Category Archives: Painting

“Alice Neel: People Come First” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Alice Neel, Margaret Evans Pregnant (1978), oil on canvas, 57 3/4 × 38″. Gift of Barbara Lee, The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women. Courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Let’s talk real estate. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has allocated the same amount of space to the American painter Alice Neel (1900–84) as it did for the art and artifacts of Byzantium; the reign of Hatshepsut, queen and, later, pharaoh of Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt; two outlays of tapestries from medieval and Renaissance Europe; and a career-spanning exhibition of the French romantic painter Eugène Delacroix. However you might esteem the subjects explored in these shows (I’m fairly agnostic on Delacroix, myself), there is little doubt that each body of work merited the grand treatment, that they are subjects worthy of sweeping scholarly focus. But what about a second-tier talent whose aesthetic purview was nowhere near as encompassing as her meanness of spirit? Museums have galleries set aside for temporary exhibitions, and those galleries need to be filled. Square footage, when doled out by an important institution, connotes prestige. “Alice Neel: People Come First” will have repercussions. Notice must be paid.

Not that Neel’s work has been without an audience in the decades since her death; nor did Neel suffer inattention during her working life. Anyone invited to sit and chat with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show had, in one way or another, achieved a notoriety rare in American culture. For a visual artist, this kind of recognition—that is to say, the imprimatur of mainstream media—is all but unheard of. Neel’s fame came relatively late. As with most artists, she sacrificed much in terms of comfort and security to pursue her work. Neel did possess that most vital of traits: tenacity. Where would she have been without it? Painters who worked figuratively during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism had a tough go of it; the advent of neo-Dadaism didn’t exactly provide an accommodating context for an artist taken with the human condition and its many foibles (though Neel did locate a friendly toehold within the irony-laden precincts of Pop Art). Gumption propelled Neel’s art, as did gall. Johnny Carson couldn’t help but bestow his favors on the feisty old lady and her crazy pictures.

Alice Neel on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson

Longevity became Neel; flattery followed on its heels. Few of us get to hear ourselves described as the best at anything. Neel lived to hear herself pegged as “the best portrait painter of the twentieth century.” Given her renowned irascibility, she likely cast a skeptical eye on the sobriquet, knowing full well how wheels are greased in even the most outré precincts of the art world. What, then, would the self-described “Mother Hubbard” make of the claims surrounding “People Come First”? The Met is, after all, touting Neel as “one of the century’s most radical painters.” What century might that be? Before you can say “champion of social justice”—which the museum does, in fact, say—you’ll know the aforementioned century is the current one, despite her death in the 1980s. “In an era of record income inequality, resurgent white nationalism, and xenophobia, Neel’s painterly advocacy of humanity in its multiracial and multicultural manifestations, her inclusive, democratic spirit, and her commitment to social justice all serve to enhance her posthumous reputation, making her art seem all the more relevant, even urgent.” Enter Alice Neel, Patron Marm of All That Is Woke.

None of which is surprising. Diktats and notions that were once the purview of a select group of academics have become part and parcel of everyday life. Joe and Jane Lunchbox are conversant, nowadays, with “hetero-normativity,” “cultural appropriation,” and “privilege.” Anyone who has cracked open an exhibition catalogue in recent years, or cherry-picked through any number of specialized journals, will recognize the type of writing that strong-arms art into the service of political fashion. Try taking a tipple each time the words “justice” or “identity” pop up in the essays and wall labels accompanying the Met show—inebriation will be achieved swiftly. Making light of the strained verbiage typical of our time shouldn’t mitigate its cumulative effect. Reading about Neel’s “female-lived experience,” the “gendered struggles” of her subjects, and the “intersubjectivity” of the resulting portraits is to realize how over-intellectualized argot can become run-of-the-mill. It’s depressing, and a disservice to the liberating capacities of art. Listen to Neel, during the advent of Feminism, tell it: “When I was in my studio, I didn’t give a damn what sex I was . . . I thought art is art.” Neel didn’t suffer ideological grandstanding gladly. Why subject her work to it?

