Category Archives: Drawing

“Jonathan Silver: Matter and Vision” at Victoria Munroe Fine Art

Installation view of Jonathan Silver: Matter & Vision at Victoria Munroe Fine Art
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“Celebrity isn’t the sole litmus test of art, of course, nor should it be. But that an artist of Silver’s distinction remains unheralded is indicative of the benighted parameters within which our tastemakers operate.”

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

“Picasso: Painting the Blue Period” at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Pablo Picasso, The Soup (1903), oil on canvas, 37 x 48 cm.; courtesy the Art Gallery of Ontario
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What is there left to say about Picasso? This question, posed by a colleague apropos of Picasso: Painting the Blue Period, an exhibition on display at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, is inevitable. There are few cultural figures whose life and accomplishments have been as exhaustively accounted for as the man born–take a breath!–Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. Innumerable exhibitions, books, scholarly tracts and films have been devoted to this relentlessly protean artist. Even after his death almost fifty years ago–Picasso died in 1973 at the age of ninety-one–he looms large in the public consciousness. Picasso’s stature in the upper echelons of the art world has, admittedly, been somewhat diminished by the promotion of Marcel Duchamp and his nose-thumbing progeny. Feminists have taken umbrage at the lionization of Picasso maltratador–which is how he was described last year at Barcelona’s Picasso Museum by a group of students protesting his treatment of women. Certainly, there are few artists less amenable to the unforgiving puritanism of our professional classes.

I mean, what might the woke-adjacent make of the subtext undergirding Painting the Blue Period–that Picasso was a socially conscious individual, an artist acutely aware of his proletarian status and an ally of the poor and the homeless, the underserved, incarcerated and marginalized? In late 1901, Picasso began visiting the Saint-Lazare women’s prison near Montmartre under the offices of Louis Jullien, the facility’s resident doctor and a specialist in venereal diseases. (Dr. Jullien went so far as to forge a medical identity for Picasso so that he could roam the grounds unaccompanied.) The young artist was, we are told, moved by “the struggles faced by poor women and their children in the modern world.” Twenty-first century sophisticates will snigger at this attempt to humanize Pablo the Perpetual Misogynist. And it is worth recalling the story, as related in John Richardson’s four-volume biography of the artist, that Picasso extolled the “models” at Saint-Lazare because they cost him not a centime. Still, human nature is nothing if not contradictory. The rest of us are defined by motives, ignoble and otherwise. Why not extend the benefit of a doubt to Picasso?

Truth to tell, the organizers of Painting the Blue Period have little truck with the moral soundness of Picasso’s moral probity. Co-curators Kenneth Brummel of the Art Gallery of Ontario and Susan Behrends Frank, associate curator of research at the Phillips, are interested in Picasso as–dare one say it?–an artist. Turns out that Brummel and Frank actually like art. Among the blessings of the exhibition is the absence of political posturing–guilt-mongering, really–that is all but de rigueur for curators nowadays. Instead, visitors learn how a given drawing, painting, sculpture or print was influenced by Picasso’s immediate environment or a particular motif (whether sacred or profane), and how it was realized through the accumulation of graphite, charcoal or oil paint. A significant part of the exhibition is, in fact, given over to process, conservation and scientific analysis. Three canvases–“The Soup” (1903), “Crouching Beggarwoman” (1902), and the Phillips’s own “Blue Room” (1901)–were subject to a variety of intensive imaging techniques. Painting aficionados will relish the opportunity to see X-ray photographs displaying how Picasso recycled canvases and imagery. Discovering how he upended a landscape painting and morphed it into “Crouching Beggarwoman” provides an especially telling sidebar. At the age of twenty-one, Picasso was already attuned to the power and possibilities of transformation.

