Category Archives: Printmaking

“Independent Visions: Helene Schjerfbeck and Her Contemporaries” at Scandinavia House

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Helene Schjerfbeck, Self Portrait with Red Spot (1944), oil on canvas, 45 x 37 cm; courtesy Ateneum Art Museum/Finnish National Gallery

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The magic of painting is in how an accumulation of color can encapsulate and elaborate upon lived experience. A tired observation, perhaps, but when such a moment hits full force it still comes across as something of a miracle. How can so much be embodied by (to quote Symbolist painter Maurice Denis) “a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order”? It seems so improbable, and so rare. This train of thought came to mind while traversing “Independent Visions: Helene Schjerfbeck and Her Contemporaries,” a pleasantly innocuous exhibition of four Finnish painters, all of whom are women. Pleasant and innocuous, that is, until one encounters Self-Portrait with Red Spot (1944) by Schjerfbeck (1862–1946). Has there been a meditation on the depredations of growing older quite as pitiless? You’d have to look to late Rembrandt or Bonnard to find a picture that confronts mortality with as much sobriety and candor. (Schjerfbeck painted it at age eighty-two.) Applying a hurried gray wash and a jab of pink—the “red” in the title— Schjerfbeck created an image of scarifying self-awareness. It likely took five minutes to put Self-Portrait with Red Spot into place, but, really, a lifetime went into its making.

The name “Schjerfbeck” might ring a bell for New Yorkers with some sense of cultural memory. She was the subject of a 1992 retrospective at The National Academy of Design, and the paintings—stylized, astringent and largely unknown on these shores—resonated with devotees of the artform. Schjerfbeck is a national treasure in Finland, and on the evidence at Scandinavia House—around twenty canvases or so—it’s easy to intuit why: she’s an uncompromising, if at times highly affected, talent. At her best, Schjerfbeck holds vulnerability and measure in wiry equilibrium. In Self-Portrait, Black Background (1915), she strikes an imperial pose even as the weathered paint film connotes doubt and, with it, a strain of tenderness. Schjerfbeck’s love of the canvas weave is patent throughout “Independent Visions,” as erased, abraded and revised runs of oil paint are allowed to remain in its tooth. But try nosing up to the paintings—they call for it, after all—and you’ll be thwarted. Electric eyes are installed throughout the gallery: robotic warnings to step back are persistent—and an annoyance. More frustrating is the retractable stanchion placing viewers at a significant distance from Self-Portrait, Black Background and the sumptuous Red Apples (1915). What a cheat.

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Ellen Thesleff, Self-Portrait with Hat (1935), oil on canvas, 44 x 38 cm./courtesy Ateneum Art Museum/Finnish National Gallery

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Granted, neither canvas is protected by glass, and the Ateneum Art Museum, the Finnish collection from which “Independent Visions” is culled, surely wants its masterworks returned in good condition. It is, in fact, an indication of Schjerfbeck’s importance that only the gallery housing her work at Scandinavia House is cordoned off in such a manner. (Still, you’d think there would be better ways to prompt aesthetic reflection than putting viewers in mind of waiting on line at the airport.) The paintings and prints of Sigrid Schauman (1877–1979), Ellen Thesleff (1869–1954), and Elga Sesemann (1922–2007)—“the contemporaries” cited in the exhibition title—aren’t hindered by such restraints, and it’s a boon, particularly given how emphatic texture unites them. Applying pigment with a palette knife seems to have been de rigueur—was its use promoted amongst Finnish ateliers?—and points to an awareness of vanguards outside the country, particularly Post-Impressionism. Brusqueness is the rule. Thesleff ’s rainbow-colored wood-cuts of Italy are no less physical than a pair of scrabbled portraits in oil by Schaumann displayed nearby. The innovations of early Modernism liberated these painters in ways that retain a modicum of edge, of newness and excitement.

Of course, the primary thing that liberated these women was that they were able to pursue viable careers as artists at all. The independence put forth in the title cuts in more ways than one. Yes, the exhibition “delves into the role of the modern woman,” to quote Dr. Susanna Pettersson, the director of the Finnish National Gallery; it has also been mounted in honor of the centennial anniversary of valtalaki, the “Power Law” transferring governmental power from the Russian Empire to the Finnish parliament. Finland had proven itself to be at the forefront of equality, being among the first Western countries to give women the vote in 1906. Which isn’t to say that chauvinism vanished overnight. Writing in the catalogue, the Ateneum curator Anu Utrainen, who, along with Pettersson, organized “Independent Visions,” cites a 1921 Schjerfbeck letter in which she bemoans popular conceptions about what a woman should and should not portray in art. Still, those tempted to foist a “feminist” tag on Schjerfbeck have their work cut out for them. She bristled at the “female artist” tag and wanted no part of gender-specific exhibitions: “Shouldn’t art be all that matters?”

