Category Archives: Art & Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

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

“Charles Ray: Figure Ground” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Charles Ray, Huck and Jim (2014), stainless steel, 9 ft. 3 . in. × 54 in. × 53 . in.; collection of Lisa and Steven Tananbaum

An abundance of ironies circulates around the sculpture of the Los Angeles–based artist Charles Ray (born 1953), none of which redound to the work’s benefit. Take the use of floor tape in “Charles Ray: Figure Ground,” a mid-career overview of an “elliptical, often irreverent” talent. We’re familiar with the means by which visitors to museums and galleries are reminded to keep a distance from a work of art, thereby avoiding potential damage to the object on display. At the Met, each of Ray’s sculptures is surrounded by floor tape that is gritty in texture and has been laid out to create a non-violable space measuring about three feet across. “Don’t touch the art”; we get it. Still, my curiosity was piqued. After exiting the show, I strolled past some large Rodin bronzes in the nineteenth-century galleries. They weren’t surrounded by tape. Later, I made a pit stop at two favorite pieces in the Greek and Roman wing: an Aphrodite, rendered in marble, dating to around the second century A.D., and a Hellenistic bronze of a man from about the same time. The courtesy of floor tape had not been extended to these mainstays of the collection. Some works of art, it seems, are more worthy of protection than others.

Lenders to “Figure Ground” likely stipulated that their loans be given adequate security. An internet search reveals that an original Ray can cost as much as $3 million. Given that kind of money, you have to sympathize with the institution or collector making demands. Investments, however, are one thing; art, another. The thing about a Rodin effigy or a piece of antique statuary is that their surfaces elicit a distinct pleasure—of sensuality and sensation, a longing for tactility. That is part of their enduring appeal. The sculptures of Charles Ray— what kind of person would want to touch one of those things? Figurative though they may be, and often nude, the works have all the bodily allure of a newly minted refrigerator or, and this analogy is more to the point, the stainless-steel tables used for autopsies and embalming. Ray’s predominant métier is, in fact, stainless steel—sometimes painted, often polished to a blinding sheen. The artist’s creative process combines “the analog and the digital as well as human and robotic hands.” Any tool or material is fair game; it’s what the artist does with them that matters. What Ray does, along with assistants and craftsmen, is render a given material simultaneously anti-septic and icky, slick and severe. This is an art that makes a fetish of the inhuman.

Ray’s supporters demur. In the catalogue, Brinda Kumar, the Met’s Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, lauds the artist’s “modalities of touch.” In Ray’s sculpture, “the potentiality of material, of matter, is made active, i.e., it is in mattering [emphasis in original] that the object is set into motion through time”—the sentence goes on. Kelly Baum, the museum’s Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Curator of Contemporary Art, invokes the word “pattern”—as noun, verb, and theoretical cornerstone: “Ray’s patterns very often lead to other patterns; behind every prototype is another prototype to which it is related via a chain of signification.” There’s more about pattern in Baum’s essay, most of it murky in definition. Ray himself gives away the game with 81 x 83 x 85 = 86 x 83 x 85 (1989), one of the earliest pieces in the show. Anyone conversant with twentieth-century American art will recognize that it stems from Richard Serra’s “prop” series. In replacing rough-hewn steel with high-gloss aluminum, Minimalist showboating is transmuted into corporate kitsch. Ray, in other words, gilds Serra’s lily. Ever the faithful postmodernist, Ray passes off smug commentary as High Art. It’s enough to make one forgive Serra and his bullying ways.

Charles Ray, Family Romance (1993), painted fiberglass and hair, 53 x 85 x 11″;
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Peter Norton Family Foundation

Minimalism, with its brute insistence on the object and inherent hostility to metaphor, is, nonetheless, Ray’s jumping-off point: material obduracy sets the tone. Admittedly, the work is peppered with post-conceptualist fabulation, and you’d best believe that identity politics enter into it. Be thankful that Baum and Kumar did not include Oh!? Charley, Charley, Charley . . . (1992), a mixed-media piece in which eight life-size figures of the artist engage in a variety of sexual antics. Ray’s most emblematic work, Family Romance (1993), is featured at the Met: mom, dad, little brother, and baby sister are seen holding hands, each of them nude and equal in height and proportion. This not-so-happy family has been manufactured with a mannequin-like verisimilitude. Shifts in scale, particularly when it comes to the human body, are invariably disconcerting. But Ray doesn’t do much more than distort form in order to make a joke about—what, exactly? A wall label informs us that Family Romance “decouples the human and the ‘natural,’ disassociating sex, gender, and race from biology.” There is nothing more reliable than torturous circumlocution when obscuring an achievement of rank stupidity.

