Category Archives: Sculpture

“Jonathan Silver: Matter and Vision” at Victoria Munroe Fine Art

Installation view of Jonathan Silver: Matter & Vision at Victoria Munroe Fine Art
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“Celebrity isn’t the sole litmus test of art, of course, nor should it be. But that an artist of Silver’s distinction remains unheralded is indicative of the benighted parameters within which our tastemakers operate.”

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

“Charles Ray: Figure Ground” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Charles Ray, Huck and Jim (2014), stainless steel, 9 ft. 3 . in. × 54 in. × 53 . in.; collection of Lisa and Steven Tananbaum

An abundance of ironies circulates around the sculpture of the Los Angeles–based artist Charles Ray (born 1953), none of which redound to the work’s benefit. Take the use of floor tape in “Charles Ray: Figure Ground,” a mid-career overview of an “elliptical, often irreverent” talent. We’re familiar with the means by which visitors to museums and galleries are reminded to keep a distance from a work of art, thereby avoiding potential damage to the object on display. At the Met, each of Ray’s sculptures is surrounded by floor tape that is gritty in texture and has been laid out to create a non-violable space measuring about three feet across. “Don’t touch the art”; we get it. Still, my curiosity was piqued. After exiting the show, I strolled past some large Rodin bronzes in the nineteenth-century galleries. They weren’t surrounded by tape. Later, I made a pit stop at two favorite pieces in the Greek and Roman wing: an Aphrodite, rendered in marble, dating to around the second century A.D., and a Hellenistic bronze of a man from about the same time. The courtesy of floor tape had not been extended to these mainstays of the collection. Some works of art, it seems, are more worthy of protection than others.

Lenders to “Figure Ground” likely stipulated that their loans be given adequate security. An internet search reveals that an original Ray can cost as much as $3 million. Given that kind of money, you have to sympathize with the institution or collector making demands. Investments, however, are one thing; art, another. The thing about a Rodin effigy or a piece of antique statuary is that their surfaces elicit a distinct pleasure—of sensuality and sensation, a longing for tactility. That is part of their enduring appeal. The sculptures of Charles Ray— what kind of person would want to touch one of those things? Figurative though they may be, and often nude, the works have all the bodily allure of a newly minted refrigerator or, and this analogy is more to the point, the stainless-steel tables used for autopsies and embalming. Ray’s predominant métier is, in fact, stainless steel—sometimes painted, often polished to a blinding sheen. The artist’s creative process combines “the analog and the digital as well as human and robotic hands.” Any tool or material is fair game; it’s what the artist does with them that matters. What Ray does, along with assistants and craftsmen, is render a given material simultaneously anti-septic and icky, slick and severe. This is an art that makes a fetish of the inhuman.

Ray’s supporters demur. In the catalogue, Brinda Kumar, the Met’s Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, lauds the artist’s “modalities of touch.” In Ray’s sculpture, “the potentiality of material, of matter, is made active, i.e., it is in mattering [emphasis in original] that the object is set into motion through time”—the sentence goes on. Kelly Baum, the museum’s Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Curator of Contemporary Art, invokes the word “pattern”—as noun, verb, and theoretical cornerstone: “Ray’s patterns very often lead to other patterns; behind every prototype is another prototype to which it is related via a chain of signification.” There’s more about pattern in Baum’s essay, most of it murky in definition. Ray himself gives away the game with 81 x 83 x 85 = 86 x 83 x 85 (1989), one of the earliest pieces in the show. Anyone conversant with twentieth-century American art will recognize that it stems from Richard Serra’s “prop” series. In replacing rough-hewn steel with high-gloss aluminum, Minimalist showboating is transmuted into corporate kitsch. Ray, in other words, gilds Serra’s lily. Ever the faithful postmodernist, Ray passes off smug commentary as High Art. It’s enough to make one forgive Serra and his bullying ways.


