Category Archives: Painting

“John Mendelsohn: Dark Color Wheel Paintings” at David Richard Gallery, New York

John Mendelsohn, Dark Color Wheel 12 (2022), acrylic on canvas, 40 x 27″; Courtesy of David Richard Gallery

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“A gentle strain of irony filters through the pictures. A dab hand at color, John Mendelsohn proves peculiarly adept at black and white–tones that aren’t found on the color wheel.”

The full review can be found at White Hot Magazine of Contemporary Art.

“Murillo: From Heaven to Earth” at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Four Figures on a Step (c. 1655-60), oil on canvas, 43-1/4 x 56-1/2″; courtesy the Kimbell Art Museum

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Murillo: From Heaven to Earth, an exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, is, at its core, a cunning display of institutional braggadocio. How much better to amplify a mainstay of the permanent collection — that would be “Four Figures on a Step” (c. 1658-60) — than to mount a show dedicated to the artist responsible for it?

“Four Figures on a Step” is, if not Murillo’s masterpiece, then a distinctive painting all the same. It is distinctive because it is odd: though attempts have been made to peg the image as some-or-other lesson in morals, the canvas has consistently resisted explication. The title, a bland descriptor superimposed by an outside source, points up how the picture’s thematic basis remains firmly contained within its own peculiar logic.

What is there to see? Three figures situated on a ledge that runs parallel to the bottom of the canvas. On the left is a grinning boy who’s not quite a guttersnipe, but neither is he respectable; his demeanor is suggestive and aggressive. To the right is an older woman, seated, with heavy, black-rimmed glasses and a furrowed brow. She’s cradling the head of a small child, another boy, whose crumpled body is lying with his back to the viewer and whose buttocks are exposed because of a rip in his pants. A young woman, positioned a mere step back, is pulling a face. A sarcastic moll, this last character — and an associate, it would seem, of the ragamuffin.

“Four Figures on a Step” has the hallmarks of a genre painting, but not the context. The environment in which our protagonists are situated is devoid of specificity — an amorphous darkened space. Such a setting is typical of portraiture from the Spanish Baroque, and, for that matter, the starkly orchestrated still-life paintings of Francisco de Zurbarán, an older contemporary of Murillo’s. Still, the Kimbell picture is an outlier, being a composition with a decidedly theatrical tenor. Its actors acknowledge and, in fact, inveigle the viewer. What do these people want from us, particularly given the implied harm perpetuated on its most vulnerable player? Post-modernists pride themselves on their self-reflexiveness, but Murillo was “meta” before it was cool. “Four Figures on a Step” is a case study in impregnable signifiers. The painting is a flagrantly contrived provocation.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Two Women at a Window (c. 1655-1660), oil on canvas, 49-1/4 x 41-1/8″; courtesy The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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“Two Women at a Window” (c. 1655-60) hangs adjacent to “Four Figures on a Step,” and comes as a relief, if only because it seems clearer in its implications. Here, again, Murillo depicts characters who directly address the spectator. As in “Four Figures on a Step,” they are life-size and situated within an architectural setting that aligns to the boundaries of the canvas. A younger woman leans on a windowsill and smiles at us in a beguiling, if somewhat cagey, manner. An older woman stands directly behind, tittering into her white headdress. We’re being asked to participate in a situation whose parameters are unsettled.

The rest of Murillo’s oeuvre has its share of quiddities, but “Four Figures on a Step” and “Two Women at a Window” are the most intently off-topic and, not coincidentally, most likely to appeal to contemporary tastes. The exhibition is, in fact, a feint to secularism. Murillo is broadly known as a painter of religious subjects, having achieved considerable renown for his devotional imagery; not least the Immaculate Conception, a subject he depicted several times over. Though the show does include Christian iconography, the primary emphasis is on the worldly and the mundane. Oh, and dogs. Given their abundance as bit-players, From Heaven to Earth establishes Murillo as a keen observer of man’s best friend.

From Heaven to Earth was organized by Guillaume Kientz, former curator of European art at the Kimbell and now Director and CEO of the Hispanic Society Museum and Library in New York City. Writing in the catalogue, Kientz locates Murillo’s “moral compass” within “the religion, politics and the economic situation of the city.” That city would be Seville, the artist’s hometown and lifelong base of operations. Born in 1617, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was orphaned at age ten, and placed under the care of an older sister. (He died in 1662.) Not long after, Murillo entered the workshop of his uncle Juan del Castillo, a painter of some renown whom the young painter soon outshone in talent and reputation. Murillo’s first successfully completed commission — eleven canvases for a Seville convent — put him on the map. Not bad for an artist just shy of thirty years old.

How familiar was Murillo with the work of King Philip’s court painter, Diego Velázquez? Sources vary as to whether Murillo traveled to the Spanish capital. Kientz mentions a 1658 trip to Madrid during which it is suggested that Murillo saw canvases by Titian, Rubens and his fellow Spaniard. Whatever the case, it’s difficult not to think of Velázquez while viewing pictures like “The Young Beggar” (c. 1648) and “San Diego de Alcala and the Poor” (c. 1646). Granted, both men hewed to pictorial conventions typical of the age, and, as such, carried with them commonalities of national taste. But Murillo’s ability to turn a form, whether it be a foot covered in dirt or a scattering of acorns, is strikingly akin to that of Velázquez, as was his rendering of tactile surfaces. Zurbarán claimed Velázquez as a friend; perhaps Murillo gleaned trade secrets, albeit one degree removed, from his fellow Sevillian.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, An Old Woman Holding a Distaff and Spindle (c. 1655-1660), oil on canvas, 58.5 x 47 cm.; courtesy National Trust, Stourhead, U.K.

