Category Archives: Painting

“Natural Talent”: The Art of Giovanni Battista Moroni

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Giovanni Battista Moroni, Lucia Albani Avogrado, called La Dama in Rosso (The Lady in Red) (ca. 1554-57), oil on canvas, 61 x 42″; courtesy The National Gallery, London

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The following article was originally published in the May 23, 2012 edition of City Arts and is posted here on the occasion of “Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture”, an exhibition currently on display at The Frick Collection. My review of the Frick show will appear in an upcoming issue of The New Criterion.

Blink during your next visit to the Met and you’re likely to miss Bellini, Titian, And Lotto; North Italian Paintings from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, an exhibition snuggled almost imperceptibly into the museum’s collection of European art. As the Accademia Carrara undergoes renovation, the Met is hosting fifteen of its paintings as a means to “expand [the Accademia’s] reputation internationally.”

The last time the Met and the Accademia Carrera joined forces was with a revelatory exhibition of still-life paintings by local hero Evaristo Baschenis (1617-1677). The current venture doesn’t pack the same punch. The star names might lead you to believe otherwise, but the lone Titian canvas is, at best, a curio and–what’s that again?–an attribution. Bellini’s Pieta With The Virgin and Saint John (ca. 1455-60) is–well, it’s a dud. Compare it to the Met’s own Madonna and Child (ca. 1480) and weep.

Lotto justifies marquee billing. Three altarpiece panels originally installed in the Church of San Bartolomeo evince a showman of impeccable concision, if not at the top of his powers. That distinction is earned with Portrait of Lucina Brembati (1518-23), wherein Lotto adroitly concentrates his knack for rendering finery and tapping into the psyche. The more time you spend with Ms. Brembati, the more intimate, and unnerving, the encounter. Wow, you think–the things a painting can do.

The same sentiment can be applied to canvases by Giovanni Battista Moroni, a lesser-known “natural talent” whose gift for portraiture won Titian’s recommendation. Moroni’s Portrait of a Little Girl of the Redetti Family (ca. 1570) is a remarkable evocation (or illusion) of a child wiser than her years. But Portrait of a Twenty-nine-year-old Man (1567) is the triumph, the sitter’s wary individuality having been distilled with no consequent loss in mystery.

The remainder of Bellini, Titian and Lotto is filled out with drab talents (Bergognone), by-the-book tradesmen (Giovanni Cariani) and flashy pasticheurs (Andrea Previtali). On the slim evidence at hand, it’s difficult to know whether Vincenzo Foppa or Moretto Da Brescia are more than that. Is Da Brescia’s Christ and a Devotee (1518) a happy one-off or does it herald a minor master? The Met and the Accademia Carrara should join forces again to answer that question for the rest of us.

© 2012 Mario Naves

 

“Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Ilona Keserü, Wall Hanging With Tombstone Forms (Tapestry) (1969), stitching on chemically dyed linen, 62 x 147-1/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

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“If you’re going to do something, do it right”— so goes the old adage. Would that Randall Griffey, a curator in the Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, had heeded the advice. The exhibition he’s organized, “Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera,” is touted as a “fresh and perhaps surprising” take on “artists who have adopted, adapted, and even critiqued” the New York School. It is, in actuality, much ado about nothing—nothing, that is, spread over acres of canvas. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, particularly given some of the featured artists. These include significant figures like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, David Smith, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Kline, along with artists tangential to, or following upon, Abstract Expressionism: Alfonso Ossorio, Joan Mitchell, Morris Louis, Isamu Noguchi, and others. There are also outliers—the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely, for instance, and Ilona Keserü, a Hungarian artist who will be new to a lot of us—as well as artists whose ties to the New York School are, if not altogether tenuous, then markedly anachronistic. “Epic Abstraction” is all over the place, yet, in the end, not in as many places as it should be.