Charles Ray, Family Romance (1993), painted fiberglass and hair, 53 x 85 x 11″;
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Peter Norton Family Foundation

Minimalism, with its brute insistence on the object and inherent hostility to metaphor, is, nonetheless, Ray’s jumping-off point: material obduracy sets the tone. Admittedly, the work is peppered with post-conceptualist fabulation, and you’d best believe that identity politics enter into it. Be thankful that Baum and Kumar did not include Oh!? Charley, Charley, Charley . . . (1992), a mixed-media piece in which eight life-size figures of the artist engage in a variety of sexual antics. Ray’s most emblematic work, Family Romance (1993), is featured at the Met: mom, dad, little brother, and baby sister are seen holding hands, each of them nude and equal in height and proportion. This not-so-happy family has been manufactured with a mannequin-like verisimilitude. Shifts in scale, particularly when it comes to the human body, are invariably disconcerting. But Ray doesn’t do much more than distort form in order to make a joke about—what, exactly? A wall label informs us that Family Romance “decouples the human and the ‘natural,’ disassociating sex, gender, and race from biology.” There is nothing more reliable than torturous circumlocution when obscuring an achievement of rank stupidity.

Race also figures into Ray’s art—kind of, sort of, almost. Sarah Williams (2021)—that’s right, the guise Huckleberry Finn adopted in Mark Twain’s classic nineteenth-century novel—proves particularly relevant in that it bears comparison with James Earle Fraser’s Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt (1939). You’re familiar with the latter, of course: the bronze effigy of our twenty-sixth president recently removed from its perch at the American Museum of Natural History for its presumed endorsement of racial inferiority. Mores change over time, as do considerations of the body politic. Still, it should be noted that Fraser’s stated intention with the monument was to honor Roosevelt’s “friendliness to all races”—a fact worth reiterating at a cultural moment when intention is privileged over artifact. The intention fueling Sarah Williams is, we are told, a critique of “race-based relations of domination and subordination.” For right now, that will do. But how kindly will forward-thinking Americans esteem Ray’s overscaled depiction of a black man kneeling behind a white boy in 2122? History has its own wiles, and they can be humbling. In the meantime, “Figure Ground” is an exhibition of unremitting nihilism, staggering narcissism, and unapologetic pretension.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the March 2022 edition of The New Criterion.

Pratt in Venice 35th Anniversary

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I’m pleased to announce that two of my paintings will be displayed in the exhibition accompanying the 35th anniversary of the indispensable Pratt in Venice program. The opening reception takes place on Monday, October 21st, between 5:00-8:00 p.m. with celebratory remarks at 6:30 pm. The exhibition continues until November 1st.

The exhibition will be in Steuben Gallery on Pratt’s Brooklyn campus; the school is located at 200 Willoughby Avenue in Clinton Hill.

“Picasso and Antiquity: Line and Clay” The Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens, Greece

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Installation shot of “Picasso and Antiquity: Line and Clay”; courtesy The Museum of Cycladic Art

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“Picasso and Antiquity: Line and Clay” brings to mind a cartoon I came across ages ago in (if memory serves correctly) the pages of MAD magazine. It was a parody of the familiar image of Darwinian ascent, tracing, in this case, the evolution of art and artists. From left to right, we follow the step-by-step development, beginning with an ape wielding a brush to, a couple of figures over, a stately Leonardo-like figure holding a palette. Ultimately, we end up on a downhill slope to the original ape, albeit now wearing a beret and splattering paint, Pollock-style. An obvious joke, perhaps, yet like most jokes it contains a hard kernel of truth—about the development of artistic pursuit, say, or the illusory nature of progress. Might the wits at MAD have had Ecclesiastes in mind, placing broad strokes on the observation that there is nothing new under the sun? Certainly, there are immovable facts that refute historical circumstances. An ape wearing a beret? There are better emblems of human constancy. Worse, too.

The line traced by “Picasso and Antiquity” is less encyclopedic and less cynical. It is, in fact, as heartening an exhibition as one could hope for. Art, it insists, is a means by which human beings, however separated by time and culture, can uncover and sustain correspondences of feeling and ambition, vision and thought. “Universal values,” they used to be called, and without employing scare quotes as a crutch. In a culture as identity-riven and politically rebarbative as our own, such an effort might be derided as furthering the wiles of, um, the cisheteropatriarchy. (Yeah, it’s a thing.) Yet by placing works by the foremost innovator of twentieth-century art alongside objects that predate them—by, at times, a good three millennia—“Picasso and Antiquity” places its bets on art as an inclusive and transformative continuum, and wins. Kudos to Nikolaos C. Stampolidis, Director of the Museum of Cycladic Art, and the art historian Olivier Berggruen for assembling a show that posits history as a vital continuity, a resource in which aspiration and accomplishment are forever contemporary, forever relevant.