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An interesting byway of the Kimbell show is explored by catalogue essayist Ronni Baer, distinguished curator and lecturer at the Princeton University Art Museum. Seville, she notes, was a commercial center with a significant amount of trade occurring between Spain and Flanders. Josua van Belle, a Dutch shipping magnate based in Seville, not only commissioned a portrait by Murillo — it’s included in From Heaven to Earth — but also owned additional pictures by him. Clearly, van Belle was a fan.

Baer wonders whether van Belle had Murillo over to the house to look at the North European paintings in his collection. Playing “What If?” is a dubious pursuit for a historian, but I’m damned if Baer doesn’t make a strong case by likening “Old Woman with a Distaff and Spindle” (c. 1650) and “The Toilette” (c. 1655-70) to paintings by the minor Dutch Master Michael Sweerts. Caravaggisti — that is to say, followers of Caravaggio — may have been a dime a dozen back in the day, but the correspondences are uncanny.

As a selective grouping of Murillo’s art, From Heaven to Earth makes a good case for his painterly acumen, even as it divulges a congenital weakness for schmaltz. Cherubic youngsters, however grubby or divine, can be cloying over the short haul — especially when they punctuate the compositions with formulaic regularity. That, and the soft focus of Murillo’s mise-en-scènes — an affectation cadged from Rubens, I’d wager — admits an overripe strain of sentiment. Still, if the Kimbell exhibition doesn’t come on like a revelation, it does confirm Murillo’s place in the hierarchy of seventeenth-century Spanish art — a distinct step or three behind Velázquez, Zurburan and Ribera. Any painter who makes a mark given that kind of competition deserves not only our credence, but that of history as well. In that regard, the good folks in Fort Worth have done right by Murillo.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the December 2022 edition of The Spectator World.

“An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis” at The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Giuseppe De Nittis, The Races at Auteuil, Paris–On the Chair (1883), oil on canvas, 107 x 55.5 cm.; courtesy Pinacoteca Giuseppe de Nittis, Barletta

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Calls to revise the history of this, that, and the other thing have become so numerous in recent years that they’ve instilled a reflexive skepticism in those of us who place a premium on differentiating between discernible facts and elaborate fictions, between events as they occurred on the ground and the arrogance of contemporary mores. Even within that variegated entity known as the art world there is a stunning conformity of opinion among elites as to the necessity of reconfiguring the roll calls of art to make them more inclusive. Of course, “inclusion” isn’t necessarily a bad thing—that is, if it remains tethered to artistic worth. All of which is a roundabout way of suggesting that the history of art does, in fact, need revision so that it can now include Giuseppe De Nittis (1846–84). You mean, a cisgendered hetero-normative scion of patriarchal culture? Yes, and De Nittis was a damned fine painter. That he remains the purview of specialists is, at the risk of engaging in hyperbole, a cheat on our common humanity.

“An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis,” now on view at the Phillips Collection, is among the most bracing shows to come down the pike in some time. New Yorkers with some sense of cultural memory may recall De Nittis as the standout player in “Masterpieces of Nineteenth-Century Italian Painting from the Gaetano Marzotto Collection,” an exhibition mounted by the National Academy almost thirty years ago. Among a parochial array of Impressionist wannabes, De Nittis appeared a beacon of pictorial invention, an artist whose painterly brusqueness worked in conjunction with a finely grained attention to detail. Since then, De Nittis has been in short supply here in the States. The stray canvas can be cherry-picked from the Met’s nineteenth-century wing, but, otherwise, De Nittis is a local hero—if that. Renato Miracco, the curator of the Pinacoteca Giuseppe De Nittis in Barletta, Italy, writes of how the painter has been “largely overlooked.” The retrospective Miracco has organized for the Phillips Collection, the first dedicated to De Nittis on these shores, is a concerted effort at putting out the news that, yes, here is an artist worthy of the canon.

De Nittis’s oeuvre is testament not only to the benefits that can accrue from working in a cultural capital, but also to the value of one’s friends in helping one overcome adverse circumstances. Born in Barletta, a city located on the Adriatic in the region of Apulia, De Nittis’s life was short and, at times, brutish and tragic. De Nittis’s father, a landowner of some affluence and a voluble critic of the House of Bourbon, was jailed for his political opinions just months after his son’s birth. After release in 1848, Raffaele De Nittis was never the same; his psychological state was rendered more fragile when his wife, Teresa Barracchia, died the following year. When Raffaele committed suicide seven years later, the eldest son, Vincenzo, apprenticed Giuseppe to a local painter in the hopes of remedying his brother’s “listless and distracted” ways. Much to Vincenzo’s chagrin, Giuseppe took to the “hopeless trade.” Hopeless, indeed: not long after enrolling in the Reale Istituto di Belle Arti in Naples, De Nittis was deemed talentless and booted out of school. He subsequently joined a cadre of plein air painters in southern Italy, among them Federigo Rossano. Rossano’s acquaintance Edgar Degas befriended the young De Nittis and later became his mentor.

Giuseepe De Nittis, Snow Effect (c. 1880), oil on canvas, 54 x 73 cm.; courtesy Pinacoteca Giuseppe de Nittis, Barletta

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De Nittis could have been content with being a big fish in a small pond; in an irony surely not lost on the young artist, the Bourbons began collecting his canvases. But another meeting with Degas, this time in Florence, fostered his ambitions. At age twenty-one, De Nittis traveled to, and fell in love with, Paris. Among the artists he encountered were Jean-Léon Gérôme and Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, a painter whose work De Nittis thought the world of. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of nineteenth-century French art will discern a disconnect between De Nittis’s attraction to artists typical of the academy and his friendships with progressive figures such as Degas, Edouard Manet, and Gustave Caillebotte. De Nittis straddled both sides of this seemingly contradictory divide, exhibiting both at the Salon and the Société anonyme des artistes. Indeed, De Nittis achieved some notoriety—so much that Monet and Renoir were livid at the Italian’s popularity and, out of spite, removed his canvases from the First Impressionist Exhibition of 1874. The paintings were reinstalled a few days later at Degas’ insistence. Again, the quality of friendship can count for a lot.

