher in an era of meaninglessness; it serves as blissful confirmation. Postmodernism, having undergone an ignoble passing, has nonetheless left an indelible mark on culture. Descriptors like “kitsch” and “pastiche” don’t signify for a generation weaned on value-free nostrums. Over-intellectualization in the cause of self does. In the exhibition catalogue—an immaculately designed production that aspires to being slapdash—we encounter a 1994 notebook in which Owens lists “things my paintings mean to me.” Coming in at numbers 1 and 2 are “Fuck Everyone!” Dismiss this as pro forma juvenilia if you’d like, but, in the end, isn’t Owens’s mot the operating theory behind Postmodernism and its forebear Conceptual Art—that is to say, a distinct turn away from engaging with an audience to the me-me-me imperatives of The Artist? Reading on, we learn of Owens’s goal to create “nothing whole/nothing completely convinced” and of a “short attention span & my self consciousness towards mark making.” Credit goes where dubious credit is due: Owens has fulfilled these ambitions. At the Whitney, ADHD has been transformed from a quantifiable medical disorder into guilt-free entertainment.

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Detail of Laura Owens, Untitled, 2014. Ink, silkscreen ink, vinyl paint, acrylic, oil, pastel, paper, wood, solvent transfers, stickers, handmade paper, thread, board, and glue on linen and polyester, five parts: 138 1/8 x 106 ½ x 2 5/8 in. (350.8 x 270.5 x 6.7 cm) overall. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from Jonathan Sobel  2014.281a-e. © Laura Owens

* * *

Owens puts one in mind of Robert Rauschenberg. Like Rauschenberg, albeit with less bonhomie or grit, Owens is a work-horse with a “can do” attitude, an omnivorous temperament for whom no medium is off limits and collaboration is a token of democratic goodwill. The materials that go into a single Owens piece can be dizzying. An untitled work from 2014—seemingly based on a Hallmark card— was made with ink, silkscreen ink, vinyl paint, acrylic, pastel, paper, wood, solvent transfers, stickers, handmade paper, thread, board, and glue-on-linen—done in five parts, no less! Overall, Owens’s paintings skew large—a typical canvas measures around six by eight feet. When the work isn’t large, it’s copious in amount. An untitled suite of canvases, each measuring twenty-four inches square, numbers in the nineties, although only fifty-four are on view. These smaller works either line the upper reaches of the gallery or are cordoned off in a darkened passageway. (Actually seeing the paintings is, apparently, beside the point.) The entirety of the eighth floor contains an installation of five huge, freestanding paintings. Set apart at intervals of several yards, these pictures—done on “powder-coated aluminum strainers”—feature, on one side, oversized reproductions of a handwritten story by Owens’s son, Henry; on the other, silk-screened marks and notations, oversized again.

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Installation of “Sunlight arrives only at its proper hour”, 2017; courtesy 356 Mission Road

* * *

Stand at a specific angle in the gallery and you’ll see how the disparate panels align into an M. C. Escher–like orchestration of thwarted perspectives. Elsewhere, Owens mixes and matches cartoonish paintings of beehives with bedroom sets designed by Jorge Pardo, and welcomes the assistance of sundry technicians and craftsmen, not least the carpenters who custom made the benches at the Whitney—each of which serves as a repository for the exhibition catalogue. The most newsworthy of Owens’s partnerships is 356 Mission Road, a community art center in Glendale, California. A joint venture with her dealer Gavin Brown and Wendy Yao, a friend and bookseller, 356 Mission Road has been the subject of criticism by the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement, a community-activist group “born from the complex specificities of Los Angeles.” This free-form coalition has accused Owens of aiding and abetting the gentrification of the surrounding working-class neighborhood. In a statement, Owens responded to the group’s protests with deliberation and evident sensitivity. Which may be the only time the artist has, albeit under a cloud of bad PR, acknowledged an audience—any audience—in a constructive manner. At the Whitney, in distinct contrast, out-reach isn’t in the mix—unless, that is, one derives satisfaction in the pretensions of official culture indulged in at their most willful, overweening, and gratuitous.

