Category Archives: Drawing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 Mario Naves

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

Again, with the Rabbits

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I’m pleased to announce that a painting of mine has been included in Sideshow Gallery’s annual floor-to-ceiling extravaganza. The exhibition is up until the end of February.

“Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing” at The Studio Museum in Harlem

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Trenton Doyle Hancock, . . . And Then It All Came Back To Me (2011), mixed media on paper, 9″ x 8″; courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

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Philip Guston has a lot to answer for—that is, if an artist is to be held responsible for the influence his work has on subsequent generations. After establishing himself as a Social Realist by way of de Chirico, Guston gained success for abstractions, at once tender and tenacious, that combined Monet and Mondrian with nary a seam. It was, however, the late-style turnaround, and the hubbub initially surrounding it, that made Guston an art world touchstone—what with those lumpish, cartoon-like images of disembodied limbs, cyclopean heads, bottles of booze, and the KKK. That the pictures were hard-won and powered by a profound respect for tradition—Masaccio and Giotto were heroes—has been a lesson lost on (or ignored by) many of his followers. Remember the brief but influential vogue for “Bad Painting” in the 1980s? Guston was its primary avatar. Any painter indulging in gimpy figuration, sloppy brushwork, and unconsidered compositions cited him as inspiration. There are better legacies for an artist.

“Few artists, save Philip Guston,” I wrote in my notebook upon entering “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing,”“have dedicated themselves as emphatically to the color pink as TDH.” A pink wave has, in fact, been painted along the bottom of the wall lining the Studio Museum’s sizable main gallery, and pink punctuates Hancock’s works-on-paper, which are largely black-and-white, with notable regularity. His work features a motley cast of cartoonish grotesques, not least a tuberous and swollen self-portrait, and points to an interest in the more outré precincts of contemporary comics. A glancing knowledge of Hieronymus Bosch is evident as well. All of this would be enough to assume that Hancock might count himself a Guston fan. Confirmation came with Step and Screw, a series of thirty drawings in which the Hancock doppelgänger has a slapstick encounter with Guston’s monolithic Klansmen; it also lists details of Guston’s life directly on the surfaces. Need more proof? The following sentiment can be gleaned from an installation of one-off drawings nearby: “Like Guston but blacker and worse.”

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Trenton Doyle Hancock, Faster (2006), acrylic and mixed media on paper; courtesy the artist and Zang Collection, London

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Given the fuzzy standards by which mainstream art abides, Hancock’s scribbled mot shouldn’t be mistaken for self-criticism. Self-aggrandizement is more like it, and who’s to say that’s a bad thing? Chutzpah is an integral component of an artist’s creative DNA. The notion that, yes, the world needs yet another thing to contemplate takes some moxie. But chutzpah unredeemed by aesthetic weight—that elusive mix of gravitas and play, mystery and mastery—isn’t enough. Hancock’s brio and initiative are self-evident, but is the work as undeniable and true as that of Guston or Bosch? “A visit to [Hancock’s] studio,” Bill Arning, the Director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, writes in the catalogue, “reminds us of an earlier ethos in which artists were supposed to be visionaries, rather than businessmen.” Hancock’s world—an over-the-top mythos devoted to gluttony, scatology and, less so, sex—qualifies as a “vision,” absolutely. But is it a vision the rest of us are inclined, let alone invited, to participate in?

“Skin and Bones” features halting drawings of Torpedoboy, a superhero dreamed up by a ten-year old Hancock, absurdist comic strips done not too many years later, and a suite of drawings based on photographs of missing children appropriated from milk cartons—a nod to the outsider artist Henry Darger, whose pedophiliac fantasies are another Hancock influence. A sense of stylistic trajectory, then, is provided, but doesn’t altogether illuminate the mature work. Of course, “mature” is used advisedly here. A pivotal component of the Hancockian gestalt is an unapologetic embrace of adolescence. Dutiful attention paid to bodily functions (vomiting is a leit-motif); post-apocalyptic scenarios and sentiments (“We done all we could/And none of it’s good); and a touch that is grubby, insistent, and taken with gross minutiae make Hancock’s work, as a friend observed, “boy’s art.” “Mini-revolutions” of the self, to use Hancock’s own terminology, are paramount. Given its excessive nature and narrow purview, Hancock’s work, particularly when he’s mixing media, is more diverting seen on a piecemeal basis. A body can stand only so much arrant ickiness.

