Category Archives: Painting

Open Studios 2018 @ The Clemente

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I will be participating in Open Studios at The Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The event takes place on the evenings of Thursday, May 17th, and Friday, May 18th.

The hours are 6:00-9:00 p.m. on both nights. Open Studios is free to the public.

​Please click here for more information.

I hope to see you there!

“Leon Golub: Raw Nerve” at The Met Breuer, New York

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Leon Golub, Giantomachy II (1966), acrylic on linen, 9′ 11-1/2″ x 24′ 10-1/2″; courtesy of The Met Breuer; Gift of The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts and Stephen, Philip, and Paul Golub, 2016

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Say this for the brutalist environs of The Met Breuer: its limitations encourage curatorial rigor. When you’re stuck with a shoebox, expansiveness isn’t an option, particularly when the works on display are encompassing in size. Take “Leon Golub: Raw Nerve.” The canvas greeting viewers as they enter the exhibition, Gigantomachy II (1966), is typical, measuring close to ten by twenty-five feet. As a consequence, Kelly Baum, the Met’s Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Curator of Contemporary Art, couldn’t indulge the scope of the artist’s achievement or memory. (Golub died in 2004 at the age of eighty-two.) Choices had to be made. As a retrospective, then, “Raw Nerve” is sharply circumscribed: a rat-a-tat-tat overview rather than a scholarly accounting. Not ideal, you might think, but Golub’s work benefits from the approach. Once he hit his stride, Golub didn’t evolve much as a painter. A career-making turn to political content in the 1970s added density and context, but not nuance or variety. Golub’s art was forever astringent in its pictorial strategies and relentless in its vitriol. His work would be poorer without either, but how much righteous hammering can a body stand?

Numbness is never an enlightening aesthetic response, and, as the exhibition’s title insinuates, Golub insisted on its opposite. “The nightmare of history” was his subject, and the canvases are embodiments of “how power is demonstrated through the body and in human actions, and in our time, how power and stress and political and industrial powers are shown.” The body came before the nightmare or, to be precise, the figure before ideology. Golub never trafficked in abstraction. For an artist coming of age during the heyday of The New York School, this marked him as an outlier, not least geographically. A native of Chicago—he studied at the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute— Golub was keenly aware of his hometown’s second city status. Chicago was, in fact, host to a number of painters and sculptors dedicated to an idiosyncratic brand of figuration, including the “Monster Roster”: an informal group that included Golub, his wife Nancy Spero, Seymour Rosofsky, H. C. Westermann, and June Leaf. For inspiration, they looked to artists whose work fell outside the AbEx orbit: Jean Dubuffet, Georges Rouault, Max Beckmann, and the local fixture Ivan Albright.

Golub_2.jpgLeon Golub in the 1950s; courtesy The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts

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Golub was a prickly member of the opposition; vocal, too. He had little patience for the grand claims made about Abstract Expressionism. Writing in 1954, Golub averred that “the creative act is a moral commitment transcending any formalistic disengagement.” Which isn’t to say that Golub rejected everything “formalistic” about The New York School—an argument could be made that he effectively gleaned its brute use of materials and sweeping scale. Golub’s first mature works—cobbled amalgamations of body parts—looked to antiquity and pre-Columbian art for impetus: the former for its majesty; the latter because of its abrupt distillations of form and unyielding frontality. Golub steeped himself in history, making sojourns to Italy in the mid-1950s and later Paris, where he lived from 1959 to 1964. By then a signature manner of working had been arrived at: imagery pitched to a towering scale; terse juxtapositions of figure and ground; and surfaces that were scabby, tenuous, and abraded. Golub’s compositions owe much of their grit to having been repeatedly scraped down with, of all things, a meat cleaver. Not for nothing do his paintings recall the dried skins of animals.