© 2018 Mario Naves

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

“World War I and The Visual Arts” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Harry Ryle Hopps, Destroy This Mad Brute (1917), color lithograph, 41 x 27-1/4″; Collection of Mary Ellen Meehan/Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Propaganda elides subtlety. Bluntness is the point: to make expressly clear the message its makers—whether it be a government, political party, or individual—want to impart to the viewer. Which isn’t to suggest that sophistication and craft, often of a high level, don’t figure into propaganda. At the entrance to “World War I and the Visual Arts,” museum visitors encounter Destroy This Mad Brute (1917), a recruitment poster for the U.S. Army designed by Harry Ryle Hopps. As a means of instilling patriotic fervor, Hopps’s image is a far cry from the stern gravitas of Uncle Sam. A slavering gorilla wearing a Kaiser hat charges onto the American shoreline. In its right arm, this proto–King Kong wields a bloodied club that reads “Kultur”; in its left, it holds a writhing, topless woman. The latter is an allusion to Germany’s 1914 invasion—or, as it came to be known, “rape”—of Belgium. One doesn’t have to be a student of history to glean the intent of Hopps’s image: aggression is monstrous. As an argument, it doesn’t carry a lot of nuance, but the flair with which it is embodied is effective and, testament to a job well done, memorable.

Dramatics for the sake of political import is par for the course when it comes to propaganda, particularly during wartime. Jennifer Farrell, an Associate Curator in the Met’s Department of Drawings and Prints, lines the hallway directly outside the exhibition with a run of additional posters from the United States, Russia, France, Italy, and the “mad brute” itself, Germany. Fritz Erler, a painter and designer with Symbolist tendencies, worked on behalf of the German Empire in creating Help us win—buy war bonds! (1916), a stoic portrayal of a soldier surrounded by arabesques of barbed wire. History has bestowed its own ironies on this decidedly non-Aryan visage, especially given that Erler became an artist favored by the Third Reich. (He would, in fact, paint a portrait of the Führer some fifteen years later.) One of the discomfiting aspects of the exhibition is how vividly it encapsulates history, bringing along with it a concomitant sense of fervor, confusion, and righteousness. That it does so with compelling understatement is a credit to Farrell’s selectivity and focus.

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Fritz Erler, Help us win–buy war bonds! (1916), color lithograph, 24-7/8 x 19-3/4″; Collection of Mary Ellen Meehan/Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The Met is playing up the stellar array of artists featured in “World War I and the Visual Arts,” most of whom are inextricably linked with The War To End All Wars. Expressionism was, after all, bolstered and Die Neue Sachlichkeit (The New Objectivity) born of its catastrophes. An exhibition such as this is inconceivable without the work of Kathe Kollwitz, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, and Otto Dix, all of whom make plain their disaffection. Fernand Léger, who served in the Engineer Corps of the French army, may have observed that “trench warfare is full of small murders,” but he was impressed by the “dazzling” efficiency of high-tech warfare. The Italian Futurist Gino Severini was similarly taken with “the marvelous mechanical forms” of modern arms, as was the more equivocal Wyndham Lewis, the British Vorticist, who, unlike Severini, served in the war. There are artists whose inclusion is less expected. George Bellows is known for many things, but War Series (1918), a suite of often gruesome lithographs, isn’t one of them. Then there’s John Singer Sargent, Pierre Bonnard, and the perpetually sunny Raoul Dufy, the latter of whom celebrated the end of hostilities with a lithograph done for Le Mot, a journal published by a friend, the novelist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau.

The “visual” nature of the exhibition extends considerably beyond the Fine Arts. Commercial artists figure significantly at the Met; so do, to a lesser extent, industrial designers. Three-dimensional objects are in short supply; those that are included—an assortment of helmets that channel medieval precedent and a tattered gas mask from France—are arresting, not least because they seem alarmingly primitive. An array of medals commemorating the sinking of the Lusitania (Germany), America the Avenger (France), and the barbarism of Kaiser Wilhelm (the United States) are the lone sculptural inclusions. Pictures predominate. Documentary photos pepper “World War I and the Visual Arts” with terse clarity, whether they be aerial views of war-torn France by Edward Steichen (who pioneered surveillance techniques as the Chief of the Photographic Section of the American Expeditionary) or the haunting image by an unknown photographer of Londoners observing two minutes of silence on Armistice Day, 1919. Additional items include textiles, periodicals, montages, a pop-up children’s book (After the Victory), and trading cards published by the American Tobacco Company. A series of Russian postcards stand out for their starkly contrived imagery and subject matter: women in wartime, seen embodying such virtues as “iron discipline” and “precision, accuracy, and prompt fulfillment of order.”