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Elga Sesemann, Self-Portrait (1946), oil on canvas, 77 x 68 cm.; courtesy Ateneum Art Museum/Finnish National Gallery

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Absolutely, but circumstance has a sneaky way of funneling into the work. The lot of the artist, let alone a woman artist working outside of a major cultural center, is keenly felt, if not always explicitly stated, at Scandinavia House. (It’s stated plainly enough in the catalogue, wherein we read Schjerfbeck’s advice to Schaumann: “Never become an artist. The world will let an artist perish.”) It can’t be a coincidence that the strongest pieces in “Independent Visions” are the self-portraits. Schjerfbeck deserves a place of prominence in the genre (though her Art Deco–inspired mannerisms are off-putting), but Sesemann, Thesleff and, especially, Schaumann bring to portraiture a dour self-regard and haunting sense of isolation. An undated Schaumann canvas barely brings itself to fruition, threatening to dissipate even as it coalesces into tangible form. Elsewhere, an elegantly appointed Thesleff regards herself with wary dispassion, and Sesemann, the artist seen least in abundance, opts for moody anomie. There are other types of imagery on view—Thesleff ’s mordant and whimsical Marionettes (1907), for example, or her Klimt-like Decorative Landscape (1910)—but they’re absent the nettlesome gravitas brought to bear on the portraits. A fuller accounting of each painter’s oeuvre might prove otherwise, but, in the meantime, “Independent Visions” serves as a noteworthy introduction to a byway of Modernism that will be new to a lot of us.

© 2017 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 edition of The New Criterion.

“The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Hercules Segers, The Mossy Tree (ca. 1625-30), lift-ground etching printed in green, on a light pink ground, colored with brush/unique impression, 6-5/8 x 3-7/8″; Collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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As much as a person might try, it’s impossible to escape the imprimatur and influence–some might say “taint”–of Hollywood. At the entrance to“The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers,” museum-goers encounter an introductory video narrated by the actor John Malkovich. It is, admittedly, an adroit fit: Malkovich has cultivated an air of idiosyncrasy and affectlessness in his choice of roles and in his public demeanor. Who better to introduce contemporary viewers to an intensely quixotic painter and printmaker known primarily to specialists of seventeenth-century Dutch art? Notwithstanding Malkovich’s stated admiration for Rembrandt, there’s something condescending, not to mention tiresome and predictable, in trotting out a movie star to clue us into the dimly remembered Hercules Segers (ca. 1589–ca. 1638). The Met wouldn’t be the first museum to poach upon the glitz of showbiz, and it won’t be the last. But do curators really think they need to goose the audience with a frisson of celebrity for it to sit up and take notice?

Having said that, “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers” does bring scholarly focus to a singular talent. Organized by Nadine M. Orenstein, the Met’s Drue Heinz Curator in Charge of the Department of Drawings and Prints, the exhibition draws heavily on European collections, especially the Rijksmuseum: its entire holdings of Segers work— seventy-four prints, two oil sketches, and one canvas—are currently ensconced on the Upper East Side. The scarcity of Segers’s art stateside accounts, in some measure, for this being the first American overview. Still, he’s never truly been an approachable artist—in our day or his own. Writing in 1678, the painter Samuel van Hoogstraten cited Segers as a “disregarded . . . great artist” who was “murdered by poverty”—this, in a cautionary text titled “How an Artist Should Conduct Himself Against the Blows of Fortune.” Van Hoogstraten’s interest may have been prompted by his teacher Rembrandt, who is known to have owned (and re-worked) Segers’s art. Certainly, van Hoogstraten’s telling of Segers’s fate and reputation is clouded by hearsay and romance. For decades following his death, poems and prints mourned and/or celebrated Segers’s “abject poverty.” Tragic stories die hard: Segers became (as the catalogue has it) the “poster child” for starving, misunderstood artists.

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Hercules Segers, The Tomb of the Horatii and Curiatii (ca. 1628-29), line etching printed with tone and highlights, colored with brush; unique impression, 5-1/16 × 7-11/16″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The historical record has been fleshed out some since Van Hoogstraten’s time, but it remains fragmentary, and somewhat contradictory. Writing in the catalogue, the historian Jaap Van Der Veen undergoes—and the pun will be forgiven, I hope—Herculean contortions in the attempt to hone in on the particulars of Segers’s life. Though peppered with qualifiers, Van Der Veen’s essay explains that Segers came from a moneyed family—his parents, Pieter and Cathelijne, were merchants—and was a student of the Flemish landscapist Gillis van Coninxloo. Segers eventually established himself as an artist and art dealer in Amsterdam, and experienced enough success to purchase a house on the Lindengracht in 1619. A few years later, however, Segers underwent financial distress: the house was put under foreclosure and his workshop dismantled. Van Hoogstraten’s claim that no one “wanted to look at [Segers’s] works in his lifetime” has been viewed as an indicator of the extreme indigence into which he had fallen. The support of Segers’ admirers and collectors couldn’t save him. Segers took to drinking and fell to his death down a flight of stairs. He was forty-nine.

Which would make Segers a run-of-the-mill character if his accomplishment didn’t extend beyond a ragged mythos. As it is, Segers’s art—and even more so the prints than the paintings—has a sneaking, slow-burning fascination. Though limited in scope and subject, Segers’s work is prone to moody flashes of ecstasy and marked by an overriding, somewhat cloistered eccentricity. Notwithstanding the stray still-life or Biblical scene, panoramic landscapes were the man’s métier. The bowl-shaped compositions are fairly pedestrian, and rarely veer from a foreground/middle ground/background orientation—a pictorial foundation that must have already seemed pat in the age of van Ruisdael, van Goyen, and Hobbema. Most of these vistas were, in fact, gleaned from second-hand sources. Their hyperbolic crags and tors are unlike other Netherlandish landscapes (and unlike the landscape of the Netherlands), and were pinched from Pieter Bruegel the Elder or, more likely, copies after Bruegel. Segers’s dependence on Bruegel’s example did allow a certain freedom, serving as a reliable armature for textural indulgence and experiments in blending the boundaries between painting and printmaking. It says quite a lot about Segers’s methodology that his mixed-media pieces retain an unpredictable élan some four hundred years after the fact.

