Category Archives: Criticism

Interview at “Savvy Painter”

Savvy Painter

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I’m pleased to announce that Antrese Wood, host of the invaluable podcast Savvy Painter, has posted a conversation we had a while back about the vagaries of representation, abstraction and other pictorial concerns. I hope you give it a listen!

The Review Panel; Philadelphia at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

RP-Philly.10.8.2014I’m looking forward to participating in The Review Panel, this time around held at the venerable Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Hope to see you there.


Trevor Winkfield “Georges Braque & Others: The Selected Art Writings of Trevor Winkfield, 1990–2009.” The Song Cave, 204 pages.


Johannes Vermeer, The Allegory of Faith (ca. 1670-72), oil on canvas, 45″ x 35″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The Allegory of Faith (ca. 1670–72) is the Vermeer painting no one likes to talk about. At least that’s the consensus amongst those of us who regularly visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in order to commune with Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca. 1662) and Study of a Young Woman (ca. 1665–67)—staples of the collection that encapsulate everything we hold dear about the most evanescent of Dutch Masters. Turning to The Allegory of Faith hanging nearby, we continue to marvel at the artist’s crystalline technique even as the heart drops in response to its stilted imagery. Vermeer’s avowal of religious principle is encumbered by ham-handed symbolism, melodramatic beyond the call of duty. Who could find anything redeemable in this monumental lapse of magic, in such cluttered and over-the-top hokum? Trevor Winkfield, that’s who.

In Georges Braque & Others: The Selected Art Writings of Trevor Winkfield, 1990–2009, Winkfield declares The Allegory of Faith as nothing less than Vermeer’s “greatest achievement.” Citing the picture’s “suppressed manic overtones,” Winkfield elaborates on “the hilarity of [Vermeer’s] amateur operatic performance”:

As the eye ricochets from one object to another to the other, a veritable connect-the-dots constellation of spheres and curves emerges, starting with [the title figure’s] beady eyes.

Writing an encomium to a picture that’s long been dismissed as a minor effort—the Met itself gently chastises The Allegory of Faith by calling it “atypical”—might seem a post-modernist jape, but Winkfield isn’t out to glorify kitsch. He takes the painting seriously. Reading on, he adroitly guides us through the intricacies of the painting, culminating in “one of the most voluptuous objects in Dutch art”: the globe on which Faith has placed her foot. Okay, well—that globe is something special. Maybe the same could be said about the painting in which it appears? Disagree all you want with the “excitement” Winkfield divines in The Allegory of Faith; there’s no doubting he has looked at the picture with a penetrating and appreciative eye.


Lubin Baugin, Still-life with Chessboard (The Five Senses) (1630), oil on wood, 55 cm. x 73 cm.; courtesy Musée du Louvre, Paris

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A painter’s eye, actually. Though not a household name (and keeping in mind that fame is rarely a reliable barometer of artistic worth), Winkfield has garnered an ardent following for his paintings—kaleidoscopic pictures that combine playing card iconography, Neo-plasticist rigor, Dadaist disjunction, and unapologetic cheek. While Winkfield has made New York City home since 1969, his British roots are palpable in all his work—whether sitting at the keyboard or ensconced in the studio, his eccentricity is front-and-center. As such, he’s prone to particular, not to say “private,” enthusiasms and is keenly attuned to artists who are idiosyncratic or little known. Florine Stettheimer, Gerald Murphy, and Albert Pinkham Ryder are favorites, as is “the tortoise that wins,” Myron Stout. Have you heard of the seventeenth-century French painter Lubin Baugin? Neither had I, but after reading Winkfield’s thoughts on Baugin’s still-lifes, you’ll want to see them—like, now.

Winkfield is a convincing writer, even when he dedicates time to subjects of quizzical merit—not just The Allegory of Faith, but Marcel Duchamp, Paul Signac, and Jasper Johns. Winkfield is acute enough in his observations to prompt second thoughts on these and other subjects. Conversational and witty, biting when necessary, and generous when deserving, Winkfield is a rarity: an art critic whose prose is a pleasure to read. Neither as terse as Fairfield Porter or as frothy as Henry McBride, Winkfield nevertheless recalls both in his independence and clarity. He has little patience for received pieties. After likening Abstract Expressionism to a “garrulous uncle whose bulky form hogs both fireplace and conversation,” he concludes that it should be considered “a transitory phenomenon and not the be-all and end-all of a national aesthetic.” Winkfield dismisses as “piffle” the notion of art’s immortality, describes the Last Supper as “one of Leonardo’s most boring conceptions,” and bemoans the Victorians’ use of oil paint: “it had to be battered into the slickness of an illustration for them to understand it.”