Race also figures into Ray’s art—kind of, sort of, almost. Sarah Williams (2021)—that’s right, the guise Huckleberry Finn adopted in Mark Twain’s classic nineteenth-century novel—proves particularly relevant in that it bears comparison with James Earle Fraser’s Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt (1939). You’re familiar with the latter, of course: the bronze effigy of our twenty-sixth president recently removed from its perch at the American Museum of Natural History for its presumed endorsement of racial inferiority. Mores change over time, as do considerations of the body politic. Still, it should be noted that Fraser’s stated intention with the monument was to honor Roosevelt’s “friendliness to all races”—a fact worth reiterating at a cultural moment when intention is privileged over artifact. The intention fueling Sarah Williams is, we are told, a critique of “race-based relations of domination and subordination.” For right now, that will do. But how kindly will forward-thinking Americans esteem Ray’s overscaled depiction of a black man kneeling behind a white boy in 2122? History has its own wiles, and they can be humbling. In the meantime, “Figure Ground” is an exhibition of unremitting nihilism, staggering narcissism, and unapologetic pretension.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the March 2022 edition of The New Criterion.

“Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw” at The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Joseph E. Yoakum Big Hole Pass Jackson Montana (n.d.), graphite pencil and black and blue ballpoint pen on paper 8 x 10″.
Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc. 1173.2011. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

Television isn’t a mainstay of these pages, but let me put in a word for reality TV. Or, rather, reality when it enters into this most manufactured of entertainments. A few years back, I regularly tuned into Project Runway, a hugely popular program in which contestants vie to become “America’s next top designer.” Aspiring fashionistas are put through a series of challenges—in budget, materials, and style—and the resulting finery is then judged by a panel of industry insiders. During the course of the season I watched, each contender had been supplied with a willowy model on which to hang their outfits. One memorable exception was the episode in which designers were assigned models who look like you and me—that is to say, moderately attractive people for whom adjectives like “svelte” and “leggy” aren’t quite the mots justes. The designers were aghast. Foreheads were slapped, teeth gnashed. A worldview defined by attenuation and abstraction had been upended by that most complex and contradictory of things: real life.

I was reminded of Project Runway upon reading the essays in the catalogue accompanying “Joseph E. Yoakum: What I Saw.” Curators, conservators, historians, academics, and artists ought to shed light on the topic under discussion, to employ their expertise in a way that elaborates on the work and details its parameters. The folks writing about Joseph E. Yoakum (1891–1972)—well, they did fine. Much of the writing is informative, some of it exhaustive, but, oh!, the hand-wringing. The directors of the host institutions—James Rondeau from the Art Institute of Chicago, Glenn D. Lowry at moma, and The Menil Collection’s Rebecca Rabinow—fret about “the power dynamics” surrounding Yoakum’s initial discovery and subsequent reputation. The artist Faheem Majeed can’t get around Yoakum’s absence of political motivation and lack of community involvement: “I want to believe that Yoakum was aware of the explosion of black art happening all around him.” As for Yoakum’s insistence that friends refer to him as “Nava-joe”: it only furthered “the othering and romanticizing of him as a naive so-called outsider artist.” A wall label at MOMA chides Yoakum for “a lack of understanding of a culture with which he purportedly shared a connection.”

Joseph E. Yoakum, Grizzly Gulch Valley Ohansburg Vermont (n.d.), black ballpoint pen and watercolor on paper, 7-7/8 × 9-7/8″;Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc. 1793.2012.
Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

To which one can only respond: Mr. Yoakum, rest in peace. Not because he insisted upon a connection with a Native American heritage that may have been specious or, for that matter, his conviction that the king of England was responsible for the cultural foment of the 1960s. Rather, because Yoakum was a man whose opinions, pursuits, and peccadilloes mark him not as a cardboard cut-out mandated to represent this, that, or the other thing, but as an individual. This is, of course, true for the rest of us, and pray that our lives aren’t subjected to the puritanical dissections that are the modus operandi of our professional classes. And that is, in a roundabout way, the pull of Yoakum’s appeal: his unprofessionalism. Creativity wasn’t fostered by art school or a knowledge of history, but, instead, by a sore shoulder. After praying for the pain to subside, Yoakum settled in for the night. Upon waking, the pain was gone. A debt needed to be honored. At the age of seventy-one, Yoakum began drawing as a form of spiritual recompense. “I’m one of those that don’t figure they know everything,” Yoakum told The Chicago Daily News, “and what I do know, I don’t let it make a fool of me.”

Joseph Elmer Yocum—the change in spelling came later—was born around 1890 in Ash Grove, Missouri. Yoakum’s father claimed Cherokee descent; his mother was born a slave. Yoakum worked on his parents’ farm until he ran away to join the circus at age ten. A stint with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the Sells Floto Circus had him traveling to a variety of destinations, including China. Yoakum was drafted in 1917 and became a member of the 805th Pioneer Infantry, a black regiment sent to Europe during World War I. His return stateside saw him through two marriages, familial estrangements, and a host of jobs, including in sales, cement, and mining. Yoakum ended up in Chicago, moving into a storefront apartment on the South Side. It was there that he began drawing and exhibiting the resulting pieces in his front window. Passersby noticed them, not least a group of young painters affiliated with the School of the Art Institute. The Hairy Who, as these artists became known, saw a link between their own Pop-fueled grotesqueries and Yoakum’s sloping, upended landscapes. They collected the work, found commercial outlets for Yoakum’s art, and did right by the old man. The drawings were exhibited at a variety of venues, including MOMA. Yoakum died at the age of eighty-one—a month after the Whitney Museum opened a retrospective of his work.

