Category Archives: Books

Francis Picabia and “The Neurasthenia of Peculiar Obsessions”

Francis_Picabia,_1919,_Danse_de_Saint-Guy,_The_Little_Review,_Picabia_number,_Autumn_1922.jpg

Self-Portrait inside Danse de Saint-Guy (1919)

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My review of “Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Wrong So Our Thoughts Can Change Direction”, a retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, is scheduled to appear in the February 2017 edition of The New Criterion. In the meantime, here is a review of I Am a Beautiful Monster, a compilation of Picabia’s writings, originally published in the January 22, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

The Dadaist painter Francis Picabia (1879-1953) went through life with no shortage of self-generated noms de plume. To name a few: funny guy, imbecile, pickpocket, failure, cannibal, silly willy and “the only complete artist.” He signed off as “Napoleon,” “Saint Augustine” and “The Blessed Virgin.” Anyone familiar with Dada will recognize its nose-thumbing esprit in Picabia’s absurdist designations.

Picabia considered himself the first Dadaist. He was an indispensable component of Dadaist cliques in Paris, Zurich and New York. Marcel Duchamp was a friend, as was Guillaume Apollinaire; the poets Tristan Tzara and André Breton were like-minded anti-aesthetes and eventual nemeses; and the poet Paul Eluard, a founder of Surrealism, was a fan: Picabia, he wrote, was a “divine Marquis de Sade.” New Yorkers know Picabia as the painter of I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie (1914), a staple of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.

I Am a Beautiful Monster, a new compilation of Picabia’s writings, displays a man of infuriating contradictions—an obtuse, belligerent, radical, reactionary, strangely lucid and sometimes hilarious gadfly. Luckily, translator Marc Lowenthal has done a superlative job of placing Picabia’s writing in historical and artistic context. Arranged chronologically, I Am a Beautiful Monster follows Picabia through his early involvement with, and ultimate abandonment of, Dada.

Picabia-Rastadada-pp.jpg

Francis Picabia, Tableau Rastadada (1920), cut-and-pasted printed paper on paper with ink, 7-1/2 x 6-3/4″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Picabia’s proclamation that “M. Picabia Separates From the Dadas” was spurred, Mr. Lowenthal informs us, over a disagreement between various members as to whether a lost wallet should be returned to its owner. Breton wanted to keep it; Eluard disagreed and returned it anonymously, heightening tensions within the group. Picabia gleaned from this encounter Dada’s “departed spirit.”

Picabia’s pre-Dadaist poetry is all jagged rhythms, haphazard juxtapositions and little punctuation. He fares best when keeping things short. But for every light and lovely homage to Apollinaire, there are a half-dozen fragments like this: “From fortune-tellers of syphilis/ This superstition in the statistics of progress/ Brings bayonets to full strength/ In the language of unpleasant roads.”

Picabia does come up with some striking turns of phrase—“the neurasthenia of peculiar obsessions” is good; “The desire to be placid in love/ Is a veritable sex crime” is better—but poems they’re not.

The doggerel continues through the Dadaist years, but gains momentum and focus. The sprawling “Jésus-Christ Rastaquouère” is, in Mr. Lowenthal’s opinion, Picabia’s “most accomplished literary work.” Despite its title, the closest Picabia’s tract comes to heresy are a few nettlesome sentiments—“Only the Jews are really energetic,” say, or “GOD WAS JEWISH/ HE WAS CONNED/ BY THE CATHOLICS.”

Elsewhere, you’ll find oddball commentary on art world eminences: Fernand Léger “declares that one must always have a foot in the shit.” Picasso was “very eighteenth century, must be completely fed up, French guy.” In “Manifesto of the Dada Movement,” you can feel the rush of an artist temporarily on the side of history: “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT WE’RE DOING DO YOU. WELL DEAR FRIENDS WE UNDERSTAND IT EVEN LESS THAN YOU DO.”

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Francis Picabia, Self-Portrait (1920-24), India ink and pencil on paper, 23 X 16 cm.; courtesy Hauser & Wirth

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“Anti-Dada, 1921-1924” is the most vitriolic chapter. “I parted from certain Dadas because I was feeling stifled among them … [and] terribly bored.” Its “spirit only existed for three or four years, it was expressed by Marcel Duchamp and myself.” (Duchamp was one of the few people who escaped Picabia’s ire.)

Picabia’s short-lived movement, “Instantism,” was little more than a satiric broadside at Dadaism. He makes a stunningly prophetic statement: Dada “will live forever! And thanks to it, art dealers will make a fortune.”

Other than “Chi-Lo-Sa,” wherein Picabia shamelessly cribs from Nietzsche for a string of fortune-cookie nostrums, the later and posthumous writings are notable mainly for sharp flashes of impenetrable wit: “Humor is the cannibalism of vegetarians.” But if history does remember Picabia the man of letters at all, it will be for the aphorisms.

Littered throughout I Am a Beautiful Monster, they are sometimes mordant—“Every conviction is an illness”—and often laugh-out-loud funny: “To those talking behind my back: my ass is looking at you.” “Morality is ill disposed in a pair of trousers.” “Parisians ruin the French.” “If you read André Gide aloud for ten minutes, your breath will stink.”

During “Dada Cannibal Manifesto,” a performance in the early 1920’s, André Breton wore a sandwich board with text by Picabia: “IN ORDER TO LOVE/ SOMETHING YOU HAVE TO/ HAVE SEEN AND HEARD IT/ FOR A LONG TIME YOU BUNCH OF IDIOTS.” The invective here was directed at the bourgeoisie. It would, in time, encompass Picabia’s feelings about his former partners in nihilism.

I Am a Beautiful Monster traces a fascinating trajectory of artistic belief. Biographers and historians will gobble it up. The rest of us will leave it on the bookshelf, read, if at all, in bits and pieces. Still, we’ll be glad to know it’s there.