Neel hailed from Merion Square, Pennsylvania, the fourth of five children born to Alice Concross Hartley and George Washington Neel, an accountant by trade. Neel attended the Philadelphia School for Women, purposely setting out to avoid the Impressionist-influenced curriculum fostered at the better-known Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. (Even at a young age, Neel knew her own mind.) While studying painting and drawing, she met and later married the artist Carlos Enriquez, a Cuban émigré of some means. The couple moved to Havana, but the relationship proved rocky. Enriquez left the marriage, taking the couple’s daughter with him. Neel subsequently had a nervous breakdown and was committed to the suicide ward of Philadelphia General Hospital. After having been placed in the care of her mother and father, Neel ended up in New York City, spending a formative period living and working in Spanish Harlem. She moved to Greenwich Village—a neighborhood Neel dismissed as “honky tonk”—and settled on the Upper West Side. Along the way, she worked for the WPA, fellow-traveled with Communist culturati, took a host of often troublesome lovers, and became a fixture of the New York art scene.

Alice Neel, Two Girls, Spanish Harlem (1959), oil on canvas, 30 x 25″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston;
Gift of Barbara Lee

“People Come First” begins with a gambit that is partly a dare and definitely a grabber. Margaret Evans Pregnant (1978) portrays a nude woman toward the end of her term. The sitter, scaled close to life-size, is wedged between the top and bottom edges of the canvas. Evans confronts us with an expression that is both uninhibited and wooden—a mask that portends vulnerability. The posture is rigid, the belly alarmingly convex. Evans appears to be gripping the yellow footstool upon which she’s seated. Neel’s rendering of the hands and arms is awkward, and their tensions unclear. Does Evans hold on because the incipient responsibilities of motherhood are pressing upon her consciousness? Or is it because the floor tilts at an angle parallel to the picture plane? A mirror in the upper right hand of the picture reflects a different woman—or so it seems, anyway; the likeness is iffy. The mirror is, in and of itself, problematic: it’s out of sync with the overall composition. The more time spent with Margaret Evans Pregnant the more its glitches are revealed. Art should withstand the long look, not crumble beneath it.

All of which will strike fans of Neel as moot. Didn’t you read the exhibition title? People come first. “Paint your power,” the catalogue intones, “paint your politics.” In the introductory essay, Kelly Baum and Randall Griffey—who, along with the curatorial assistant Brinda Kumar, organized the Met show—write of how “Neel embraced imperfection as intrinsic to the human condition” and how “we are wrong to assume perfection from her.” Neel’s lack of perfection, in this circumstance, lies in her independence as an individual and as an intellect. (Neel had some choice opinions that wouldn’t withstand the puritanical dictates of our internet overlords.) Forget, for a moment, the curators’ backdoor clarion call for conformity. What might be said about Neel as a painter—as a person involved in an art form with its own distinct history and attributes? It’s worth reiterating that a painting, before it is anything else, is a painting. Once that essential prerequisite has been engaged—once it has been complicated, questioned, and brought to resolution—viewers can move on to the work’s “embedded code[s]” and “innuendo.” Prioritizing theory over matter and political intent over aesthetic fact are convenient means for setting aside critical distinctions. Righteous obfuscation is no substitute for the real thing.

After the ice-breaker that is Margaret Evans Pregnant, the exhibition stumbles precipitously with a showcase of Neel’s early forays into Social Realism. Forever down with the proletariat, Neel depicted protest marches, dock workers, sundry members of the intelligentsia, and unsung corners of the urban landscape with an earnestness that is leaden when it’s not amateurish. Was there an unwritten law at the time that political art had to be awash in that distinctive and deadening brown? If so, Neel’s palette followed suit. Works-on-paper depicting vignettes of bohemian domesticity are preferable in their relative lightness of touch, though they are marred by an uncertain handle on caricature. Max Beckmann looks to have been an influence, along with Chaïm Soutine, the Soyer brothers, and van Gogh. Neel jettisoned the somber affectations of her generation round about the mid-1950s— particularly as she took increased notice of her neighbors in El Barrio. Georgie Acre No. 2 (1955) and, especially, Two Girls, Spanish Harlem (1959) signal a welcome shift—the everyday awakening potentialities of form. Neel’s chromatic range gained in brightness, her brushwork speed and vigor, and the compositions a measure of clarity or, if you prefer, bluntness.