Griffey is, admittedly, working with limited means. “Epic Abstraction” is predominantly composed of work from the museum’s holdings, as well as promised gifts; loans are few and far between. Having long had a fractious relationship with modernism proper and contemporary art specifically, the Met can’t boast a comprehensive collection of either. A history of caution bordering on suspicion makes for a spotty acquisition record. The museum’s array of pre-war modern art has filled out, and for the better, since the establishment of the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing in 1987. The “contemporary” Met, in marked contrast, continues to have a bumpy adolescence. The exhibition program at the soon-to-be-vacated Met Breuer is a case in point: it has veered from breathtaking and brilliant to cluelessly au courant. None of us possesses a crystal ball; divining the staying power of this or that figure is tough work. Still, one wishes curators would exhibit even a scintilla of moxie and independence. How many roll-outs of auction-house darlings or iterations of ideological fashion do we need? “Epic Abstraction” capitulates to these tendencies.

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Chakaia Booker, Raw Attraction (2001), rubber tire, steel and wood, 42 x 32 x 40; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

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The show begins with a negligible sculptor and ends with a willful painter—no, not Pol- lock and Carmen Herrera, as the exhibition title suggests, but Dan Flavin and Elizabeth Murray. Murray’s multi-paneled relief painting can make a claim to being epic—or, at least, big— and is suitably abstract. But Flavin? Industrial lighting—the métier is “cool white fluorescent light”—doesn’t count as either. Turning a corner, viewers encounter an untitled 1958 canvas by Kazuo Shiraga, a proponent of Gutai, the Japanese equivalent of Abstract Expressionism. Shiraga’s painting—a visceral accumulation of gestural brushstrokes—sends a signal, softly stated but emphatic all the same, that what’s to follow is a reimagining of the canon. The shift isn’t radical or abrupt. Pollock follows in some abundance, as does Mark Rothko and, to a lesser degree, Clyfford Still. The trajectory of “Epic Abstraction” is, in fact, fairly predictable. Repeat after me: the excesses of the New York School are winnowed down into the ephemeral expanses of Color Field painting, which, in turn, devolves into the obdurate literalism of Minimal Art. All of which receives pushback from the anything-goes ethos of Pluralism, culminating in . . . Alexander Calder? Well, that’s unpredictable.

The inclusion of the Calder mobile has, one feels, less to do with enlarging on stylistic or chronological continuity than with scrambling to fill precious exhibition space. Too bad Four Directions (1956) is Calder in crowd-pleasing mode: bland doesn’t equal epic. Or does it? That does seem to be the upshot of “Epic Abstraction.” With the exception of a spectacular set piece—Mrs. N’s Palace (1964–77), in which the sculptor Louise Nevelson is seen at her most theatrical—wishy-washiness predominates. This is true even when taking into account the nods to globalism and identity politics—neither of which is inherently bad as long as the indicative works are inherently good. As it is, pieces by Mark Bradford, Alma Thomas, and Thornton Dial— African-Americans, all—are as stately, static, and dull as Kenneth Noland’s October (1961), Robert Mangold’s Column Structure (VIII) (2006), Anne Truitt’s Goldsborough (1974), and anything by Barnett Newman and Ellsworth Kelly, the oeuvres of whom are looking more underwhelming with each passing year. Kudos to the Hortense and William A. Mohr Sculpture Purchase Fund for recognizing the imagination and grit coursing through Raw Attraction by Chakaia Booker (2001). Though relatively modest in size, the Booker piece—a muscular accumulation of rubber tires, steel, and wood—reverberates beyond its physical scale. Now we’re talking epic.

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Joan Snyder, Smashed Strokes Hope (1971), oil on canvas, 72 x 144″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The Met exhibition would be improved in diversity and quality through the addition of artists like Ed Clark, Martin Puryear, James Little, Melvin Edwards, Terry Adkins, Lisa Corinne Davis, and Nanette Carter. Are any of them in the permanent collection? They should be. And what about the painter Jack Whitten, whose three-dimensional work was recently fêted at the Met Breuer? Since I’m making a wish list, let me mention The Flesh Eaters by William Baziotes (1952), The Battle by Conrad Marca-Relli (1956), Rising Green by Lee Krasner (1972), and Diva by Marthe Keller (1993). The Met owns all of them, and they are of a size, scope, and merit to have supplanted pictures by the overly eclectic Jennifer Bartlett, the relentlessly stringent Bridget Riley, and the just-plain-dreadful Yayoi Kusama. It’s a boon that Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Snyder are seen at the top of their games (Snyder’s 1971 Smashed Strokes Hope is the most cohesive and nuanced work I’ve seen by the artist), and the Keserü tapestry is idiosyncratic enough in rhythm and construction to prompt one’s curiosity for more. If only “Epic Abstraction” had built upon that idiosyncrasy. There are better methods of adoption, adaptation, and critique than settling for blissful and boring.