© 2008 Mario Naves

“The Fine Arts Should Disappear Like Prehistoric Animals”

The Cult of Art

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Can anyone tell me about The Cult of Art, a rant masquerading as a book by Jean Gimpel (1918-1996)? I found it while rooting through a giveaway box at a friend’s studio and haven’t been able to put it down since. Not that I’ve been enjoying it. What started out as a refreshingly contrarian take “against art and artists” has turned into the literary equivalent of a car wreck–and I’m the rubbernecker taking in the view.

The Gimpel name rang a bell. Jean’s father, René, wrote Diary of An Art Dealer, 1919-1938, a seminal text for anyone interested in the business of art. René’s brother-in-law, Joseph Duveen, was the Larry Gagosian of his day and a prime mover in assembling the collection of Henry Clay Frick. The father and uncle are mentioned in the author’s bio accompanying The Cult of Art. (Duveen is described as “incomparable”.) We also read that “since 1948”, Jean Gimpel “has not permitted a work of art to enter his house.” The book was published in 1968. Hmm.

Taking his cue from philosopher, anarchist and friend of Gustave Courbet, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Gimpel argues that artists “are a class apart, imperious by their ideal but inferior in reason and morality.” Elsewhere, the novelist Thomas Mann is sympathetically cited for his distaste toward the artist’s “insatiable craving for compensation and glorification.” The line is from Mann’s 1938 essay “My Brother Hitler”. Gimpel begins the book with a swift overview of that failed painter’s career and infers, none too subtly, that Hitler is pretty typical as an artist.

File:Paolo Veronese 007.jpgPaolo Veronese, The Feast In The House of Levi (1573), oil on canvas, 18′ x 42′; courtesy the Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice

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From there, we’re taken on a dauntingly erudite tale of the mean, venal, grubby and often murderous dealings of artists and their enablers throughout history, from “the first bourgeois painter” Giotto to the “divine” Michelangelo to Veronese being accused by the Inquisition of conspiring to “teach false doctrine to foolish and ignorant people” through his painting The Feast In The House of Levi (1573). Veronese’s defense?

“We painters claim the licence that poets and madmen claim . . . “

A recurring beef is the shift that took place, sometime around the fourteenth century, in the cultural standing of painting and sculpture–from “Mechanical Arts” to “Beaux Arts”. The consequent metamorphosis of artists as “plain mortals into . . . beings endowed with divine powers” is similarly galling. Gimpel is unremitting in detailing the social, religious and moral disasters that have been committed in the name of art. What catastrophe haven’t we artists set into motion? It’s enough to make a guy suffer pangs of guilt upon setting foot into Pearl Paint. And I’m not even halfway through the book.

Gimpel has some good points to make.  Here’s his broadside against “Art For Art’s Sake”:

“Romanticism encouraged artists to scandalize the bourgeois and play tricks on him. As a result the latter could no longer tell whether an artist was being sincere or not. He began to distrust artistic productions in so far as they differed from those of the past. There are still traces of this attitude today.”

Nor does the noble cause of art criticism escape his purview:

“Art criticism has generally been the stamping ground of failed or second-rate writers who have found in it a field where their imagination is free to roam without their verbosity attracting the strictures of literary criticism.”

As a firm believer that there are more important things in life than art–living in a free and democratic society, for instance–I looked forward to Gimpel’s takedown of both the business and religion of art. (The relationship between art and culture is an unsettling subject I’ve written about before.) Still, The Cult of Art throws out the Buonarotti with the bath water.

Here, I skipped to the end of the book. Listen to Gimpel’s conclusion:

“The only works that should be considered beautiful are those that have contributed, or contribute, to the making of a better world. In the field of painting I am ready to yield to the aesthetic appeal of Fra Angelico, but not of Giotto; of Donatello, but not Michelangelo; of Botticelli, but not Heironymous Bosch; of Rembrandt, but not Vermeer; of Jan Steen, but not Rubens. I can admire Chardin, not Boucher; David, but not Watteau; Goya, but not Velazquez; Daumier, but not Delacroix; Toulouse-Lautrec, but not Degas.”

I’ll pass on Boucher, Watteau and Delacroix as well, but not because they were rich or egoists or atheists or brown-nosers or “martyrs to society” or aesthetes or assholes, plain and simple. They’re just lousy painters.

As for Gimpel, show me a guy who’ll purposefully forgo this:

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Juan de Pareja (1650), oil on canvas, 32″ x 21-1/2″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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. . . and I’ll show you a guy who cultivated soul-crushing narrowness due to unresolved Daddy issues. Uncle issues, too.

That’s the opinion of an armchair psychoanalyst and, as such, a source not to be trusted. All I know for sure is that art-hating is as eternal as art itself. Jean Gimpel was among the most learned of art’s detractors; also one of the saddest. The Cult of Art is a disheartening must-read.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Honoré in the Middle

The Unknown Masterpiece?  A scene from Malcolm In The Middle

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The painter Laurie Fendrich recently posted a lovely entry about the craft of writing at her indispensable blog.  “The Perfect Paragraph”, it’s called.

In the post, Fendrich describes a Flaubertian exercise in clarity and concision.  She asked students to pare down to its essence a summary of Honoré Balzac’s great short story “The Unknown Masterpiece”.  Fendrich includes the first two drafts and then the “final little jewel”.  As a firm believer in writerly mercilessness, especially when it comes to those awful creatures known as adverbs, I took a peculiar thrill in how much was gained by the whittling away of almost 100 words.

I also liked being reminded of “The Unknown Masterpiece”.  Did I read somewhere that Picasso and de Kooning were haunted by Balzac’s cautionary tale of artistic obsession? The story is included in my syllabus: Students are required to write a paper comparing “The Unknown Masterpiece” to “Hal Quits”, a contemporary re-telling of the Balzac story by the writers of the FOX television series Malcolm In The Middle.

It’s episode #14 in season two of the show and highly recommended.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Review of “Arthur Carter: Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings”

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“Plop Art,” it’s called: sculptures placed in public spaces with little thought given to how they might actually function in them.

“Plopping” this or that object in a highly trafficked area is presumably done for the benefit of the public weal, as if navigating around art is the same thing as appreciating it. The likelihood isn’t out of the question, but most public art isn’t public: It’s just there, arbitrary and aloof.