Alice Neel, Black Draftee (James Hunter) (1965), oil on canvas, 60 x 40″; courtesy COMMA Foundation, Belgium

Neel’s signature attribute is unquestioned immediacy—you know: first try, best try. Eschewing preparatory drawings, she painted directly on the canvas and from direct observation. Beginning with a wiry under-drawing, usually keyed to a cool variation of blue, Neel applied flattened patchworks of pigment, juxtaposing warm and cool tonalities and surfaces that are constitutionally resistant to sensuality. Neel’s brusque treatment of the surroundings in which her subjects are ensconced is cursory-bordering-on-negligent, but it can be effective. The settee in Andy Warhol (1970) or the chaise longue upon which the subject of Pregnant Woman (1971) reclines are marvels of bare-bones delineation. Both pictures are, in their own flagrant way, arresting. The tension between painted form and diagrammatic notation is as rude as it wants to be, and adroitly choreographed. Over the long haul, however, Neel’s pictorial flourishes flatten the expressive intent of her art. She puts one in mind of Francis Bacon—another semi-Expressionist swallowed whole by exquisitely cultivated mannerisms. By the time we reach Black Draftee (James Hunter) (1965), a canvas displayed toward the back end of the exhibition, we are grateful to see Neel not take up her brush all that much.

Black Draftee (James Hunter) would make a striking centerpiece for a more concise and, I would argue, better exhibition. As it is, “People Come First” oversells Neel’s achievement and, in particular, her vaunted humanism. Really, who does come first? Notwithstanding an atypical and often eccentric range of sitters, Neel doesn’t do much plumbing of character. Miserabilist superficiality was her gig. There are exceptions: artists like Benny Andrews, Geoffrey Hendricks, and (not included at the Met) Faith Ringgold make themselves felt, as does Richard in the Era of the Corporation (1978–79), a painting of Neel’s son in which he evinces an understandable level of wariness. Even then, it’s the Corporation that is Neel’s starting point; Richard is there as a type. And so it goes: New Yorkers, in all their multiplicity, are rendered goggle-eyed, pasty-skinned, and splayed like butterflies in a curio cabinet. Whatever the initial attraction or relationship between sitter and artist, the resulting paintings are peculiarly neutral in affect. They exist, primarily, as emblems of Neel’s nervy savoir-faire. Denizens of twenty-first century-America shouldn’t mistake representation for “allyship” or “anarchic humanity” for significant art. There are better exemplars for our fractious age than a painter endowed with a cruel and unlovely gift.

(c) 2021 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the June 2021 edition of The New Criterion.

Mernet Larsen at James Cohan Gallery

Mernet Larsen, Deliverance (after El Lissitzky) (2020), acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 64-1/2 x 52-1/4″; photo courtesy of James Cohan Gallery
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“In their lack of a gravitational hub, the paintings touch on the hallucinogenic. Truth be told, their wibble-and-wobble can try the patience of the eye—and stomach. That our attention and equilibrium aren’t upset is testament to how thoroughly Larsen is in control of compositional vectors. Dislocated as they may be, the pictures hold tight. A line is trod between chaos and calm, rectitude and ping-pong. Incongruity is vital to Larsen’s vision, and she makes something of it.”

The entire article can be found here.

“Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment” at The New Museum, New York, NY

Peter Saul, Art Critic Suicide (1996), acrylic and alkyd on canvas, 66 x 84-1/4″; courtesy George Adams Gallery, New York
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“Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment” is a disappointment in that it omits my favorite Saul painting. Let me amend that: “favorite” is a strong word. Art Critic Suicide (1996) has proven memorable because of the response elicited from its subjects: Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker’s longtime art critic; and Hilton Kramer, the one-time critic for The New York Times and co-founder of The New Criterion. In the painting, both men are rendered with cartoonish hyperbole and set awash in a garish purple-pink, each firing not one, but two guns into his respective temple. In his review of this New Museum show, Schjeldahl mentioned his surprise at coming upon the painting some years back—in particular, having been paired with “an intellectual antagonist of mine.” This irony won’t be lost on anyone conversant with contemporary art criticism. It certainly wasn’t lost on Hilton. “Exactly why we should be linked for the honor of serving as Mr. Saul’s principal villains is a matter I can only guess at,” he wrote in The New York Observer in the year 2000. The artist is seen at the bottom of the canvas, a pimply faced homunculus gleeful at the turn of events. “Is it possible,” Hilton wondered, “that Mr. Saul objects to readable prose?”