Pablo Picasso, Crouching Beggarwoman (1902), oil on canvas, 101.2 x 66 cm.; courtesy the Art Gallery of Ontario
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Which isn’t to say that Painting the Blue Period highlights a kingpin of the avant-garde. The artist whose radical innovations would reshape the traditions of painting and sculpture? He ain’t here. What we have is Picasso at his most–well, let’s not say “derivative.” Having left Spain in 1901, Picasso traveled to Paris, settling in a studio a stone’s throw from the Moulin Rouge. He shared the apartment (if not the expenses) with his agent Pere Mañach, a transplant from Barcelona and scion of a family of industrialists. “Self-Portrait (Yo)” (1901)–a hardscrabble picture done on cardboard–evinces a man of chiseled good looks and unwavering confidence, a temperament out to make a name for itself in the demi-monde. That, and it divulges a proud reliance on the stylistic mannerisms of Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec. Lautrec died just a few months after Picasso’s arrival in France; from all accounts, the two never met. But Lautrec’s example weighed significantly on Picasso. He adopted many of the older artist’s subjects–cabarets, cafés and brothels–as well as the lifestyle attendant to them. “Catcalls and Capers” and “Lures for Men” (both 1901), comic illustrations Picasso did for the magazine Le Frou-Frou, could be touted as Lautrecs and few people would blink an eye.

Lautrec himself makes an appearance in Painting the Blue Period: his efflorescent “May Milton” (1895), a mixed-media depiction of the English dancer, is hung adjacent to “Catcalls and Capers” and “Lures for Men.” By placing these works in close proximity, Brummel and Frank underscore Picasso’s preternatural ability to absorb and integrate influences. Throughout the exhibition, Picasso’s efforts in oil, graphite, charcoal and bronze–including “Seated Woman” (1902), his first attempt at sculpture–are juxtaposed with works by historical figures, as well as those of artists within his milieu. “Nude Woman Standing, Drying Herself” (1891-92), a lithograph by Edgar Degas, and two sculptures by Auguste Rodin, “Eve” (c. 1881) and “Crouching Woman” (1880-82), are set alongside Picasso’s early explorations into the expressive potential ofthe female form. Elsewhere, Honoré Daumier, Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Luis de Morales and El Greco amplify Picasso’s work in revelatory ways flummoxing ways, too. Who would consider mashing-up Puvis de Chavannes’s arid neoclassicism with the decorative contouring of Vuillard? It’s an endeavor that would strain most imaginations. But imagine Picasso most surely did, particularly with “The Soup.”

The gallery devoted to “The Soup” is among the most gratifying museum installations in recent memory. Brummel and Frank, with tremendous scholarly acumen and no little sense of nuance, set out the genesis of a simple image–a mother providing a bowl of soup for her daughter–and prove just how complex it it. Painting during a return trip to Spain, “The Soup” revisits a motif Picasso had touched on before: motherhood and poverty. Whereas “Science and Charity” (1897)–an earlier painting not included in the exhibition–was couched in nineteenth-century convention, “The Soup” is startlingly modern, if not strictly speaking Modernist. Writing in the catalogue, Brummel describes it as a “pictorial settlement” between Daumier and Puvis de Chavannes. That’s putting it mildly. What Picasso does is streamline Daumier’s muscular caricatures and bypass Puvis de Chavannes’s Hellenism to channel Third Dynasty Egypt. The accompanying studies on display–done in pastel, oil and ink–testify to the tenacity, grit and gravity with which he approached the picture.

The upshot is a painting whose modest scale can’t contain the monumentality of its forms. In point of comparison, the smattering of pieces that close the exhibition–presaging, as they do, the Rose Period–is small beer. Then again, some respite is in order after the intensity of mood that dominates Painting the Blue Period. It’s a great exhibition.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 edition of The Spectator World.

“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.

“Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect; Drawings from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France” at The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

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Jean-Jacques Lequeu, And We Shall Be Mothers Because . . . ! (1793 or 1974), pen and black ink, black and gray wash; courtesy The Morgan Library and Museum and Bibliothèque nationale de France, Departement des Estampes et de la photographie

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“The obscurity to which Lequeu was subsequently consigned can be attributed, in no small part, to his own doing. Numerous drawings dedicated to sexual preoccupations of a rather peculiar sort don’t readily lend themselves to public display, let alone public acclamation . . .”

Click here to read the entirety of the review at Dispatch, the blog for The New Criterion.

“Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Felix Vallotton, The White and the Black (1913), oil on canvas, 44-7/8 x 57-7/8″; courtesy the Kunstmuseum Bern, Hahnloser/Jaeggli Foundation, Villa Flora, Winterthur

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If only for the inclusion of The White and the Black (1913), the retrospective of the Swiss painter and printmaker Félix Vallotton (1865–1925) merits its subtitle. The Met has given special emphasis to the painting, and can you blame it for doing so? It’s an arresting picture. Toward the right of the canvas, a black woman, clad in blue and smoking a cigarette, sits pensively on a bed. The object of her attention is a reclining white woman who is nude and—what exactly? Sleeping, maybe; posing, perhaps. (Her posture suggests a degree of self-awareness.) The title conjures a Whistlerian focus on color harmonies, and the image bears a knowing resemblance to Manet’s Olympia (1863). The relationship between the two women is provocative in its ambiguity. Was Vallotton, a committed leftist and anarchist sympathizer, commenting on class divide—exploring unstated tensions between mistress and servant? He didn’t leave a paper trail regarding intent; the exhibition catalogue is mum on the subject. We are on surer footing in guessing that the curators are keying into contemporary woke culture by bestowing a prominent berth to The White and the Black.

As a feat of painting, The White and the Black owes nothing to Whistler, only nods to Manet, and strays far afield from Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, both of whom Vallotton counted as friends. Paul Gauguin is the nearest correlative, partly for the confluence of eroticism and race, mostly for the elasticity and import given to color—the expanse of sea green serving as the backdrop, especially. That, and the painting isn’t . . . good. Or, rather, not as good as it portends. The longer one stays with The White and the Black the more its shortcomings are revealed. The nude feels as if she has been airlifted from another galaxy. (As a variation on Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, it likely was.) The concomitant disconnect suggests that we’re looking at a painter who hasn’t altogether mastered the intricacies of pictorial space. The disquieting thing about “Painter of Disquiet” is, in fact, how consistently Vallotton misses the mark set by his not inconsiderable ambitions. The critic and artist Patrick Heron memorably dubbed Gauguin a “great bad painter.” Vallotton doesn’t rank that high. Still, the exhibition should pique the interest of those with a taste for idiosyncratic talent and fin de siècle culture.

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Felix Vallotton, Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty (1885), oil on canvas, 70 x 55 cm.; courtesy Cantonal Museum of Fine Arts, Lausanne

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Born in Lausanne to a middle-class Protestant family, the sixteen-year-old Vallotton forsook his studies in Greek and Latin, heading, instead, to Paris in order to pursue art. He enrolled at the Académie Julian and haunted the galleries of the Louvre, becoming enamored with the paintings of da Vinci, Dürer, and Ingres. With a boost from the painter Jules Lefebvre, his teacher at the Académie, Vallotton’s work was exhibited at the Salon des Champs-Élysées in 1885. It wasn’t long before the young artist began exploring less traditional byways. Working as an art critic for the Gazette de Lausanne, Vallotton singled out Henri Rousseau for special praise, and he began doing woodcut illustrations for a variety of periodicals. These caught the collective eye of the Nabis, and Vallotton was invited to join a group that counted among its members Vuillard, Bonnard, and Maurice Denis. Subsequently ensconced within the Parisian avant-garde, Vallotton exhibited in the Salon des Indépendants and socialized with the likes of Félix Fénéon, Gertrude Stein, Paul Verlaine, and Thadée Natanson, the publisher of the influential literary magazine La Revue blanche. Radical politics were a continuing fascination for Vallotton, albeit one tempered by his marriage to Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, a widow of considerable wealth and influence.