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Failed art lends itself more readily to words than good art, so it’s a measure of Winkfield’s literary abilities that he’s at his best when waxing enthusiastic. An encompassing sense of historical, biographical, and aesthetic measure is brought to each essay, all without sacrificing an engaging bonhomie. Winkfield’s gift for the turn of phrase—for the sound, as well as the sense of words—is delightful and sharp. Gerald Murphy could “evoke melting butter on a pewter plate” simply by painting a wedge of yellow. Braque’s late Studio paintings “are illuminated only by calcium shafts of moonlight.” Chardin “delved into the personality of a plum more astutely than anyone before him.” In an unforgettable commendation, Graham Sutherland’s landscapes are described as so “densely umbrageous we might be staring at the lining of a bowel.” It is at moments like these—chatty yet incisive, slightly off-kilter and deeply perceptive—that Georges Braque and Others establishes itself as that rarest of animals: an indispensable addition to the corpus of art criticism.

© 2014 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the October 2014 edition of The New Criterion.

Hilton Kramer (1928-2012)

Hilton Kramer; © 1982 Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

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Hilton Kramer, who died Tuesday at the age of 84, was a mentor of unstinting generosity. My life as an artist and, especially, art critic is unimaginable without him. Hilton invited me to write for The New Criterion some twenty years ago; after that, he convinced Arthur Carter to hire me as gallery critic at The New York Observer. All the while, Hilton proved a model of critical integrity, graciousness and (often tart) good humor. That, and the man could write: few critics have crafted prose as dextrous and clear. A lot of praise will be bestowed upon Hilton in the coming days, and a lot of trash talked. But you can be sure of this: the life of culture was enriched by Hilton Kramer and now will be poorer without him.

© 2012 Mario Naves

“Superbly Majestic Elegance”; More Adventures in Art Writing

A painter friend sent this “timelessly sublime” video my way and I’m forever in her debt. Jörg M. Colberg is the man’s name. He’s dry, droll and deserving of a round of applause.

Superiority or Indifference

Randall Jarrell: Well Water What a girl called “the dailiness of life” (Adding an errand to your errand.  Saying, “Since you’re up …” Making you a means to A means to a means to) is well water Pumped from an old well at the bottom of the world. The pump you pump the water from is rusty And hard to move and absurd, a squirrel-wheel A sick squirrel turns slowly, through the sunny Inexorable hours.  And yet sometimes The wheel turns of its own weight, the rusty Pump pumps over your sweating face the clear Water, cold, so cold! you cup your hands And gulp from them the dailiness of life.

Randall Jarrell

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Readers of this blog may remember a brief mention, some time ago, of “Against Abstract Expressionism”, an essay by the American poet and critic Randall Jarrell (1914-1965). I can’t recommend this take-down of received modernist wisdom highly enough, not least because it’s done with devastating, if not unsympathetic, precision.

While scouring the stacks of a second-hand book store recently, I came upon a 1953 paperback copy of Poetry and The Age, Jarrell’s first published volume of collected essays. I snapped it up–not because I’m a poetry buff, but because I enjoy nuanced insights, mellifluous writing and hard critical distinctions. Few critics inhabited their subject as fully, as responsibly and carefully, as did Jarrell. Barely fifty pages into the book, I find myself astonished by the man’s pointed, unsparing sensitivity.

This is from the kick-off essay, “The Obscurity of The Poet”:

“Art matters not merely because it is the most magnificent ornament and the most nearly unfailing occupation of our lives, but because it is life itself. From Christ to Freud we have believed that, if we know the truth, the truth will set us free: art is indispensable because so much of this truth can be learned through works of art alone–for which of us could have learned for himself what Proust and Chekhov, Hardy and Yeats and Rilke, Shakespeare and Homer learned for us? and in what other way could they have made us see the truths which they themselves saw, those differing and contradictory truths which seem nevertheless, to the mind which contains them, in some sense a single truth? And all these things, by their very nature, demand to be shared; if we are satisfied to know these things ourselves, and to look with superiority or indifference at those who do not have that knowledge, we have made a refusal that corrupts us as surely as anything can . . . Goethe said: The only way in which we can come to terms with the great superiority of another person is love. But we can also come to terms with superiority, with true Excellence, by denying that such a thing as Excellence can exist; and, in doing so, we help to destroy it and ourselves.”