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Rembrandt van Rijn and Hercules Segers, Flight into Egypt altered from Tobias and the Angel by Segers (ca. 1653), etching reworked with drypoint and burin by Rembrandt; sixth state of seven Plate: 8-7/16 × 11″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The most exciting moments in “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers” occur when Segers takes a single etched image and calls it dramatically into question—making multiple impressions, wildly changing tonality and color, and, not a few times, dabbing at the print with colored ink and paint. The diminutive Valley with a River and a Town with Four Towers (ca. 1627–27) is seen in six distinct variations, the most startling of which is all but obscured by an immeasurably rich blue. Segers’s attention to texture, particularly in the geological formations, veers from being irritably delicate to coarse—bordering on clumsy—often within a single piece. As a printmaker, Segers was clearly not given to preciosity; so much so, that one can’t help but wonder if some pieces were one-offs that Segers never got around to discarding. Whatever the case, the prints pulse, and thrive, with risk. The paintings, and there are only a handful on display, are considerably less arresting—a reflection based, perhaps, on contemporary taste, but it is more likely that Segers brought a sharper sense of invention while at the printing press than when in front of an easel. Our narrator, John Malkovich, goes so far as to describe Segers’s prints as “avant-garde.” And you know what? For once that outmoded adjective is rightfully earned. Here in the far-flung twenty-first century, the outré character of Segers’s art may well be the most mysterious thing about him.

© 2017 Mario Naves

This article was originally published in the April 2017 edition of The New Criterion.

“Munch and Expressionism” at The Neue Galerie, New York

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Edvard Munch, The Scream (1895), pastel and board on the original frame; courtesy The Neue Galerie, New York

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Is there any pocket of culture that isn’t conversant with, if not the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863–1944) himself, then his signature canvas The Scream? Few images have filtered through the popular imagination with as much persistence. Like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Grant Wood’s American Gothic, and Alberto Gorda’s photograph of Che Guevara, Munch’s paean to psychological distress has been honored, quoted, and parodied; it’s proven infinitely parrot-able. Here in the twenty-first century, The Scream has been co-opted by the digital zeitgeist: those who send bad news electronically can do so with an emoji dubbed “Face Screaming in Fear.” Given the contemporary prevalence of Munch’s image, it comes as a surprise to learn that The Scream didn’t have the same currency during the artist’s lifetime. In a radio interview, Jill Lloyd, the co-curator with Reinhold Heller of “Munch and Expressionism,” stated that our reigning emblem of hellish anxiety didn’t gain traction until after Munch’s death. That The Scream continues to resonate with audiences says much about the primal emotions it embodies.

Munch did four variations of The Scream, as well as a suite of prints; the best known of these, an oil on canvas from 1893, is the star attraction of The National Gallery in Oslo. That painting, it should be noted, is not on view at The Neue Galerie. The version of The Scream squirreled away in a side gallery of “Munch and Expressionism” was done in pastel two years later and is more stylized and less discordant. It is, in so many words, fairly underwhelming, but it does serve, albeit inadvertently, a curatorial purpose: to place Munch in a historical context that extends beyond a single iconographic picture. In the catalogue, Lloyd states that while Vincent Van Gogh “is justly deemed a precursor or ‘father’ of Expressionism, Munch, by contrast, inspired and participated in the movement.” Munch’s notoriety in Germany helped kick-start Expressionism. An exhibition of his work held at the Verein Berliner Künstler in 1892 garnered the kind of press best measured in column inches, not praise. Roundly drubbed as a “mockery of art,” the show was shuttered before the closing date due to the controversy it generated. Munch was pleased by this turn of events; the scandal was “the best advertisement I could have hoped for.” He subsequently made Germany his home for sixteen years.

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Erich Heckel, Girl with Doll (Fränzi) (1910), oil on canvas; courtesy The Neue Galerie, New York

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Playing upon his newfound fame, Munch organized a series of German exhibitions that helped solidify his outré reputation among a local cadre of forward-thinking patrons, critics, and collectors. Munch’s status was codified by the critic Julius Meier-Graefe, who featured him alongside Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin in Modern Art, a 1904 text that served as a touchstone for the burgeoning Expressionist movement and, especially, the painters of Die Brücke. This group of Dresden-based artists—its members included Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, and Emil Nolde—shared “similar yearning[s]” with Munch, and repeatedly invited the older artist to participate in its annual exhibitions. Munch demurred every time. These rebuffs did little to staunch Die Brücke’s admiration, though you can’t help but wonder why Munch held himself apart. Arne Eggum, an art historian and the former director of The Munch Museum, conjectures that Munch had his eye on establishing a reputation in Paris—Dresden being a veritable Podunk in comparison to the City of Light. Munch and the Expressionists wouldn’t be exhibited together in Germany until 1912, at which point the Norwegian had returned to his native land.