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Otto Dix, Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain (November 1917), (1924), etching and aquatint on paper, 35.5 x 47.7 cm.; Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Otto Dix’s The War (1924), a series of fifty-one etchings, occupies an entire wall of the show and is the rare occasion when a minor artist earns a star turn. Seen on a piecemeal basis, Dix’s paintings provide a chilly dissection of life during the Weimar Republic; seen en masse, their neurasthenia wears quickly. As a printmaker, however, Dix is on more solid footing because his skills as a draftsman and tonalist evince more grit and imagination than when putting brush to canvas. Taking clear inspiration from Goya’s The Disasters of War, Dix’s etchings embrace the grotesque, sometimes to cartoonish extremes, and indulge in a moral rage that glints with bilious black humor. Dix’s masterful handling of the medium brings unseemly beauty to depictions of bodies—whether they be dead, exploited, or disfigured. George Grosz’s drawings, typically the standard-bearer for bitterness of this sort, are tinker-toys in comparison. Dix’s misanthropy is both his gift and greatest liability, but The War occasionally admits to the elegiac. Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain (November 1917) (1924), a depiction of innumerable corpses lying in disarray on the battlefield, is both a mockery of the surrounding landscape and its cruel apotheosis. It’s an image very much in sync with the strong emotions spurred by “World War I and The Visual Arts.”

© 2017 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the October 2017 edition of The New Criterion.

“Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction” at The Museum of Modern Art, New York

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Francis Picabia, Autoportrait (Self-portrait) (1940), oil on board, 22-7/16 x 17-11/16″; Collection Lucien Bilinelli, Brussels and Milan

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“Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction” makes the twentieth century seem very small. At least that’s the observation I came to upon exiting MOMA’s sizable retrospective of paintings, drawings, collages, and ephemera by the self-described “beautiful monster.” The exhibition begins with early forays into Post- Impressionism, and follows with a succession of catch-as-catch-can styles: offshoots of Cubism; diagrammatic paeans to the machine; obtuse riffs on Ingres; a louche Suprematism; absurdist experimentations in film and theater; “monster” couples rendered in gloss and globs; Biblical imagery applied in washy overlays; oil-on-canvas appropriations of nudie magazines; and abstractions that are all thumbs, scrabbled surfaces, and graffitied genitalia. There are additional byways: out-of-left-field pictures of clowns, The Spanish Revolution, Gertrude Stein, and Marlene Dietrich. What really counts is how art and culture, and with them the sweep of history, are rendered frivolous: trifles on the way to oblivion. Individual works of art are less important than the individual himself. How could the twentieth century not take a backseat to, in Picabia’s estimation, the “only complete artist”?

Organized by MOMA’s Anne Umland and Catherine Hug of the Kunsthaus Zürich, “Our Heads Are Round” showcases an artist for whom the adjective “mercurial” could have been coined. Picabia (1879–1953) took a proud and perverse pleasure in being impossible to pin down. In the standard tellings of Modernism, Picabia is listed somewhere alongside Surrealism and Dada; certainly, his contrarian wit is in keeping with the nose-thumbing antics of the latter. Still, even a quick jaunt through MOMA reveals that Picabia was (to paraphrase Groucho Marx) incapable of belonging to any anti-art club that accepted him as a member. Though he had ties to Dadaist circles in Paris, Zürich, and New York City—among Picabia’s confidantes were Paul Éluard, André Breton, and Marcel Duchamp—petty politicking among the group’s members prompted him to jump ship. “I was feeling stifled among them . . . [and] terribly bored.” Picabia formed “Instantism” as a response, but the one-man art movement was little more than a jape. Besides, Picabia knew which way the Dadaist wind blew. The movement, he predicted, “will live forever! And thanks to it, art dealers will make a fortune.”