Fans of Impressionist painting will feel at home upon entering the exhibition. Fashionable young women; breakfast in the garden; Parisian thoroughfares marked by light, leisure, and the unstoppable prerogatives of modernity: De Nittis’s subjects are par for the course. What he does with them is startling to behold. Here and there De Nittis yields to a Florentine rectitude that is often stiff in nature. The majority of the time he navigates, with breathtaking dexterity, between telling particulars and rough-hewn brushwork. A pair of canvases dedicated to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius conveys the drama of nature’s independence while attending to the minutiae of sightseers heading for safe ground. Elsewhere, De Nittis devotes a number of paintings to his wife Léontine, the brevity, bravura, and wit of which put Manet to shame. Pictures by Manet, Degas, and Caillebotte are included as context, and it’s worth comparing the bonhomie in De Nittis’s Return from the Races (1875) with that of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880–81), long a staple of the Phillips’s permanent collection. De Nittis was, in the end, his own man, a painter of supernal gifts whose life was cut short by a cerebral hemorrhage at age thirty-eight. What he accomplished up until that moment is presented with considerable splendor in “An Italian Impressionist in Paris.”

(c) 2023 Mario Naves

This article was originally published in the January 2023 edition of The New Criterion.

“Modigliani Up Close” at The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia

Amedeo Modigliani, Cypresses and Houses at Cagnes (1919), oil on canvas, 24 x 18-1/8″; courtesy the Barnes Foundation

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A curious exhibition, “Modigliani Up Close.” It’s worth a visit, of course: any event that provides extra motivation to travel to the Barnes Foundation is, by default, recommended. Even without the current show, the permanent collection offers a veritable bounty of works by Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920)—sixteen in all, including Cypresses and Houses at Cagnes (1919), a rare landscape. In the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue, Thom Collins, the Neubauer Family Executive Director and President of the Barnes, pays homage to the foresight of the museum’s namesake, extolling the manner in which Albert C. Barnes “broke new ground in the history of collecting modern art.” As curated by a host of international conservators—among them Barbara Buckley, the museum’s senior director of conservation and chief conservator of paintings—“Up Close” seeks to break ground in another fashion, by focusing on Modigliani’s approach to materials and process. In underscoring technical matters, the curatorial team aims to bring some clarity to the smoke-and-mirrors legend that surrounds Amedeo, the Doomed and Tragic Soul.

Modigliani was born in Livorno, a port city on the western coast of Tuscany. His mother came from intellectual stock—the family claimed Baruch Spinoza as an ancestor—and his father was a businessman. The latter fell into bankruptcy the year Amedeo was born and was, at best, a peripatetic parent. Raised largely by his mother, Modigliani proved a vexing child. Prone to illness, he suffered from pleurisy, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis. Nonetheless, he had the wherewithal to study art—in Florence, Venice, and, eventually, Paris. Notions of Florentine rectitude were forever altered by firsthand encounters with Post-Impressionism—Cézanne was a life-changer—and early Modernism. Modigliani became an integral component of the School of Paris. He painted a portrait of Picasso in 1915 and befriended Chaïm Soutine and Maurice Utrillo. Modigliani proved a wild child: whoring, drinking, drugging, and making a general nuisance of himself. He was dead from complications due to TB at the age of thirty-five.

Amedeo Modigliani, Self-Portrait (1919), oil on canvas, 39-3/8 x 25-3/8″; courtesy Museo de Arte Contemporanea de Universidade de Sao Paolo

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Dying young and staying pretty is the pop version of immortality (though reports do have Modigliani looking fairly dissolute toward the end). If all that weren’t enough, Modigliani’s common-law wife, pregnant with her second child by the artist, committed suicide the day after his death: myth feeds on calamity. Modigliani painted Jeanne (née Hébuterne) several times over, and three of the portraits are on display toward the end of “Up Close.” Those clued into the drama of Amedeo and Jeanne might divine (or impose) some kind of emotional frisson in this curatorial denouement. But there’s little to distinguish the portraits of Jeanne, even the canvas in which she appears pregnant, from most other Modigliani pictures. He was, in the end, too much of a mannerist to embody a sense of intimacy, friendship, or love. Subsuming a host of not entirely incommensurate influences—including Cycladic effigies, African totems, Botticelli, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Pontormo—Modigliani was a canny synthesizer of style who operated within a notably constricted artistic terrain. Even before his untimely demise, the limitations of his art were making themselves plain.

Might it be too cynical to wonder if the emphasis of “Up Close”—with its nerdy talk of stretchers, strainers, “bland” canvas textures, and figuremarine, and paysage formatting—is simply a convenient rationale for mounting a crowd-pleasing exhibition dedicated to an artist of whom we know just about enough? The close-grained efforts of conservators should not be dismissed out of hand, and each generation that comes along will have a different take on a given historical figure. Certainly, there are Modigliani canvases many of us are pleased to discover or revisit. But the nuts-and-bolts information about his process isn’t particularly revelatory. Last spring, the Phillips Collection mounted “Picasso: Painting the Blue Period,” an exhibition that included three canvases that underwent significant scientific research, and the results were head-snapping, elaborating, as they did, on the transformative nature of Picasso’s genius. “Matisse: The Red Studio,” moma’s recent deep dive into a staple of the collection, did something related with another genius. The snag of “Up Close” is that Modigliani was not a genius. He’s a much-beloved minor light of the modernist canon. Sometimes distinctions matter.