Yoakum in front of his drawings at the Whole Coffee Shop in Chicago, 1967. Jeffrey Goldstein Chicago Art Scene Photo Archive; photograph by Edward de Luga, © Chicago Sun-Times, courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.

Yoakum worked with modest materials on modest surfaces at a modest scale: ball- and felt-tip pens of varying hues on cheap paper with oddments of colored pencil and watercolor. His landscapes, flat and frontal, are never truly specific, and they often border on the psychedelic. Surfaces were employed as repositories for a clarified set of marks. The inventiveness with which he rendered natural formations is odd and involving. Whether they be the Twin Crater Mts near Lima Peru (undated) or Mt Cloubelle Jamaca of West India (1969), Yoakum’s mountains contort, snuggle, and sometimes roil, their details set out in patterns that are bodily, rather than geological, in character. Trees are stylized in predictable terms, but what they lack in distinctiveness they gain in multiplicity—this is the case, at least, in the best drawings. Yoakum’s imaginative powers left him when drawing houses or people. Would that his undated portrait of Nat King Cole or Beulah Dudley 1st Negro Woman to Win Golff Record in Year 1927 (1970) were imbued with the flair of the pagoda-like UFOs seen in a pair of undated drawings. As with most folk art, Yoakum’s vision is narrow, favoring eccentricity and intensity over scope and depth. As such, one’s interest stifles before reaching the end of “What I Saw.” Still, Yoakum withstands the contemporary spotlight. His spiritual “unfoldings” will survive the machinations of our contentious cultural moment.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

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

“Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel” at The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

Suzanne Valadon, Nude Sitting on a Sofa (1916), oil on canvas, 32-1/16 x 23-3/4″; courtesy The Weisman & Michel Collection

The woman christened Marie-Clémentine Valadon (1865–1938) earned a number of monikers, both during her lifetime and subsequent to it. History remembers her as Suzanne—a reference to the biblical story of Susannah and the Elders made by her sometimes lover Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: Valadon, you see, began her career modeling for old men like Auguste Renoir and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Edgar Degas, a lifelong friend of Valadon and collector of her art, gave her the nickname “terrible Maria.” The historian Catherine Hewitt titled her 2017 biography of Valadon Renoir’s Dancer, based on Valadon’s having posed for Renoir’s signature canvas, Dance at Bougival (1883). The journalist June Rose referred to the artist as “The Mistress of Montmartre” in recognition of Valadon’s freewheeling lifestyle. The Barnes Foundation, which has mounted the first U.S. retrospective devoted to Valadon, is heralding her as a model and painter, but also as a rebel.

“Model, Painter, Rebel” includes close to sixty works, the majority of them oil on canvas, along with a handful of drawings and prints. The pieces we encounter upon entering the exhibition aren’t by Valadon, but, rather, feature her as subject. Paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec, Santiago Rusiñol, Jean Eugène Clary, and Gustav Wertheimer—whose Kiss of the Siren (1882) starts things off with impressive bluster—do much to establish Valadon as an integral presence in the Parisian art scene. Her biographical details are rich and varied and, given Valadon’s tendency for the fanciful, best taken with a degree of skepticism. Her formal education was minimal: she started working at the age of eleven to support her mother and sister. She joined the circus as an acrobat only to be sidelined by an injury. Around 1885, Valadon found employment as an artist’s model and, with it, a measure of financial stability. She wasn’t a passive presence in the studio. Valadon brought energy and enthusiasm to her poses; she also kept an eye on the what and how of art-making. Persistence and ambition led Valadon to become an artist of some notoriety and considerable success. Degas touted the self-taught painter as “one of us.” Given the source, that’s no small praise.

Suzanne Valadon, The Blue Room (La chambre bleue) (1923), oil on canvas, 35-7⁄16 × 45-11⁄16″; Courtesy Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne/CCI, Paris, on deposit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Limoges, State Purchase, 1924

The showpiece of “Model, Artist, Rebel” is The Blue Room (1923), a portrait of a clothed, reclining woman that serves as a tribute, of sorts, to Manet’s Olympia (1863). Like Manet’s consort, Valadon’s model comes across as blunt and aggressive, though less because of a one-on-one confrontation—the woman in The Blue Room looks away from the viewer, lost in a moment’s distraction—than in material physicality and coloristic punch. Clad in green-striped pajama bottoms and a pink halter top, the woman gives off a prole vibe, what with a cigarette cocked in her mouth and hands whose muscularity evinces hard labor. Valadon preferred models who were not Apollonian ideals. No sleek odalisque is our heroine, especially given the steadfastness with which Valadon’s brush pays heed to convex forms and optical weight. Couched within a deep-blue field of floral patterning and set against a backdrop of earth-toned hash marks, The Blue Room nods to Matisse and Gauguin, and, in some regards, is seriously au courant. You want body positivity and gender fluidity? Well, here you go. The reason we can entertain such notions is that Valadon the painter is in bravura form here. Would we be willing to do so were that not the case?