“Munch and Expressionism” makes no bones about mixing-and-matching the recalcitrant master with his progeny. Divided into sections according to specific motifs—among them, “Portraits,” “Adolescence,” “Experiments in Printmaking,” and that reliable chestnut “Battle Between the Sexes”—Munch’s art is placed alongside that of Die Brücke, as well as pictures by Egon Schiele, Gabriel Munter, Oskar Kokoschka, and the uncategorizable Max Beckmann. The inevitable comparisons aren’t revelatory—at least, for those conversant with the by-ways of twentieth century art—but they are satisfyingly predictable. Nor do they always favor Munch. In the “Urban Scenes” portion of the show, Munch is overshadowed by Kirchner, whose Street Dresden (1908) retains its punch some hundred years after the fact. Its acidic palette and lava-like rhythms make Munch canvases like Midsummer Night’s Eve (1901–03) and The Book Family (1901) look woefully polite. Admittedly, the exhibition doesn’t include Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892), a moody canvas that is a precursor to The Scream and a Munch masterpiece. A lithographic take on Karl Johan Street at The Neue Galerie has much to recommend to it, but even on the attenuated evidence found in “Munch and Expressionism,” it’s clear that Munch was far more innovative as a printmaker than as a painter.

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Richard Gerstl, Self-Portrait in Front of a Stove (1907), oil on canvas on board; courtesy of The Neue Galerie, New York

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Truth be told, Munch remained very much a nineteenth-century painter until the end of his life. An inherent parochialism both powered his vision and prevented a full reckoning with Modernism. Post-Impressionism clearly threw him for a loop, and his experiments with its pictorial liberties are ham-handed when they aren’t over-heated. (Lord only knows what he made of Cubism and its offshoots.) The artist we see in pictures like Christian Gierloff (1909), Puberty (1914–16), and Bathing Man (1918) is wildly out of his depth: pictorial space warps-and-woofs with no discernible purpose, the palette turns muddy when it doesn’t chalk out altogether, and the brushwork flails where previously it had snuck up on the images with a brooding, understated sensuality. The post-1900 canvases, even the much-lauded self-portrait The Night Wanderer (1923–24), are enough of a mish-mosh to make a minor figure like Erich Heckel seem a contender. And then there’s the Austrian painter Richard Gerstl, dead by his own hand at the age of twenty-five: his canvases all but steal the spotlight of “Munch and Expressionism.” His was a powerhouse talent and is too little known. The name “Gerstl” may not generate the same buzz or box office as “Munch,” but this is a museum with the means and institutional interest to organize an overview of the work. Who knows? That exhibition may be a revelation.

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the June 2016 edition of The New Criterion.

“Gauguin: Metamorphoses” at The Museum of Modern Art

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Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit (c. 1900), oil transfer drawing, 22-1/16″ x 17-13/16″; courtesy a Private Collection and The Museum of Modern Art

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An assignment I give my students at Pratt Institute is to make a list of ten artists whose work they dislike or don’t understand. The lesson is intended to generate discussions about artistic merit, the quiddities of taste, and (as one young wag put it) “walking a mile in Jeff Koons’s shoes.” Koons has topped these lists for some time, as have others of neo-Duchampian ilk. The original Duchampian, Marcel, pops up regularly, as do sundry Minimalists and a number of abstractionists—usually under the rubric of “a kid could paint that.” A frequent figure on these pedagogical hit lists is Paul Gauguin (1848–1903). Surely there are artists more deserving of undergraduate ire than the French Post-Impressionist? It turns out Gauguin is admonished for a number of things: arbitrary color choices, an inconsistent navigation of pictorial space, halting draftsmanship, ungainly surfaces (Gauguin preferred working on coarsely woven canvases), and cultural naiveté—the whole “primitivist” excursion to Tahiti.

It’s tempting to dismiss Gauguin’s inclusion to a youthful lack of sophistication, but even sophomores are right sometimes. Gauguin is a nettlesome figure and, as such, an artist deserving of skepticism. It was, I believe, the British painter and critic Patrick Heron who dubbed Gauguin a “great bad painter”: an acknowledgment of Gauguin’s primacy as Modernist antecedent—Fauvism is inconceivable without his example, as is Expressionism—while intimating the limitations of his accomplishment. You can chalk up Gauguin’s failings to his being self-taught—the paintings are rarely fluid in their depiction of the human form—but this likely made him less skittish about taking pictorial liberties, particularly with color. (A surfeit of chutzpah didn’t hurt either.) The Museum of Modern Art’s first monographic exhibition dedicated to Gauguin, “Gauguin: Metamorphoses,” offers contemporary audiences an opportunity to commune with this frustrating and vital figure.

Just don’t expect a full retrospective. Like the Magritte exhibition MOMA mounted last fall, “Metamorphoses” is selective in its purview. A handful of paintings—some of them iconographic, a few rarely seen—are on view, but Gauguin’s works on paper, especially his prints and transfer drawings, predominate, with three-dimensional pieces in wood and clay providing a notable backdrop. Did the current vogue for inter-disciplinarity inspire the decision to highlight Gauguin, the man of many mediums? Whatever the case, the results are scholarly and often bracingly intimate. While MOMA’s claim that Gauguin “more than any other major artist of his generation . . . drew inspiration from working across mediums” is curatorial hype—you’d think these folks had never heard of Edgar Degas—still, the exhibition does make an “arguable” case for Gauguin’s “innovative” approach to working on paper. As laid out at MOMA, Gauguin’s experiments in woodblock printing are considerably more evocative than the signature works on canvas.