Writing about Arthur Carter’s public art in the recently published monograph Arthur Carter; Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings, Peter Kaplan, former editor of The Observer, describes something different: sculptures that “speak to the sidewalk passers-by” and “commune with the air and light of the city.” What he’s positing is social sculpture: art that actively seeks to engage an audience and its environs. In a city as frenetic and preoccupied with itself as this one, that can seem a tall order. But Mr. Carter’s stainless steel abstractions pull it off, “only occasionally yield[ing] to the laws and conventions” of Manhattan.

The son of an I.R.S. agent and a French teacher, Mr. Carter evinced little interest in art as a child. He was cultured, for sure—he displayed serious talent for classical piano—but Wall Street, not Julliard, won out and in no small way. Mr. Kaplan describes Carter, Berlind and Weill, the investment-banking firm Mr. Carter founded, as “world beating” for a reason: It restructured the way in which business was done and, not coincidentally, was hugely successful. The term “power broker” could have been tailor-made for Mr. Carter.

Though he bought art—Maillol, Archipenko, Picasso and Braque are a few names in his collection—Mr. Carter showed little proclivity for art-making itself. Asked if someone were to foretell his future as an artist during the Wall Street years, Mr. Carter would have said “they were crazy.” Instead, he turned to publishing, purchasing The Nation in 1985 and, two years later, founding The Observer. (He has since sold controlling interest in each publication.)

Art historian and journalist Charles A. Riley traces Mr. Carter’s artistic development to his defining hand in shaping The Observer, including the choice of its distinctive salmon color. “Design battles,” Mr. Riley writes, “extracted aesthetics [Mr. Carter] could pursue in the studio, using compositional muscles, well toned from years” of publishing. Mr. Carter is a fan of Alexander Liberman, famed design director for Condé Nast and an artist of no mean consequence. It’s no surprise: They not only shared a media background and a Connecticut neighborhood, but an aesthetic rooted in Constructivism, among the most rigorous of Modernist schools.

Mr. Carter has pursued art with the same inescapable drive he brought to business. His welded steel sculptures—with their sloping contours, lilting geometry, underplayed wit and machine-tooled surfaces—bring to mind any number of precedents: David Smith’s totemic effigies, Anthony Caro’s stringent elisions of mass and void, Alexander Calder’s effusive linearity and George Rickey’s acrobatic equipoise. (Mr. Rickey’s historical overview, Constructivism: Origins and Evolution, is something akin to Mr. Carter’s Bible.) His paintings evince a plainly stated and deeply considered debt to Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism.

But Mr. Carter knows that reiterating tradition isn’t the same as enlivening and extending it. After completing a specific work, he’ll scour the history books in order to trace its “evolution.” Mr. Carter does so not only to establish a firm link to history, but as a means of keeping himself honest: He’s loath to “infringe too closely” upon any single source. It seems an ass-backwards approach—shouldn’t an artist make sure of these things before committing time, labor and resources?—but it points to the artist’s heady confidence and, in the end, the work’s streamlined authority justifies it.

The most telling link between the businessman and the artist is the clean efficiency of Mr. Carter’s personal philosophy. “The simpler the economics are, the better. If you don’t understand it, you don’t do it.” This Koan-like declaration is as applicable to the studio as it is to the boardroom. Whether taking inspiration from the 13th-century mathematician Fibonacci, the Tao Te Ching or the Coast Guard—where, after all, he learned welding—Mr. Carter holds true to the notion that art, however distilled or abstract, is a celebration of life’s complexity. His deeply unpretentious and optimistic vision brings, pace Mr. Kaplan, “order to the madness of the world”—which is, come to think of it, exactly what we should expect from an artist.

© 2009 Mario Naves

Originally published in the June 2, 2009 edition of The New York Observer.

 

Francis Picabia: “I Am A Beautiful Monster”

 

The Dadaist painter Francis Picabia (1879-1953) went through life with no shortage of self-generated noms de plume. To name a few: funny guy, imbecile, pickpocket, failure, cannibal, silly willy and “the only complete artist.” He signed off as “Napoleon,” “Saint Augustine” and “The Blessed Virgin.” Anyone familiar with Dada will recognize its nose-thumbing esprit in Picabia’s absurdist designations.

Picabia considered himself the first Dadaist. He was an indispensable component of Dadaist cliques in Paris, Zurich and New York. Marcel Duchamp was a friend, as was Guillaume Apollinaire; the poets Tristan Tzara and André Breton were like-minded anti-aesthetes and eventual nemeses; and the poet Paul Eluard, a founder of Surrealism, was a fan: Picabia, he wrote, was a “divine Marquis de Sade.” New Yorkers know Picabia as the painter of I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie (1914), a staple of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.

I Am a Beautiful Monster, a new compilation of Picabia’s writings, displays a man of infuriating contradictions—an obtuse, belligerent, radical, reactionary, strangely lucid and sometimes hilarious gadfly. Luckily, translator Marc Lowenthal has done a superlative job of placing Picabia’s writing in historical and artistic context. Arranged chronologically, I Am a Beautiful Monster follows Picabia through his early involvement with, and ultimate abandonment of, Dada.

Picabia’s proclamation that “M. Picabia Separates From the Dadas” was spurred, Mr. Lowenthal informs us, over a disagreement between various members as to whether a lost wallet should be returned to its owner. Breton wanted to keep it; Eluard disagreed and returned it anonymously, heightening tensions within the group. Picabia gleaned from this encounter Dada’s “departed spirit.”

Picabia’s pre-Dadaist poetry is all jagged rhythms, haphazard juxtapositions and little punctuation. He fares best when keeping things short. But for every light and lovely homage to Apollinaire, there are a half-dozen fragments like this: “From fortune-tellers of syphilis/ This superstition in the statistics of progress/ Brings bayonets to full strength/ In the language of unpleasant roads.”