© 2019 Mario Naves

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2019 Mario Naves

“Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist” at The Barnes Foundation

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Berthe Morisot, In The Dining Room (1880), oil on canvas, 36-1/8 x 28-3/4″; Collection of Mrs. George Shutt, courtesy of The Barnes Foundation

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In The Dining Room (1880), a painting included in “Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist,” eludes ready explication, in large part because it seems so impossible. As an image, it couldn’t be closer to the mundane: a housemaid tends to some dinnerware. She is shunted to the right of the composition, her back to the viewer. At the bottom left, we see a cropped tabletop featuring an unkempt array of dishes and utensils. Towering over the scene, perched atop a mantle, is a sizable ceramic serving piece. The moment encapsulated—offhand, all but absent of import—recalls the tensile informality of Chardin’s genre paintings, and points to the furtive mises-en-scène of Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. What sets the Morisot apart is its evanescence. Nothing in the painting achieves firm definition; concreteness remains elusive. Shapes are delineated through a scrabbled array of dots, dabs, dashes, and squiggles. Morisot’s brushwork builds form from the inside out: the maid’s skirt is, in painterly terms, a hurricane. The scene gains presence even as it threatens to dissipate. In The Dining Room is a quickening performance.

“Performance” is the operative word. Morisot’s pictures move. In their brevity and rhythm, the paintings are unlike those of any Impressionist you could care to name. The work makes that of her peers—Manet, Monet, Degas, and Renoir, each of whom was a friend of Morisot’s—look classical in repose, rigid and composed. When confronted by the whiplash facture of Woman at Her Toilette (1875–80), Reclining Woman in Gray (1879), or Young Girl with Doll (1884), you begin to wonder if the “Impressionist” tag is altogether appropriate. Forget how the paintings were received at the end of the nineteenth century—at least, outside of her cohorts in the avant-garde. Morisot’s art continues to startle, fairly leaping off the walls. Up until the 1890s, when she fell under the (not altogether happy) influence of Renoir and Munch, Morisot is all edge—sometimes impatient, ever acute, curiously dispassionate, and tenacious in the attempt to reconcile the observed world with the often resistant prerequisites of oil painting. Even the most bucolic tableaux—say, the late afternoon leisure of Reading (1888)—are infused with a staccato sense of doubt. Morisot described painting as a “pitched battle with my canvases.” Her best pictures trill with the drama of their making.

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Berthe Morisot, Young Girl with Doll (1884), oil on canvas, 32-1/4 x 9-3/8″; courtesy The Barnes Foundation

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Born in 1841 to well-off parents, the teenage Morisot, along with older sister Edma, took up painting at their mother’s request—for the sole purpose of crafting birthday gifts for Père Morisot. A passion for the art form was consequently instilled in both sisters. After rifling through a spate of instructors, most notably Corot, Berthe and Edma met with early success—exhibiting works in the 1864 Paris Salon and garnering favorable critical notice. Falling in with the advanced circles of Parisian culture, the sœurs Morisot hobnobbed with notables like Henri Fantin-Latour, Charles Baudelaire, Émile Zola, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Edma put down her brushes in 1869 upon marrying Adolphe Pontillon, a naval lieutenant stationed in Lorient. Berthe persevered, notwithstanding the constant—and irksome—hubbub surrounding her eligibility. Edma warned her off marriage, encouraging Berthe to “use all your skill and all your charm to find something more satisfactory to you.” Berthe didn’t need convincing. Flatly dismissing romance—which was, you know, “all very well”—Morisot never wavered in her commitment to painting. This was true even when she did marry in 1874, at the ripe old age of thirty-three, to Eugène Manet, the artist’s brother.