Suzanne Valadon, Black Venus (Vénus noire) (1919), oil on canvas, 63 × 38-3⁄16″; courtesy Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Moderne/CCI, Paris, on deposit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Menton, Gift of M. Charles Wakefield-Mori, 1939

As a marketable term, “rebel” is likely to generate some buzz and contains more than a modicum of truth—particularly given Valadon’s role in the demimonde and, eventually, the avant-garde. Certainly, it’s preferable to “racist”—which is a suggestion that figures in the literature attending “Model, Painter, Rebel.” The scholars participating in the catalogue roundtable do make a point of stating that “we cannot blanketly assume that Valadon was a racist.” Which doesn’t prevent them from “blanketly” assuming that Valadon was deeply suspect in terms of racial matters. The impetus for the discussion is Black Venus (1919), a close-to-life-size portrait of a nude woman of African descent. The model’s name has been lost to history, but Valadon worked with her on a number of occasions: at the Barnes, Seated Woman Holding an Apple (1919), another depiction of the same model, is displayed near Black Venus. Reading through the essays and wall texts accompanying the show, I became certain that Valadon’s sin was not racism—an accusation for which there is no hard evidence—but that she didn’t have a crystal ball into the exacting standards established here in the twenty-first century. Albert C. Barnes, the museum’s founder, is similarly taken to task for a lack of feminist bona fides in not collecting Valadon’s paintings—concentrating, as he did, on the work of her son, Maurice Utrillo. What’s largely absent from all of this pontificating is a discussion of whether Valadon was any good as an artist.

The works comprising the remainder of the show have difficulty matching the authority of The Blue Room or, for that matter, Black Venus. Though Valadon gleaned important lessons from mentors and peers, her paintings are, on the whole, chock-a-block in composition and halting in their navigation of pictorial space. Even with an enduring dedication to figuration, Valadon never fully mastered the human form. Like Gauguin and Van Gogh, she was a ham-handed draftsman with a gift for color, facture, and brio. Unlike her friend Amedeo Modigliani, Valadon didn’t synthesize stylistic tics within cohesive compositional structures. There are, to be sure, arresting images on view—my vote goes to the dour Marie Coca and her Daughter Gilberte (1913) as best in show, with the resplendent Nude Sitting on a Sofa (1916) a close second. What a contemporary audience will make of Valadon’s efforts remains to be seen. One gallerygoer, upon exiting “Model, Painter, Rebel” on the afternoon I visited the Barnes, remarked to a friend: “Now let’s go to the permanent collection and see some real painters.” This remark seems a mite harsh for an exhibition that does a solid job of introducing us to a singular character and her vital relationship to early modernism. For those interested in the quiddities of that heady era, a trip to Philadelphia should be in the cards. And, yes, there is the permanent collection.

(c) 2021 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the November 2021 edition of The New Criterion.

“Alice Neel: People Come First” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Alice Neel, Margaret Evans Pregnant (1978), oil on canvas, 57 3/4 × 38″. Gift of Barbara Lee, The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women. Courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Let’s talk real estate. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has allocated the same amount of space to the American painter Alice Neel (1900–84) as it did for the art and artifacts of Byzantium; the reign of Hatshepsut, queen and, later, pharaoh of Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt; two outlays of tapestries from medieval and Renaissance Europe; and a career-spanning exhibition of the French romantic painter Eugène Delacroix. However you might esteem the subjects explored in these shows (I’m fairly agnostic on Delacroix, myself), there is little doubt that each body of work merited the grand treatment, that they are subjects worthy of sweeping scholarly focus. But what about a second-tier talent whose aesthetic purview was nowhere near as encompassing as her meanness of spirit? Museums have galleries set aside for temporary exhibitions, and those galleries need to be filled. Square footage, when doled out by an important institution, connotes prestige. “Alice Neel: People Come First” will have repercussions. Notice must be paid.

Not that Neel’s work has been without an audience in the decades since her death; nor did Neel suffer inattention during her working life. Anyone invited to sit and chat with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show had, in one way or another, achieved a notoriety rare in American culture. For a visual artist, this kind of recognition—that is to say, the imprimatur of mainstream media—is all but unheard of. Neel’s fame came relatively late. As with most artists, she sacrificed much in terms of comfort and security to pursue her work. Neel did possess that most vital of traits: tenacity. Where would she have been without it? Painters who worked figuratively during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism had a tough go of it; the advent of neo-Dadaism didn’t exactly provide an accommodating context for an artist taken with the human condition and its many foibles (though Neel did locate a friendly toehold within the irony-laden precincts of Pop Art). Gumption propelled Neel’s art, as did gall. Johnny Carson couldn’t help but bestow his favors on the feisty old lady and her crazy pictures.

Alice Neel on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson

Longevity became Neel; flattery followed on its heels. Few of us get to hear ourselves described as the best at anything. Neel lived to hear herself pegged as “the best portrait painter of the twentieth century.” Given her renowned irascibility, she likely cast a skeptical eye on the sobriquet, knowing full well how wheels are greased in even the most outré precincts of the art world. What, then, would the self-described “Mother Hubbard” make of the claims surrounding “People Come First”? The Met is, after all, touting Neel as “one of the century’s most radical painters.” What century might that be? Before you can say “champion of social justice”—which the museum does, in fact, say—you’ll know the aforementioned century is the current one, despite her death in the 1980s. “In an era of record income inequality, resurgent white nationalism, and xenophobia, Neel’s painterly advocacy of humanity in its multiracial and multicultural manifestations, her inclusive, democratic spirit, and her commitment to social justice all serve to enhance her posthumous reputation, making her art seem all the more relevant, even urgent.” Enter Alice Neel, Patron Marm of All That Is Woke.