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Torso from a statue of the Minotaur/Roman copy of an Early Classical prototype, marble, height: 73 cm.; courtesy the National Archeological Museum, Athens, Greece

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Influence is a slippery thing, and not always easy to codify. Stampolidis admits as much, noting that the sundry examples of antiquity featured at the Cycladic Museum are objects the “artist might have . . . encountered, absorbed, digested, adjusted and transformed, or have been to a greater or lesser degree inspired by.” “Might” is the operative word. How versed was the Spaniard in the art and lore of Greece and Rome? The poet and critic Randall Jarrell described Picasso as an artist who “loves the world so much he wants to steal it and eat it.” Picasso was, in artistic terms, an omnivore of unceasing appetite. As a young painter in Paris, he haunted the Louvre’s Campana Collection with its myriad artifacts and sculptures. Recurring motifs in his oeuvre—fauns, minotaurs, and centaurs—testify to Picasso’s knowledge of myth. More specialized references pop up as well—to Silenus, for instance, the drunken semi-divinity who served as tutor to Dionysus. Berggruen suggests that relationships with Efstratios Eleftheriades (better known as Teriade) and Christian Zervos, publishers of Greek extraction and proselytizers for Greek culture, were pivotal in furthering the artist’s immersion in all things antique. Score a point for the home team.

“Picasso and Antiquity” is divided into sections with discrete themes, among them “Line and Light in Space,” “Lysistrata,” “Arcadia,” “The Three Graces,” and “The Minotaur.” The works are modest in scale and sometimes tiny; this is, very much, a jewel-box exhibition. The minotaur introduces the show—with a Roman copy, done in marble, based on an earlier Classical prototype—and rounds it off with a calyx krater, circa 340–300 B.C., in which we see a red-figure diorama of Theseus wrestling and besting the fearsome man-bull. As a curatorial gambit, this is risky. The former piece is a powerhouse of sinew and verisimilitude; the latter a supernal exercise in concision and contour. In between, there are artifacts depicting Aphrodite, Dionysiac revels, sacred fish (the tilapia), powerful animals (the bull), and birds—rendered in clay, silver, bronze, and marble. Any artist worth his salt would be rendered skittish by the majesty—or, in the case of the priapic slapstick seen on the Black Figure Kabirian skyphos (ca. fifth century B.C.), arrant ribaldry—inherent in even the least of these pieces. After my initial run-through of the show, Picasso came off as small potatoes, an overinflated ego out of its depth. Upon subsequent visits, the ego gained muscle and credibility. Talent will out and, as it happens, so can irreverence.

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Pablo Picasso, Silenus in the company of dancers (1933), gouache and ink on paper, 34 x 45 cm.; courtesy the Staatliche Museen Berlin, Nationalgalerie Museum Berggruen

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Irreverence and, it should be noted, generosity of spirit. Rarely has Picasso—that monster! that villain!—been so likable. Was a degree of modesty elicited by the source material—that is to say, the competition? Or is this amiability a factor of curatorial choice— abjuring painting and sculpture for ceramics and drawing? The latter two media encouraged a greater degree of informality and play for Picasso than did painting or sculpture. As a draftsman, he is seen at his most mercurial and, at moments, meticulous: Silenus in the company of dancers (1933) and Lysistrata (Reconciliation Between Sparta and Athens) (1934) are tours-de-force, respectively, of narrative density and lyrical momentum. Ceramics have always seemed the least necessary of Picasso’s various mediums, but it did encourage his sense of humor. At the Cycladic Museum, Picasso the ceramicist is an unexpected head-turner, simultaneously confirming and transforming the spiritual heft and stylistic élan of his forebears. In some cases, it’s hard to tell who did what without a scorecard; the commonalities of form and vision are uncanny. A cabinet dedicated to the owl— helpmeet to Athena and, as such, a symbol of erudition—is a delight. As goofy as Picasso’s owls may be, they tap into the iconographic power embodied within the antique bowls and figurines placed nearby. Such juxtapositions are exciting, revealing, and often very funny. “Picasso and Antiquity” is an achievement of rare and welcome distinction.