Having followed Saul’s work over the years, I can report that objection is, in fact, his modus operandi. Objection to what, you might ask? Pretty much everything, and never are the objections stated mildly or shaded with nuance. The friend with whom I attended the New Museum show described the pictures as “ejaculatory,” and it would be difficult to locate an adjective more apropos to Saul’s over-the-top brand of grotesquerie. The targets of his ire are subject to torturous distensions. Physiognomies are stretched and kneaded to Silly Putty–like extremes. Imagine the sinuous distortions of Mannerism amplified through a Day-Glo prism, and then delineated with the pin-prick intricacy of outré cartoonists like Basil Wolverton and S. Clay Wilson. As a paint-handler, Saul pat-pat-pats at his sizable canvases with what appears to be a cotton ball. In doing so, he wrests light and lyricism away from pointillist facture, bringing squishy dimensionality to ballooning forms. The color palette? Josef Albers undergoing sugar shock. Saturated tones are the rule, eye-popping, acidic, and sickly sweet. Sex and violence, those old things, are constants.

Installation photo of “Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment” at The New Museum; courtesy The New Museum
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Contact with Saul’s paintings can cause nausea. A few years back, I toured the galleries on Manhattan’s Fifty-seventh Street with a group of students; among our stops was a Saul exhibition at the Fifth Avenue branch of Mary Boone Gallery. Shortly after entering the venue, I noticed that one of my charges went missing, ultimately locating her, doubled-over, on the avenue. “Why,” she exclaimed, “would anyone want to paint these things?” Art critics we know about, but what else has Saul seen fit to castigate? The list is long: capital punishment, serial murderers, presidents (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, especially), “Yankee Garbage,” Christianity, capitalism, racial inequity, Joseph Stalin, Chairman Mao, classical antiquity, Manifest Destiny, the modern city-state, “woman’s arts,” spaghetti and meatballs, Andy Warhol, O. J. Simpson, Max Beckmann, and, not least, himself. How much you indulge the work depends on whose ox is being gored. Missing from “Crime and Punishment” is a self-portrait in which Saul is seen using Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain for the purpose it was originally intended–kind of. “Found objects ain’t worth a good shit” reads the caption. You get the idea.

Is it recommended that visitors to “Crime and Punishment” bring an air sickness bag? Saul would likely take it as a compliment, but he is, on the whole, a cheery figure—not hard to like, harder to take seriously. During the afternoon I attended the exhibition, visitors greeted the abundance of pictures, installed salon-style, with joyous exclamations, appreciative laughter, and then deadly quiet. The unrelenting nature of Saul’s vision—a temperament forever at its satiric boiling point—is, over the long haul, dulling. Notwithstanding the histrionics—or, rather, because of them— Saul’s art is resistible, even when you might be on the same page regarding this or that topic. “Consistency,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.” It’s also the pitfall of the exuberantly vituperative. All the same, one can’t help but wonder how the imagery might sit with younger audiences. Taking Republicans, law enforcement, and patriarchy to the cleaners is well and fine, but Saul’s depictions of the Yellow Peril, Angela Davis, and Native Americans are stridently unwoke. Maybe he’s the lone old white guy to get a pass on such things.