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Installation of “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing”; courtesy The Studio Museum in Harlem

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Perhaps if the exhibition were guided by a more discerning curatorial hand, we’d be inclined to cut Hancock’s fantasies some slack. As it is, “Skin and Bones” will likely be off-putting for those not familiar with the installation aesthetic and run-of-the-mill for those who are. There’s a lot of stuff all over the place at the Studio Museum. Myriad and not always related pieces do battle with ersatz graffiti (and each other) in a higgledy-piggledy bid for attention. There’s the aforementioned pink wave, as well as a hasty wall decoration that clashes with the myriad works displayed upon it, discarded objects scrawled with urinating superheroes, and words, words, words—scrawled on the drawings, traversing the walls, everywhere. Verbiage, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, is the last refuge of an unconvinced draftsman. Hancock’s stream of written patter can be traced to a foundation in cartoons, but for a stylist as individual as this one, an abundance of cryptic literary flourishes is enough to make one think that he harbors some doubts about the visual efficacy of his art. Whether Hancock has, artistically speaking, too much or not enough meat on his skin and bones is an argument worth considering. Would that the work itself waylaid such mooting.

© 2015 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the June 2015 edition of The New Criterion.

“Intricate Expanse” @ Lesley Heller Workspace

Intricate Expanse

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I’m pleased to announce “Intricate Expanse”, an exhibition I’ve curated for Lesley Heller Workspace.

“Intricate Expanse” features the work of six artists, each of whom creates encompassing compositions without sacrificing a distinct sense of their constituent parts.

Steve Currie, Laura Dodson, Karl Hartman, Tine Lundsfryd, Sangram Majumdar and Maritta Tapanainen don’t miss the proverbial forest for the trees, but embrace both simultaneously–to sometimes tenacious, often ruminative and, at odd moments, comic effect.

The notion of “expanse”, for these artists, includes the physical parameters of pictorial and sculptural space, as well as the sweep of imagery contained within them. “Intricacy” is embodied both through touch and vision, by attention paid to the particularities of surface and process, and the metaphorical allusions that are consequently set into motion.

The resulting pieces unfold and disperse even as they are punctuated by a consistent sense of focus.

The exhibition opens on Sunday, March 15, from 6:00-8:00 p.m. I hope you’re able to stop by.

“Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

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Peter Blume, Vegetable Dinner (1927), oil on canvas, 25-1/4 x 30-1/4″; courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

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There is no place better suited to pondering the attractions and limitations of eccentricity than Philadelphia—at least, during this past fall and into the new year. The city hosted three retrospectives of painters whose oeuvres generate interest less through a command of the medium than through a strident emphasis on (or indulgence in) idiosyncrasy. The Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania mounted “Dear Nemesis; Nicole Eisenman, 1993–2013,” while the venerable Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts presented “David Lynch: The Unified Field” and “Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis.” While each artist can claim a degree of material proficiency, the true litmus test for oddballs is visionary authenticity. Eisenman’s jaded symbolism rarely transcends hipster pastiche, while Lynch’s true métier is film: not one of his mixed-media grotesqueries has the queasy magnetism of Blue Velvet. Blume, however, is a different creature altogether. Even the blandest picture seen in “Nature and Metamorphosis” exposes Eisenman and Lynch as pikers. Blume (1906–92) was the real thing.

Those with a memory that extends beyond the day-glo verities of Pop Art may recall the name Peter Blume and, if so, perhaps dismissively. He’s typically lumped with the Magic Realists, a cadre of mid-twentieth-century painters who pursued Surrealist-inspired imagery with a sobriety that was distinctly American and employed technical finesse that was too fussy by half. They were steamrollered by Abstract Expressionism, of course. Compared to the cinema-scope heroics of the New York School, Paul Cadmus, Jared French, George Tooker, Pavel Tchelitchew, and Blume looked positively retrograde, what with their Renaissance-like rectitude, unembarrassed deployment of narrative, and dreamy portent. But that was before the advent of Post–Modernism. The subsequent loosening of hierarchies did much to cheapen culture, but it also plucked out of obscurity a host of artists—a handful of them deserving of acquaintance. Walking through the Blume retrospective, I couldn’t help but be relieved that I wasn’t suffering the umpteenth iteration of the received wisdom. At moments, relief was transformed into pleasure. “Nature and Metamorphosis” is, in many ways, an unforgettable exhibition.