Gauguin #2Paul Gauguin, Nave Nave Fenua (Delightful Land): From Noa Noa (Fragrance) (1893-94), woodcut printed in color on wove paper, line in silk; 13-3/4″ x 8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art

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Paper, because of its immediacy and relative disposability, encourages spontaneity. The second-hand nature of printmaking, though bound to technical rules of process, has a similar propensity. Gauguin’s initial forays into the latter, a series of zincographs titled The Volpini Suite completed in 1889, are clubby in approach and not altogether convincing in their stylizations of form. All the same, they have an engaging story-book quality that mitigates their shortcomings. Woodcut lent itself more readily to Gauguin’s vision. Its graphic character endowed his distortions of form with structural rigor and allowed for elisions of mood that rendered Gauguin’s romanticism palatable. Not that Gauguin was a printmaking purist; far from it. The centerpiece of “Metamorphoses” is a series of prints titled Nave nave fenua (Delightful Land) (1893–94), wherein the image of a “Tahitian Eve” is seen in four states and a number of variations. Part of their allure can be traced directly to Gauguin’s willingness to give anything a try in terms of inking, color, and detail. MOMA’s inclusion of the original woodblock is an enlightening grace note—offering insight into the printmaking process, as well as providing stark evidence of the artist’s hand.

Woodblocks for other prints are included as well, and do Gauguin the sculptor no favors. The block for Nave nave fenua has a sculptural integrity missing from Eve with the Serpent and Other Animals (ca. 1889), an oak carving hobbled by an unrelenting lack of malleability. Time hasn’t been kind to Gauguin’s sculptural homages to Tahiti. At this date, his totems and reliefs come off as ethnographic kitsch. The lumpish Head with Horns (1895–97), a beast-like effigy that may be a self-portrait, doesn’t rise to the occasion of generic folk art. Gauguin’s appropriation of stylistic motifs native to Tahiti are just that: appropriations. There’s no reinvention, just brute imitation. Gauguin’s ceramics are marginally better: Cup Decorated with the Figure of a Bathing Girl (1887–88) has a lovely, lilting rhythm. Even so, it can’t touch the eerie atmosphere that accrues in Gauguin’s watercolor monotypes and oil transfer drawings, the latter of which is a process that can be likened to carbon copies. Lightness of touch isn’t something we necessarily associate with this artist, but there’s a ghostly ease to Marquesan Landscape with Figure (1902) and the everyday reverie that is Two Tahitian Women with Flowers and Fruit (ca. 1899), a fragmentary scene of harvesting. Paper, in Gauguin’s case, engendered poetry. “Metamorphoses” contains not a few moments of unalloyed beauty.

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Paul Gauguin, circa 1891

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What about Gauguin the self-proclaimed savage, the man who quit his job as stock-broker and abandoned his family in the hopes of accessing “authentic” reality in Tahiti? Notwithstanding “The Primitivist’s Dilemma,” a blandly lugubrious catalogue essay by Hal Foster, Gauguin’s role as “cultural interloper” is underplayed. A degree of political correctness informs “Metamorphoses” but doesn’t define it. If there’s one Herculean task MOMA has accomplished, it is in downplaying this most arrant of egotists. The myth Gauguin manufactured around himself will remain potent, no doubt; myths have a way of sticking around. But the exhibition’s emphasis on the particularities of technique and how they bolster vision puts the spotlight squarely on art. Which proves that an institution as fraught with contradictions, prone to fashion, and obsessed with box office as the Museum of Modern Art can still deliver the goods. “Metamorphoses” is a reminder that a trip to 53rd Street need not be a duty; that it can, in fact, be a pleasure, a necessity, and a treat.

© 2014 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the April 2014 edition of The New Criterion.

Tender, Tenacious and Forceful: The Prints of Paul Resika

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Paul Resika, Three Sailboats (1997), etching, 17-2/4″ x 26″; courtesy VanDeb Editions

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Scan the literature on veteran New York painter Paul Resika and you can’t help but note the repeated plaudits for his skills as a colorist. A student of Hans Hofmann, Resika absorbed the older artist’s emphasis on color as the prime motivator of the painter’s craft. But Resika’s gift for color may be most fully realized in his prints. That the majority of them are in black and white isn’t a back-handed compliment. “Black is a force”, Matisse declared. Resika, no mean devotee of the French Master, explores black in a manner that is, by turns, tender, tenacious and, yes, forceful.

In Resika’s intaglio prints, gritty fields of aquatint are emboldened by staccato hatching; clubby lines dance upon zooming, milky expanses; and dense swaths of texture both set off and engulf Resika’s motifs: boats, lighthouses and nudes on the beach. All the while an encompassing range of gray, black and, at times, electric white imbue the proceedings with drama, mystery and, here and there, comedy. What else are we to make of the Surrealist forms galumphing through Clouds (2001) or the Thurber-esque whimsy informing White Cloud (1997)?

DCF 1.0Paul Resika, Vessels Meeting (2001), etching, 20″ x 25″; courtesy VanDeb Editions

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Elsewhere, severity presides—Resika distills his forms with iconographic concision—and antiquity is touched upon. Endymion (1995) refers to the Greek tale of the moon falling in love with a mortal, but the preternatural disc that regularly hovers over Resika’s panoramas taps as much into the enduring power of myth as it does to the nighttime sky. The moon allows Resika poetic wiggle-room to amplify the associative capabilities of even the most bare-bones geometry.