Elsewhere, Jarrell speaks to the inherent fallibility of critics:

“One must remember (or remain a child where criticism is concerned) that a great deal of the best and most sensible criticism of any age is necessarily absurd . . . all our critics will have been wrong: it’s their métier, isn’t it?–it always has been. It is easy to nod to all this as a truism, but it is hard to tell it as a truth. To feel it is to be fortified in the independence and humility that we readers ought to have.”

Anyone with an interest in the craft of criticism can ill afford to ignore “The Age of Criticism”, the essay in which the above quote can be found. Some of Jarrell’s meditations are a mite dated, but most are not; to wit:

“There is a Critical Dilemma which might be put in this form:  To be able to tell which critics are reliable guides to literature, you must know enough about literature not to need guides.”

Or this:

“Taking the chance of making a complete fool of himself–and, sometimes, doing so–is the first demand that is made upon any real critic: he must stick his neck out just as the artist does, if he is to be of any real use to art.”

Several years back, I was up for the position of chief art critic at a major metropolitan newspaper. At the end of a hectic day of interviews, I sat down for a cup of coffee with the arts editor. “You know”, he said, politely brushing me off, “what the paper is really looking for is a critic who has no opinions.”

Wonder what Jarrell would have made of that avowal of keeping one’s neck firmly out of harm’s way.

Poetry And The Age can be found on Amazon starting at $18.96.

© 2011 Mario Naves

“Barely Advancing ‘The Language of Painting'”

Johannes Vermeer, Study of a Young Woman (ca. 1665-67), oil on canvas, 17-1/2″ x 15-3/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Having recently moved, I’ve been spending a lot of time emptying boxes. It’s a diverting chore: For every box I open, there are a dozen or so objects included in it that distract or entrance–memorabilia, photos, CDs, books, like that.

Among the books I’ve come across (and one that I haven’t thought about in ages) is Beyond The Crisis in Art, a compilation of essays by the late British art critic Peter Fuller. A cursory skim of its contents revealed a few too many period grudges for my taste–the pieces date mostly from the late 1970s–but also enough carefully articulated observations to warrant a more thorough reaquaintence.

Here, for instance, Fuller touches on the role innovation may (or may not) play in determining artistic quality; he takes, as his basis, Vermeer’s Study of a Young Woman (ca. 1665-67):

“The power of this painting has little to do with conventions, or what is called the realizations of ‘visual ideology’. The painting trenches upon areas of experience which are not particular to the to the 17th century Dutch bourgeoisie. But these cannot have much to do with instinctual sublimation: the experience the work offers is characterized by a stillness and an illusion of ‘timelessness’ which can be sharply opposed to particular excitations. Nor yet can we get at the essential quality of the work through attending to its formal or compositional elements alone: there are, for example, many inferior paintings of about the same time which manifest a similar pose and lighting of the figure. Finally, the value of he painting cannot be attributed to its art-historical position: Vermeer was in many ways a highly conventional painter. Just as he never seems to have criticized the ‘life-style’ of his subjects in his work, he cannot be said to have challenged the prevailing representational and pictorial modes and techniques of his day either. He was certainly a supreme craftsman: but he barely advanced the ‘language of painting’.”

And that’s only from the introduction. Elsewhere, Fuller interviews Carl Andre, discusses the “rigor mortis of Marxism” and insists that “our social dreams [should not] be monopolized and banalized by those who want to sell Vodka and bath salts.”