Picabia does come up with some striking turns of phrase—“the neurasthenia of peculiar obsessions” is good; “The desire to be placid in love/ Is a veritable sex crime” is better—but poems they’re not.

The doggerel continues through the Dadaist years, but gains momentum and focus. The sprawling “Jésus-Christ Rastaquouère” is, in Mr. Lowenthal’s opinion, Picabia’s “most accomplished literary work.” Despite its title, the closest Picabia’s tract comes to heresy are a few nettlesome sentiments—“Only the Jews are really energetic,” say, or “GOD WAS JEWISH/ HE WAS CONNED/ BY THE CATHOLICS.”

Elsewhere, you’ll find oddball commentary on art world eminences: Fernand Léger “declares that one must always have a foot in the shit.” Picasso was “very eighteenth century, must be completely fed up, French guy.” In “Manifesto of the Dada Movement,” you can feel the rush of an artist temporarily on the side of history: “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT WE’RE DOING DO YOU. WELL DEAR FRIENDS WE UNDERSTAND IT EVEN LESS THAN YOU DO.”

“Anti-Dada, 1921-1924” is the most vitriolic chapter. “I parted from certain Dadas because I was feeling stifled among them … [and] terribly bored.” Its “spirit only existed for three or four years, it was expressed by Marcel Duchamp and myself.” (Duchamp was one of the few people who escaped Picabia’s ire.)

Picabia’s short-lived movement, “Instantism,” was little more than a satiric broadside at Dadaism. He makes a stunningly prophetic statement: Dada “will live forever! And thanks to it, art dealers will make a fortune.”

Other than “Chi-Lo-Sa,” wherein Picabia shamelessly cribs from Nietzsche for a string of fortune-cookie nostrums, the later and posthumous writings are notable mainly for sharp flashes of impenetrable wit: “Humor is the cannibalism of vegetarians.” But if history does remember Picabia the man of letters at all, it will be for the aphorisms.

Littered throughout I Am a Beautiful Monster, they are sometimes mordant—“Every conviction is an illness”—and often laugh-out-loud funny: “To those talking behind my back: my ass is looking at you.” “Morality is ill disposed in a pair of trousers.” “Parisians ruin the French.” “If you read André Gide aloud for ten minutes, your breath will stink.”

During “Dada Cannibal Manifesto,” a performance in the early 1920’s, André Breton wore a sandwich board with text by Picabia: “IN ORDER TO LOVE/ SOMETHING YOU HAVE TO/ HAVE SEEN AND HEARD IT/ FOR A LONG TIME YOU BUNCH OF IDIOTS.” The invective here was directed at the bourgeoisie. It would, in time, encompass Picabia’s feelings about his former partners in nihilism.

I Am a Beautiful Monster traces a fascinating trajectory of artistic belief. Biographers and historians will gobble it up. The rest of us will leave it on the bookshelf, read, if at all, in bits and pieces. Still, we’ll be glad to know it’s there.

© 2008 Mario Naves

Originally published in the January 22, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

Coonskins, Redcoats & The New York School

Philip Pavia and Ad Reinhardt

A couple of years ago, the O.K. Harris Gallery organized an exhibition of late sculptures by Philip Pavia (1912–2005). Pavia died shortly after this tantalizing show of large primitivistic heads, his achievements as an artist largely lost to history. A photo of Pavia’s 1961 exhibition at Kootz Gallery appears in New Art City, the overview of mid-century Manhattan by New Republic critic Jed Perl. Other than that, you’d be hard-pressed to find documentation of the sculptor’s accomplishment.

Pavia is remembered as a part of the milieu that would give rise to Abstract Expressionism. In his book, Mr. Perl cites him primarily as a community organizer and publisher of It Is, a short-lived journal of the arts. Now we can read Pavia ’s own record of the beginnings of the New York School inClub Without Walls: Selections from the Journals of Philip Pavia, recently published by Midmarch Arts Press.

Pavia’s journals chronicle how he and his cohorts met informally at the misleadingly named Waldorf Cafeteria (actually a low-rent diner). Pavia describes it with a typically romantic flourish as “carve[d] out of living rock … a catacomb, with niches and small chapels for leaders and prophets from our art world above.” Regulars included the overbearing Aristodemos Kaldis, the enigmatic Landis Lewitan, the “serious thinking” Willem de Kooning, the affable Franz Kline and a host of others, such as Jack Tworkov, Beauford Delaney, Isamu Noguchi, Fairfield Porter and the dance critic Edwin Denby.

“The Club” came in to drink nickel cups of coffee and discuss Surrealism’s legitimacy, Europe ’s influence, and whether a painting was abstract by virtue of the speed with which it was painted. When the Waldorf upped the price of coffee to a dime, a new meeting place was needed. Pavia found an empty loft down the block and fixed it up.

There were frequent parties, with jazz concerts and dancing, but the panels that Pavia organized are the stuff of legend. Painters and sculptors bickered about their respective failings. People read poems mocking MoMA, critics and intellectuals. They formed cliques. “Sharpshooters” like Elaine de Kooning and Mercedes Matter heckled from the audience. Hans Arp, John Cage, Joseph Campbell and Max Ernst gave presentations. The architect Percival Goodman spoke on how “Artists Should Be Homosexual”—a talk that didn’t sit well, Pavia notes, with the critic Harold Rosenberg.

Within this contentious environment, artists began to think of themselves as a collective. Pavia states that the term “Abstract Expressionism” was self-generated: “We had finally found our name.” He admits, however, that “it was a name no one really wanted.”

Conversations were impassioned and sometimes silly. John Graham argued that Botticelli was Russian due to the feet of his figures: They are “hallucinations from the long march.” Michael Loew pointed to the weakness of expressionism: “No composition.” To which Milton Resnick responded, “Look me in the eye and say that balancing a composition isn’t straight from the (expletive) Bauhaus.”

Whether the bluster running through Club Without Walls is really indicative of the era or is just Pavia ’s style is unclear. The answer probably lies somewhere in between, but to peg the New York School as an old boys’ club is generous. They were, in many ways, little boys acting out John Wayne–style fantasies.