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Peter Blume, The Eternal City (1937), oil on composition board, 34″ x 47-7/8″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Not least because Blume’s pictures can be spectacularly awful. Could even the forgiving embrace of the camp aesthetic welcome Man of Sorrows (1951)? Blume renders a signal moment from the New Testament as if it were a Warner Brothers cartoon, with the requisite exaggerations in form, rhythm, and color; that the image is delineated with finicky expertise makes it all the more brittle. Fobbing off as kitsch Man of Sorrows or, for that matter, Blume’s hallucinatory farmland panoramas from the 1960s doesn’t do justice to their over-the-top vulgarity. Still, if art can’t be redeemed by the artist’s convictions, it can derive power from them, and, whatever else one might say about Blume’s oeuvre, there isn’t a false moment in it. Over the course of fifty-six paintings, some of them real showpieces, and over a hundred drawings, “Nature and Metamorphosis” makes clear the pull of one artist’s preoccupations, and underlines the deliberation and skill with which they were realized. The exhibition is, in pacing and focus, a model of its kind. Credit Robert Cozzolino, the PAFA Senior Curator and Curator of Modern Art, for making a strong case for a quizzical artist.

Born Piotr Sorek-Sabel, Blume immigrated to the United States from Belarus on the initiative of his father who sought to avoid imprisonment for participating in the anti-Czarist revolution of 1905–07. Growing up in the East New York section of Brooklyn, Blume evinced an early interest in art. He studied painting and drawing at the Educational Alliance and the Art Students League, where he struck up a friendship with his fellow student Alexander Calder. By 1924, Blume had rented a studio on 13th Street in Manhattan and became part-and-parcel of the New York scene, encountering an A-list of entrepreneurs, artists, and poets including Alfred Stieglitz, Charles Demuth, Hart Crane, Marcel Duchamp, Buckminster Fuller, Malcolm Cowley, and Constantin Brancusi. Blume met with success—Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Alfred H. Barr Jr. were early supporters—as well as controversy. The Eternal City (1937), Blume’s allegorical take on fascism in which Benito Mussolini is pictured as a jack-in-the-box, was castigated for reasons both pictorial and thematic. For every comment on its artistic shortcomings (“plastically dumb”) there was an accusation of political pandering. The Eternal City was eventually acquired by MOMA after having been rejected for display by the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Peter Blume, The Italian Straw Hat (1952), oil on canvas, 22-1/4 x 30-3/8″; courtesy The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

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At this date, The Eternal City comes off as so much obscurantist moralism. The same goes for The Rock (1945–48) and Tasso’s Oak (1957–60), rickety parables both. Like a lot of fabulists, Blume was better off keeping things simple. Early pieces like Hyacinth (1925), Pig’s Feet and Vinegar (1927), and Vegetable Dinner (1927) assume a dry pictorial clarity that underplays the uncanny to hypnotic effect. Surrealism comes to the fore in kaleidoscopic dreamscapes like Parade (1929–30) and South of Scranton (1930–31), and eventually succumbs to an increasingly fetishistic attention to detail. All the while, Blume’s drawings take in the Old Masters and Automatism, Brueghel and Bosch no less than Masson and Miró, to impressively contradictory effect. He never took his eye off the natural world—the diminutive Study for Summer (1964) could be mistaken for a Rembrandt sketch—even as the works in oil become increasingly unnatural. The finest of the later paintings is The Italian Straw Hat (1952), a tensely rendered depiction of a room in the artist’s house, which includes, among other things, the title object, a sewing basket, and a Calder mobile. Even the aforementioned paeans to country life are arresting, that is if you can stomach their overripe theatricality, slick facture, and lurid coloration. Scratching one’s head may not be the highest form of aesthetic response, but it’s exactly what “Nature and Metamorphosis” elicits and, in the end, that’s enough to make it a diverting and significant exhibition.

© 2015 Mario Naves

This article was originally published in the February 2015 edition of The New Criterion.

Circle The Wagons!!!

Sideshow Exhibition

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If there’s any exhibition whose title warrants three exclamation points it’s the annual extravaganza at Brooklyn’s Sideshow Gallery. A recent painting of mine will be included amongst the hundreds of artworks festooning the walls of this venerable Williamsburg institution.  Hope to see you there.

© 2015 Mario Naves

 

The More The Merrier

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The Cultured and Huddled Masses at Sideshow Gallery

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I’m pleased to announce that a painting of mine will be included in Sideshow Nation II; At The Alamo, Rich Timperio’s annual extravaganza at Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg.