Vallotton’s work for the popular press generated notoriety and won admiration. A critic of the time dubbed him the “Baudelaire of wood-engraving.” As a presumed nod to this honorific, the Met exhibition opens with Vallotton’s starkly configured black-and-white prints, largely of events taking place in the streets of Paris. Truth to tell, their cumulative effect is underwhelming. The high-contrast pictures devoted to the World’s Fair have a punchy appeal, as does Vallotton’s use of caricature. But the images are muddled—puzzle pieces that don’t snap into place—and one is reminded that the best cartoonists stylize form with flair and rhythm. The good bourgeois citizens of France, as pictured by Vallotton, are ill-configured stereotypes in compositions with little interior logic. Vallotton was better when sticking to nineteenth-century academic standards of figuration. Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty (1885) and The Sick Girl (1892), though stiff and stagey respectively, are more convincing. Not convincing at all is The Five Painters (1902–03), Vallotton’s portrait of himself, Vuillard, Bonnard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, and Charles Cottet. A cut-rate Madame Tussaud wouldn’t settle for the dour and dusty mannequins Vallotton has shuffled into place.

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Felix Vallotton, Box Seats at the Theater, the Gentleman and the Lady (1909), oil on canvas, 18-3/16 x 15″; courtesy Private Collection

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A suite of prints titled Intimités, along with a group of related paintings, explore the quiddities of (mostly illicit) romantic intrigue: men and women, ensconced within well-appointed interiors, rendezvous and embrace. The hothouse atmosphere of The Lie (1897) generates erotic ten- sion, and the stately tones sweeping through The Visit (1899) underscore the unseemly machinations of seduction. Composition, more than mise en scène, was a strong suit. Vallotton employed asymmetry to striking effect, and his cropped vistas and subtle shifts in vantage point add a welcome frisson of modernity. The Bon Marché (1898), a tripartite homage to the venerable department store, is remarkably gutsy in how a slurry of figures is clearly situated within a centralized area of darkness. Box Seats at the Theater, the Gentleman and the Lady (1909) is a study in structural concision and skewed geometry that would have made Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec smile—Guy Pène du Bois, too. And that’s the problem: the work can’t help but recall better painters. The Met’s decision to hang Vallotton’s portrait of Gertrude Stein side by side with Picasso’s depiction of the collector points to how relatively stolid and unadventurous Vallotton was as an artist. The oeuvre, though not without its diversions, makes for a bumpy ride. “Painter of Disquiet” is best considered a curiosity that’s never quite as curious as it wants to be.

© 2020 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the January 2020 edition of The New Criterion.

“John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal” at The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

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John Singer Sargent, Lady Diana Manners (1914), charcoal; Private Collection. Photography by Christopher Calnan

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Charcoal is among the most generous and frustrating of drawing mediums. Generous in that it lends itself to ready manipulation and, as such, is forgiving in its malleability; each mark and erasure increases the depth and tactility of both the image and the sheet of paper itself. Frustrating because its material consistency makes for dirt, and lots of it. Ingraining itself into the nooks and crannies of the hand, charcoal will also leave a halo of black dust on the area surrounding the drawing surface. Anyone who has even briefly experimented with charcoal quickly realizes its potential as well as its liabilities. You either love or hate the stuff. Having said that, bets are that folks on either side of this split will exit “John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal” energized, amazed, and delighted. Sargent had a singular gift for oils and watercolor; we all know that. But charcoal? That comes as a surprise, though less for Sargent’s deftness of touch than for his delving into the medium at all.

The Morgan show is, in fact, the first time a museum has dedicated itself exclusively to Sargent’s efforts in charcoal. Organized by Richard Ormond—the coauthor of the Sargent catalogue raisonné, former director of London’s National Portrait Gallery, and grand-nephew of the artist—along with Laurel Peterson, the Moore Curatorial Fellow in the Morgan’s Department of Drawings and Prints, “Portraits in Charcoal” is an exhibition whose aesthetic reach goes beyond its modest scale. The fifty-some drawings on display have been installed with a gentility that befits the era and milieu in which they were created—that is to say, Victorian, aristocratic, and artistic. Should there be a hue and cry from the politically correct among us regarding the 1 percent for whom Sargent plied his trade, well, they can stand in line behind the artist himself. At the age of fifty-one, the much sought-after portraitist declared there would be “no more paughtraits . . . I abhor and abjure them and hope never to do another especially of the Upper Classe.”