Peter Saul, Super Crime Team (1961-62), oil on canvas, 59 x 63″; courtesy the Hall Collection and The New Museum
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Subjecting “Crime and Punishment” to the puritanical requisites of Cancel Culture would only add to Saul’s reputation, of course. As it is, let me put in a brief for Saul’s early paintings–those ramshackle agglomerations of cartoonish glyphs and stray bits of verbiage, put into motion with hasty-bordering-on-slapdash brushwork and compositional strategies derived, albeit in a roundabout manner, from Cubism. Forget canny pasticheurs like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg: Saul is the real bridge between the New York School and Pop Art. His everything-and-the-toilet-seat commentaries on the ubiquity of mass media, the perils of consumerism, and the limitations of civil society retain their antisocial vigor some six decades after the fact. Saul is the rare painter who poaches upon the fly-by-night anarchy of graffiti and manages to retain its outlaw ésprit. (The scratchy appropriations of Jean Dubuffet and Jean Michel-Basquiat are, in comparison, polite conversation pieces.) Super Crime Team (1961–62), Girl #2 (1962), and Superman in the Electric Chair (1963) are as rude and ready as they want to be, employing scatology, iconoclasm, and overkill as a form of vanitas painting. Within these patchwork rebuses lie Saul’s contribution to the culture of our time. The rest is one man’s unrelenting misanthropy—pre-digested, prettified, and taxidermied to perfection.

© 2020 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the December 2020 edition of The New Criterion.

“Jordan Casteel: Within Reach” at The New Museum, New York

Installation of “Jordan Casteel: Within Reach” at The New Museum; courtesy The New Museum
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Strolling through “Jordan Casteel: Within Reach,” I was reminded of my time as a graduate student in the mid-1980s, a moment when Neo-Expressionism was just past its peak and the vacuum-sealed truisms of Post-Modernism were gaining a toehold in the collective consciousness. Among the controversies of the time was whether certain artists deserved their reputations, given their relative youth. David Salle and Julian Schnabel—there are others, but these two are lodged in memory—were fêted with museum exhibitions at the respective ages of thirty-five and thirty-six. Serious Artist–types harrumphed at the audacity. How could a Young Turk survive, let alone carry, a retrospective when history favors late bloomers? Titian, Matisse, Willem de Kooning, and Romare Bearden were settling into middle-age when they became the figures we now esteem. There have been Young Masters, of course: Raphael and Vermeer died before the age of forty, and their achievements were, to put it mildly, remarkable. Still, artists tend to gain in range and depth from prolonged experience with life. Posterity smiles, only occasionally, upon the whipper-snapper.

The Eighties were a signal time in the art world; strange, too. But the New York scene has become stranger still—political grand-standing coupled with a hyperbolic marketplace will do that to a subculture. Young artists are no longer frowned upon, and they are regularly (as a dealer of acquaintance put it) “cradle snatched” by curators, collectors, and critics. Are young folks more in tune with our kaleidoscopic world—as we are often led to believe—or are they more apt to latch onto it? The former connotes prescience; the latter, a chase after the bandwagon. Jordan Casteel is an interesting case in point. She has achieved astonishing success in a short span of time. Months after earning her MFA from Yale in 2014, Casteel had a solo exhibition in Manhattan, went on to a prestigious residency at The Studio Museum of Harlem, and was picked up by the art world macher Casey Kaplan. Jerry Saltz, the art critic for New York magazine, wrote that Casteel is “prepared to take a rightful place on the front lines of contemporary painting.” The New York Times? Casteel has received half a dozen notices—more recognition from our paper of record than most artists get in a lifetime. And since we’re keeping tabs: Casteel is thirty-one years old.

Jordan Casteel, The Baayfalls (2017), oil on canvas, 78 x 90″; courtesy The New Museum

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Good for Casteel: we should all be showered with attention and plaudits. Whether they are earned is another matter. Voluminous press, enviable sales, and the profile that inevitably accompanies them aren’t necessarily indicators of aesthetic quality or staying power. Art ultimately thrives on its independence and integrity, on how adroitly its requisite properties are shaped and how they embody and shade qualities we intuit as human commonalities. How good are Casteel’s paintings? (An impolitic question given the hierarchy-free nostrums of contemporary culture.) Fans of the terminally avant-garde will be taken aback by Casteel’s conservatism. Unlike the usual fare at The New Museum, Casteel doesn’t partake in installations of bric-à-brac or heady nostrums given bare-bones packaging. No bells and whistles, thank you very much: oil on canvas will do. Portraiture is Casteel’s métier: the sitter is the locus of, and inspiration for, the artist’s vision. Upon entering “Within Reach,” one can’t help but take note of the intimacy informing Casteel’s art—something of a paradox given its larger-than-life scale. Empathy and warmth are rare commodities in art as in life. Casteel’s best portraits are suffused with both.