This latter association became more pronounced when Golub began displaying the paintings on unstretched canvases punctured with grommets and hung from hooks. This move added considerably to the work’s potency. For Golub, stretcher bars were too conventional, too polite; a degree of material aggression was required. When the art became political—roughly congruent with his return to the United States in the mid-1960s—Golub’s vision became more specific in focus. Haggard universalism gave way to exegesis on the abuses of political power, inequities in justice, war and its calamities, and, most disturbingly, the tension-filled interstices that can accrue between race and sex. Granted, few of Golub’s paintings fail to underline the moral limitations of mankind. (And I do mean mankind; Golub’s ire was aimed primarily at his own gender.) Still, paintings like Horsing Around IV (1983), with its drunken white protagonist groping at an African-American woman, and Two Black Women and a White Man (1986) are infused with queasy ambiguity—they put into question just how much our own preconceptions might skew the image. Absent a clear-cut target of approbation, these pictures get beyond rage, arriving at places more unsettling.

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Leon Golub, Two Black Women and a White Man (1986), acrylic on linen, 120 x 85″; courtesy The Met Breuer

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Still, the work is unsettling enough, and it’s to Golub’s credit as a painter that the pieces earn their ugliness. The grating play of complementaries in Horsing Around amplifies its synthesis of threat and sexuality. The grubby pinks and yellows in The Conversation (1990), a disjointed composition that is both an avowal of radicalism and an indictment of it, underline its caustic ironies. As Golub aged, he was less physically capable of distressing the surfaces of his paintings. He consequently engineered a manner of working that created a similar sense of wear-and-tear: the meat cleaver was supplanted by a dry brush. Paintings like All Bets Are Off (1994) and Bite Your Tongue (2001) are characterized by expanses of raw linen and washes of paint applied with knowing theatricality. Backtracking from the topical, late Golub opted for doom-laden patchworks of skulls, tattoo designs, propaganda (“Loyalty/ Discipline/ Renewal”), and dogs, all of which are grounded in brushy swipes of black. As compositions, the late paintings are adroit in their making and pat in their symbolism; as elegies, they all but come off as admissions of defeat. Given how thoroughly Golub explored and excoriated the thuggish depths to which the human animal could descend, it’s a wonder he was able to keep at it for as long, and as convincingly, as he did. “Raw Nerve” is testament to one man’s indomitable rage, as well as to its limitations.

© 2018 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the May issue of The New Criterion.

Catalogue Essay Accompanying “Half Human”, a group exhibition at The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center

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Installation shot of “Half Human”, featuring works by (from left to right) Stephanie Hightower, Pat Lay, Laura Dodson and Artemis Alcalay; photo courtesy Nikos Seferiadis

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Few questions are as persistent—or frustrating—than those surrounding the meaning of what it is, exactly, to be human. Given the run of opinions and theories over the span of history, the human has proven a subject prone to perpetual re-definition. Philosophers, politicians and religious leaders have attempted to interpret human nature and, in more than a few cases, codify it–sometimes for salutary purposes, sometimes not. If anything is constant about the “human”, it is inherent unpredictability, a slipperiness of need and ambition.

As we continue into the twenty-first century, how is the world we helped to shape shaping us? Every artist–at least, any artist worth her salt–works in response to the surrounding culture, if in ways that are closer to osmosis than reportage. Historical context doesn’t determine aesthetic worth, but it would be foolhardy to deny its influence. There is no escaping our self-awareness as a species. The artists featured in “Half Human” elaborate upon this predicament in ways that reaffirm its primacy.

The sculptures and assemblages of Pat Lay make a point of how technology is transforming the collective body and mind: her totemic visages combine the mechanical and the iconic, suggesting a dystopia that is less futuristic than we might like to admit. Diyan Achjadi’s works-on-paper, in contrast, encompass the natural world: her kaleidoscopic amalgams of East, West and cultures yet to be imagined offer stages in which myth and magic are allowed a fierce independence.

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Diyan Achjadi, Sinking (2018), gouache, ink and graphite on cut Kozuke paper, approximately 60 x 42″; courtesy the artist

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The art of Maria de los Angeles transforms biography–in this case, that of a child born to Mexican immigrants–into a rambunctious brand of agit-prop that takes significant (and surprising) forays into fashion. De Los Angeles looks to German Expressionism for inspiration, as does Marsha Gold Gayer, whose drawings are as nuanced as they are mordant. Working from the live model, Gayer uncovers a discomfiting eroticism within her taxonomies of likeness, body-type and mark-making.