The Morisot and Manet families had long been close, and it’s been the scuttlebutt of art history that Berthe’s true love was not Eugène but Edouard. The two artists were close, with Manet having what seems, in contemporary terms, an unhealthy preoccupation with his friend’s marriageability. All the same, Manet took seriously Morisot’s skills as a painter, and she, in turn, ardently sought his counsel. Morisot figures prominently in Manet’s oeuvre: she’s the stony figure in the foreground of The Balcony (1868–69), and she was the subject of several portraits. Morisot never reciprocated the favor; however, Eugene can be seen in a trio of paintings, each of which features him ensconced in a garden setting with their small daughter. (For what it’s worth, Eugène is also on view at the periphery of a small landscape from 1875.) However much we may want to read into the Manet-Morisot union through the pictures—Eugene comes across as testy and preoccupied—attention should be focused less on romantic rumor than on Morisot’s portrayals of women, not least herself and Edma. A self- portrait from 1885 depicts a temperament that is bracingly self-possessed and markedly bereft of ego. The Cradle (1872), in which Edma gazes upon her newborn daughter, is an image of motherhood that is rarely touched upon in the visual arts. Few paintings have captured the misgivings of parenthood with as much candor and clarity.

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Berthe Morisot, Self-Portrait (1885), oil on canvas, 24 x 19-11/16″; collection of Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, courtesy of The Barnes Foundation

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Women are, in fact, the focus of the Barnes show: not just Morisot herself, but her extended family, fashionable Parisiennes, household help, and sundry models. Is it possible to avoid identity in writing about this show, particularly at this hyper-politicized juncture? The very title of the exhibition—“Woman Impressionist”— raises the question, as does a catalogue that begins enumerating Morisot’s life and achievement by rolling out—mais naturellement!—the Guerilla Girls. Morisot was markedly aware of prevailing cultural attitudes: her diaries and correspondence are rife with pithy observations on the condescension she encountered as a woman artist. It’s also true that the work was highly regarded by her male peers, and that Morisot’s professional career was enviable. That we are only fitfully aware of her accomplishment here in the twenty-first century can be checked off to many things, sexism included. Still, foisting contemporary mores on bygone figures is a fraught venture, if only because it tends to strong-arm history and short-change complexity. Morisot is too individual a painter and personality to fit into anybody’s ideological straitjacket. “Woman Impressionist”? Try “Great Painter.” Ultimately, that’s what the Barnes show delivers. It should not be missed.

© 2018 Mario Naves

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

“Glenn Goldberg: Plums and Breezes” at The New York Studio School

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Glenn Goldberg, Guy 2 (Snow) (2011), acrylic and ink on canvas, 9 x 12″; courtesy the artist and The New York Studio School

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To get an idea of the curious byways an artist might find himself exploring, here, in the twenty-first century, you can’t do better than head to the New York Studio School’s “Glenn Goldberg: Plums and Breezes,” an adumbrated, if somewhat bumpy, overview spanning forty years. “Plums and Breezes” begins in 1977, when Goldberg entered the Studio School as a student, and works its way to pieces of a more recent vintage by the now–Associate Professor of Painting at Queens College. Goldberg’s trajectory, and more so his landing place, offer an example of how quixotic the artist’s lot has become . . .

The rest of this review can be found at Dispatch, the blog of The New Criterion.

Tangible, Fleeting and Permanent: The Art of Alberto Giacometti

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Alberto Giacometti, Nose (Le nez), 1947 (cast 1949). Bronze, wire, rope, and steel, 81 x 71.4 x 39.4 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 66.1807. © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP/FAAG, Paris

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The following review was originally published in the November 27, 2005 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of “Giacometti”, an upcoming exhibition at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

The Women of Giacometti, an array of paintings and sculptures by the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), on display at Pace Wildenstein, prompts a kind of yearning that has become familiar at the 57th Street branch of the gallery. Past shows bringing together Bonnard and Rothko, de Kooning and Dubuffet, Mondrian and Ad Reinhardt, and the near-holy trinity of Hans Arp, Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Calder were so good that many wished they could be permanently installed. Now The Women of Giacometti shines a clarifying spotlight on yet another modern master.