Second-hand copies of The Crisis in Art are available at Amazon starting at $00.07.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Emergent Phenomena and Heterogeneous Agencies; More Adventures in Art Writing

Clean and SureDick and Jane

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A reader attentive to the quiddities of contemporary art writing sent in the following; it’s a catalog entry describing a program of study at an institution of higher education:

“The programs propose speculative debate and experimental architectural production based on a relational construct among theoretical inquiry, computational research, digital design, and technological investigation. To this end, the programs seek to formulate a contemporary approach to architecture that is ‘ecological’ in the sense that it provides collective exchanges which are both trans-disciplinary and trans-categorical. This ecological approach encourages feedback relationships among industry, manufacturing, political agencies, theoretical studies, and other categories and disciplines that are newly emerging in contemporary culture. This approach seeks to productively intensify heterogeneous interests and agencies. In addition, the program sees architectural innovations in both the theory and practice of architecture and the interconnected phenomena out of which it emerges. Recent courses . . . have investigated topics as iterative processes, fluid systems, emergent phenomena, logics of organization, complex urbanisms, globalization and politics, computational logics, material performance, and speculative fabrication.”

OK, be honest. At which point did your eyes start glazing over? The third sentence? The first? Trans-this, trans-that and “speculative fabrication”–Oy. What’s dreadful about this kind of overwrought verbiage (as my reader notes) is how blissfully it slips into self parody.

At least clunky phrases like “feedback relationships” and “iterative processes” don’t aspire to lyrical agitprop, as is the case of the wall texts accompanying After the Gold Rush: Contemporary Photographs from the Collection, an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here’s the introductory label:

“Recent tumult at home and abroad has prompted soul-searching in some quarters of America, and many people have a sense that the promise of our founding ideals and the positive international sway we once exerted are in eclipse. Recent flare-ups over art and censorship echo the ‘culure wars’ of the 1980s and 1990s, which, with an economic collapse and a war seemingly in a stalemate reminiscent of the 1970s, add to the feeling of deja vu.”

The anonymous poet manque continues:

“[The] works in the exhibition take an epic perspective that brings into focus the contradictions and complexities of our current condition-from the humanitarian ‘soft power’ that mitigates our often bellicose presence in the world to the isolating effects of how we pursue happiness.”

Forget the “bellicose” p.c. cant. This is poorly structured writing–bad writing. Doesn’t anybody pull Strunk & White off the bookshelf anymore? Or Dick and Jane? Now there was prose, clean and sure.

On a similar tangent: a reader asks why I dislike the word “gallerist”. Surely it’s preferable, because more economical, than “gallery owner”? Yeah, I guess. But it’s the nagging air of bad faith surrounding the term, the sense of gussying up a job description for the sake of appearances.

Here’s Sean Kelly, of Sean Kelly Gallery, quoted in a 2005 New York Times article about the “fashionable new word . . . bubbling up in the New York art scene”:

“I embrace the term [gallerist].”

What’s wrong with “dealer”, Mr. Kelly?

“‘Dealer’ has a very negative connotation. Dealers commodify.”

So sayeth the erstwhile capitalist.

In the early 1990s, there was a call from within certain circles to replace the word “artist” with “cultural worker”. “Artist” was deemed elitist. Thank the Lord, it didn’t take. But if “cultural worker” was a self-deluding nod to being down with the proletariat, “gallerist” is an ear-grating attempt at placing oneself above the tawdry business of, well, business.

Sometimes grammar is employed as a front. Anything that obscures the facts on the ground is worthy of our skepticism.

© 2011 Mario Naves


Barnett Newman

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The most telling aspect of Charlie Finch’s takedown of James Siena, Thornton Willis, James Kalm, Jed Perl and James Panero isn’t the search-and-destroy broadsides. That’s Finch’s shtick, after all, and it’s often funny and sometimes true. Rather, it’s his adulation of “special hero” Barnett Newman:

“Abstraction [Finch writes] should be about liberation, the chain-smoking, searching, reductivist dubiation of a Newman.”

Great minds think alike, right? So do blowhards. Macho-blowhards, that is–chain smoking types who toss around words like “dubiation” when they think no one’s looking. Newman and Finch deserve each other.

Granting Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51) its iconic status, Newman’s oeuvre is notable primarily for its overweening ambitions and paltry realizations. It’s by that pretentious and under-nourished yardstick that Finch dismisses Helen Frankenthaler, Richard Pousette-Dart and the “dick-like puzzles” of Siena and Willis.

I’m not a disinterested party: Willis is a stable-mate at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, Panero my editor at The New Criterion and Kalm has immortalized me, my baseball cap and winning personality on YouTube. Swell fellows, all. But someone out there has to take Finch seriously. For the fifteen minutes or so it took to write this post, that’s exactly what I did.

Postscript: You’ll find my thoughts on Willis and Siena here and here.

© 2011 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