© 2019 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the October 2019 edition of The New Criterion.

First Hand: Fulvia Plautilla

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Anonymous, Portrait of Fulvia Plautilla, wife of the Emperor Caracalla (Late 2nd-early 3rd Century AD), marble; courtesy The Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece

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Fulvia Plautilla’s marriage to the Roman Emperor Caracalla was predicated upon political calculation–calculation to which the brutal Caracalla wasn’t privy. The results weren’t happy. Not only did Caracalla eventually exile the 16-year old Empress, but (as some accounts have it) he strangled her to death as well. Fulvia’s short reign resulted in more portraits than you might think, the most tender of which is at The Acropolis Museum. In art, at least, Fulvia was granted a quietude that went notably missing from her life.

© 2019 Mario Naves

 

First Hand: Pietro Calvi

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Pietro Calvi, Othello (ca. 1873), marble and bronze, 34-5/8 x 22-1/16 x 22-13/16″; courtesy of The Walters Art Museum

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Those who decry Orientalism will have a tough time of it with Pietro Calvi’s Othello. Calvi brings to the piece a gravity befitting Shakepeare’s Moor and does so without a scintilla of cultural or racial condescension. The juxtaposition of black and white marble may give pause in our hyper-sensitive times, but its formal audacity brings along with it a humanism that is all the more welcome for its nuance and rarity.

© 2019 Mario Naves

First-hand; Ted Larsen

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Ted Larsen, Clean Boy (2019), salvage steel, marine-grade plywood, silicone and vulcanized rubber, 10 x 12-1/2 x 8″; courtesy Joshua Liner Gallery

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As a means of keeping my critical and pedagogical houses in order, I’m instituting “First Hand”, a series dedicated to single works-of-art encountered during my sundry travels. The verbiage will be kept to a minimum, and the choices all over the map in terms of chronology. But each featured piece will have, in one way or another, tweaked my pleasure center. Hopefully, they’ll tweak yours as well.

As for Ted Larsen: I caught sight of his wall pieces through the window of Liner Gallery while walking the dog. Upon entering the exhibition, they proved even better when seen, yes, first hand.

© 2019 Mario Naves

“The Self-Portrait, from Schiele to Beckmann” at The Neue Galerie

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Georg Scholz, Self-Portrait in Front of an Advertising Column (1926), oil on canvas, 23-5/8 x 30-5/8″; Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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Every cultural institution takes on the role of being its own cheerleader. Rooting for the home team is an integral factor in keeping on the up and up, both PR-wise and financially. It’s understandable, then, that the Neue Galerie is touting “The Self-Portrait, from Schiele to Beckmann” as “groundbreaking.” Who doesn’t want to be seen at the forefront of culture? The truth, however, is quite the opposite. “From Schiele to Beckmann” is, for the Neue Galerie, standard fare. Given the pivotal role self-portraiture held for the Expressionists—German Expressionism not being the sole purview of the Neue Galerie, but a significant component of it—claims to being “unprecedented” come off as hollow and somewhat defensive. If anything, “From Schiele to Beckmann” finds the Neue Galerie cruising on autopilot, promoting mainstays of the collection—among them Self-Portrait in the Camp (1940) by Felix Nussbaum and Self-Portrait with Horn (1938), in which the greatest of German modernists, Max Beckmann, is pictured at his most formidable—while nestling them within a host of like minds. There is little that is surprising about “From Schiele to Beckmann.” Old Home Week is more like it.

Don’t get me wrong: “From Schiele to Beckmann” is a worthy exhibition; considerable legwork was invested in its shaping. Organized by Tobias G. Natter, a specialist in Viennese modernism, the show is dutiful in setting up the parameters of self-portraiture. Rembrandt, the sole non-Germanic artist featured here, is roped in along with other pre- nineteenth-century precursors like Hans von Aachen, Anton Raphael Mengs, and, in spirit if not in actuality, Albrecht Dürer. (The last can be gleaned, Where’s Waldo–style, among the myriad figures pictured in the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand Christians, 1653, by Johann Christian Ruprecht.) Once “the long tradition” has been established (albeit in a more attenuated form than one might hope), “From Schiele to Beckmann” makes the requisite pit stops at Expressionism and Die Neue Sachlichkeit. Breathing room is provided by a smattering of works-on-paper in the small room just off the main galleries. Gems among the latter include a prismatic Self-Portrait as a Gardener (1935–40) by Emil Nolde and Paul Klee’s Self-Portrait, Full Face, Hand Supporting Head (1909), a black-and-white watercolor as terse and determined as its title.