Amedeo Modigliani, Reclining Nude (c. 1919), oil on canvas, 28-1/2 x 45-7/8″; Courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, NY

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An odd fillip of “Up Close”—a characteristic that does, in fact, stem from the research of those hard-working conservators—concerns attribution. Reading the fine print on the wall labels, we learn that four of the almost fifty pieces on display may not, in fact, be bona fide Modiglianis. Is it just me or is potential hoodwinking a more compelling curatorial hook than the thread count of canvas? Be that as it may, the Barnes show confirms that Modigliani, in his prime, was a diverting talent whose signature stylings—all those pinched noses, empty eyes, and sloping necks!—are best appreciated on a piecemeal basis. (More than a few museum visitors commented that the stray Modigliani tucked away in the Barnes’s permanent collection benefited from the company of artworks by others.) His finest pieces are those devoted to the reclining female nude, erotic reveries made resonant by an Ingres-like attention to contour and a warm, rich color palette. An arrangement of twelve limestone effigies toward the front of the show makes for a striking installation even as it proves that Modigliani was born not to the chisel but the brush. As for the aforementioned portraits of Jeanne: each canvas buffets the other in a shared accumulation of pictorial tics, making for a striking end to a most quixotic and, yes, recommended exhibition.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the December 2022 edition of The New Criterion.

“Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered” at the American Folk Art Museum, New York

Morris Hirshfield, Inseparable Friends (1941), oil on canvas, 60-1/8 x 40-1/8″; courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York

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“Hirshfield’s oeuvre is marked by the narrowness of vision that is typical of outsider art, but it does have focus and, most indelibly, form. Hirshfield considered the entirety of the pictorial field as a receptacle for painterly invention, and he didn’t stint on lavishing it with tender loving necessity.”

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

“At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism” at The Whitney Museum of American Art

Henrietta Shore, Trail of Life (c. 1923), oil on canvas, 30 1/8 × 28″; courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee 2022.13
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What a difference a century makes. That’s the upshot of “At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism,” an exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art culled from its own holdings. In-house ventures can sometimes come off as so much house-cleaning, an opportunity to air out the storage racks and take stock of inventory. Which is, in fact, what Whitney curator Barbara Haskell has done. But by adding select loans from other institutions and private collections, she’s put together a show that has its own gestalt. Though the fervor of artistic innovation has a limited shelf life, the work on display continues to radiate a klutzy, almost childlike audacity. There’s a naivete at the heart of “At the Dawn of a New Age,” and it is winning.

Maybe relevant as well. Taking into account the lead time for museum shows, Haskell had to know her overview of the stateside response to European Modernism would overlap with the latest iteration of The Whitney Biennial. The latter is, of course, the always anticipated (and invariably vilified) overview of American art that attempts to locate the pulse of the current art scene. The Biennial’s track has been spotty; reading the tea leaves of contemporary culture always is. Still, you have to wonder: How many of the artists in the 2022 Biennial will make the cut of the 2122 model of “At the Dawn of a New Age?”

The vagaries of history are, of course, substantial. Both the production and consumption of art are radically different now than they were in 1913—that would be the year of the Armory Show in New York City, the signal event that introduced Americans to modern painting and sculpture. The dribs-and-drabs by which the innovations of Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism and Cubism reached audiences back in the day seems a veritable trickle from our vantage point. Artists out to create a distinctively 20th-century vision were primed for change, but often halting on the uptake. Still, who’s to say that knowledge slowly accumulated isn’t more deeply absorbed than that gathered from a world in which (to paraphrase the title of a recent film) everything everywhere happens all at once?

As with most cultural endeavors of a recent vintage, “At the Dawn of a New Age” seeks to expand the canon by featuring work by artists who have been overlooked and undervalued. Haskell has located more than a handful of figures whose inclusion will warm the cockles of a social justice warrior’s heart. But there are other matters of redress afoot. When Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney established the museum in 1930, the overriding emphasis was on realism. Though more outre strains of art were acknowledged, they weren’t necessarily embraced. Haskell notes that it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the Whitney began to backtrack and acquire non-representational art that its founders had passed on.

“At the Dawn of a New Age” sets out to highlight “the capacity of abstraction to reflect individual responses to the . . . groundbreaking spirit of the age.” Haskell places a premium on a cultural optimism she attributes to progressive political campaigns and, especially, advances in technology: “nowhere else were cities so illuminated, manufacturing processes so efficient, or new forms of communication and transportation so pervasive.” Though the promises of the machine age had been tested by the carnage of World War I, artists continued to take inspiration from the streamlined forms and regulated rhythms found in industry. You can see them at play in Stuart Davis’s Egg Beater No.1 (1927), as well as in the rigorously applied geometries and lustrous patina of Painting (c. 1921-22), a still-life by Patrick Henry Bruce.

Pamela Colman Smith, The Wave (1903), watercolor, brush and ink, and graphite pencil on paper, 10 1/4 × 17 3/4″; courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Mrs. Sidney N. Heller 60.42
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The hiccup is that Davis and Bruce are pretty much the only artists who fit comfortably within Haskell’s thesis. If anything, the true basis of the art featured in “At the Dawn of a New Age” runs contrary to the machine-tooled advances of modern life. It’s not technology that’s the impetus, it’s the natural world. In piece after piece, we see the human form or, as is more often the case, the landscape serve as armatures on which matters of pictorial or sculptural form are explored.

Spiritualism, as well: nature long having served as a wellspring for those wanting to embody otherworldly longings. At the entry to the exhibition viewers encounter four paintings that are blatantly mystical in character. In them, Marsden Hartley toys with the astrological, Agnes Pelton immerses herself within a realm of fairies, Oscar Bluemner locates the Big Bang in New Jersey, and Georgia O’Keefe gleans the meditative in the microcosmic. The pieces are emblematic of a new age, all right, but not the one Haskell had in mind.

Any exhibition that includes at its center a deck of tarot cards has the future in its sights, but not necessarily futurism. The cards were commissioned in 1909 by A.E. Waite, the leader of the Independent and Rectified Rite of the Golden Dawn. Under his supervision, illustrator Pamela Coleman Smith delineated a full seventy-eight images for the tarot. The resulting array of symbols–charming amalgams of brittle medievalisms given a nouveau twist–aren’t the only thing by Smith on view. There’s also The Wave (c. 1903), a sinuous array of spirits rendered in watercolor, and not the only time we see the female form employed as a conduit for the transcendental. Others that did so include Arthur B. Davies, Adele Watson, Marguerite Zorach, Carl Newman and Richmond Barthé, whose African Dancer (1933), a haunting effigy rendered in plaster, is among the standout-out pieces in “At The Dawn of a New Age.”

Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, Congolais (1931), cherry, 16 13/16 × 7 7/8 × 9 1/4″; courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
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Sculpture is in short supply, but what there is on display is strong. Along with the Barthé, there is Congolais (1931) a portrait carved from cherry wood by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, an associate of W.E.B. DuBois and a figure who achieved a measure of notoriety in Europe. Gaston Lachaise, a sculptor best known for his balletic depictions of monumental women, is represented by the lilting bronze Dolphin Fountain (1924). Contorting themselves nearby are two Standing Female Figures (both c. 1925-26) by Elie Nadelman, an artist whose morphing of classical precedent and vernacular art looks more eccentric with each passing year. Isamu Noguchi is here as well, albeit fleetingly glimpsed with a gouache-and-graphite study of a hieratic form that is part-biomorph and part-mechanical doodad.

O’Keeffe is exhibited to clarifying effect, if only because the paintings are prime and few in number. If anything, both her strengths (composition & economy of shape) and limitations (color and surface) are put into relief by being in proximity to like-minds such as Pelton, Helen Torr, Loïs Mailou Jones, Joseph Stella, Arthur Dove and two painters previously unknown to me, Henrietta Shore and Edith Clifford Williams.

Shore’s Trail of Life (c. 1923) will keep Freudians busy comparing-and-contrasting its gynecological allusions to those found in O’Keeffe’s oeuvre. As for Two Rhythms (1916) by Williams: its sparsely applied color, carefully choreographed lines and sweeping arcs of space employs Surrealism as a springboard for something more allusive. Let’s hope our erstwhile curator has the moxie to place these two figures more firmly within our purview in future exhibitions. In the meantime, “At the Dawn of a New Age” proves itself a vivifying excursion. Would that all reappraisals of precedent were so gently applied and congenial in nature. 

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the November 2022 edition of The Spectator World.

“Diego Rivera’s America” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Diego Rivera, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Irene Rich (1941), oil on canvas, 24 x 17″; courtesy Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA), Northampton, MA
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The passage of time can be a merciless arbiter of reputation. Fashions evolve, sometimes double-back, and often peter out altogether. This is as true for art as it is for haute couture. Live long enough, and you’ll see how quickly The Next Big Thing turns into tomorrow’s Never Was, how this morning’s outrage de-evolves into this evening’s commonplace. All of which is worth taking into account when considering the fortunes of the Mexican painter Diego Rivera (1886-1957). 

Dial back the clock fifty- to seventy-years ago, and you’d discover that even the most cursory student of art would have recognized Rivera’s name. He was a star, a hard-charging bigger-than-life talent whose work was sought after by Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller and other captains of industry. A luminary amongst luminaries, Rivera counted among his friends Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Fernand Leger and Chaim Soutine, and served as a link between the avant-garde and the Americas. He was passionate about politics, forever siding with the proletariado at the expense of any coherent social philosophy. And his ego! Forget fools: Rivera suffered no one gladly. His squabbles with all and sundry–the Soviet Union no less than the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, an organization predicated on a woolly brand of occultism–were the stuff of legend. Rivera played life to the hilt. The world paid attention.

But that was then, and this is 2022. Though Rivera isn’t unknown to contemporary audiences, his personality and accomplishments have been overshadowed by those of his wife, Frida Kahlo. Like Rivera, Kahlo was no stranger to celebrity culture, having famously posed for a 1937 photo-spread in Vogue. Still, no one could have predicted the extent of Kahlo’s fame almost seventy years after her death. Movies, books, exhibitions, umbrellas, restaurants, coffee cups and plush-dolls–how hasn’t that legendary unibrow been marketed? The beneficiary of historical revisionism and globalist outreach, Kahlo has become a ubiquitous and, for some, empowering figure–so much so, that not a few wags nowadays refer to Rivera as “Mr. Frida Kahlo.”

Diego Rivera’s America, a traveling exhibition organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is unlikely to stem the tide of Frida-mania. Still, it should do much to re-confirm Rivera’s place in the cultural firmament. Guest curator James Oles, a professor of art history at Wellesley College and a specialist in Latin American Art, has set a scholarly eye on Rivera’s “utopian belief in the power of art.” The exhibition focuses on a 25-year period of Rivera’s output spanning, roughly, from the 1920s through the ’40s.  Not coincidentally, this time-frame captures Rivera at the height of his powers. It was during this phase, Oles writes, that the artist “reimagined Mexican national identity on a vast scale, embraced the industrial age in the United States, and conceived of a greater America in which unity, rather than division was paramount.” 

Diego Rivera, The Flower Carrier (1935), oil and tempera on masonite, 48 x 47-3/4″; courtesy the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
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Oles has a significant collection to cull from: SFMOMA boasts among the world’s largest holdings of Rivera’s art. Along with loans from private institutions and public collections, America includes more than 150 pieces in a variety of media. Art historical staples like The Flower Carrier (1935) and Self-Portrait (1941) will be seen in conjunction with a host of preparatory studies, a smattering of documentary objects, and canvases that have rarely been on public display. 

Context is provided by the inclusion of work by Rivera’s peers, including photographs by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, and paintings by, yes, Frida Kahlo. Three galleries are devoted to video projections of murals done in Mexico and the United States. SFMOMA is touting America as the largest Rivera retrospective in over twenty years. Oles does the museum one better, claiming that the oeuvre hasn’t been as fully accounted for since 1949, the year Rivera was feted with a retrospective at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Whatever the case, the point is clear: America is a big deal.