Pavia, citing Hemingway, compares his peers to “bullfighters.” Franz Kline and art dealer Charles Egan accuse Pavia of “watching from the sidelines like Sitting Bull.” Panelists at the Club were like “a tribe of Indians … shooting from all sides with their arrows and bullets.” Editor Natalie Edgar pitches in by calling Pavia a “cowboy in the Wild West” —that Wild West being Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue . The burgeoning Abstract Expressionists considered themselves “Coonskins” and reserved the name “Redcoats” for their adversaries: established uptown artists and their “Surrealist army.” Be thankful Pavia ’s favored designation, “Noble Savages,” didn’t stick.

At one point, Oronzo Gasparo’s wife, the daughter of an Indian chief, yells at the guys: “You white-ass shitty painters—you’re just copying native Indian abstract painting as if it’s your own.” In this hairy-chested context, you can’t help but give Mrs. Gasparo a cheer.

Pavia explains the initial lack of women at the Club as an unintended result of World War II and a consequent dearth of policemen: “The prevalence of a criminal assault technique called mugging had become a great threat at night to everyone, but mostly to women.” Women nonetheless made their presence felt, among them Grace Hartigan, Alice Mason, Joan Mitchell and the ferociously independent Elaine de Kooning. “Where else could a woman have a chance to talk on art or heckle a man on art? … Nowhere else.”

Continuing the Old West metaphors, Pavia writes that the women “came in sheepishly and bounced out as colt horses.” “Nothing,” he adds, “changed the New York woman as did the Club.” Modernist yahoos on the side of feminism—who would have guessed it?

Toward the end of Club Without Walls, there’s a “Chronology of Life and World Events” that alternates between sensible, quizzical and hilarious. There are straightforward entries, such as “Israel Gains Independence” and “Gets Divorce in Virgin Islands .” And then there are oddball listings: “Attacks e.e. cummings for commentary on Krazy Kat, Offissa Pup and Ignatz Mouse,” “Argues with John Sloan About Jackson Pollock,” and a subheading that sounds like something from the Three Stooges: “Chowder-head and Mooching Society.”

These aren’t excerpts from Pavia ’s journals, though. They’re the handiwork of Ad Reinhardt, the painter known for his near-monochromatic geometric abstractions (and less so for his wonderfully acerbic sense of humor).

Reinhardt’s timeline is included for its references to the Club—or what he dubbed the “Abstract Expressionist Synagogue,” the “De Kooning Verein Club” and the aforementioned society. His sarcasm helps to deflate the reverence that Pavia ’s writings bestow upon the era and the circle of people he helped gather together.

Despite Pavia ’s fervor, most of Club Without Walls remains blandly agreeable and feels curiously third-hand. There’s a disappointing loss of immediacy in his writings. Pavia makes plain the camaraderie of artists who would determine the future of the international art scene, and all the minutiae recorded here will be an invaluable resource for scholars. For the rest of us, though, it’s an interesting but less than necessary read.

© 2007 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 6, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.

The Bucket List

“The average time a gallery visitor spends in front of a painting is no more than two or three seconds,” according to Stephen Farthing, an instructor at the University of Arts in London. But like the walls of a blockbuster exhibition, 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die is over-crammed with visual display, and its reproductions are too small to invite a lingering gaze. 1001 Paintings, then, is a curious enterprise. Why do it?

Mr. Farthing, admitting that “the only way to understand how good a painting is” requires seeing it “in the flesh,” proposes his book as a travel guide — though it’s so heavy that you might think twice before packing it. Still, Mr. Farthing forges ahead. And not without interesting results.

The paintings here, cherry-picked from world culture across the centuries, were selected on the basis of four criteria: historical importance; memorable imagery; the “degree of perfection in balancing” form and content; and “the type of meaning that we generate as individuals”– in other words, personal taste.

And not just Mr. Farthing’s personal taste. The book’s subtitle claims that the paintings were “selected and reviewed by leading international critics,” and many art critics and historians are among the writers who penned the brief entries that accompany the images. But the 83 contributors here include some with no apparent art expertise: a “community organizer,” a “semi-professional clarinettist” and one Michael Farthing, who, we are told, used to walk by Hogarth’s “The Pool of Bethesda” when he was a gastroenterology professor at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.

The book is thus a bumpy joy ride through art history. The first section, “Pre 1400s,” begins with Garden With Pool, a wall painting from ancient Egypt, and ends with The Wilton Diptych, devotional images created for England’s Richard II. In between are a Pompeiian fresco, a Mayan procession scene, a Chinese landscape. Mr. Farthing’s cross-cultural tack continues throughout, an approach that proves to be both delightful and, at times, didactic. We encounter the expected masterpieces of Giotto, Titian, Vermeer and Degas, but also meet such far-away artists as Ogata Korin (Japanese, 1658-1716) and Cándido López (Argentinian, 1840-1902).

The juxtapositions have a point. In showing both Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse (1789) and the Japanese artist Maruyama Okyo’s Sketches of a Black and White Rabbit (c. 1770-90), Mr. Farthing points to how two radically different approaches to painting can, in their own distinctive ways, be utterly realistic. Such insights don’t come as revelations exactly, but they do make us sit up and take notice.

Mr. Farthing is on shakier ground when he focuses on contemporary painting, if only because history, that merciless arbiter of quality, hasn’t had its say. While insisting that art “encourages us to explore its meaning independent of fashion,” he’s not altogether immune to it. Chris Ofili’s dung-adorned The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) makes the cut presumably on notoriety alone. The overheated reputation of Gerhard Richter, a conceptual artist posing as a painter, probably accounts for his inclusion.

But a few bum choices from history’s welter don’t diminish the breezy appeal of 1001 Paintings. Nor, for that matter, does the author’s decision to include two pictures by, well, Stephen Farthing. Since the book is a bit of a stunt to begin with, why not?