None of which is surprising. Diktats and notions that were once the purview of a select group of academics have become part and parcel of everyday life. Joe and Jane Lunchbox are conversant, nowadays, with “hetero-normativity,” “cultural appropriation,” and “privilege.” Anyone who has cracked open an exhibition catalogue in recent years, or cherry-picked through any number of specialized journals, will recognize the type of writing that strong-arms art into the service of political fashion. Try taking a tipple each time the words “justice” or “identity” pop up in the essays and wall labels accompanying the Met show—inebriation will be achieved swiftly. Making light of the strained verbiage typical of our time shouldn’t mitigate its cumulative effect. Reading about Neel’s “female-lived experience,” the “gendered struggles” of her subjects, and the “intersubjectivity” of the resulting portraits is to realize how over-intellectualized argot can become run-of-the-mill. It’s depressing, and a disservice to the liberating capacities of art. Listen to Neel, during the advent of Feminism, tell it: “When I was in my studio, I didn’t give a damn what sex I was . . . I thought art is art.” Neel didn’t suffer ideological grandstanding gladly. Why subject her work to it?

Neel hailed from Merion Square, Pennsylvania, the fourth of five children born to Alice Concross Hartley and George Washington Neel, an accountant by trade. Neel attended the Philadelphia School for Women, purposely setting out to avoid the Impressionist-influenced curriculum fostered at the better-known Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. (Even at a young age, Neel knew her own mind.) While studying painting and drawing, she met and later married the artist Carlos Enriquez, a Cuban émigré of some means. The couple moved to Havana, but the relationship proved rocky. Enriquez left the marriage, taking the couple’s daughter with him. Neel subsequently had a nervous breakdown and was committed to the suicide ward of Philadelphia General Hospital. After having been placed in the care of her mother and father, Neel ended up in New York City, spending a formative period living and working in Spanish Harlem. She moved to Greenwich Village—a neighborhood Neel dismissed as “honky tonk”—and settled on the Upper West Side. Along the way, she worked for the WPA, fellow-traveled with Communist culturati, took a host of often troublesome lovers, and became a fixture of the New York art scene.

Alice Neel, Two Girls, Spanish Harlem (1959), oil on canvas, 30 x 25″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston;
Gift of Barbara Lee

“People Come First” begins with a gambit that is partly a dare and definitely a grabber. Margaret Evans Pregnant (1978) portrays a nude woman toward the end of her term. The sitter, scaled close to life-size, is wedged between the top and bottom edges of the canvas. Evans confronts us with an expression that is both uninhibited and wooden—a mask that portends vulnerability. The posture is rigid, the belly alarmingly convex. Evans appears to be gripping the yellow footstool upon which she’s seated. Neel’s rendering of the hands and arms is awkward, and their tensions unclear. Does Evans hold on because the incipient responsibilities of motherhood are pressing upon her consciousness? Or is it because the floor tilts at an angle parallel to the picture plane? A mirror in the upper right hand of the picture reflects a different woman—or so it seems, anyway; the likeness is iffy. The mirror is, in and of itself, problematic: it’s out of sync with the overall composition. The more time spent with Margaret Evans Pregnant the more its glitches are revealed. Art should withstand the long look, not crumble beneath it.

All of which will strike fans of Neel as moot. Didn’t you read the exhibition title? People come first. “Paint your power,” the catalogue intones, “paint your politics.” In the introductory essay, Kelly Baum and Randall Griffey—who, along with the curatorial assistant Brinda Kumar, organized the Met show—write of how “Neel embraced imperfection as intrinsic to the human condition” and how “we are wrong to assume perfection from her.” Neel’s lack of perfection, in this circumstance, lies in her independence as an individual and as an intellect. (Neel had some choice opinions that wouldn’t withstand the puritanical dictates of our internet overlords.) Forget, for a moment, the curators’ backdoor clarion call for conformity. What might be said about Neel as a painter—as a person involved in an art form with its own distinct history and attributes? It’s worth reiterating that a painting, before it is anything else, is a painting. Once that essential prerequisite has been engaged—once it has been complicated, questioned, and brought to resolution—viewers can move on to the work’s “embedded code[s]” and “innuendo.” Prioritizing theory over matter and political intent over aesthetic fact are convenient means for setting aside critical distinctions. Righteous obfuscation is no substitute for the real thing.