The opening will, if history tells us anything, be swamped with art-lovers of all stripes.

This time around the opening takes place on Saturday, January 4th, from 6:00-9:00 p.m. The exhibition runs until March 3rd. Additional information can be found here.

Masterful Shortcomings: The Art of Ken Price

Met PriceInstallation view of Ken Price Sculpture; A Retrospective; photo by Suzanne DeChillo and courtesy The New York Times

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The following reviews originally appeared, respectively, in the March 10, 2010 edition of City Arts and the November 29, 2004 edition of The New York Observer. They are posted here on the occasion of Ken Price Sculpture; A Retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (until September 22, 2013) and Ken Price: Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Works on Paper 1962-2010 at The Drawing Center (until August 18, 2013).

Animism has never been Ken Price’s strength. The ability to endow inert material with the stuff of life has eluded the veteran ceramicist to the frustration of those of us admiring of his streamlined variations on biomorphic abstraction. The sculptures are, admittedly, fetching: Who could resist those precisely calibrated gestures, fluid contours and breathtakingly abraded surfaces? Would that these virtues encouraged adoration, but Price’s unremitting elegance tamps down our enthusiasm and any vitality the work itself might embody. You get the feeling that life is altogether too base and vulgar to suit Price’s artistic program.

Well, maybe vulgarity suits him. That Price has embraced turds and orifices as inspiration isn’t revelatory or revolutionary—Surrealist scatology has a long and relatively noble tradition. Severity of formal purpose, probably gleaned from Minimalism, imbues Price’s work with no-nonsense principle. Add a distillation of shape that takes off from Hans Arp and stops just short of being cute, and you have an artist who skirts overt ickiness.

Which doesn’t mean that Price doesn’t have it in him: Eeezo is genuinely repulsive. A fleshy swaddling of upright tubers punctuated by a gaping maw, Eeezo generates clammy élan through its pearlescent veneer, pimply surface and milky pallor. The work is something between ghastly, garish and tacky, which, for this artist, is some kind of achievement.

Eeezo has wisely been segregated from the rest of the work; its brute presence would only distract from Price’s usual run of stylish blips and blobs. Unfortunately, three sizable sculptures—Lying Around, Simple-istic and Percival—are displayed front-and-center. There’s no compelling aesthetic reason for their bigness unless price tag counts; this tabletop intimist has yet to get a handle on a larger scale. It’s enough to make you love Price’s more masterful shortcomings.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Ken Price Drawings

Drawings by Ken Price; courtesy Art Fag City

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If you’re familiar with the ceramic sculptures of Ken Price–those overrefined glosses on the tradition of biomorphic form–you’ll want to check out his drawings at Matthew Marks’ shoebox gallery on 21st Street. They’re not recommended, mind you, just odd: They depict erupting volcanoes, lightning, the ocean, and blobby, aquatic-like creatures in the company of buxom young women–not-so-distant cousins of Gauguin’s Tahitian nudes.

The pictures are reminiscent of underground comics, the animated film Fantastic Planet, and the fervent imaginings that line the margins of a high-school student’s notebook. Rendered in a flat-footed, psychedelic style, they pay little attention to the niceties of line or shape. (Color fares a mite better.) The drawings aren’t studies for sculptures; they tell us less about Mr. Price’s art than Mr. Price the artist. It turns out he’s a guy given to rather pedestrian daydreams. Mr. Marks felt that was reason enough to mount an exhibition–depending on your frame of mind, you might grant that he has a point.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Unbending Conviction: Bill Traylor and William Edmondson

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Bill Traylor, Untitled (ca. 1939-1942), poster paint, crayon and pencil on cardboard; courtesy The High Museum of Art

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This following article originally appeared in the June 13, 2005 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of the exhibitions Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and Traylor in Motion: Wonders from New York Collections, both of which are on display at the American Folk Art Museum (June 11-September 22, 2013).

Sometimes the surest marker of artistic worth is the flow of traffic. Standing on the mezzanine landing of the Studio Museum in Harlem, overlooking the ground-floor gallery, I was struck by the decisiveness of its visitors. One glance at the exhibition featured downstairs, Chris Ofili: Afro Muses 1995-2005, and–hup!–straight to the staircase and up they went.