The body–or, rather, its limitations–figures prominently in the photographs and assemblages of Artemis Alcalay. Disassociation is her leitmotif, and Alcalay divines an almost counterintuitive tenacity of spirit within weathered textures and starkly configured compositions. Divination of a different sort marks the photographic tableaux of Laura Dodson, in which the malleability of memory is elaborated upon with ghostly specificity. In Dodson’s art, narrative structures arise from the promiscuous convergence of the documentary and the invented.

The puzzle-like compositions of Stephanie Hightower–schematic overlays of iconographs and panoramic vistas–are rebuses that promise no ready answer. Hightower’s paintings underscore the nature of this exhibition’s thesis, suggesting that an integral component of the human is its ability to not only brook contradiction, but to welcome it. In this way, “Half Human” posits an optimism without which we are not human at all.

© 2017 Mario Naves

The online catalogue for “Half Human” can be found here.

“Half Human” @ The Clemente

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Marsha Gold Gayer, Philip’s Head and Feet (2010), charcoal and pastel on paper, 11-1/2 x 9″

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I’m pleased to announce “Half Human”, a group exhibition I’ve curated for The Clemente Soto Velez and Cultural and Education Center on The Lower East Side of Manhattan.

“Few questions have proved as persistent—or as frustrating—than those that surround the meaning of what it is, exactly, to be human,” I write in the essay included in the accompanying online catalogue. The artists featured in “Half Human”–Diyan Achjadi, Laura Dodson, Pat Lay, Maria de los Angeles, Artemis Alcalay, Marsha Gold Gayer and Stephanie Hightower–elaborate upon this predicament in ways that reaffirm its primacy.

The opening reception takes place on Saturday, March 3rd, from 6:00-8:00 p.m. The exhibition continues until April 6th.

“Laura Owens” at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

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Installation of “Laura Owens” at The Whitney Museum of American Art; Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

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Wandering through “Laura Owens,” I couldn’t help but wonder when The Whitney (or MOMA) (or The New Museum) (or name the venue) will be mounting a retrospective of paintings by James Havard. Should the name not ring a bell, perhaps the art movement of which Havard is an exemplar will: Abstract Illusionism. Should that strike a similarly muffled note, consider the floating brushstroke—a thick slur of paint, typically rendered in acrylic, with a cast shadow airbrushed below it. During the mid-1970s, Abstract Illusionism—a showy amalgam of The New York School, Pop Art, commercial illustration, and trompe-l’oeil painting—was, if not the rage, then notable enough to elicit its fair share of adherents and collectors. The style isn’t without its gratifications—an attraction to novelty seems to be woven into our DNA—but there’s a reason Abstract Illusionism has a slim purchase on popular memory: contrivance and trickery don’t tend to have legs. Illusionism may be an integral component of the art of painting, but when it’s put forth as style—denatured, slick, and wholly self-referential—it can make for vacuous going.

How familiar Laura Owens (b. 1970) is with Abstract Illusionism, I don’t know. She must be: the correspondences between her work and that of Havard are uncanny. The most consistent motif in Owens’s oeuvre is, after all, the floating brushstroke—endowed, at this historical juncture, with a glossy sheen redolent of digital technology. Impastoed patches of oil paint hover over the surfaces of the pictures; “under,” too—Owens enjoys trading in now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t perceptual games. How the accompanying shadows are painted is a mystery. In the age of Photoshop, do people still use airbrushes? In terms of media or genre, Owens is up for anything. No methodology or style, whether high tech or old school, is out of bounds. Threading needle through canvas and color correcting on the computer; imagining Morris Louis by way of Damien Hirst; advertising intimacy while embracing anonymity; flouting idiosyncrasy and poaching upon the industrial; positing superficiality as abundance—it’s all good. “I really believe,” Owens stated in a recent interview, “that art can do things that other things don’t do.” So how come “Laura Owens” is marked by a fizzy air of desperation?