After the ice-breaker that is Margaret Evans Pregnant, the exhibition stumbles precipitously with a showcase of Neel’s early forays into Social Realism. Forever down with the proletariat, Neel depicted protest marches, dock workers, sundry members of the intelligentsia, and unsung corners of the urban landscape with an earnestness that is leaden when it’s not amateurish. Was there an unwritten law at the time that political art had to be awash in that distinctive and deadening brown? If so, Neel’s palette followed suit. Works-on-paper depicting vignettes of bohemian domesticity are preferable in their relative lightness of touch, though they are marred by an uncertain handle on caricature. Max Beckmann looks to have been an influence, along with Chaïm Soutine, the Soyer brothers, and van Gogh. Neel jettisoned the somber affectations of her generation round about the mid-1950s— particularly as she took increased notice of her neighbors in El Barrio. Georgie Acre No. 2 (1955) and, especially, Two Girls, Spanish Harlem (1959) signal a welcome shift—the everyday awakening potentialities of form. Neel’s chromatic range gained in brightness, her brushwork speed and vigor, and the compositions a measure of clarity or, if you prefer, bluntness.

Alice Neel, Black Draftee (James Hunter) (1965), oil on canvas, 60 x 40″; courtesy COMMA Foundation, Belgium

Neel’s signature attribute is unquestioned immediacy—you know: first try, best try. Eschewing preparatory drawings, she painted directly on the canvas and from direct observation. Beginning with a wiry under-drawing, usually keyed to a cool variation of blue, Neel applied flattened patchworks of pigment, juxtaposing warm and cool tonalities and surfaces that are constitutionally resistant to sensuality. Neel’s brusque treatment of the surroundings in which her subjects are ensconced is cursory-bordering-on-negligent, but it can be effective. The settee in Andy Warhol (1970) or the chaise longue upon which the subject of Pregnant Woman (1971) reclines are marvels of bare-bones delineation. Both pictures are, in their own flagrant way, arresting. The tension between painted form and diagrammatic notation is as rude as it wants to be, and adroitly choreographed. Over the long haul, however, Neel’s pictorial flourishes flatten the expressive intent of her art. She puts one in mind of Francis Bacon—another semi-Expressionist swallowed whole by exquisitely cultivated mannerisms. By the time we reach Black Draftee (James Hunter) (1965), a canvas displayed toward the back end of the exhibition, we are grateful to see Neel not take up her brush all that much.

Black Draftee (James Hunter) would make a striking centerpiece for a more concise and, I would argue, better exhibition. As it is, “People Come First” oversells Neel’s achievement and, in particular, her vaunted humanism. Really, who does come first? Notwithstanding an atypical and often eccentric range of sitters, Neel doesn’t do much plumbing of character. Miserabilist superficiality was her gig. There are exceptions: artists like Benny Andrews, Geoffrey Hendricks, and (not included at the Met) Faith Ringgold make themselves felt, as does Richard in the Era of the Corporation (1978–79), a painting of Neel’s son in which he evinces an understandable level of wariness. Even then, it’s the Corporation that is Neel’s starting point; Richard is there as a type. And so it goes: New Yorkers, in all their multiplicity, are rendered goggle-eyed, pasty-skinned, and splayed like butterflies in a curio cabinet. Whatever the initial attraction or relationship between sitter and artist, the resulting paintings are peculiarly neutral in affect. They exist, primarily, as emblems of Neel’s nervy savoir-faire. Denizens of twenty-first century-America shouldn’t mistake representation for “allyship” or “anarchic humanity” for significant art. There are better exemplars for our fractious age than a painter endowed with a cruel and unlovely gift.

(c) 2021 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the June 2021 edition of The New Criterion.

“Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented” at The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Installation photo of “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor” at The Museum of Modern Art; courtesy MOMA/photo by Robert Gerhardt

When notice of “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented” arrived in my inbox, I gave the e-mail a cursory scan and promptly deposited it in my trash folder. Knowing that curators have a tendency to overlay contemporary mores onto historical precedent, I feared this MOMA show would have “Woke” stamped all over it. The exhibition title reminded me of the initial wave of political correctness some thirty years ago. At that time, “cultural worker” had been mooted as a replacement for the word “artist”—the latter carrying with it the gamey stench of elitism. Starry-eyed soul that I am, I thought “cultural worker” had long been consigned to the circular file of post-Marxist assaults on the language. A quick surf of the internet proved otherwise: “cultural worker” has become part of the lingua franca for the enlightened among us. There is, I learned, an organization dubbed Cultural Workers Organize—its stated mission being the fomentation of “collective responses to precarity.” It’s a hop, skip, and click from this kind of thing to engineers, agitators, and constructors.

“Precarity” was, in fact, my state of mind when I visited MOMA and wandered into “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor.” The first thing to be read on the introductory wall text is that “the title ‘artist’ is an insult.” The exhibition catalogue goes further, including what appears to be a snippet of free verse: “No more painters, no more writers, no more musicians . . . no more, no more, no more, nothing, nothing, nothing.” The “artist-proletarian,” we are duly informed, will usher in “the language of the masses, not the individual.” Should one have the stomach for pronuciamentos of this sort, they can be readily gleaned from any number of Twitter feeds, newspapers, and academic journals. The aforementioned quotes? They come not from a usual suspect like The New York Times, but from Georg Grosz, John Heartfield, Louis Aragon, and Raoul Hausmann. Troublemakers all, for a time anyway, and integral figures—dare one say “artists”?—during a signal moment in twentieth-century art. Those with a sense of historical sweep will recognize the names. Or maybe not. Cultural memory ain’t what it used to be. Which is a significant reason “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor” proves to be a noteworthy event.