In the catalogue interview, Casteel tells Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator at the Studio Museum, that “being a black artist painting people of color is a nonnegotiable, unchangeable fact.” She goes on to wonder if “it is possible to be a person from a marginalized community and still make ‘art for art’s sake.’ ” Casteel goes some way in answering the question with The Baayfalls (2017), a portrait of a Harlem street vendor and her brother, a recent visitor—or émigré—from Senegal. (The painting was recreated as a large mural adjacent to New York’s High Line on Twenty-second Street.) It’s an unlikely and ambitious inventory of pictorial tacks: representation vies with abstraction; vibrant colors are lodged within encompassing fields of gray, black, and white; volume and mass—that is to say, dimension— coexist with attenuated-bordering-on-blasé linework. The woman pictured, Fallou, makes a devotional gesture derived from the Sufi Brotherhood, but it is the presence of her brother, Baaye Demba Sow, that cinches the painting. Casteel renders his skin with a steely range of blue-blacks and captures a temperament—a moment, really—that is simultaneously world-weary and august. Romare Bearden aimed to “paint the life of my people as I know it . . . as Bruegel painted the life of the Flemish people of his day.” Casteel has accomplished something like this with The Baayfalls.

Jordan Casteel, Serwaa and Amoakohene (2019), oil on canvas, 90 x 78″; courtesy The New Museum * * *

Casteel isn’t up to the Bearden standard— few of us are—and it’s worth mulling if there are better role models for figurative painters than Alice Neel. Casteel is on record extolling Neel’s “freshness and sense of perfection,” and the influence is there to see. Casteel’s art is mercifully free of Neel’s cruel bonhomie, and her serpentine paint-handling is more generous in spirit and momentum. Like Neel, however, Casteel doesn’t carry her pictorial machinations throughout the entirety of the paintings. The backdrops for her subjects are, well, backdrops. Oddly crumpled in character, Casteel’s compositions are patchwork affairs, and the flattened light that defines them betrays too strong a dependence on the photographs that serve as source material. Casteel is liveliest when pattern and color are given a measure of independence: the red-and-green garment glimpsed in Her Turn (2018), for example, or the choppy run of textiles seen in Noelle and Serwaa and Amoakohene (2019). Casteel might take a look at Edouard Vuillard and his melding of portraiture and pattern—or Gwen John, a painter who did away with backdrops altogether. It’s enough to make you think that a bit of art-for-art’s-sake might transform “unchangeable fact” into something richer, wilder, and true. “Within Reach,” indeed: let’s see where Casteel takes us.

© 2020 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the November 2020 edition of The New Criterion.

“Forbidden Realms”

Mario Naves, A Stone Thrown in Athens (2019-20), acrylic on panel, 24 x 30″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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“Serenely joyful, subtly colored and Apollonian in affect”? Wow.

Thanks to Franklin Einspruch–artist, critic and brain trust of Delicious Line, an invaluable resource for mavens of contemporary art–for his review of my current exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery.

Not Having a Cow, Man!

Installation of “Mario Naves: Losing the Cow” at Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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The painter and critic Andrew Shea has posted a review of my current show at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, and I couldn’t ask for a more nuanced eye. Shea’s review can be found at Dispatch, the blog of The New Criterion.

“Losing the Cow”: Paintings by Mario Naves

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Bryce Canyon, Utah; Bryan Mullennix, Getty Images

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The following essay is included in the catalogue accompanying “Mario Naves: Losing the Cow”, an exhibition on display at Elizabeth Harris Gallery. Installation photos of the paintings can be seen here.

“A hell of a place to lose a cow”–that’s how the Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce, back in 1870, described the canyon in southern Utah that would come to bear his name. Almost fifty years later, the Suprematist artist Theo Van Doesburg painted an arrangement of rectangles derived from pencil studies of a cow. In between and surrounding these poles revolve some curious tangents—about perception and subjectivity; nature’s bounty; hierarchies of form; and the transformative pleasures of art.