Owens’s art doesn’t usher in an era of meaninglessness; it serves as blissful confirmation. Postmodernism, having undergone an ignoble passing, has nonetheless left an indelible mark on culture. Descriptors like “kitsch” and “pastiche” don’t signify for a generation weaned on value-free nostrums. Over-intellectualization in the cause of self does. In the exhibition catalogue—an immaculately designed production that aspires to being slapdash—we encounter a 1994 notebook in which Owens lists “things my paintings mean to me.” Coming in at numbers 1 and 2 are “Fuck Everyone!” Dismiss this as pro forma juvenilia if you’d like, but, in the end, isn’t Owens’s mot the operating theory behind Postmodernism and its forebear Conceptual Art—that is to say, a distinct turn away from engaging with an audience to the me-me-me imperatives of The Artist? Reading on, we learn of Owens’s goal to create “nothing whole/nothing completely convinced” and of a “short attention span & my self consciousness towards mark making.” Credit goes where dubious credit is due: Owens has fulfilled these ambitions. At the Whitney, ADHD has been transformed from a quantifiable medical disorder into guilt-free entertainment.

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Detail of Laura Owens, Untitled, 2014. Ink, silkscreen ink, vinyl paint, acrylic, oil, pastel, paper, wood, solvent transfers, stickers, handmade paper, thread, board, and glue on linen and polyester, five parts: 138 1/8 x 106 ½ x 2 5/8 in. (350.8 x 270.5 x 6.7 cm) overall. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from Jonathan Sobel  2014.281a-e. © Laura Owens

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Owens puts one in mind of Robert Rauschenberg. Like Rauschenberg, albeit with less bonhomie or grit, Owens is a work-horse with a “can do” attitude, an omnivorous temperament for whom no medium is off limits and collaboration is a token of democratic goodwill. The materials that go into a single Owens piece can be dizzying. An untitled work from 2014—seemingly based on a Hallmark card— was made with ink, silkscreen ink, vinyl paint, acrylic, pastel, paper, wood, solvent transfers, stickers, handmade paper, thread, board, and glue-on-linen—done in five parts, no less! Overall, Owens’s paintings skew large—a typical canvas measures around six by eight feet. When the work isn’t large, it’s copious in amount. An untitled suite of canvases, each measuring twenty-four inches square, numbers in the nineties, although only fifty-four are on view. These smaller works either line the upper reaches of the gallery or are cordoned off in a darkened passageway. (Actually seeing the paintings is, apparently, beside the point.) The entirety of the eighth floor contains an installation of five huge, freestanding paintings. Set apart at intervals of several yards, these pictures—done on “powder-coated aluminum strainers”—feature, on one side, oversized reproductions of a handwritten story by Owens’s son, Henry; on the other, silk-screened marks and notations, oversized again.

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Installation of “Sunlight arrives only at its proper hour”, 2017; courtesy 356 Mission Road

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Stand at a specific angle in the gallery and you’ll see how the disparate panels align into an M. C. Escher–like orchestration of thwarted perspectives. Elsewhere, Owens mixes and matches cartoonish paintings of beehives with bedroom sets designed by Jorge Pardo, and welcomes the assistance of sundry technicians and craftsmen, not least the carpenters who custom made the benches at the Whitney—each of which serves as a repository for the exhibition catalogue. The most newsworthy of Owens’s partnerships is 356 Mission Road, a community art center in Glendale, California. A joint venture with her dealer Gavin Brown and Wendy Yao, a friend and bookseller, 356 Mission Road has been the subject of criticism by the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement, a community-activist group “born from the complex specificities of Los Angeles.” This free-form coalition has accused Owens of aiding and abetting the gentrification of the surrounding working-class neighborhood. In a statement, Owens responded to the group’s protests with deliberation and evident sensitivity. Which may be the only time the artist has, albeit under a cloud of bad PR, acknowledged an audience—any audience—in a constructive manner. At the Whitney, in distinct contrast, out-reach isn’t in the mix—unless, that is, one derives satisfaction in the pretensions of official culture indulged in at their most willful, overweening, and gratuitous.