The artist christened Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez was born in Guanajuato City, a municipality located in Central Mexico. His parents were affluent; his twin brother, dead at age two. Rivera showed artistic promise as a toddler, scrawling upon the walls of the family home. As it turned out, he was something of a prodigy: Rivera was accepted to the prestigious Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City at age 10. He worked with Santiago Rubill, a former student of Ingres, and, one feels, a decisive influence. Rivera’s skills garnered notice: the governor of Veracruz sponsored a European sojourn for the young artist to further his education.

It was during his stays in Spain and, especially, France that Rivera was transformed every which way. How could he not be? Paris, especially, was a hothouse of creative–indeed, revolutionary–fervor. Rivera absorbed the lessons of early Modernism with an enthusiasm that was nothing short of rapacious. He explored a variety of approaches, Post-Impressionism and Cubism in particular, and proved a deft hand at all of them. José Vasconcelos, Mexico’s newly installed Minister of Education, managed to woo Rivera back home, eager to have him take part in an ambitious new program for public painting. It is at this point in Rivera’s life that America begins the accounting of one artist’s attempt to (pace the catalogue) “radically transform the world.” 

Back home, Rivera immersed himself in indigenous cultures, reveling in the people and paying homage to their traditions. In the sections of America titled “South to Tehuantepec” and “Daily Life”, we see Rivera depicting ordinary folk and everyday rituals all the while keying into a distinctly local range of colors. His palette took on a cast indicative of the surrounding landscape and climate. Dance in Tehuantepec and Tehuana (Aurea Procel) (both 1928) are suffused with ripe variations on orange and red, as well as exhibiting a fidelity to native costumery of forbidding complexity. Works like Pneumatic Drill (1931) and Hombre Fumando (1937) evince an eye as attuned to the documentary as it was prone to the exaggerations of caricature. Mexico’s people, Rivera intimates, are of the earth and, as such, immovable.

Rivera’s approach to form became increasingly concrete and weighted. The human figure was subjected to stylizations that hinted at Cubist precedent, but seem more inspired by the totemic effigies of Pre-Columbian cultures and artifacts from prehistory. The woman and child seen solemnly making their daily bread in La Tortillera (1926) are rendered with an uncanny sculptural fortitude. 

Diego Rivera, La Bordadora (1928), oil on canvas, 31-1/4 x 39″; courtesy The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
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La bordadora (The Embroiderer) (1928)–a canvas as iconic in character, if not renown, as The Flower Carrier–is freighted by an almost Giottoesque stolidity, its two women having been wedged within the canvas to emphasize their mass. Monumentality had its symbolic functions: Woman with Calla Lilies (1945), with its mountainous effulgence of flowers, confirms the primacy of the natural world as well as our modest place in it.

Notwithstanding the circumscribed focus of the exhibition, America is wide-ranging in how it touches upon Rivera’s interests and accomplishments. His gifts as a draftsman are in abundant evidence, no more so than in Study for Germination [Tina Modotti] (1926), as nuanced an essay in sensuality as one could hope for. And although Rivera forever thumped the drum of social justice, he wasn’t without a sense of humor. Among the delights–and surprises!–of America is a suite of graphite and watercolor costume designs made for H.P. (Horsepower) (circa 1927-32), a ballet and symphony organized by the musician Carlos Chávez. With their unlikely amalgams of flora and fauna, Rivera divulges a Surrealist bent and a welcome air of whimsy. 

Rivera’s murals, by definition, are less amenable to travel, but a number of working drawings are on display–including a pair of gouache and graphite pieces featuring colorful and compartmentalized designs for the Paramount Theater. And towards the end of the exhibition, you’ll find Self-Portrait, in which the artist, surrounded by a field of luminous yellow, holds a note written in Spanish to the woman who commissioned the painting, actress Irene Rich. Clearly, Rivera’s political leanings didn’t override his communing with the rich and famous. Indeed, anyone familiar with Rivera the man knows that he was far too contradictory a creature to serve as a coherent role model for contemporary activists. But the artist? As Diego Rivera’s America makes plain, he’s a figure worth tussling with–the vagaries of reputation be damned.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article was originally published in the July 2022 edition of Art & Antiques.

“Philip Guston Now” @ The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Philip Guston with The Studio in 1969; photo by Frank Lloyd
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The painter Philip Guston (1913-80) likened the creative act to attending a party. “When you’re in the studio painting, there are a lot of people there with you–your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics . . . one by one if you’re really painting, they walk out. And if you’re really painting YOU walk out.” “Philip Guston Now,” a retrospective on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, could be seen as the reverse. Guston hasn’t left the party; he was disinvited.

The exhibition has recently opened after an eleven-month postponement. The organizing institutions–the Boston MFA, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., London’s Tate Modern and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas–put a hold on the July 2021 opening date in response to events surrounding the death of George Floyd. “We are postponing the exhibition,” the organizers stated last fall, “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.”

This announcement met with significant pushback among artists and collectors. An open letter sponsored by The Brooklyn Rail garnered over 2,600 signatures–among the signatories contesting the exhibition’s delay were the choreographer Bill T. Jones, performance artist Laurie Anderson, and Agnes Gund, President Emerita and Life Trustee of the Museum of Modern Art. It’s likely the letter helped occasion the rescheduling of a show that had already been rescheduled. From a projected 2024 opening date, “Philip Guston Now” comes to us in 2022 having been framed within the context of “each viewer’s lived experience.”

What might Guston, a dyed-in-the-wool Lefty who cast a mordant eye on culture and politics, have made of this hubbub? He was no stranger to controversy during his lifetime. The young Guston was an ideological animal, a Social Realist who took a keen interest in the work of Mexican muralists like David Alfaro Siqueros and Jose Clemente Orozco. (Guston’s high school friend, Jackson Pollock, was also a fan.) In 1933, Guston’s painting Conspirators went on public exhibition and was subsequently destroyed by the Ku Klux Klan–not coincidentally, the subject of the painting.