What can be gained and what might be overlooked in losing the cow? For Bryce, the astonishing landscape of the American West was a hindrance; for van Doesburg, geometry superseded observation. The world, in both cases, proved inescapable.

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Theo van Doesburg, Study for Compostion VIII (c. 1917) and Composition VIII (The Cow) (c. 1918); courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York

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The paintings in this exhibition don’t begin from anything that specific–there’s not a barnyard in sight of my Lower East Side studio. Rather, each image is the culmination of impulses and allusions that arise during the process of painting.

Chance incident is pivotal. Blind alleys, unexpected digressions and a variety of conundrums are set out, jettisoned, excavated and explored. In pursuing and then clarifying this turn of events, I aim to create paintings that are as puzzling and peculiar as life itself, cows definitely included.

© 2020 Mario Naves

“Losing the Cow” at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York, NY

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The Flying Lesson (2019-20), acrylic on paper mounted on panel, 20″ in diameter; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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I am pleased to announce that Elizabeth Harris Gallery will be mounting an exhibition of my recent paintings come this September. “Losing the Cow” was originally scheduled for last April, but–well, you know, the world got in the way. The show will be open on September 5th and run through October 24th. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition.

As for the exhibition title–it involves Mormon pioneers, Theo van Doesburg and the lack of agriculture on the Lower East Side. Check this space in a week or so–I’ll be posting the catalogue essay.

 

“Marie Cuttoli: The Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray” at the Barnes Foundation

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Installation view of ““Marie Cuttoli: The Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray”; photo courtesy of The Barnes Foundation

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“Marie Cuttoli was a businesswoman: an entrepreneur possessed of a sharp eye, savvy marketing skills, and great connections. The redoubtable Albert Barnes vouched for her ‘foresight, courage, and knowledge.’ Lord & Taylor—yes, the department store—extolled her feminist bona fides, proving itself P.C.–prescient in 1927.”

Read the entire article here.

“Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist” at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

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Agnes Pelton, Day, 1935. Oil on canvas. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum; Gift of The Melody S. Robidoux Foundation; All photographs courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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Here’s one thing you can say about “Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist”: localism has its benefits. A retrospective of a reclusive and little-known painter has arrived in Manhattan, having originated in Phoenix and traveled to Santa Fe, and with Palm Springs set to be its final destination. Though Pelton (1881–1961) was born in Germany and educated in New York, she spent the last thirty years of her life holed up in southern California—Cathedral City, to be exact. No splashy international credentials here, thank you very much. What about auction house hoopla, ideological grandstanding, and post-modernist theorizing? Though anything can be drafted into the service of irksome trends, Pelton’s work, on the whole, proves resistant. Should we be so gauche, then, to consider matters of art? On those terms, “Desert Transcendentalist” succeeds nicely. What possessed the Whitney—an institution not known for placing a premium on aesthetic worth—to host such an understated, serious, and rewarding venture? Curator Barbara Haskell and senior curatorial assistant Sarah Humphreville must have done considerable strong-arming to convince their corporate bosses that Pelton was worth the real estate. Or maybe they mentioned Hilma af Klint.

You remember af Klint: the Swedish painter fêted by the Guggenheim a little over a year ago, and whose oeuvre was quite the smash. Af Klint’s diagrammatic pictographs found an appreciative audience that would otherwise have had little truck with abstraction. The backstory helped: af Klint (1862–1944) was a visionary who communed with the spirit world; she was a woman who, chronologically speaking, beat pioneering abstractionists like Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian—that is to say, the guys—at their own game; and she had a temperament inimical to the market-place. That the paintings are merely okay hasn’t fazed the cultish following that has amassed in af Klint’s wake. What will these same folks make of Pelton? She, too, immersed herself in the supernatural. Madame Blavatsky was a touchstone, as were astrology, numerology, faith healing, and Agni Yoga, a discipline in which true believers learn that (as per the official literature) “the way to and from other planets is no more difficult than is the passage between the physical and astral bodies.” Those of us leery about the state of our bodies, astral or otherwise, might be forgiven for thinking twice about trekking to the Whitney.