© 2007 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 26-27 edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Pictures of Nothing

Joseph Mallord William Turner Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842J.M.W. Turner, Steamboat Off A Harbor’s Mouth (1842), oil on canvas; courtesy The Tate Collection

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When someone who was once at the helm of MoMA promises to confront our uncertainties about the last five decades of nonrepresentational art, it’s worth taking notice. But despite the clear and perceptive intelligence of author Kirk Varnedoe (1946-2003), Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollockdoesn’t quite answer its own bald-faced query: “What is abstract art good for?”

As chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art from 1989 to 2001, Varnedoe didn’t shy away from controversy. Raised eyebrows greeted his reshuffling of the permanent collection, when he broke with the linearity favored by his predecessors and acknowledged (rightly) that history is messy, multifaceted and prone to surprising crosscurrents.

The first exhibition he mounted as MoMA’s director, High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture (1990), curated with Adam Gopnik, drew criticism from all corners of the art world. The New York Times worried about MoMA’s fate under Varnedoe’s governance. His lot improved with the retrospectives he helped organize, including those devoted to Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock.

After heading MoMA, Varnedoe accepted a post as professor of art history at Princeton University. Two years later, he was invited to give the A.W. Mellon lectures at the National Gallery of Art. The six essays in Pictures of Nothingare transcriptions of those largely improvisatory talks. Varnedoe was unable to polish them up for publication: He died of cancer three months after the last lecture.

The title of the book is lifted from William Hazlitt, the 19th-century British essayist. Writing about the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, Hazlitt records a viewer’s response to the artist’s signature conflagrations of light and atmosphere: “Pictures of nothing, and very like.”

Museum audiences have since grown accustomed to such pictures—abstraction is recognized, if not always unconditionally, as a legitimate artistic phenomenon. Varnedoe glances upon its initial stirrings and subsequent development, with mentions of Picasso, Matisse, Russian Constructivism, de Stijl and Abstract Expressionism, and grace notes sent along the way to Islamic tile work and John Constable.

Why begin the main discussion at mid-century? “Our starting point … seems simultaneously to present a new form of abstraction and a new resistance to its premises,” Varnedoe writes. “This contradictory development is what I want to document and explore.”

He examines the influence of Marcel Duchamp on two young Americans, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and questions whether their work really brought about the “great divide between the world of, say, Henri Matisse and Picasso and that of contemporary art.”

He approvingly paraphrases Mr. Rauschenberg’s famed dictum about working in “the space between art and life.” But maintaining the space between art and life is necessary to art’s very existence: Once the gap is bridged, everything becomes art and, as a consequence, nothing is art. Varnedoe neglects to square that logic. And he surely knew of Duchamp’s disdain for those who followed in his wake. Neo-Dada was, in the master’s words, “an easy way out.” Still, Varnedoe writes unconvincingly that Mr. Johns’ White Flag (1955) “transmutes Duchamp’s idea of the ready-made into something new.”

In this way, he dismisses the rift between modernism and postmodernism, writing that he doesn’t “put much stock in either—or any—‘ism’ … works of art in their quirkiness tend to resist generalities.” His advocacy for “experience first” is commendable: “Given one minute more to either parse critical theory or stammer toward the qualities of the individual work of art, I will use the time for the latter.”

But Varnedoe’s history—from Johns and Rauschenberg to Pop, Minimalism, Process Art, Earthworks and the postmodernism put to bed earlier—trades in the generalities and theories of boilerplate art history. The usual suspects shuffle in, tip their hats and dutifully leave their marks: Frank Stella, Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt, Robert Smithson, Donald Judd, Gerhard Richter, Jeff Koons, et cetera and ho hum.

Somewhere in there, Varnedoe makes the claim that “the poet of the morbidity of our time”—that would be Andy Warhol—offered vital contributions to the history of abstract paint ing. That would have surprised Andy. He goes on to com pare the Pop Guru with Goya. It’s ama zing what intelligent people can talk themselves into.

Elsewhere, he im plies that knowledge of New York City’s overheated real-estate market can account for the preciousness of Walter De Maria’s Dia installation, The Broken Kilometer (1979). He comes down firmly on the side of “intentionally dumb and banal” Minimalism, as if its strident literalism and unapologetic authoritarianism hadn’t damaged the way several generations of artists think about art. He writes of “mere aesthetic pleasure” as if it were a gnat buzzing around our heads.

Varnedoe’s nods to West Coast artists—Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, James Turrell, (amazingly, he omits Richard Diebenkorn and John McLaughlin)—come as welcome breaks in this Manhattan-centric survey. His elegance and wit offer some recompense for the predictability of his narrative. He valuably and decisively pooh-poohs the notion that the New York School was a tool of the C.I.A. during the Cold War, and he aptly sums up the Tilted Arc brouhaha as “one of the low points … in the history of abstraction’s encounter with society.” Still, one pines for something different and more.

The book ends with an appreciation of Richard Serra. Mr. Serra is a sculptor of undeniable gifts and achievement, but there’s something so blah about the choice. What if Varnedoe had ended the book with a painter like Thomas Nozkowski, Bill Jensen or Shirley Jaffe, or sculptors like Anne Truitt, Christopher Wilmarth and Martin Puryear? That is to say, figures whose expansive visions refute the “millennial pessimism” that is our culture’s ball-and-chain. What an unconventional book that would be.

Alas, it seems as if the aim of these lectures was mostly to rubber-stamp the status quo. Many of Varnedoe’s endeavors as curator and historian will provide a worthy legacy. Pictures of Nothing isn’t one of them.

© 2006 Mario Naves

Originally published in the December 3, 2006 edition of The New York Observer.

“Picasso and American Art” at The Whitney Museum of American Art

Roy Lichtenstein, <span class="wac_title">Femme au Chapeau</span>Roy Lichtenstein, Femma au Capeau (1962), oil and Magna on canvas, 68″ x 56″; courtesy Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

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“One of the most ambitious … undertakings in the Whitney’s history” is how Adam Weinberg, the museum’s director, describes Picasso and American Art, an exhibition that sets out to examine the “profound impact” Picasso had on painters and sculptors stateside.