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Francis Picabia, Minos (1929), oil, watercolor and pencil on wood, 59 x 37-3/16″; Collection Gian Enzo Sperone. Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York

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Picabia could afford to be flighty. His father was a Cuban-born descendant of Spanish nobility; his mother a scion of the French upper-classes. Between the sugar interests of the former and the successful mercantile family on his maternal side, François Marie Martinez Picabia y Davanne grew up in, and sustained, a life of affluence. The young Picabia was encouraged in art by his parents and proved precocious in talent and chutzpah. As a child, he forged the family’s art collection, subsequently selling the originals and replacing them with his own copies. And no one noticed. So the story goes, but it’s best to take Picabia’s sundry anecdotes, aphorisms, and pronunciamentos with the requisite grain of salt. His was a temperament forever on the lookout for preconceptions to be thwarted and standards overturned; critical approbation was much desired. Known for throwing lavish soirées and indulging in mistresses, Picabia traveled widely but ultimately stayed close to home; he died in the Paris house in which he had been born. Not long before the end, Picabia quoted Nietzsche: “Where art ends . . . I am the poet of my own life.”

It is Picabia’s capricious brand of poetry that is being touted at MOMA, and in no small way. Writing in the catalogue, Umland heralds the “discordant” nature of Picabia’s work and how it “challenges distinctions between good and bad, progressive and regressive, sincerity and parody, high art and kitsch.” Before you go asking just when the shopworn notion of “challenging distinctions” will be permanently excised from the curatorial handbook, take heed of how Picabia’s varied output is “congruent to . . . our hierarchy-exploding digital age.” (In this regard, “Our Heads Are Round” continues in the theoretical footsteps of “Forever Now,” MOMA’s misguided attempt at tapping into the technological zeitgeist.) There can be no doubting the reach of Picabia’s this-that-and-the-other-thing aesthetic amongst contemporary artists. The world-weary pasticherie of the ’80s art star David Salle is inconceivable without the example of Picabia’s “transparencies,” and any provocateur with the savvy both to manipulate and to flatter a paying public can count this consummate gadfly as spiritual kin. Picabia’s “irresistible, unruly, noncomformist genius,” we are told, “offers a powerful alternative model” for artists in the here-and-now. Powerful the model may be, but is it impolite to ask if the model is at all good?

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Francis Picabia, Udnie [Young American Girl; Dance] (1913), oil on canvas, 114-3/16 x 118-1/8″; Centre Pompidou, Paris

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“Our Heads Are Round” is an attempt at promoting Picabia up the totem pole of great artists in the cause of revamping the Modernist “narrative.” As played out in the catalogue, the chief obstacle and villain in this scenario is Pablo Picasso. Once MOMA’s poster boy, the Spanish master is now being placed in direct opposition to Picabia—the upshot being very much in the latter’s favor. “Old-fashioned” Pablo, don’t you know, “believed in his . . . godlike ability to reimagine the world.” Picabia, by contrast, put up the good fight by being bad, upending his gifts so that we attention-deprived denizens of the twenty-first century could feel better about our lowered expectations. What Umland and Hug miss (or ignore) is that arrogance comes in an assortment of flavors. Pissing away one’s talent in the cause of nihilistic hijinkery connotes its own peculiar kind of “godlike” virtuosity. And Picabia did have talent. Take into account Udnie [Young American Girl: Dance] and Edatonis [Ecclestiastic] (both 1913), monumental canvases that propel Cubism into a realm so allusive, muscular, elastic, and funny that they still startle. One can’t help but wonder if the crowning audacity of these encompassing masterworks spooked the artist. Easier to take the low road than risk anything quite so heroic again; better to fail by design than to come by it honestly. After this masterful one-two punch, “Our Heads Are Round” traces forty circuitous years of squandered promise. What a long and pointless trip it is.

© Mario Naves 2017

This review originally appeared in the February 2017 edition of The New Criterion.