© 2018 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the January 2018 edition of The New Criterion.

“Mario Naves: Long Island City” @ Elizabeth Harris Gallery in Chelsea

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Mario Naves, Synapse (2016-17), acrylic on panel, 12 x 12″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery, NY, NY

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I’m pleased to announce “Long Island City”, an exhibition of recent paintings at Elizabeth Harris Gallery–my seventh solo show at this venue! The opening reception is on Saturday, January 6th, from 3:00-6:00 p.m. the exhibition runs until February 10th. More information can be found here.

Also, two paintings of mine will be included in “Surface and Substance”, a group show curated by Hester Simpson at The Painting Center. The opening takes place on Thursday, January 11th, from 6:00-8:00 p.m.; the exhibition itself continues until January 27th.

© 2017 Mario Naves

Artist’s Talk @ Five Myles

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Installation of “Bete Noire” at Five Myles

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I’m pleased to announce that I will be moderating an artist’s panel to be held in conjunction with “Bete Noire“, the group show currently on display at Five Myles, the exhibition and performance space located in Crown Heights.

The event will be held on Sunday, December 17th at 4:00 p.m. Directions on how to get to Five Myles can be found here. Please bear in mind that there may be service changes in subway service during the weekend.

Please join us for what promises to be a lively conversation!

Catalogue essay accompanying “Bête Noire”, a group exhibition at Five Myles

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Nancy Grimes, Custody (2017), oil on linen, 16 x 32″; courtesy the artist

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When asked to participate in an exhibition centered on the theme of “bête noire”, not a few of the invited artists scratched their heads and furrowed their brows. At least, that seemed to be the gist of their responses.

A French literary trope connoting a person or object that is intensely disagreeable and to be strenuously avoided? What right-minded person would want to be lumped under that rubric? The emphasis of the phrase, however, is as much on degree as substance: intensity and strenuousness figure prominently. There are plenty of things that are irksome, but few of them call to us with something like passion. That damned thing won’t let me go and I insist on holding onto it. That’s the rub of bête noire and why it persists as a vital bit of phrase-making. This vexing quality pervades the work of the artists featured in “Bête Noire”; animates it, too.

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Natasha Hesketh, Portrait of What Is Not Being Said (2016), acrylic on paper, 24 x 18″; courtesy the artist

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How these paintings, photographs and sculptures embody the notion of “bête noire” is as idiosyncratic as the visions informing them. Contradictions are abundant. The digitally manipulated dreamscapes of Laura Dodson mull the intransigence of memory and, along with it, the disappointments of nostalgia. The piecemeal and seemingly dehumanizing nature of contemporary relationships are deftly negotiated in the works-on-paper of Natasha Hesketh. Thomas Nozkowski’s off-kilter abstractions embody sharply felt if distinctly occluded encapsulations of lived experience. David Hornung’s ramshackle iconography–at once, homespun and hieratic–serves as a conduit for a dry and whimsical poetry. Matthew Blackwell and his revolving band of cartoonish grotesques are less given to reverie than a frantic and sometimes enraged form of slapstick.

Comedy filters through the work of more than a few of these artists. A mordant wit can be divined in the vases of Elisa D’Arrigo–gnarled vessels that admit to a balletically contrived pathos. Nancy Cohen’s hobbled amalgamations of biomorphic form and utilitarian purpose are charged with tender irony. Industrial means endow Fara’h Salehi’s sculptures of insect life with a streamlined efficiency that doesn’t waylay biological specificity. Specificity is also Loren Munk’s domain, albeit transferred to the art world, in which the ebb-and-flow of history is inventoried with unyielding diligence and chromatic punch.

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Nancy Cohen, Two-Step (2015), glass, metal, rubber, wire and handmade paper, 22 x 22 x 10″; courtesy the artist

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Other images are moody and mysterious, indicative of nothing so much as the limits of understanding. Stephanie Hightower’s paintings create an enigmatic patience game from diagrammatical overlays of topographical shapes, silhouettes, and fleeting allusions to history. Lee Tribe’s totemic effigies, whether rendered in steel or charcoal, evince a temperament alternately driven by the heroic and the haunting. The myriad and often unsettling complications of family are rendered with luminous clarity in the tableaux of Nancy Grimes.