How many of the gallerygoers remembered Mr. Ofili as the pornography-recycling, elephant-dung-wielding, Rudolph Giuliani–enraging artist of Sensation fame is anyone’s guess. One thing that’s certain is that the majority of them chose not to waste their time with his art. In bypassing 100-some-odd of Mr. Ofili’s “treasured archetypes”–watercolor portraits notable only for their haplessness–visitors to the Studio Museum voted with their feet. In doing so, they exhibited considerable aesthetic acumen. Afro Muses? Afro-kitsch is more like it.

Traylor 1Bill Traylor, Untitled (1939-1942), poster paint, pencil and colored pencil on cardboard; courtesy The High Museum of Art

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In marked contrast to the sprinting occasioned by Mr. Ofili, Bill Traylor, William Edmondson and the Modernist Impulse, the exhibition seen on the museum’s mezzanine, encourages and sustains deliberation. Little wonder: Bill Traylor (1854-1949) and William Edmondson (1874-1951) are among the most significant exemplars of American folk art. The two men–one born a slave, the other the son of slaves–epitomize the attribute we have come to value most in “outsiders”: vision propelled by unbending conviction.

Edmondson, for instance, had no say in taking up sculpture: God told him to get busy. Given the stolid gravity of his limestone carvings, you can believe it.

Traylor has, in recent years, emerged as a favorite among connoisseurs of folk art. His silhouetted depictions of men in top hats, pointing women and animals of all stripes are delights of pictorial economy. He had an impeccable gift for placement: Hieratic figures, structures and designs occupy the page with an almost balletic lilt. Narrative is winnowed to a potent minimum. A stylish woman moves her arms in an accusatory manner, heaping frustration upon a one-legged man slumped on his crutches. A reptilian creature is trapped at the bottom of the page, its expression unnervingly self-aware, as if it realized that extinction was its fate. These are startlingly evocative images, urgent and whimsical.

EdmondsonWilliam Edmondson, Bess and Joe (c. 1930s), limestone; courtesy the Cheekwood Museum of Art

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Having said that, the narrowness of Traylor’s art–and it’s prudent to remember that we shouldn’t expect breadth of vision from a folk artist–becomes all the more pronounced when placed side by side with Edmondson’s sculptures. It’s not that they aren’t narrow, but Edmondson’s narrowness feels deeper, more rounded. Certainly, his simplified, monolithic figures resonate, due not least to their good humor and the close attention paid to the foibles of humankind. In one work, Edmondson bestows (or maybe burdens) Eve with a hilariously oversized fig leaf. Elsewhere, an angel glares with admonishment, two doves nuzzle lovingly, and a crucified Jesus gestures forgivingly. Edmondson wasn’t a master of his materials–limestone never quite yields to his touch; he did the best he could with it–but the sense of contained malleability typical of the work is no mean accomplishment.

What this all has to do with a “modernist impulse.” as stated in the title of the exhibition, is unclear. Could it be an implicit argument that Traylor and Edmondson be ushered into the company of, say, Constantin Brancusi and Elie Nadelman as equals among modernists? Lowery Stokes Sims, the executive director of the Studio Museum, intimated as much in writing about Edmondson’s work that “the distinctions between self-taught and mainstream artists [are]… specious.” If that’s the case, the argument could’ve been framed in a more up-front and provocative manner. If you’re going to strong-arm art into being an adjunct of politics, then for God’s sake, don’t be namby-pamby about it. Still and all, that plaint is easily ignored: Modernist impulse or not, this is a charmer of a show.

© 2005 Mario Naves

“Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Watercolors, and Prints from the Albertina” at The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Durer #1Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait (1484), silverpoint, 10-3/4″ x 7-1/2″; courtesy Albertina Museum, Vienna and The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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Say this for the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528): he was not lacking in self-esteem. A painter, draftsman, and printmaker of preternatural skills, Dürer depicted himself, at the wizened age of twenty-eight, as Jesus Christ or, at the very least, in the tradition of devotional images. The allusion in Self-Portrait (1500), a cornerstone of the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, is unmistakable even as the intent of the picture remains elusive. That Dürer nevertheless risked the comparison speaks to an unapologetic and, as history has proved, well-earned chutzpah. Visitors to Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Watercolors, and Prints from the Albertina get a handle on the artist’s gift right off the bat. The exhibition begins with Self-Portrait at Thirteen (1484), a delicate, if at moments awkwardly delineated, silverpoint drawing. It’s paired with a self-portrait, heavier in patina and considerably less animated, by Albrecht Dürer the Elder. Was this an attempt by the father to best young Albrecht or, perhaps, comprehend the son’s gift? Whatever the case, the curatorial point is obvious: Dürer was a phenomenon.