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Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait (c. 1917), patinated bronze, 11″ high; courtesy of The Neue Galerie

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The headlining artists are amply represented. If Beckmann is a painter whose imagistic density and narrative complexities are infinitely plumbable, then Schiele remains Schiele: the doomed hero of adolescents the globe over and, as such, off-putting in his self-involvement. Of course, Schiele wouldn’t grate if his talent weren’t formidable. The barbed-wire concision of his line is irresistible when Schiele is at his most straightforward, and tolerable even when capitulating to a signature schtick—witness the torturous preening in Self-Portrait with Arm Twisted Above Head and Self-Portrait in Brown Coat (both 1910). There is a Schiele surprise, however: a sculpture—that’s right, a sculpture—circa 1917, a cast of which was made fifty years after the fact. Self-Portrait is, if not as distinct in style as the paintings or drawings, then a convincing work all the same, particularly in its planar analysis of the human head. How many people will take note of this atypical Schiele? If my afternoon at the Neue Galerie is an indication, most viewers will pass by the sculpture unaware of its author.

Fans of Expressionism will find much to relish in “From Schiele to Beckmann.” The exhibition is dotted with major players of the movement, including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Lyonel Feininger, Otto Dix, Käthe Kollwitz, and Oskar Kokoschka, each of whom is represented by a top-drawer work or two. Of the pair of canvases by the earnest but overrated Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self-Portrait on Her Sixth Wedding Anniversary (1906) is the more striking, not least because the artist is pictured topless and pregnant. An odd and vaguely dogmatic fillip is provided by two paintings from the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler: the same image painted the same year, 1916, but in different sizes. Lovis Corinth, a painter whose aesthetic straddles the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is a figure American audiences don’t have much opportunity to see. A drawing done in graphite from 1921 finds him treading a perilous line between portraiture and cartoon, but the flurried brushwork and silty colors of Last Self-Portrait (1925) make one hanker for more. The same can’t be said for Otto Dix’s Self-Portrait with Easel (1926), in which introspection is indistinguishable from self-aggrandizement.

The most diverting works are by artists who have been lost or obscured by history. Herbert Boeckl, Anton Räderscheidt, Ludwig Meidner, Herbert Ploberger, and Niklaus Stoeklin bring a welcome novelty to a standard accounting of usual suspects. How well their oeuvres hold up under sustained scrutiny is another matter; every genre, after all, has its share of journeymen. One does have to wonder what else Karl Hubbuch might have had up his sleeve. His Self-Portrait with Marianne (1933) provides the sole moment of comedy to the proceedings—Marianne being a ghostly presence who doesn’t haunt Hubbuch so much as call him out on his pretensions. Along the same wall is Self-Portrait in front of an Advertising Column (1926) by Georg Scholz. In its meticulous execution and crystalline attention to detail, the Scholz painting could serve as a textbook example of The New Objectivity. Granted, it lacks the bitterness typical of the style, but what is gained is a razor-sharp clarity that sneaks up on the surreal. The Neue Galerie could do for Scholz what it did for Franz Xaver Messerschmidt and Richard Gerstl: mount a retrospective that shines light on an unheralded and, perhaps, very real achievement. If that’s the upshot of “From Schiele to Beckmann,” then its relative humdrumness will have been worth it.

© 2019 Mario Naves

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

“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.

“Canova’s George Washington” at The Frick Collection

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Antonio Canova, Modello for George Washington (1818), plaster, 66 9/16 × 39 3/8 × 54 3/4″; courtesy Gypsotheca e Museo Antonio Canova, Possagno Fondazione Canova onlus, Possagno and The Frick Collection, NY

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“Canova’s George Washington” is a handsomely mounted exhibition as well as a model of curatorial diligence. This should come as no surprise: it’s been put together by the Frick, a museum that favors such things over the up-to-the-minute-and-gone-in-a-flash verities typical of our age. Which isn’t to say that “Canova’s George Washington” isn’t something of a head-scratcher . . .

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