If Matisse is the touchstone for Resika’s palette, then Picasso is the signpost for Resika’s dedication to printmaking. Like the inescapable Spaniard, Resika is an artist for whom the medium is considerably more than an addendum to working with oil on canvas. Printmaking is a vital—indeed, inseparable–component of his vision. Newcomers to Resika’s prints will glean that much in short order and revel in the amplitude he brings to the venerable artform.

© 2013 Mario Naves

The essay appeared in a catalogue that accompanies Paul Resika; Silent Poetry, an exhibition at VanDeb Editions.

“Rembrandt and Degas: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self Portrait as a Young Man (c. 1628-29), oil on panel, 22.6 x 18.7 cm.; courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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Apples and Oranges—that’s a colleague’s alternate title for  Rembrandt and Degas: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has a point: What commonality is shared between history’s most humane artist and its most perfect? (Really, did anything Degas touch not turn to gold?)

Box office receipts may have prompted The Met, along with co-organizers The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, to mount this jewel-box exhibition. Place the name of either artist on a banner and a steady stream of visitors is guaranteed. Still, cynicism shouldn’t prevail—at least, not initially. Part of a curator’s job is to explore the possible and render it revelatory.

Turns out  Rembrandt and Degas  isn’t revelatory in the least. Sure, Degas made a copy of Rembrandt’s  Young Man in a Velvet Cap  (1637) and paid keen attention to the Dutch master’s distinctive way with line, light and “the depth he is able to achieve.” The Frenchman was a voracious student of tradition; it’s fair to say every artist Degas came into contact with was funneled through his steely, elegant intellect. Rembrandt was one amongst many, that’s all.

Edgar Degas, Self-Portrait (Ca. 1855-57), red chalk on laid paper, 31 x 23.3 cm.; courtesy The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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As a study in contrasts, the Met exhibition has its uses. Degas’ exercises in self-portraiture are heady and pitiless, their rigor is risky, pointed and sure. Psychological insight wasn’t alien to Degas’s vision, but neither was it a driving force. Rembrandt, on the other hand, couldn’t make a mark without embodying a distinctive and inquisitive generosity of spirit.

Even as a cocky young buck, Rembrandt was a mensch—take a look at the showy  Self-Portrait as a Young Man (1629). In it, the 23-year-old artist daubs oil paint with a brilliance that borders on the vulgar. Then check the gaze, hidden in shadow: Rembrandt is both startled and haunted—as if he had become aware of, and daunted by, his own boundless empathy. It’s a disquietingly naked moment.

Forget historical illumination: As a tidy array of exquisite little pictures, Rembrandt and Degas is a welcome anti-blockbuster of a show.

© 2012 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 6, 2012 edition of City Arts.

Warrington Colescott & The Whitney Biennial

Warrington Colescott, The Last JudgmentWarrington Colescott, The Last Judgement (1987-1988), intaglio and color relief, 27-1/2″ x 21.8″; courtesy The Painting Center

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There are more important things in life than art. That’s the lesson of the current Whitney Biennial. I think that’s the lesson, anyway. Certainly, featured artist Zoe Strauss must know it’s the truth. Her untitled video installation projects photographs of the people and environs of Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., documenting what she saw while aiding medical professionals responding to Hurricane Katrina.

Ms. Strauss’ credo is: “Social responsibility is inextricable from art making.” That’s a shopworn proposition favored by those who think good intentions can redeem lousy art. Ms. Strauss’ photos of vernacular signage and Mississippi’s poorest inhabitants amid heartbreaking destruction are pedestrian in their pictorial intelligence. She’s no Walker Evans.

All the same, Ms. Strauss was out there in Katrina’s awful wake, outside the privileged confines of the Whitney Museum, providing necessary support to Americans in desperate circumstances. In art, Ms. Strauss preaches to the converted, but in life she makes a difference. That’s something to applaud.

It is, in fact, the only thing to applaud in Day for Night, the first Biennial to (a) have a title, (b) have been organized by foreign-born curators, and (c) include foreign-born artists. The show also includes dead painters (Ed Paschke for one), the requisite amount of teenagers with freshly minted MFA’s, and significant sculptors who should know better. Richard Serra and Mark di Suvero demean their considerable gifts in the service of puerile anti-Bush screeds. They’ve got a right to be angry, but has either man put his conscience into action like Ms. Strauss? You’ve got to wonder.

But what’s the difference? One of the great delusions of the art world is that the Biennial has something to do with art. Spectacle, fed by money, is the focus. Art merely supplements the fashionable poses and received resentments of an insular crowd so enamored of itself. The critical huzzahs greeting the Biennial are predictable: Apologists for official culture will do anything to obscure its aesthetic bankruptcy.

As usual, the Biennial is a benchmark, but rather than indicating art’s continuing vitality, it is just another celebration of everything wrong with today’s self-congratulatory scene.

Any Biennial that neglects the work of Warrington Colescott is a piss-poor excuse for an overview of American art. Who is he, you might ask? I’m still not sure. He lives and works in Wisconsin—you know, fly-over territory to most curators—and he exhibits only intermittently here in the city. On the rare occasions that I cross paths with his pieces, usually an etching of some sort, I leave a changed man. Happier, too—Mr. Colescott is something of a card.