Valentina Kulagina, Maquette for We Are Building (Stroim) (1929), cut-and-pasted printed and painted paper, sandpaper, gouache, and pencil on paper, 22 5/8 × 14 1/4″; courtesy MOMA

The exhibition serves as a showcase for the museum’s 2018 acquisition of some three hundred works on paper from the collection of Merrill C. Berman, a financial advisor with a predilection for the graphic arts. The curatorial focus is on the international avant-garde—specifically, how it responded to and was shaped by historical events, chief among them World War I and the devastation of Europe, along with the Russian Revolution. The ascendance of mass media is equally attended to, as is its re-imagining by designers whose artistic agenda was no less radical than their politics. As such, “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor” errs on the side of reproducible materials. It contains a handful of paintings, sculptures, and industrial objects; a sampling of collages; and an abundance of brash and propulsive posters—maybe too abundant. The compositional strategies of the Russian Constructivists, as well as those of their followers, were contrived to arrest the passersby’s attention when encountered at a magazine kiosk or on a city wall. As museum pieces, one bullying tract on the Socialist Offensive followed by another (and another) tends to work against one’s powers of concentration. Artifacts this loud need space and context in which to echo. The installation at MOMA muffles their audacity.

“Engineer, Agitator, Constructor” begins with Russian Constructivism, touching upon its roots in Suprematism with figures like Kazimir Malevich and Lyubov Popova, and then glances upon Dadaism and Neo-Plasticism. Collage and photo-montage are given prominence, as they betoken not only the mixing of mediums, but a concomitant blurring of artistic disciplines. Organized around a discrete set of themes, the exhibition makes a telling shift from subsections titled “Artist as Agitator” and “Activating Data” to “Artist as Adman” and “An Expert in Publicity.” That design innovations predicated on the theories of Karl Marx would funnel their way up—or, depending on how one looks at these things, down—to Madison Avenue is a hindsight rich in irony. Still, the heady atmosphere of “agitation–propaganda” dominates, and the confluence of pictorial innovation and extremist politics is emphasized. In that regard, the MOMA show engenders consternation. The so-called Communist Experiment was an epic catastrophe. Can one commend artists who were in thrall to its illusions for pictorial know-how without making a hash of history?

Solomon Telingater, Untitled (1929), cut-and-pasted printed and painted paper on paper with gouache and pencil, 17-11/16 × 15″; courtesy MOMA

Not a few engineers, agitators, and constructors found themselves crushed by those they sought to lionize. Gustav Klutsis, a gift- ed artist hailing from Latvia and a Stalinist through and through, was summarily executed as “an enemy of the state” in 1938. (No utopian deed, it seems, goes unpunished.) Klutsis’s work is given a prominent berth at MOMA, as are other talents whose work merits consideration, including Natalia Pinus, Nikol Sedelnikov, Elena Semenova, Varvara Stepanova, Wladyslaw Strzemiński, and Valentina Kulagina, but not Lydia Naumova, whose posters commemorating the International Trade Union privilege bureaucratic didactics over visual legibility. The Tbilisi-born Solomon Telingater is a find—his nimble employment of collage brings a rare and welcome wit to the proceedings. Humor, albeit largely unintentional, figures into Bart van der Leck’s studies for an ad campaign commissioned by Delft Salad Oil. Van der Leck applied de Stijl principles to the image of a mustachioed gentleman surrounded by bottles of salad dressing. The corporate overlords were not amused by the resulting array of dancing geometric shapes. Van der Leck lost the job. The moral? Revolutionary impulses will only get you so far—the real world is obstinate in that way. This sobering lesson may not be the starting point of this ambitious and instructive exhibition, but it is the finish line for those with the eyes to see it.

(c) 2021 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the March 2021 edition of The New Criterion.

Curiosity Prevails . . . in Woodstock


Pema Rinzin, Peace Booom I, 2015, Ground mineral pigments, gold and copper leaf, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 58″; courtesy of the Artist and Joshua Liner Gallery, New York City

* * *

“Art was the last thing on my mind as I sauntered through the village green of Woodstock, New York—particularly given that my trip upstate followed upon a visit to the 2019 Whitney Biennial. The received truths proffered on Gansevoort Street left me in no mood for gallery-going. A stopover at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts of the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild wasn’t high on the agenda. Curiosity prevailed, however, and with a happy upshot. ”

Read more here.

“Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” at The Brooklyn Museum


Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Monkeys (1943), oil on canvas, 32 x 24-3/4″; courtesy of The Jack and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation

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Saint Frida has landed in Brooklyn. “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” is an expanded version of “Making Her Self Up,” an exhibition mounted last year by the Victoria & Albert Museum. Culled from the Casa Azul, Kahlo’s home in Mexico City, the London exhibition was the first comprehensive showing of its contents outside the artist’s native country. “Comprehensive,” in the case of the Brooklyn exhibition, is all but commensurate with “obsessive.” Upon her death in 1954, Kahlo’s former husband, the painter and muralist Diego Rivera, sealed up her personal belongings at Casa Azul, stipulating that they remain untouched until fifteen years after his passing. It wasn’t until 2003—forty-six years after Rivera’s death—that access was granted; it took another four years to complete the inventory. And quite the inventory it is, including, as it does, family photographs, hand-painted plaster corsets, an array of Mexican and Central American garments known as huipils, a pre-Columbian pendant, a bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume, and a prosthetic leg with a customized ankle boot. Did you know Kahlo favored Revlon products? The company’s ebony eyebrow pencil, ca. 1948–54, is on display for visitors to marvel at.