Controversy followed Guston to the end of his days. After having established himself as a painter of luxurious abstractions, a body of work that carried him through the 1950’s and early 60’s, Guston returned to his figurative roots. When the resulting paintings were shown at Marlborough Gallery in 1970 visitors were puzzled when they weren’t shocked. What to make of these pictures of the KKK tootling around town in a boxcar sedan, smoking stogies or flagellating themselves with whips? The images were lumpy and cartoonish; the color palette, a garish range of pink, red and black.

Guston was vilified in the press; friends were lost. Only Willem de Kooning, his AbEx compatriot, took the paintings in stride, commending Guston for exemplifying the freedom inherent in the creative process. “Philip Guston Now” includes a section dedicated to the infamous Marlborough show amongst an overall count of seventy-three paintings and twenty-three drawings. A sharp light is being shone on a headstrong talent.

Guston was born in Montreal, Canada, the youngest of seven children. The family had fled Odessa to escape anti-Semitic persecution, later moving to Los Angeles to seek economic opportunity. It wasn’t forthcoming. Guston’s father committed suicide. Ten-year old Philip discovered the body. Philip’s mother encouraged her son’s interest in painting and drawing, and Guston enrolled in L.A.’s Manual Arts High School. He moved to New York in 1935, joined the Works Project Administration, and married the poet Musa McKim. Guston went on to achieve considerable success as first-generation Abstract Expressionist, but found himself increasingly frustrated by “all that purity.” He and Musa moved to Woodstock. Outside the social whirlpool of the New York City art scene, Guston got down to business.

“Philip Guston Now” traces an oeuvre that underwent a fair share of bumps even as it settled out according to its own ineradicable logic. Stylistic shifts that may have appeared capricious during the artist’s life reveal themselves to be organic and of a piece. That is, of course, the benefit of hindsight. The exhibition begins with Mother and Child (c. 1930), a monumental image that is barely contained by its modest format. In it, we see an attempt to reconcile the pittura metafisica of Giorgio de Chirico with the tight-lipped fortitude of Piero della Francesca, one of many Renaissance Masters Guston revered. The same impulse, albeit inflected by contemporary events, can be gleaned from Drawing for Conspirators (1930) a pencil study for the ill-fated painting.

Guston’s compositions became increasingly complicated during the 1940’s. Figures, objects and spaces became tangled, albeit choreographed with a steely attention to interval and edge. Children appear in the canvases, often seen battling on city streets. Guston’s love of vintage comic strips can be gleaned from the elasticity of form seen in Gladiators (1940). Dynamism eventually gave way to atmosphere. The children in If This Be Not I (1945), not-so-distant kin of Gladiators, line up and face the viewer as if awaiting judgment. Stillness reigns.

Guston found himself increasingly drawn to abstraction. The compositional underpinnings of the figurative work gave way to an infirm and cobbled geometry. The Tormentors (1947-48), a smoldering web of ratcheted forms, was a stepping stone from If This Be Not I to the magisterial “Abstract Impressionism” of canvases like Summer (1954) and Dial (1956). Touch took precedence during this phase, though not at the risk of structure. Imagine Monet meeting Mondrian in a post-Hiroshima milieu.

The 1960’s put paid to Guston’s relationship with abstraction. The era’s political and cultural tumult rankled his inner moralist.  “I was feeling split, schizophrenic . . . what kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.”  For the first time in decades, Guston started painting objects and figures–or parts of figures, anyway. The compositions were blunt in their rendering, close to cack-handed. The signature Guston brushstroke–tha tenderly inquisitive slur of oil paint–took on a klutzy and comedic temper. Guston had always been a fan of George Herriman, the pioneering comic strip artist who created Krazy Kat. Herriman’s inimitable scratchiness came to the fore in Guston’s use of line. Sensuality was up-ended by agitation.

And then came the figures in hoods, galumphing pyramidal shapes that pick up where The Conspirators left off some thirty years earlier. These are the KKK pictures that gave pause to the organizers of “Philip Guston Now”–as well they should have: images are potent bearers of meaning. Certainly, Guston didn’t choose his cast of characters lightly; placing the KKK amongst them was, in no small terms, a freighted decision. It was also a provocation. Guston was never afraid to play with fire or, for that matter, ambiguity. Art was nothing without contradiction.

The Klan were soon overtaken by motifs that were alternately mundane (cherries, cigarettes, cities in the distance), personal (Musa, stuff in the studio), and bizarre (disembodied legs, cyclopean heads, bugs). The late work, in other words, isn’t altogether dependent on imagery that is potentially objectionable. All the same, the Boston MFA is skittish enough to provide an “emotional preparedness” warning for museum visitors. How that will skew the audience’s perception remains to be seen. In the meantime, “Philip Guston Now” offers an overview, circumspect and wary, of a profound and unruly artist.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

The article orignally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Art & Antiques.

“Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott” at the New Museum

Installation of “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott”; courtesy The New Museum, New York, NY
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“Resignation to life’s absurdities likely accounts for the peculiar lack of rancor in an oeuvre that doesn’t exactly stint on scabrous imagery.”

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

“Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream (1899/1906), oil on canvas, 28-1/8 x 49-1/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
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The advance buzz on Winslow Homer:Crosscurrents wasn’t good. “Woke Winslow” — that’s how observers, online and through the grapevine, pegged the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition of paintings and watercolors by Winslow Homer (1836-1910). The stalwart purveyor of maritime adventure and manly pursuits, woke? One glance at the enlarged black-and-white photo displayed at the front end of Crosscurrents–a blurred portrait of Homer in his Maine studio–makes clear that the fusty man with the impatient glare is no one’s idea of a social-justice warrior.