A profound one, I’d quickly add. The Last Judgment (1987-88) is an intaglio and color-relief print featured in Artful Jesters, an exhibition devoted to “a growing legion of parodists, satirists, lampoonists, jokers, and caricaturists” on display at the Painting Center. Mr. Colescott more than holds his own among some formidable company, not least among them Trevor Winkfield, Peter Reginato, Gladys Nilsson and Peter Saul.

In the etching, a man’s spiritual fate is decided by way of a video presentation. A devil pleads the case to God himself, who’s pictured as a sleek, executive type. The Last Judgment is stuffed with pictorial incident and imagery—Mr. Colescott is a printmaker of stunningly soft-spoken means. You’ve got to love the devil-angel-devil-angel lineup ready to accuse and defend the souls of the newly departed.

The guy whose lot is being determined has got it coming—the this-is-your-life moments seen on the television screens are maliciously over the top. (Vehicular homicide is the least, but not the funniest, of the offenses.) The wonder is the amount of consideration given to the verdict. The word “HELL” appears on God’s computer screen. Chin in one hand, his right index finger hovers hesitantly above the “return” key. Clearly, God likes to mull things over.

Mr. Colescott is not a satirist, cartoonist or Red Grooms, though he resembles each. (Mr. Grooms is also included in Artful Jesters.) He’s a mischievous humanist with a bottomless appreciation for the absurdities of life and, in this case, the afterlife. He’s as many-sided and unsentimental as Twain, Hogarth or Bosch. I suspect his oeuvre contains more sharp insights and cunning amusements than I can begin to imagine; I wish a New York City museum would consider fêting Mr. Colescott with a retrospective. A task like that is clearly beyond the people at the Whitney—their loss as much as ours.

© 2006 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 26, 2006 edition of The New York Observer.

The Absorbent Alex Katz

Alex Katz, Black Scarf (1995), oil on linen, 72″ x 48″; courtesy the Smithsonian American Art Museum

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The painter Alex Katz is a curious figure in the annals of postwar American art. Throughout his fifty-year career, he’s been perpetually situated to the side of the art world’s mainstream, yet never so far to the side that he isn’t in the thick of things. A realist who came of age during an era predominated by abstraction—Abstract Expressionism to be exact—Katz has been linked with a number of artistic tendencies, such as Color Field painting, Pop Art, and realism—both “new” and the traditional. He’s found a congenial home in all of them. Yet the closest one can come to placing Katz is to note that he’s a key figure in the generation of painters—it includes Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, Nell Blaine, and Leland Bell—that pursued figurative art in the shadow of the New York School.

Even among this group of square pegs, however, Katz sticks out, a fact noted by the critic Sanford Schwartz in 1973. He described Katz’s art as standing “a little elusively by itself” with “allegiances all over the field.” The allegiances Schwartz referred to were stylistic, but the multiplicity of critical allegiances that have formed around Katz’s work is equally “all over the field.” Any artist whose career traverses half a century is bound to have a diversity of devotees, but Katz fans are so wide-ranging in outlook that one can’t help but do a double take. Joining Schwartz in writing appreciatively of Katz’s paintings is Fairfield Porter, who possessed as shrewd an eye as any. Yet the artist can also count among his admirers the indefatigably verbose art critic Donald Kuspit, the controversial historian Simon Schama, the bestselling novelist Ann Beattie, and the contemporary scene’s silky arbiter of cool, Dave Hickey, who once favorably compared Katz’s work to—but of course!—a Hercules movie starring Steve Reeves.

What’s more than a little troubling about Katz’s fans is how their heterogeneity so readily makes room for those with extra-aesthetic axes to grind. Svetlana Alpers, Professor Emerita of the History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley, for instance, counts herself as a Katz devotee —or so one is likely to conclude from the essay she wrote on the occasion of a recent exhibition of his pictures. Yet the only time Alpers writes without her characteristic lukewarmness is when she talks around Katz’s art, particularly when expressing her impatience with those who treasure “art as something distinctive, something which might have its own history.” For Alpers art is nothing of the sort, rather, it is just “one cultural artifact among many others made at a particular time.”

Similarly, Eric de Chassey, in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition “Alex Katz: Small Paintings,” begins his essay by informing us that “Alex Katz is one of very few artists working today capable of creating works that can be reconciled with the world, without seeming anachronistic.” Forgetting for a moment the questions one wants to ask about such a loaded sentence, one intuits that Chassey, like Alpers and Hickey, doesn’t much care for—how to say it?—high art. But they do care for Katz’s art quite a lot. One wonders what a self-described traditionalist like Katz makes of such enthusiasts. One also wonders if the “elusiveness” Schwartz writes of is a loyalist’s way of implying that what makes Katz’s art special is not so much what it is, but rather what it can absorb.

This past fall, Manhattan’s various art districts offered five separate exhibitions devoted to aspects of Katz’s work. If their cumulative effect isn’t an indication of “Katzmania” (for the poker-faced Katz is unlikely to induce mania), it does point to his prominence in the art world. The Whitney is presenting the aforementioned Alex Katz: Small Paintings. It is a two-part exhibition, featuring pictures painted between 1950–1980 at the Whitney’s Philip Morris branch and works created within the last twenty years in the lobby of the uptown museum. Katz’s very latest large-figure paintings and landscapes were on display at PaceWildenstein’s new branch in Chelsea, and the Peter Blum Gallery in Soho mounted a complete survey of Katz’s woodcuts and linocuts. In addition, an impromptu sampling of the artist’s work could be seen during October on West 26th Street in the anteroom of the Robert Miller Gallery. Taken together, these shows in no way made up a comprehensive overview of Katz’s contribution to art (nor were they intended to be so). They did, however, provide an opportunity to get a handle on a body of work whose chief characteristic would seem to be its handlelessness.