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John Singer Sargent, Henry James (1912), charcoal, 24-5/16 x 16-1/8″; The Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

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This distaste didn’t prevent Sargent from allowing himself some wiggle room. He was, after all, wise to the status and possibility afforded by hobnobbing with the social elite. While Sargent gave up portraiture in oils, he continued doing “a lot of mugs in coke and charcoal.” A “lot”? Think seven hundred and fifty. For the cultured classes, a Sargent charcoal portrait was de rigueur. Writing in the catalogue, Ormond wryly notes that “How do you like your Sargent drawing?” became a query that peppered London dinner parties, practically guaranteeing responses from all and sundry. Not that Sargent’s clients were always pleased by the drawings. Lady Cynthia Asquith summarily dismissed Sargent’s portrayal of her as being “the foulest woman I have ever seen.” The son of Bishop William Lawrence donated a portrait of his father to Washington’s National Gallery, stating that “we would be glad to have it a thousand miles from home.” Sargent was not uncritical of his own work. Writing to Edith Wharton about a charcoal portrait of their mutual friend Henry James, Sargent predicted that “I shall not be surprised if you pronounce it a failure.”

The typical viewer has the advantage of not being personally or professionally invested. We are at a welcome remove, here, in the twenty-first century, even when the portraits are figures whose import still resonates. The aforementioned drawing of Henry James is included in “Portraits in Charcoal”—looking not at all a failure, by the way—as are portraits of the poet William Butler Yeats, a twenty- three-year-old Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother), the actress Ethel Barrymore, and Winston Churchill—who, though somewhat put off by Sargent’s picture, thought one “must not look a gift portrait in the mouth.” A double self-portrait from 1902 opens the show, and it is the stiffest thing on display. Pictured as serious and somewhat cherubic, Sargent doesn’t do much more than skim the shallows of representation. Ormond needn’t remind us of the artist’s reticence while taking in the drawing; it’s there to scan. Virtuosity was wasted on self- portraiture—a point made abundantly clear by Lady Evelyn Charteris Vesey, Viscountess de Vesci (1910), a drawing placed in close vicinity to the Double Self-Portrait.

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John Singer Sargent, Double Self-Portrait (1902), graphite, 6-1/2 x 7-1/2″; Private Collection, Georgia

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Talk about a lack of reticence! Lady de Vesci is a woman to be reckoned with—elegant, to be sure, and possessed of an intellect as keen as it is unforgiving. We tread lightly lest we incur her displeasure. And so it goes: one drawing after another, wiped, smeared, and dabbed at until an uncanny sense of person-hood emerges from the gritty depths of the medium. Portrait commissions tend toward flattery, and Sargent wasn’t averse to confirming youth, beauty, status, and dignity when the occasion called for it. But portraiture, at its finest, discloses and elaborates upon the human spirit—its depths and sorrows, convictions and contradictions. The greatest portraits are put into motion with empathy, acuity, and, on the part of the artist anyway, necessary understatement. Whatever the backstory to the lives of Rabbi Charles Fleischer, Major Henry Lee Higginson, Eugenia Huici Errázuriz, or Ellen Peabody Endicott, you will know them in significant measure after encountering them through Sargent’s hands. Congratulations to all concerned at the Morgan. “Portraits in Charcoal” is an astonishing exhibition.

© 2019 Mario Naves

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

“Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory” at The Met Breuer

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Vija Celmins, Envelope (1964), oil on canvas, 16 x 19″; courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery and The Met Breuer

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What a curious painter Vija Celmins is, so vexing and dry. Two floors of the Met Breuer have been dedicated to an oeuvre spanning some fifty years and not a lot of acreage. The modest size of Celmins’s canvases will come as a surprise to audiences accustomed to the bigger-is-better ethos typical of contemporary art exhibitions. (A smattering of sculptures on display take on a larger scale.) “To Fix the Image in Memory” begins with Envelope (1964), a sixteen-by-nineteen-inch painting sequestered in the entryway to the museum’s fourth floor galleries. As we traverse the show, the work stays within easel-painting range; the largest picture measures about five feet square. The installation is spare and, I’m guessing, was a challenge to choreograph. Certainly, you’d be hard-pressed to recall a show that reinforces just how stark and clean and airless Marcel Breuer’s Seventy-fifth Street edifice is. Celmins’s paintings, drawings, and prints are notably at home in these environs. It’s worth pondering what it is that makes a fairly traditional talent simpatico with the proverbial white cube.