Is a phenomenon, if the response of the crowds attending the show is any indication. Huddling around the works, viewers can’t look closely enough at the images—because of their small size, sure, but mostly because of Dürer’s huge talent. Ensconced, as it is, in the East Wing, the section of the museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art, the exhibition may (as a friend suggested) prompt doubts about the progress of art: Sixteenth-century Northern Europeans had the meticulous intensity of Dürer; we have to settle for the decorative flourishes of Ellsworth Kelly, the subject of a concurrent exhibition at The National Gallery. An apples and oranges comparison, perhaps, and any museum-goer seeking proof of art’s forward march will inevitably be frustrated. But if Dürer the man is history, then Dürer the artist is forever our contemporary, a figure whose virtuosity—at once both clinical and deeply intimate—withstands anything so mundane as time passing.

Durer #2Albrecht Dürer, Agnes Dürer as Saint Ann (1519), brush and gray, black and white ink on grayish prepared paper; black background applied at a later date (?),  15-1/2″ x 11-1’/2″; courtesy the Albertina Museum, Vienna and The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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The exhibition features close to one hundred-and-twenty pieces, a smattering of which belong to the National Gallery, but most are culled from Vienna’s Albertina Museum, among the world’s great repositories of works-on-paper. The Albertina has a comprehensive collection of Dürer drawings, watercolors, and prints thanks to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, whose enthusiasm for the artist was boundless: He was not above wielding political influence to acquire Dürers. Rudolf’s collection includes Dürer images whose purchase on the imagination extends well beyond the parameters of the art world. Certainly that’s the case with Praying Hands (1508), an ink-and-gouache drawing of understated elegance and uncanny specificity, and The Great Piece of Turf (1503), a watercolor whose botanical accuracy doesn’t preclude a fairy tale–like ambiance. Even cursory students of world art will recognize Adam and Eve (1904), an engraving seen in a range of proofs, and Agnes Dürer as Saint Anne (1519), wherein the title figure is imbued with a sense of resignation distinctly absent from the oil painting for which it was a study.

Arranged chronologically, Albrecht Dürer follows the young artist as he tussles with precedent (Mantegna was a touchstone), investigates human anatomy, and indulges in an occasional reverie—a pen-and-ink portrait of his wife, Mein Agnes (1494), is haiku-like in its tenderness and informality. Myths and biblical tales are endowed with steely grandeur, and the earthly—a bridge in Nuremburg, a woman dressed for a dance, a squirrel, a friend from Antwerp—is delineated with tight-lipped appreciation. All the while, Dürer’s line—wiry and tactile, at times all but ineffable—gains in authority. Among the most arresting works are those done on paper toned a dusky blue, green, or gray. Working with ink and white gouache, Dürer creates images that seem to coalesce from the ether, even as he paradoxically endows them with unnerving dimensionality. The pieces are ghost-like in character, fleeting and evanescent, but unmistakably there. The ability to simultaneously pay homage to the tangible and the otherworldly goes some way in explaining the iconographic power of Praying Hands. Rarely has faith been embodied with such pith and poetry.

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Albrecht Dürer, Head of an Apostle Looking Up (1508), brush and gray ink, gray wash; heightened with white on blue prepared paper, 20-3/4″ x 18-3/8″; courtesy Albertina Museum, Vienna and The National Gallery of Art Washington, D.C.

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Dürer the rationalist is on view as well. His diagrammatic breakdowns of the figure recall Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man (ca. 1490) in their insistence on establishing a logical means by which the human anatomy could be formulated. But Dürer was more than an immaculate technician. Any draftsman beholden to what-meets-the-eye realizes fairly quickly that nature’s variety humbles any attempt to codify it. However much Dürer may have been entranced by scientific fact, he was also an engaged sensualist. True, the eroticism informing his ample nudes or, for that matter, filtering through his drapery studies is severe in nature. Dürer isn’t Rubens. But whether his burin was weaving an undulating tapestry of cross-contour lines, or his pen nib was skittering across the page in the attempt to capture a rare encounter with a lion, or his chalk was delineating the contemplative features of an African met in Venice, Dürer brought to the subject at hand a fullness of sensation, of experience both tempered and enlivened by reason. Albrecht Dürer is both one of those exhibitions that can change a life and, as such, a gift.

© 2013 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the June 2013 edition of The New Criterion.