It had damn well better be an ambitious undertaking. Picasso’s influence on world art—forget the United States—went beyond profound. It was all-consuming. Greater artists—Matisse, say, or Max Beckmann or Pierre Bonnard—can’t claim the purchase Picasso had on the course of art or the public imagination. The contemporary scene may consider Marcel Duchamp a godhead, but Picasso was the man; the 20th century is inconceivable without him.

Picasso drove artists to distraction, particularly American artists already suffering from an acute sense of inadequacy. They felt like pikers marooned in a cultural backwater. Picasso confirmed their anxieties even as he offered inspiration. Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, in their biography of Willem de Kooning, write of “New York artists … haunted by [Picasso’s] protean fecundity, his refusal to stand still or repeat himself.” Jackson Pollock exclaimed: “That guy missed nothing!”

The effort to escape from “that guy’s” shadow had its most moving dénouement in the development of Arshile Gorky. In pictures like Organization (1933-36) and Blue Figure in Chair (ca. 1934-35), Gorky came to terms with Picasso by following his every move. He clearly found it rewarding to mimic the master; the understanding of pictorial dynamics evident in these paintings is never less than sophisticated. The rest of us may be frustrated by his slavish devotion, if only because of 20/20 hindsight: We know Gorky for the master he would become.

Organization and Blue Figure in Chair are included in Picasso and American Art, as are many other fine paintings and sculptures, not least additional canvases by Gorky. His elegiac The Artist and His Mother (ca. 1926-36), which channels Ingres as much as Picasso, is always good to see. Even better is Gorky’s Self-Portrait with Palette (1937), which shares a gallery with Willem de Kooning’s Standing Man (1942). Who was the more tenacious and frustrated perfectionist? You can feel each man dance around his tremendous facility. The pictures are thrillingly irresolute.

A handful of diminutive biomorphic abstractions by de Kooning, all dating from the late 1930’s, are surprisingly whimsical and even lovable. Max Weber’s one and only masterwork, the Whitney’s Chinese Restaurant (1915), ranks with all but the best Cubist art. Stuart Davis’ brash and ballsy Colonial Cubism (1954) trumpets its hard-won independence from European precedent. A trio of paintings by Arthur Dove are fetching, with Abstraction #3 (ca. 1910-11) being particularly fine.

Almost all of the works owe an obvious debt to Picasso, but not all of them are top-notch. Undistinguished and derivative pictures represent John Graham, a great eccentric of American Modernism and an often spellbinding painter. The Marsden Hartley paintings on view also fail to impress—then again, his finest work derives its strength more from German Expressionism.

Watching the Americans struggle with Picasso can be fascinating, even if the results aren’t always cohesive—witness Pollock’s jumble of Cubist fracturing and pictographs in The Water Bull (ca. 1946). Sometimes the struggle is depressing. Sculptures by David Smith falter with wobbly authority; Picasso’s unfailing bravado crushes them. Smith’s inclusion fits the thesis, but at what cost to the exhibition’s vitality?

Even the paintings and sculptures by Picasso himself only fitfully present the artist at his best. They often reveal him at his most expedient. Difficulty obtaining loans, especially with an artist of Picasso’s stature, is understandable. That said, slapdash Picasso is more interesting than most art. There is a smattering of gems and iconic images at the Whitney. In the latter category are Three Musicians (1921) and The Studio (1927-28); in the former, Bathers (1920), with its neoclassical figures and pervasive, eerie calm.

The exhibition culminates with the advent of Abstract Expressionism. By mid-century, the Americans had pretty much licked Picasso at his own game and, for that matter, the European art world. Pollock’s looping drips, de Kooning’s voracious women, Gorky’s tender linearity and—come again?—Louise Bourgeois’ psychosexual totems put the cap on America’s anxiety of influence. The valedictory tone is fitting: It’s the Whitney’s job to champion American art.

But then the show doesn’t end with the New York School. The Whitney’s curators seem to think that Jasper Johns is their red, white and blue trump card. Mr. Johns does quote Picasso’s imagery both overtly and covertly, yet his dour art has absolutely nothing to do with Picasso. Mr. Johns’ longstanding (and long-depleted) artistic strategy is a Dadaist’s game of hide-and-not-really-seek. Superficially appropriating art is the opposite of absorbing its lessons or understanding its structure.

Mr. Johns was not Picasso’s “sympathetic [American] interlocutor,” as the curators insist. The lifts from Picasso (a weeping woman here, a shadowy figure there) are exploited for their emblematic status—for their ubiquity rather than their artistic power. Like the American flag, maps, beer cans and his penis, Picasso is just another notch on Mr. Johns’ well-worn belt of ready-mades. Mr. Johns comes to Picasso from outside and never makes it in. The famous Spaniard—not his achievement—is all Mr. Johns knows.

Robert Rauschenberg, Tom Wesselman, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol all make appearances, yet it is Mr. Johns who sinks the show. Given how meager Mr. Johns’ art is in substance, it’s impressive how leaden it is.

The conclusion of Picasso and American Art is so drably monolithic that it betrays the skimpiness of what precedes it. For a thorough understanding of Picasso’s role in shaping American culture, get the catalog; you’ll find flesh on the bone there. As for the Whitney, better it should take on Duchamp and American Art; that’s where the museum’s heart really belongs.

© 2006 Mario Naves

Originally published in October 29, 2006 edition of The New York Observer.

Art Criticism in Crisis

James Elkins

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It’s a bit daunting to sit down and review What Happened to Art Criticism?, a slim book by James Elkins that has recently undergone a second printing by Prickly Paradigm Press. Not because Mr. Elkins considers art criticism “very nearly dead” as a literary discipline. (There isn’t a critic alive who hasn’t, at one point or another, voiced a similar sentiment.) It’s because Mr. Elkins is an uncommonly attentive reader. Throughout the book, he patiently and, at times, lovingly dissects the writing of a variety of contemporary critics, gauging the nuances of each adjective, metaphor and semicolon. Knowing that Mr. Elkins may be in the vicinity will compel any writer to firm up his craft-and watch his back.

