Category Archives: Drawing

“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

Curiosity Prevails . . . in Woodstock

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

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

Read more here.

“Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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Installation view of “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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Among the many remarkable things about “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” is the goodwill it has generated. Has there recently been an exhibition of art quite as popular with both the culturati and the public at large? Notwithstanding a few curmudgeons grumbling at the sidelines, “Paintings for the Future” is an out-and-out winner. Forget the huzzahs in the press; consider the visitors trawling up the Guggenheim’s ramp. They’re markedly enraptured, taking in the byways of one artist’s vision. You can’t help but eavesdrop as museum-goers chat about the intricacies of af Klint’s hieratic compositions and occluded symbolism. That “Paintings for the Future” features an unheralded figure who devoted the majority of her life to abstraction makes the show’s appeal somewhat unexpected. No art stars here, thank you, and though abstraction has a long and storied history, it’s a mode of working still widely held in suspicion. What is it about af Klint (1862–1944)—a Swedish modernist who has only recently gained international attention—that is goosing our collective pleasure center?

Kudos to Tracey Bashkoff, the Director of Collections and Senior Curator, along with the Curatorial Assistant David Horowitz, for mounting a show that patiently lays out an often hermetic artistic output, capturing its momentum and elaborating on its logic. Certainly, these two know how to wow an audience. The opening gambit is impressive: nine towering canvases, each measuring around ten by eight feet, overpower the first gallery up the museum’s ramp. Each picture is a candy-colored array of diagrammatic glyphs flexible enough in their allusions to encompass nature and mathematics, the astronomical, the cellular, and the sexual. The pictures are inventories, bumptious and random, of shape, line, and stray bits of verbiage. A clouded pedantry can be discerned: af Klint’s pictographs recall the discrete cataloging of items typical of nineteenth-century botanical illustrations. Their loop-the-loop iconography also brings to mind the later, geometrically inclined imagery of the pioneering abstract painter, Vasily Kandinsky. Actually, make that one of the pioneers. “Paintings for the Future” makes a case for af Klint as the first abstract painter (she began working non-representationally a good half decade before Kandinsky) and, as such, deserving of a prominent berth within the Modernist canon.

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Hilma af Klint in her studio at Hamngatan 5, circa 1895; photo courtesy of Hilma af Klint Archive

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Af Klint was the fourth of five children born to Victor af Klint, an instructor at the Military Academy Karlberg, and Mathilda Sontag, an immigrant from Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority. She went on to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, earning not only honors upon graduation, but also studio space provided by the school. The latter privilege gives an indication of the esteem in which af Klint was held by the faculty and administration. Their authority paled, however, next to that of Amaliel, Ananda, Clemens, Esther, Georg, and Gregor, otherworldly powers known as The High Masters. Though af Klint participated in seances as a teenager, she didn’t become an acolyte of spiritualism until her late twenties, joining the Swedish branch of the Theosophical Society and the similarly inclined Edelweissförbundet. Along with a cadre of like-minded friends, af Klint founded “The Five” in 1896—a group given to Biblical interpretation, meditation, phrenology, and communing with the dead. At one such communion, Georg and Ananda told of a temple to be built at a distant point in the future, a temple in need of paintings for its interior. Which of “The Five” would receive the commission? A message came from the ether; af Klint got the nod. In 1906, she began working on The Paintings of the Temple—among them, the spectacular pictures mentioned above.

Scoff all you want at the hocus-pocus informing af Klint’s life and work. Woozy theorizing needn’t lead to woozy results. It’s worth recalling that the Guggenheim began as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, an institution that had spiritualist aims at its foundation. Mondrian and Kandinsky took their cues from Madame Blavatsky, the pan-cultural guru of Theosophist doctrine, though, ultimately, they hewed to the strictures of the studio and the integrity of their artforms. Af Klint had integrity as well. Those weary of the cynicism engendered by the contemporary scene can’t help but root for a figure who stipulated that her work not be exhibited until twenty years after her death. No marketing, branding, or hype for af Klint; the work would find its time when the time was right. An art of endurance, introspection, and foresight—can you imagine such a thing? Af Klint’s work has since been filtering its way into the world, making its presence felt and gathering an enthusiastic following. The connection between af Klint and audiences here in the twenty-first century should not be lightly dismissed. Nor should it be accepted uncritically.