Celmins has long been a steadfast, if decidedly under-the-radar, art world fixture—initially on the West Coast and, later, in New York. Born in Riga in 1938, Celmins had an unsettled childhood. The Soviet invasion of Latvia in 1940 forced the Celmins family—mother and father, along with Vija and an older sister—to seek refuge in Nazi Germany. (“History,” as the artist later noted, “was brutal.”) Having been shuttled from one refugee camp to another, the Celminses came to the United States in 1948 under the auspices of the Church World Service, settling in Indiana. It was the first time, as Celmins told Calvin Tomkins in a New Yorker profile, “that I realized being in fear wasn’t normal.” Celmins attended the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis and found a welcoming niche within its student body. She attended Yale University during the summer of 1961, befriending future art scene mainstays Chuck Close and Brice Marden. Celmins eventually traveled west to study at UCLA. As with many artists of the time, she grappled with the legacy of the New York School even as she kept an eye on recent trends.

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Vija Celmins, Heater (1964), oil on canvas, 47 9/16 × 48″; courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery and The Met Breuer

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“To Fix the Image in Memory” begins promisingly with the aforementioned Envelope, a dexterously executed still life in which understatement vies with painterly sensuality. Comparisons to Morandi are not unwarranted. As we enter the exhibition proper, the focus shifts—not in terms of imagery or composition, but in affect. With two notable exceptions, the images are wan and virtually monochrome, tending toward gray; the painterly approach is detached, muffled. Single objects are set within fields of flattened sfumato. To-the-point titles tell all: Heater, Fan, Two Lamps, like that. Painted from observation, these pictures testify to Celmins’s goal of “get[ting] back to some kind of basic thing where I just look, and paint.” She was nothing if not dutiful in her ambitions. Too dutiful, really. Absent is any sense of discovery. An unforgiving literalism takes precedence. Hot Plate and Heater (both 1964), the coloristic exceptions mentioned above, emit heat with appropriate placements of reddish orange in the grills of each appliance. In both cases, it’s an effective pictorial fillip, but, in the end, devoid of imaginative reach. Magic? It’s not on the agenda.

Painting from observation didn’t last long or, rather, became circumscribed. Three dimensions were winnowed down to two: Celmins began using photographs as source material. Gun with Hand #1 and Gun with Hand #2 (both 1964) are predicated on pictures taken by the artist and depict a bare arm jutting in from the side of the canvas firing a revolver. The lone moment of painterly embellishment is the puff of smoke that gives the images an oddball quietude. TV (1964) and Train (1965), installed nearby, are similarly centered on time and movement having been stifled. What Celmins does to the photo, whether working in graphite or oils, is far from flashy. Photo-realism isn’t quite her métier. Celmins is less overtly crowd-pleasing—less superficial, too. Images of trucks, deserts, war planes, forest fires, and, in recent years, the cosmos evince a Magrittean sense of displacement and a frangibility that a charitable soul might describe as Chardin-esque. “Redescription” is Celmins’s preferred terminology for her use of photography. What might seem a semantic hedge against potential complaints about copying or imitation is, in point of fact, a marker of how an artist can generate poetry through deliberate technique and force of will. Celmins’s way with graphite, especially, is admirable in its subtlety and softness.