Mr. Elkins also reads widely and deeply. Though What Happened to Art Criticism? encompasses only the last 50 years (its focus being the here and now), Mr. Elkins’ analysis is bolstered by an intimate knowledge of the history of art criticism-which figures, given that he is the chairman of art history at the Art Institute of Chicago. The 18th-century philosopher Denis Diderot (“effectively the foundation of art criticism”), the French poet Charles Baudelaire, the English critic Roger Fry and “the stubbornly conservative” Royal Cortissoz, critic for The New York Tribune at the turn of the last century, have the same immediacy for Mr. Elkins as Janis Demkiw, a Canadian artist who wrote “play-pretend” cultural criticism for Lola magazine, and, closer to home, Jerry Saltz of The Village Voice and The New Yorker ‘s Peter Schjeldahl. For Mr. Elkins, art criticism is a continuum of voices speaking to (and against) each other over time.

How vital that continuum is, or has become, is another matter. “Art criticism is in worldwide crisis,” Mr. Elkins’ treatise opens. He describes art criticism as “diaphanous … like a veil, floating in the breeze of cultural conversations and never quite settling anywhere.” At the same time, he writes that “[a]rt criticism is also healthier than ever … business is booming: it attracts an enormous number of writers.” According to Mr. Elkins, art criticism is so healthy, in fact, that it’s “outstripping its readers-there is more of it around than anyone can read.” Enumerating the dizzying amount of venues for art writing-art-scene organs like Art in America and Artforum ; a “blur” of glossy art magazines like Tema Celesteand Modern Painters ; gallery catalogs and brochures; newspapers; the Internet-Mr. Elkins rues its general lack of character, ambition and (most notably) opinion.

The infamous survey of art critics conducted in 2002 by the Columbia University National Arts Journalism Program was hardly surprising to Mr. Elkins-“infamous” because the survey’s findings confirmed what had long been obvious to devotees of the field: that aesthetic evaluation has become the least important and desirable component of a critic’s job. “In the last three or four decades,” Mr. Elkins writes, “critics have begun to avoid judgments altogether, preferring to describe or evoke the art rather than say what they think of it.” The turn away from an “engaged, passionate, historically informed practice” is “an amazing reversal, as astonishing as if physicists had declared they would no longer try to understand the universe, but just appreciate it.”

Mr. Elkins likens contemporary art criticism to a hydra with seven heads, each with its own particular (though not exclusive) set of characteristics; these include the catalog essay, the academic treatise, cultural criticism, the conservative harangue, the philosopher’s essay, descriptive art criticism and poetic art criticism. Mr. Elkins has sharp things to say about each category.

There are, he explains, “compelling reasons to be wary of tapestries woven of recondite allusions”-this observation coming on the heels of a discussion of the “collaged succession of interpretive methods” as practiced by Rosalind Krauss, a model of academic criticism. Arthur Danto, art critic for The Nation and practitioner of the philosopher’s essay, is on the receiving end of Mr. Elkins’ shots, too. After reiterating Mr. Danto’s well-known thesis-that the history of art ended in 1963 with Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes–Mr. Elkins dubs Mr. Danto’s criticism “illegible ” [italics in the original]: “He asks only that readers no longer take his art criticism as having historical force or interpretive power above or below any other critic’s efforts-but how can that be anything other than wishful thinking?”

How much you agree with Mr. Elkins’ commentary depends, to an extent, on whose ox is being gored. The ox most worthy of goring is descriptive art criticism. Of all the hydra’s heads, it is the one that takes up most of his time and energy: “Art writing that attempts not to judge, and yet presents itself as criticism, is one of the fascinating paradoxes of the second half of the twentieth century.” Mr. Elkins traces it to an array of causes-from the art market’s need for hyperbole to the “institutional critique” typical of the radicals-for-life at the journal October , to the ongoing vilification of Clement Greenberg-and offers analysis of its proponents, among them Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for The New York Times: “The new non-judgmental writing can be pleasant, but too often the pleasure comes from having escaped from the burden of historical judgment.” This sentence fits Mr. Kimmelman to a T.

Mr. Elkins offers a set of guidelines for the rehabilitation of art criticism under the heading of “Seven Unworkable Cures”-a title that provides a clue as to where What Happened to Art Criticism? comes up short. Mr. Elkins is good at hashing out ideas, exploring their every facet, their failings and their benefits. He loves questions as well, savoring the possibilities inherent in merely asking them; the trouble is, he doesn’t much like to provide an answer . Early on, he poses two good questions: “First: does it make sense to talk about art criticism as a single practice, or is it a number of different activities with different goals? And second: does it make sense to reform criticism?”

The answers to the first question are, for all intents and purposes, “not really” and “kind of.” (You can almost hear the rustling of Mr. Elkins’ shirt as he shrugs his shoulders). The answer to the second question is-well, let’s let him speak for himself: “I do not think it is necessarily a good idea to reform criticism: what counts is trying to understand the flight from judgment, and the attraction of description.”

Understanding is all to the good, of course, but sometimes a writer needs to shit or get off the pot.

Mr. Elkins’ anticlimactic conclusion comes on page 80 of an 86-page book. He goes on to proffer three qualities that “most engage” him in contemporary art criticism: “ambitious judgment,” “reflection about judgment itself” and “criticism important enough to count as history, and vice-versa.”

By this point, the reader is beyond caring what Mr. Elkins thinks. His fair-mindedness-beyond-the-call-of-duty puts in mind the old line about newspaper editors preferring one-handed writers-the less capable a writer is of considering the other hand, the more likely he is to get to the point. Mr. Elkins gets to the point–What Happened to Art Criticism? is full of them. But what he believes in, I don’t know. He prefers chasing his own tail to figuring out which end of the dog will lead him out of the intellectual rut he’s dug himself into. And yet anyone who cares about art criticism will buy Mr. Elkins’ book and read it hungrily, after which it will be put on the shelf, remembered primarily for talking the talk but not walking the walk.

© 2004 Mario Naves

A version of this article was originally published in the September 12, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.