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Hilma af Klint, Group IX/SUW, The Swan, No. 9 (Grupp IX/SUW, Svanen, nr 9) (1915), oil on canvas, 149.5 × 149 cm. The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm. Photo: Albin Dahlström, The Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

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A smattering of early representational work is included at the Guggenheim, including portraits done in charcoal, crayon, and graphite; a light-filled landscape done in oils; and Ketty, an irresistible portrait of a dog rendered in lush and filmy blacks. It is after this skillful prelude that “Paintings for the Future” stumbles into the supernatural. Pictorial niceties are forsaken, if not entirely jettisoned, for a symbolism so byzantine it’s difficult to navigate without crib notes. That af Klint’s radiating mandalas, pyramidal forms, and geometric rebuses catch the eye speaks to an abiding knack for design and decoration. But these are the efforts of a visionary, not a painter. Color is subjugated to the emblematic, brushwork is pro forma, light is non-existent, and, with the stunning exception of Group IX/SUW, the Swan, No. 9, and, maybe, No. 22 and No. 23 from the same series (all 1915), elasticity of space is cursorily set into motion, if attended to at all. A painter friend described the Guggenheim show as “amateur hour”—an overly harsh assessment, I think, but not wholly inapt. Credit af Klint as the first abstract artist, and grant that “Paintings for the Future” highlights an intriguing alleyway of twentieth-century art. In the end, however, af Klint’s quizzical achievement only goes to confirm that originality has its limits, and that quality will win out.

© 2019 Mario Naves

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

“On The Street: Works by Carol Diamond” @ The Painting Center

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Carol Diamond, Tilt Turn (2018), digital photo, pastel, charcoal and archival paper, 22 x 30″; courtesy the artist and The Painting Center

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The following essay accompanies an exhibition of Carol Diamond’s work at The Painting Center (January 29-February 23).

Artists are sponges, absorbing the world around them and doing so in ways that are often mystifying and sometimes contradictory. The recent work of Carol Diamond is a case in point. Those familiar with the paintings and drawings of the veteran New York artist might be taken aback by the surfaces of the new pieces. They are, after all, abundant with stuff.

Not just paint and charcoal, but detritus gleaned from the streets of her hometown: shards of glass, flattened soda cans, concrete chunks and other castaway oddments of everyday life. The addition of these objects into Diamond’s distinctive iconography–a heady admixture of Piranesian recesses, Mannerist rhythms and Neoplasticist rigor–has rendered her surfaces peculiarly abrupt and not a little aggressive. Pictorial coherence, when not called into question, is now complicated in ways that are curious, off-center and compelling.

Evocative, too. Diamond’s art might have its basis in Modernism, but it’s worth noting that she once worked as a restorer of antiquities. History as a hands-on endeavor is part-and-parcel of her aesthetic. The work functions as a kind of archaeology even as one realizes that the civilization being unearthed is our own. A quizzical feat, that: digging through time in order to divulge the here-and-now. That Diamond endows this venture with a lyricism that in no way undercuts its grit or tenacity speaks to a vision welcoming of paradox. Powered by it as well: her’s is an art to puzzle over and take pleasure in.

© 2019 Mario Naves

“M.C. Escher: Infinite Dimensions” at The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere (1935), lithograph, 12-1/2 x 8-1/2″; courtesy The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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Is it permissible, at this late date, to prefer the art of Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898–1972) to that of Salvador Dalí or René Magritte, his contemporaries in chronology if not historical standing? At the entrance to “M. C. Escher: Infinite Dimensions,” a wall label tells us that, during his lifetime, the Dutch draftsman and printmaker was “underappreciated by much of the mainstream art world.” As a student, I distinctly remember one of my instructors pooh-poohing Escher, waving his hands and wiggling his fingers to suggest otherworldly hokum. Clearly, here was an artist to be held at a distance. Escher’s mass popularity, an easy mark for the cultivated few, didn’t help. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts makes a point of how Escher is esteemed by “mathematicians, crystallographers, and psychologists,” as well as “experts in fields that range from design to aerospace.” Everybody, that is, except artists. Encomiums to Escher accompany the work on display. Among those extolling his virtues are chefs, poets, astronauts, scientists, communications strategists, and musicians both classical (the cellist Yo-Yo Ma) and not (the proto-punk Ian Hunter). “From dorm-room posters to book jackets,” Escher’s art “has delighted millions of people around the world.”