On the morning I went to see it, each visitor accorded Giacometti’s art an almost religious obeisance, whether it was a student clad in tattered jeans or a well-heeled gent with (one imagines) money to burn. Everyone spoke in whispers; the stray ringing of a cell phone set off reproachful looks and ardent apologies. The installation, deliberately paced and dramatically lit, encourages reverence. And the work itself commands the sort of grave attention that cuts the chatter.

If the unhurried tour offered by The Women of Giacometti doesn’t glance upon every facet of the artist’s career, it comes close. The earliest piece on view was painted when he was 19 years old; it’s a Cézanne-like painting of his sister Ottilia. Early efforts in sculpture—a plaster bust of Ottilia; a roughhewn, Cubist-inspired portrayal of Flora Mayo, an American who studied alongside him—are more convincing. (Both pieces date from around 1926.) A preternatural, if still unrefined, gift for working in three dimensions is clearly evident.

A representative sampling of the primitivist sculptures that put Giacometti in good standing with the Surrealists is on display, including the Guggenheim’s renowned Woman with Her Throat Cut (1932). There’s a better selection of the late work, with its anxious, skeptical tone and solitary figures (elongated in the sculpture, ghost-like in the paintings). These latter pieces famously induced André Breton’s ire. The “Black Pope of Surrealism” found them insufficiently radical and booted Giacometti from the camp. Giacometti happily took his leave: He’d had his fill of what he called Surrealist “masturbation,” pegging the failings of that crowd with devastating accuracy.

Few painters in the history of art have been as relentless as Giacometti in exploring the meaning of perception. His self-appointed task was the accurate transcription of observed phenomenon, but it was his belief that attempting to fix an always-mutable physical reality, whether it be in oils or plaster, was folly. It’s well known—among his admirers, at least—that he considered himself a failure. A profound sense of despair permeates the work, but it wasn’t the existentialist romance foisted upon it by Jean-Paul Sartre, Giacometti’s friend and booster. Rather, it was occasioned by the vexing pursuit of giving tangible and permanent form to fleeting, ever-changing incident.

Alberto Giacometti in the studio; © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris)

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In paintings like Portrait of Caroline (1962) and Caroline Seated with a Red Dress (1965), he entombs the title character within jittery skeins of oil paint. Overlapping and lilting lines are typically left loose in the torso, but they coalesce into an almost sculptural mass in the face. The effect is discomfiting, even nerve-wracking, but irresistible in its pull. Giacometti makes his doubt plain. No brushstroke is arbitrary; no hesitation escapes comment. Caroline Seated with a Red Dress has an almost expressionist fervor, yet it stubbornly retains a clinical adherence to physical fact—a thrilling paradox.

Alas, The Women of Giacometti also makes plain what MoMA’s 2001 retrospective intimated: History has been kinder to the painter than to the sculptor. You hate to say it, particularly given the somber majesty of Giacometti’s achievement, but, boy, are those lumpy, spindly figures looking hokey. They’re even worse when they’re placed atop carriages or inside boxes: Giacometti’s attempt to locate the sculptures in space can be self-conscious and, at times, alarmingly arch. The paintings can come precariously close to mannerism; the sculptures don’t fight it off at all. An innate knack for sculpture led to a slackening of aesthetic vigilance, which in turn led to indulgence—albeit of a dour variety.

The extreme exaggeration of anatomy, the frazzled and theatrical textures, the bathetic dénouement—the sculptures aren’t much ado about nothing exactly, but Giacometti striving for effect is something less than Giacometti the master. When comparisons to Rodin flit into one’s mind, second thoughts follow soon thereafter. Fortunately, the painter responsible for canvases as unflinching and grand as The Artist’s Mother (1950) and Seated Woman (1958) emerges unscathed. That’s reason enough to cherish this splendidly conceived, intelligently executed exhibition.

© 2005 Mario Naves

 

Open Studios 2018 @ The Clemente

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

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

​Please click here for more information.

I hope to see you there!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2018 Mario Naves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 Mario Naves

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