A laundry list of artists only goes so far in elaborating the overriding theme of a given exhibition. The true test comes with how the works themselves engender and underline surprising commonalities, unbridgeable peculiarities, and nagging attractions. The juxtapositions set out in “Bête Noire” are multivalent, not a little irksome, stubbornly put forth, and undeniable in their integrity. The puzzlement is yours for the taking.

© 2017 Mario Naves

 

 

 

“Bête Noire” curated by Mario Naves @ Five Myles

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Invitation artwork: David Hornung, A View of Monuments (2017), matte acrylic and oil, 40 x 40: courtesy the artist

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I’m pleased to announce “Bête Noire”, a group exhibition I’ve curated for Five Myles, an exhibition and performance space located in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

“There are plenty of things that are irksome,” I write in the essay accompanying the exhibition, “but few of them call to us with something like passion. That damned thing won’t let me go and I insist on holding onto it. That’s the rub of bête noire and why it persists as a vital bit of phrase-making. This vexing quality pervades the work of the artists featured in “Bête Noire”; animates it, too.”

You can read the entire essay in the online catalogue accompanying the show.

The reception will take place on Saturday, November 11th, between 5:00-8:00 p.m.

The exhibition will run until December 17th. For information please check the Five Myles website.

“Richard Gerstl” at The Neue Galerie

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Richard Gerstl, Self-Portrait, Laughing (1907), oil on canvas; courtesy Belvedere, Vienna

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It’s going to happen, trust me: Gerstl: The Movie. How could it not? Within a few minutes of walking into “Richard Gerstl,” museum-goers—at least, those who read the wall labels—could be heard tut-tutting over the artist’s short and scandalous life. Though Gerstl’s reputation doesn’t extend much beyond his native Austria, the biographical particulars are universal in prurient appeal. Imagine: a precocious talent comes of age in a milieu charged with innovation, a society in which cultural, political, and moral norms have been called into question. Genius abounds, as does love between parties which are otherwise involved. Mix in psychological instability, illicit sex, marital abandonment, broken hearts, and an early death, and you’ve got the makings of a great story. A tragic life shouldn’t be trivialized, but Gerstl’s tale is remarkable not only for its drama, but for the significant figures it touches upon, notably the composer Arnold Schoenberg. Then there are the paintings. If the oeuvre is slim for the cruelest of reasons—Gerstl, who was born in 1883, died by his own hand at age twenty-five—it is marked by moments of thrilling lucidity. “Richard Gerstl” is a superb exhibition.

For those of us who have had our curiosity piqued by Portrait of a Man (Green Background) (1908), a painting regularly on display at Neue Galerie, or the stray Gerstl canvas seen here and there, “Richard Gerstl” is a welcome event. Curated by Jill Lloyd, a specialist in Expressionist art, and organized in conjunction with the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, this is the first Gerstl retrospective mounted in the United States. It includes about half of ninety extant pictures, and provides a solid, if frustrating, overview. Whether due to the unavailability of certain pieces or because of space limitations at Neue Galerie, “Richard Gerstl” is skimpier than one would like. (The catalogue provides a more thorough accounting.) Gerstl’s trajectory should be familiar territory to anyone conversant with how an ambitious artist might pursue “entirely new paths” at the turn of the twentieth century. After establishing himself as an adept practitioner of academic painting, Gerstl discovered, and was energized by, a handful of artists out to buck the status quo. How directly familiar he was with Edvard Munch or the Swiss symbolist Ferdinand Hodler is unknown, but the aesthetic turf they shared is clear. More certain is the influence of Vincent van Gogh and Edouard Vuillard, particularly in how each painter animated the pictorial surface with lessons gleaned from Pointillism.