If the logjam of pedestrians throughout “Infinite Dimensions” is an indication, visitors to the MFA are taking delight as well. For Ronni Baer, the William and Ann Elfers Senior Curator of Paintings, Art of Europe, Escher was a harder sell. She’s a recent convert, if a seemingly recalcitrant one. In an interview with the local public radio affiliate, Baer ad- mitted she once “disdained” Escher, but now she finds that his pictorial obsessions evince “signs of a real artist.” Signs are one thing, achievement another, and it’s worth mulling how much name recognition was a factor in mounting the show. A lot, I would think, though Escher’s notoriety is of a different sort than that of Takashi Murakami, who is the subject of “Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics; A Collaboration with Nobuo

Tsuji and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” a concurrent exhibition at the MFA. Escher achieved gradual renown through the canny deployment of puzzle-like fantasies, Murakami by exploiting an arts establishment that considers the lowest common denominator a badge of courage. Sometimes art is audience-driven; at other times it drives the audience. Not all popular artists are created equal.

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M.C. Escher, Reptiles (1943), lithograph, 13 x 15-1/4″; courtesy The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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In our post-Warholian age, celebrity isn’t the bugaboo it once was, but it’s worth pondering if Escher’s renown distinguishes itself by being—how does one put it, exactly?— commonsensical. In a 2015 interview, Mickey Piller, the former curator of Escher in Het Paleis, a museum located in The Hague, pointed to an insular art world as one factor determining Escher’s appeal. Compared to errant splatters of paint, mute blocks of steel and concrete, and heady admixtures of this, that, and the other thing, who wouldn’t prefer immaculately limned dreamscapes in which the eye is not only entertained and perplexed, but acknowledged? Escher’s work “seemed simple and easy to understand.” The days of dismissing Escher as middle-brow entertainment—the province of stoners, video-game enthusiasts, and science nerds—are on the wane. Blame a value-free culture, if you like, but also credit the march of time, which provides the distance to approach certain artists with a sobriety that may not have been forthcoming during their lifetimes. Yesterday’s snobbery might well be concealing today’s addition to the canon.

Born in Leeuwarden, a city in the north of Holland, Escher was the fifth son of a well-to-do civil engineer. A sickly youth, “Mauk”—Escher’s family nickname—proved an iffy student, excelling only at mathematics. He eventually attended the School for Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem, where an abortive go at architecture led to more fruitful studies in the decorative arts. Notwithstanding the discernible influence of his teacher, the graphic artist Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, Escher didn’t blossom as an artist until he traveled through Italy and Spain in 1922. A trip to the Alhambra, with its Moorish architecture and elaborate tile work, proved decisive. Escher settled in Rome for thirteen years, leaving only when Mussolini’s rule made itself felt on the most apolitical of men. A return to the Alhambra—“the richest source of inspiration I have ever tapped”—intensified Escher’s self-described “mania” for tessellated patterning. The interlocking back and forth of pictorial space defined the work from there on out, albeit cast with a dour Symbolism that is nothing if not northern European in temper. (Think Dürer and Bosch; Van Eyck and Klee.) In the 1950s, Escher became a favorite of mathematicians, who gleaned a kindred spirit within the exacting incongruities that gave structure to the imagery. The work’s trippy elasticity found a new group of admirers in the generation formed by the mind-expanding excesses of the 1960s.

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M.C. Escher, Order and Chaos (1950), lithograph, 11 x 11″; courtesy The Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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Escher, in other words, became hip. Mick Jagger sought his talents for a Rolling Stones album cover. Stanley Kubrick asked Escher to help design a “fourth dimensional film,” presumably 2001: A Space Odyssey. Escher demurred on both counts, finding, perhaps, that the pull of his topsy-turvy world proved absorbing enough. Since then, images like Relativity (1953), with its Piranesi-like play of perspective, and the self-generating conundrum that is Drawing Hands (1948) have seeped into the common culture. What’s surprising about “Infinite Dimensions” is how familiarity breeds not contempt but the freedom to focus on aspects other than Escher’s clever machinations of image and space. His touch, especially in the lithographs, rewards close attention. Rarely has a crayon been manipulated with such tender diligence. Yes, tender: the surfaces of Contrast (Order and Chaos) (1950) and the warp-and-weft illusionism of Hand with a Reflecting Sphere (1935) have an underplayed sensuality that offers recompense for the hermetic nature of Escher’s work. Who knows? Perhaps Escher will be adopted by the art world as an outsider—a loner ineluctably caught in a web of his own distractions. Stranger things have happened. In the meantime, “Infinite Dimensions” is a welcome exception to the run-of-the-mill iterations of our oh-so-tired and increasingly politicized status quo.

This review was originally published in the April 2018 edition of The New Criterion.

© 2018 Mario Naves