And marvel they will. My religious analogy above may seem snarky, but Kahlo is widely revered as a cultural icon. She is, in fact, one of the most recognizable artists on the face of the planet. Gone are the days when she was blithely referred to as “Señora Diego Rivera”— which is how Kahlo is listed in a photo spread from the October 1937 edition of Vogue, as seen in Brooklyn. History, fashion, and reputation have circled around to the point where Rivera, once a bulwark of twentieth-century art, is now obscured by Kahlo’s shadow. This shift, occurring over the last forty or so years, can be attributed to a number of factors, not least feminism and identity politics. Frida-philes are up-front about how neatly Kahlo’s biography, turbulent and tragic as it was, dovetails with contemporary notions of sexuality, ethnicity, disability, radicalism, and marketing as social phenomena and self-expression. Lost in this heady mélange is—what was that thing called again? Oh, yes: art. Those expecting light to be shed on Kahlo’s oeuvre will note that, among the three hundred–odd artifacts featured in “Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” only eleven are paintings.


Nickolas Muray, Frida with Idol (1939), carbon print, 11-1/4 x 16-1/4″; courtesy Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

* * *

Admittedly, one of them is definitive—that would be Self-Portrait with Monkeys (1943)— and two are of inescapable biographical interest: Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego on My Mind) (1943) and Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940), in which a freshly shorn Kahlo bends her gender. The remaining canvases range from inscrutable to obvious to mediocre, and they don’t do the legend proud. Not that the legend isn’t seen in abundance. Films and photographs carry “Appearances Can Be Deceiving” in ways that would have pleased an artist wise to the value of an expertly contrived image. From the brooding pre-teen pictured in a 1918 photo to the starkly handsome woman seen in Giselle Freund’s Hollywood-style tableau some thirty years later, Kahlo had a preternatural relationship with the camera. The pain and infirmity she suffered throughout life—the result, primarily, of a near-fatal bus crash at age eighteen—fostered abiding self-awareness, but also fierce determination. Kahlo knew that vulnerability can be girded, as well as made alluring, by bracing self-possession. A touch of exotica didn’t hurt either. Even photographers who didn’t have affairs with Kahlo, as the glamour portraitist Nickolas Muray did for over a decade, couldn’t help but valorize her authority and presence.

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón (1907–54) was one of four daughters born to Guillermo Kahlo, a German photographer who immigrated to Mexico in 1891, and Matilde Calderón y González, a mestiza whose roots lay as much in Spain as in Oaxaca. Kahlo did not recall her childhood fondly, plagued as it was by economic hardship, illness (she contracted polio at the age of six), and the aforementioned crash in 1925. Given the catastrophe visited upon her body by the latter—which included broken bones, shifted vertebrae, and impalement—Kahlo thought it best to abandon plans for medical school. Instead she took up painting, employing a specialized easel that allowed her to work while on bed rest. It wasn’t until 1927 that she was able to get out and about, meeting up with school friends and, through them, becoming involved in politics. Kahlo joined the Mexican Communist Party, and it was through its offices that she met Rivera. The tempestuous nature of their relationship is the stuff of myth—Frida famously referred to Diego as “the other accident”—and both had numerous extramarital liaisons. The couple divorced after ten years of marriage, but they remained friendly and inseparable, remarrying only a year later.


Frida Kahlo, The Bride Who Becomes Frightened at Seeing Life Opened (1943), oil on canvas; courtesy of The Jack and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and the Vergel Foundation

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Rivera’s fame helped edge Kahlo into the spotlight, but, in time, she achieved her own independent notoriety, earning the favor of luminaries like André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, the designer Elsa Schiaparelli, and the art dealer (and sometime paramour) Julian Levy, who gave Kahlo her first solo exhibition at his Fifty-seventh Street gallery. Kahlo’s health continued to deteriorate, and her death at the age of forty-seven is a matter of dispute: the official cause was pulmonary embolism, but a nurse claimed Kahlo had overdosed on painkillers. “Appearances Can Be Deceiving” touches upon these facets and more, and it does so with scholarly rigor. That the museum has installed items from its collection of Mesoamerican art as a means of providing national context is a generous fillip. But this is an exhibition that coasts on pop stardom, and, as such, it sells the artist short. There are no revelations to be had in Brooklyn. As it stands, the strongest Kahlo on view is The Bride Who Becomes Frightened at Seeing Life Opened (1943), a still life whose pictorial invention and painterly sensuality puts the narcissism powering the self-portraits into grim relief. It’s likely to be some time before the fog of celebrity dissipates to the extent to which we can gain a firm handle on Kahlo’s accomplishment. Given the fractious state of contemporary culture, it seems prudent not to hold one’s breath.

© 2019 Mario Naves


This review was originally published in the April 2019 edition of The New Criterion.