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Richard Gerstl, Self-Portrait (1908), oil on canvas; courtesy Leopold Museum/Neue Galerie

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As a means of providing context, The Neue Galerie juxtaposes Gerstl’s pictures with those of fellow countrymen Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka, as well as the American William Clarke Rice. The latter is included for his portrait of the twenty-four- year-old Gerst, whom Rice met while on holiday in Austria. Portrait of Richard Gerstl (1907) captures a sharp and lively intelligence, and serves as a counterpoint, as well as a corrective, to Gerstl’s self-portraits, of which there are many. Chalk it up to youthful arrogance or the limitations of Expressionism, but Gerstl’s self-portraits can be a bit much. The earliest is Semi-Nude Self-Portrait (1902–04), wherein the lanky painter, partially draped in a white robe, surrounds himself with divine light. In the last self-portrait, from 1908, religious portent is jettisoned, as well as any remaining clothing, for an unseemly mediation on the flesh. In between Gerstl relishes his good looks, radiates moody introspection, immerses himself in a flurry of minty blue, and embodies madness in Self-Portrait Laughing (1907), an over-the-top image that makes Van Gogh seem like Winnie the Pooh. All are marked by heady self-infatuation and, at crucial moments, self-loathing. If these are the pictures of an unapologetic narcissist, they also favor painting over pure expression. As unsavory as we might find Gerstl as a type, his love of oil paint is patent. Gerstl’s bravura is never unearned.

Born in Vienna to wealthy parents, Gerstl showed artistic promise early on, eventually going on to study at the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts. (He preceded another Academy pupil, Egon Schiele, by eight years.) During the summer of 1900, Gerstl attended the Nagybanya artist’s colony, where the Hungarian painter Simon Hollosy introduced him to Impressionism. A taste of radical art soured Gerstl on the conservatism advocated at the Academy, and he quit his studies—not once, but twice. Gerstl bristled easily, and didn’t suffer authority figures gladly or to his benefit: Gerstl refused an opportunity to show at the vanguardist Galerie Miethke when he discovered that the proposed exhibition would also include Klimt, whom Gerstl dismissed as a “society operator.” In 1906, Schoenberg hired Gerstl to provide private lessons in painting, and the young artist was subsequently welcomed into the “Schoenberg Circle,” an exclusive and close-knit company of musicians, composers, and historians. Gerstl grew closest to Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde—too close. Their relationship proved disastrous. The abortive affair resulted in Gerstl’s expulsion from a nurturing social environment and prompted his messy suicide. Hanging wasn’t enough for Gerstl; stabbing was involved, as was the burning of papers and artwork. A posthumous declaration of insanity, requested by the Gerstl family, allowed for a Christian burial.

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Richard Gerstl, The Schönberg Family (1908), oil on canvas; courtesy Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien/Gift of the Kamm Family, Zug 1969

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It’s not entirely coincidental that the two strongest paintings in “Richard Gerstl”— masterpieces, out-and-out—center on the Schoenberg family. Wax as one might about the expressive possibilities of paint, words fall short in describing the coarse, hyperbolic power of The Schoenberg Family and Half-Portrait of Mathilde Schoenberg (both 1908). At the time, these pictures must have seemed reckless bordering on inchoate; today, they are no less shocking. In the group portrait, Gerstl conjures up Arnold, Mathilde, and their children Trudi and Gorgi, with a lava-like slathering of acidic yellows, sharp greens, and a deceivingly placid pink. Gerstl’s portrayal of his inamorata is wilder and weirder, going in-and-out of focus with keening, off-kilter rhythms, and pitiless attention paid to likeness. Neither painting is devoid of humor; both are harsh and hypnotic. Pity Schoenberg, the amateur dauber: the pictures of his included at Neue Galerie barely register as trifles compared to Gerstl’s furied images. Then again, the attendant pictures by Klimt, Schiele, and Kokoschka come off as pretty mild as well. Six years—that’s all the time Gerstl allowed himself to pursue his art. Does a place in history serve as recompense for a life of confusion and pain? “Richard Gerstl” provides a riveting opportunity to mull that sad and sobering question.

© 2017 Mario Naves

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