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Vija Celmins, Web 2 (2000), mezzotint, 18 x 14-3/4″; courtesy The Met Breuer

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Resistible, too. As poetry, Celmins’s work is distilled and dour—haiku devoid of evocation or resonance. Writing in the catalogue, Briony Fer, an art historian at University College London and a Fellow of the British Academy, cautions against allusions to poetry, preferring “conceptual abstraction” as a more suitable peg on which to hang Celmins’s “haptic, creaturely logic.” Well, maybe. Minimalism is more to the point, I think, and goes to the heart of the art’s metaphorical intractability. Celmins’s pictures of pictures hint at provocation and meditation; what they deliver are immaculate dead-ends. Even within the series of drawings devoted to waves and spider webs—the most evanescent of her subjects—an overriding sense of closure stunts engagement. “What you see is what you see,” indeed. Passive-aggressive is the signature M.O. of her generation, and Celmins partakes of its insolence. Abandoning Abstract Expressionism because “there was no meaning in it for me,” Celmins pursued an artistic strategy in which “no meaning” was both a jumping-off point and final destination. All of which goes some way in explaining the forbidding purity within which Celmins has barricaded herself, as well as the ready adaptability of her work to the Met Breuer.

© 2019 Mario Naves

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

Pratt in Venice 35th Anniversary

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I’m pleased to announce that two of my paintings will be displayed in the exhibition accompanying the 35th anniversary of the indispensable Pratt in Venice program. The opening reception takes place on Monday, October 21st, between 5:00-8:00 p.m. with celebratory remarks at 6:30 pm. The exhibition continues until November 1st.

The exhibition will be in Steuben Gallery on Pratt’s Brooklyn campus; the school is located at 200 Willoughby Avenue in Clinton Hill.

“Picasso and Antiquity: Line and Clay” The Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens, Greece

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Installation shot of “Picasso and Antiquity: Line and Clay”; courtesy The Museum of Cycladic Art

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“Picasso and Antiquity: Line and Clay” brings to mind a cartoon I came across ages ago in (if memory serves correctly) the pages of MAD magazine. It was a parody of the familiar image of Darwinian ascent, tracing, in this case, the evolution of art and artists. From left to right, we follow the step-by-step development, beginning with an ape wielding a brush to, a couple of figures over, a stately Leonardo-like figure holding a palette. Ultimately, we end up on a downhill slope to the original ape, albeit now wearing a beret and splattering paint, Pollock-style. An obvious joke, perhaps, yet like most jokes it contains a hard kernel of truth—about the development of artistic pursuit, say, or the illusory nature of progress. Might the wits at MAD have had Ecclesiastes in mind, placing broad strokes on the observation that there is nothing new under the sun? Certainly, there are immovable facts that refute historical circumstances. An ape wearing a beret? There are better emblems of human constancy. Worse, too.

The line traced by “Picasso and Antiquity” is less encyclopedic and less cynical. It is, in fact, as heartening an exhibition as one could hope for. Art, it insists, is a means by which human beings, however separated by time and culture, can uncover and sustain correspondences of feeling and ambition, vision and thought. “Universal values,” they used to be called, and without employing scare quotes as a crutch. In a culture as identity-riven and politically rebarbative as our own, such an effort might be derided as furthering the wiles of, um, the cisheteropatriarchy. (Yeah, it’s a thing.) Yet by placing works by the foremost innovator of twentieth-century art alongside objects that predate them—by, at times, a good three millennia—“Picasso and Antiquity” places its bets on art as an inclusive and transformative continuum, and wins. Kudos to Nikolaos C. Stampolidis, Director of the Museum of Cycladic Art, and the art historian Olivier Berggruen for assembling a show that posits history as a vital continuity, a resource in which aspiration and accomplishment are forever contemporary, forever relevant.

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Torso from a statue of the Minotaur/Roman copy of an Early Classical prototype, marble, height: 73 cm.; courtesy the National Archeological Museum, Athens, Greece

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Influence is a slippery thing, and not always easy to codify. Stampolidis admits as much, noting that the sundry examples of antiquity featured at the Cycladic Museum are objects the “artist might have . . . encountered, absorbed, digested, adjusted and transformed, or have been to a greater or lesser degree inspired by.” “Might” is the operative word. How versed was the Spaniard in the art and lore of Greece and Rome? The poet and critic Randall Jarrell described Picasso as an artist who “loves the world so much he wants to steal it and eat it.” Picasso was, in artistic terms, an omnivore of unceasing appetite. As a young painter in Paris, he haunted the Louvre’s Campana Collection with its myriad artifacts and sculptures. Recurring motifs in his oeuvre—fauns, minotaurs, and centaurs—testify to Picasso’s knowledge of myth. More specialized references pop up as well—to Silenus, for instance, the drunken semi-divinity who served as tutor to Dionysus. Berggruen suggests that relationships with Efstratios Eleftheriades (better known as Teriade) and Christian Zervos, publishers of Greek extraction and proselytizers for Greek culture, were pivotal in furthering the artist’s immersion in all things antique. Score a point for the home team.