Katz earned a significant place in the art history books for his larger-than-life figures in billboard-sized paintings. Whether they depict smartly trimmed cosmopolitans, snow-covered forests, or the family dog, his pictures are what we now think of as “Katzian”: laconic and even-keeled, bland yet unsparing, brusque yet savvy. The works’ expansive scale, disassociated space, awkward stylizations, and uninflected areas of color make Katz not so much a realist as a painter whose take on observed reality is so remote that one could almost consider him an abstract artist. Katz isn’t the first to blur the distinctions between realism and abstraction, but he is the most recognizable—indeed, the most popular—of its practitioners. A large part of his popularity can be attributed to the subjects: family and friends, light conversation, sunny backyards, and a leisure that’s nothing if not ample. The paintings aren’t an argument for the good life, per se, but evidence of one person’s good fortune.

Viewing the large paintings at PaceWildenstein, one easily saw why Katz garners admiration. His recent panoramas of picnics, parties, stylish youths, and landscapes are immaculately composed, resolutely thought through. Their juxtapositions of scale, image, and space strike the viewer with a severe, in-your-face immediacy. They are as tight as a drum. Before too long, however, the viewer finds himself experiencing an is-that-all-there-is? deflation. Katz’s paintings are, in fact, all immediacy. Many painters of my acquaintance have professed respect for Katz’s drive, while lamenting his refusal—or inability—to follow through on a picture. His is an oeuvre that offers the same tinny, sheeny jolt over and over again. That it’s a jolt with a certain wit and élan is undeniable. But it’s a very lean jolt.

Katz’s art is cool and quick. He famously remarked that his goal was a style “emptied of meaning, emptied of content.” This suggests that Katz is pursuing something purely formal, purely concerned with the pictorial means of making a picture. But the problem with the work isn’t that it’s pure or that it’s formal, it’s that it’s disconnected. For Katz, the act of putting brush to canvas is less a passion than a mission—one that should be done very quickly. In an interview a few years back, he admitted as much: he declared that his interest lay in “dealing with the idea of being a … master craftsman.” He even challenged anyone to compete with him “on a craft level—painting a twenty-foot painting, wet on wet for six hours.” This statement is revealing, not just for its casual arrogance, but for its assumption that perspiration is the better part of inspiration, that efficiency is preferable to engagement.

As an addendum to Ada’s Garden (2000), the huge 10 x 20 foot canvas that was the lynchpin of the PaceWildenstein show, the gallery included a series of ten 12 x 16 inch preparatory studies. Each of the small pictures features a single figure—recognizable from Ada’s Garden—set against a brushy ground of black. The inclusion of the studies offered not only a helpful lesson in how an artist plans a painting, but also in how some artists are better off when letting down their hair. While the small pictures are as abbreviated and as quick as we expect from a Katz painting, they’re also a bit more than what we expect a Katz painting to be. An economy of means, in the studies, isn’t a matter of filling in between the lines, but a gambit to be met with and relished. Likewise, their speed is a matter of spontaneity and freedom, not of making a deadline. We feel the bracing mastery of a painter working off the cuff and we take pleasure in the paintings’ sensuality—not only in terms of their brushwork, but also in regard to the appreciation they demonstrate for the human form. Drawing has never been Katz’s strength—his lack of fundamental drawing skills is his most glaring liability—and his signature studies are populated by the stiffest mannequins. In the paintings, however, we get a nuanced sense of the body—of bones and muscle, of the slightest gestures—and of what those gestures may connote. Here Katz’s pictures are enlivened by the terse sociability that the bigger canvases promise but rarely—if ever—deliver.

If the studies aren’t quite revelatory— even at his juiciest Katz is always himself— the satisfactions they offer are real enough. This is what makes the Alex Katz: Small Paintings such an engaging, if mild, pleasure. From the flinty colors and jabbing brush strokes of Trees (1951–52), to the curt dabs and slurs of Yellow Road (1998), the small paintings—again, often studies for larger pieces—are the work of a man of stoic temperament who is nonetheless intensely taken with the world. (They certainly are the work of a man intensely taken with his wife, Ada, whose stern and elegant beauty gives an otherwise undemonstrative art its one recurring nugget of soul.) The small pictures are sparked by unheralded and utterly mundane events: the comedic peak of an infant’s hat, sunlight dappled on an oncoming tide, a cat asleep on a chair, an unruly shock of hair. It’s in these pieces—unkempt, offhand, and inching towards intimacy—that one realizes how much Katz, the grand reconciliator of realism and abstraction, has been oversold —how the big paintings are all things to all people because their emptiness repels nothing. The small paintings, in contrast, forego brand-name stylings for a plainspoken solace taken in transitory moments that are nothing if not homey. Katz’s true role, the one that should be acknowledged in the history books, is that of the most sophisticated of Sunday painters.

© 2001 Mario Naves

Originallly published in the December 2001 edition of The New Criterion.