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Agnes Pelton, The Blest, 1941. Oil on canvas, 37 1/2 × 28 1/4 in. (95.3 × 71.8 cm). Collection of Georgia and Michael de Havenon. Photograph by Martin Seck

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Which would be a shame because Pelton is a find—a painter whose work reveals af Klint as a piker and confirms Georgia O’Keeffe to be a drab hand. The latter comparison is merited not only because Pelton and O’Keeffe took inspiration from the landscape of the American West—Pelton spent a formative season in New Mexico at the behest of the arts patron Mable Dodge—but also because they shared a distinctly homespun mysticism, as well as significant commonalities of form. Scholars conjecture that Pelton’s bent toward New Age nostrums can be traced to a highly publicized family scandal: her grandmother Elizabeth Tilton (already married and with children) was famously exposed as having had an affair with the firebrand evangelist Henry Ward Beecher. Having felt “overshadowed” and “cramped” by this legacy, and suffering from poor health, Pelton sought solace outside of conventional religious and medical practice. This led, interestingly enough, to some noteworthy connections among the culturati—not only Dodge, but also Emma Curtis Hopkins, a practitioner of “alternative feminist theology,” and Alice Brisbane Thursby. Hopkins served as Pelton’s therapist; Thursby as patron and promoter. The latter’s connections to the Parisian avant-garde did much to cement Pelton’s reputation within New York circles. She was no starry-eyed outsider.

large_804_Orbits_copy.jpgAgnes Pelton, Orbits, 1934. Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 × 30 in. (92.1 × 76.2 cm). Oakland Museum of California; gift of Concours d’Antiques, the Art Guild of the Oakland Museum of California

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As I noted in my review of the af Klint exhibition, philosophical loopiness shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand when it comes to art. It has, in fact, occasioned a fair share of significant work, and Pelton is a sterling case in point. Admittedly, “Desert Transcendentalist” does stutter toward the beginning, with pictures like Room Decoration in Purple and Gray (1917), with its fairy tale portent and Futurist mannerisms, and Intimation (1933) and Barna Dilae (1935), saccharine and sticky portraits of imagined “ascended masters.” Even so, these images are characterized by patiently calibrated surfaces and lustrous accumulations of oil paint. Pelton’s brush flutters with a becoming modesty, and her palette is striking in its luminosity. This is an art of bottomless, crystalline color, and spaces so nuanced in their transitions as to occasion double-takes. As a symbolist, Pelton was better off forgoing direct representation; suggestion and distillation were her strengths. In the finest paintings, constellations, flora, and sandstone mesas are subsumed within gentle arabesques, sloping rhythms, and compositional buoyancy. The Whitney’s Sea Change (1931), with its off-center accumulation of bulbous forms nestled within a crepuscular light, is Hudson River School sensationalism melded with Surrealist whimsy. Sounds awful, but it is, in truth, a magnificent picture, and not a little sexy to boot.

Pelton employed Modernist means when adumbrating form, but the chromatic and spatial resonance of the pictures—their clarity, depth, and jewel-like sonorities—are pure Renaissance fortitude. The ascending motes of light in Orbits (1934) and the keening tonality enveloping Challenge (1940) owe less to Arthur Dove—another painter with whom Pelton shares artistic turf—than, say, Raphael. A hyperbolic comparison, sure, but name another twentieth-century artist who created anything close to the infinite yellow of Prelude (1943) or the milky veils of unnameable color that filter through The Blest (1941). Pelton’s more tangible shapes can be cartoony and do edge upon kitsch, but they carry with them a wit and resilience that is appealing and welcome. Gilbert Vicario, the Selig Family Chief Curator at the Phoenix Art Museum and the organizer of “Desert Transcendentalist,” has wisely chosen not to include Pelton’s traditional landscape paintings. Though accomplished, these pictures-done-for-profit are woefully bland when contrasted with even the wobbliest of Pelton’s spiritualist reveries. As for the non-wobbly reveries —of which there are a baker’s dozen or two— they are stunners. Coming into initial contact with them, you can’t help but wonder where they’ve been all your life. Kudos to Haskell and Humphreville for bringing this exhibition to New York, and especially Vicario, for knowing a good painter when he sees one.

© 2020 Mario Naves

This review originally appeard in the May 2020 edition of The New Criterion.