“Picasso and Antiquity” is divided into sections with discrete themes, among them “Line and Light in Space,” “Lysistrata,” “Arcadia,” “The Three Graces,” and “The Minotaur.” The works are modest in scale and sometimes tiny; this is, very much, a jewel-box exhibition. The minotaur introduces the show—with a Roman copy, done in marble, based on an earlier Classical prototype—and rounds it off with a calyx krater, circa 340–300 B.C., in which we see a red-figure diorama of Theseus wrestling and besting the fearsome man-bull. As a curatorial gambit, this is risky. The former piece is a powerhouse of sinew and verisimilitude; the latter a supernal exercise in concision and contour. In between, there are artifacts depicting Aphrodite, Dionysiac revels, sacred fish (the tilapia), powerful animals (the bull), and birds—rendered in clay, silver, bronze, and marble. Any artist worth his salt would be rendered skittish by the majesty—or, in the case of the priapic slapstick seen on the Black Figure Kabirian skyphos (ca. fifth century B.C.), arrant ribaldry—inherent in even the least of these pieces. After my initial run-through of the show, Picasso came off as small potatoes, an overinflated ego out of its depth. Upon subsequent visits, the ego gained muscle and credibility. Talent will out and, as it happens, so can irreverence.

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Pablo Picasso, Silenus in the company of dancers (1933), gouache and ink on paper, 34 x 45 cm.; courtesy the Staatliche Museen Berlin, Nationalgalerie Museum Berggruen

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Irreverence and, it should be noted, generosity of spirit. Rarely has Picasso—that monster! that villain!—been so likable. Was a degree of modesty elicited by the source material—that is to say, the competition? Or is this amiability a factor of curatorial choice— abjuring painting and sculpture for ceramics and drawing? The latter two media encouraged a greater degree of informality and play for Picasso than did painting or sculpture. As a draftsman, he is seen at his most mercurial and, at moments, meticulous: Silenus in the company of dancers (1933) and Lysistrata (Reconciliation Between Sparta and Athens) (1934) are tours-de-force, respectively, of narrative density and lyrical momentum. Ceramics have always seemed the least necessary of Picasso’s various mediums, but it did encourage his sense of humor. At the Cycladic Museum, Picasso the ceramicist is an unexpected head-turner, simultaneously confirming and transforming the spiritual heft and stylistic élan of his forebears. In some cases, it’s hard to tell who did what without a scorecard; the commonalities of form and vision are uncanny. A cabinet dedicated to the owl— helpmeet to Athena and, as such, a symbol of erudition—is a delight. As goofy as Picasso’s owls may be, they tap into the iconographic power embodied within the antique bowls and figurines placed nearby. Such juxtapositions are exciting, revealing, and often very funny. “Picasso and Antiquity” is an achievement of rare and welcome distinction.

© 2019 Mario Naves

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

First Hand: Pablo Picasso

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Pablo Picasso, Silenus in the Company of Dancers (1933), gouache and India ink on paper, courtesy of the Staatliche Muzeen zu Berlin, Germany, and the Cycladic Museum, Athens, Greece

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The central figure in this Dionysian reverie–he of the ample-bellied contraposto and oddly distant stare–is Silenus, tutor to Dionysus himself. Something of a dirty old man, definitely a drunkard, and a seer, Silenus was a salacious semi-divinity tailor-made for a man of Picasso’s inclinations. It’s Silenus you’ll want to thank for yoking the lyrical side of the Spaniard’s (not always generous) sense of humor.

My thoughts on “Picasso & Antiquity”, in which Silenus in the Company of Dancers serves as both culmination and aperçu, will appear in an upcoming edition of The New Criterion.

© 2019 Mario Naves