Looks aren’t everything, of course.Truth to tell, Homer’s art does touch upon important aspects of American history. But did the summer of 2020 really beg for a “diachronic focus on conflict and struggle in [Homer’s] production?” So promises Sylvia Yount, the Met’s Lawrence A. Fleischman curator-in-charge of the American Wing and co-organizer, along with Stephanie L. Herdrich, of Crosscurrents. Is it possible, in so many words, to reconcile “The Gulf Stream” (1899/1906), among Homer’s most iconographic canvases, with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter?

Consider “‘The Various Colors and Types of Negroes’: Winslow Homer Learns to Paint Race,” an essay in the exhibition catalogue by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Those familiar with Homer’s pictures of black life, whether as seen in the American South or the Caribbean, know they are characterized by a rare and carefully grained objectivity. Shaw knows this, but she’s not happy about it. So after commending Homer for “trusting his own instincts on coloring potently raced bodies,” Shaw puts him in his place for an “oblique reliance on the negatively stereotyped tropes of Black representation.” The professor giveth, and the professor taketh away.

The good thing about Crosscurrents is that it isn’t the catalogue. The begrudgery typifying our curatorial class is outshone at the Met by artistic fact. The show is the largest overview of Homer’s work in twenty-five years, containing eighty-eight pieces. “The Gulf Stream” is at its center, but there are other signal pictures on display. There are so many, in fact, that you begin to realize just how thoroughly Homer’s vision has been absorbed into the body politic. If anything, the work makes a case for the expansiveness of the American spirit. The old Yankee, bless his soul, does not go gently into that woke night.

Winslow Homer was born in Boston, Massachusetts. His father was a businessman prone to bad decisions, his mother an amateur watercolorist. The extent of Homer’s formal training was an eighteen-month apprenticeship to a commercial lithographer. A knack for the anecdotal and a clipped sense of composition, along with a daunting work ethic, led to a career in illustration. During the Civil War, Homer contributed on-site battlefield drawings for Harper’s Weekly. At the age of twenty-three, Homer packed his bags and headed to New York City, intent on becoming a painter.

Crosscurrents is divided into eight sections, each of which is devoted to a theme–the seaside of the Northeastern United States, for instance, or trips taken to tropical climes. “War and Reconstruction” opens the show, and the paintings featured in it are almost Tocquevillian in their perspicacity. Homer’s experience as a journalist, working amid the carnage of war and its aftermath, likely accounts for the sobriety typifying the imagery. Homer was no sentimentalist. The pictures are bare-bones dioramas endowed with almost Biblical portent: a foolhardy soldier taunts the enemy, children attempt to farm wartorn ground, and a pair of young women wander through a field of cotton.

A curator cares for and maintains the items that have been entrusted to her. Political activism–hell, political commentary–shouldn’t be a prerequisite for the job. But let’s not be naive. Politics haven’t just seeped into our institutions; they’ve inundated them. When Herdrich, the Met’s associate curator of American Painting and Sculpture, insists the work be viewed “through the lens of conflict,” you know that Homer is about to be dragooned into the intersectional hothouse.

Winslow Homer, The Cotton Pickers (1876), oil on canvas, 24-1/2 x 38″; courtesy the Lost Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA

Homer had a pointed, if subtle, sense of irony. “The Cotton Pickers” (1876) is swathed in a beneficent light, but it’s no Arcadian idyll. The women pictured are emancipated slaves; the cotton they carry a reminder of their servitude. It’s an uncanny painting, marked by quietude and suffused with intimacy. The author F. Hopkinson Smith, a friend of Homer’s and a capable painter in his own right, described the canvas as “the whole story of Southern slavery.” Hindsight endows the painting with a preternatural gravitas–a sense of history as a burden foretold.

The most renowned of Homer’s pictures are centered on the ocean and dramatized by storm. Skies are dank and gray; waves surge and then surge some more; boats capsize; and those who sail the sea or live by it–well, good luck to them. Nature is relentless and violent, unforgiving and ominous. Typical is the “Ship’s Boat” (1883), in which a cadre of men grasp onto the side of an upturned lifeboat. The murky distance to which they signal for rescue offers slim chance of hope.

Homer’s paintings of tropical climes are, on the whole, less roiling in character. Certainly, the clarifying Caribbean sun suited Homer’s gift for watercolor, wherein the barest swipe of the brush yoked a radiant sense of climate from the white of the page. Homer thrived on the immediacy offered by the portability of watercolor: “I prefer every time a picture composed and painted outdoors. The thing is done without your knowing it.”

Which isn’t to say that life in the sunshine was without hazard. And here we circle back to “The Gulf Stream.” It’s a gripping image, for sure: a lone black man, shirtless and distracted, lies on a teetering skip, its mast broken off at the base. Blood filters through the surrounding waves; sharks are circling. Pitched on the horizon is a schooner sundering away from the crisis at hand. The canvas brings to mind a host of precedents, not least John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark” (1778) and Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa” (1818-19). Homer’s painting is starker in its theatricality and not tied to a specific narrative– which may account for the consternation engendered upon its initial public display.

Viewers wanted a backstory. Homer did not suffer the public gladly. “The unfortunate negro,” he wrote, “will be rescued & returned to his friends and home, & ever after live happily.” Over and out! He went on: “I have crossed the Gulf Stream ten times & I should know something about it. The boat & sharks are outside matters of very little consequence.”

“Outside matters of very little consequence?” Nonsense. Artists are rarely the best interpreters of their own work. Contrary to Homer’s testy dismissal of narrative, “The Gulf Stream” betrays grim determination, a stoic refusal to grant credence to the most trying of circumstances. Homer’s moralism, like that of Melville or Conrad, is inescapable and weighted, stubbornly independent and elusive in its probity. Like the best art, “The Gulf Stream” resists ideological pigeonholing or the machinations of fashion. Homer will survive the distrust and condescension of our theory-besotted gatekeepers. In the meantime, Crosscurrents is filled with paintings that merit our puzzlement and earn our pleasure.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article was originally published in the June 2022 edition of The Spectator World.