Category Archives: Sculpture

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

 

“Half Human” @ The Clemente

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Marsha Gold Gayer, Philip’s Head and Feet (2010), charcoal and pastel on paper, 11-1/2 x 9″

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I’m pleased to announce “Half Human”, a group exhibition I’ve curated for The Clemente Soto Velez and Cultural and Education Center on The Lower East Side of Manhattan.

“Few questions have proved as persistent—or as frustrating—than those that surround the meaning of what it is, exactly, to be human,” I write in the essay included in the accompanying online catalogue. The artists featured in “Half Human”–Diyan Achjadi, Laura Dodson, Pat Lay, Maria de los Angeles, Artemis Alcalay, Marsha Gold Gayer and Stephanie Hightower–elaborate upon this predicament in ways that reaffirm its primacy.

The opening reception takes place on Saturday, March 3rd, from 6:00-8:00 p.m. The exhibition continues until April 6th.

Artist’s Talk @ Five Myles

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Installation of “Bete Noire” at Five Myles

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I’m pleased to announce that I will be moderating an artist’s panel to be held in conjunction with “Bete Noire“, the group show currently on display at Five Myles, the exhibition and performance space located in Crown Heights.

The event will be held on Sunday, December 17th at 4:00 p.m. Directions on how to get to Five Myles can be found here. Please bear in mind that there may be service changes in subway service during the weekend.

Please join us for what promises to be a lively conversation!

Catalogue essay accompanying “Bête Noire”, a group exhibition at Five Myles

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Nancy Grimes, Custody (2017), oil on linen, 16 x 32″; courtesy the artist

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When asked to participate in an exhibition centered on the theme of “bête noire”, not a few of the invited artists scratched their heads and furrowed their brows. At least, that seemed to be the gist of their responses.

A French literary trope connoting a person or object that is intensely disagreeable and to be strenuously avoided? What right-minded person would want to be lumped under that rubric? The emphasis of the phrase, however, is as much on degree as substance: intensity and strenuousness figure prominently. There are plenty of things that are irksome, but few of them call to us with something like passion. That damned thing won’t let me go and I insist on holding onto it. That’s the rub of bête noire and why it persists as a vital bit of phrase-making. This vexing quality pervades the work of the artists featured in “Bête Noire”; animates it, too.

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Natasha Hesketh, Portrait of What Is Not Being Said (2016), acrylic on paper, 24 x 18″; courtesy the artist

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How these paintings, photographs and sculptures embody the notion of “bête noire” is as idiosyncratic as the visions informing them. Contradictions are abundant. The digitally manipulated dreamscapes of Laura Dodson mull the intransigence of memory and, along with it, the disappointments of nostalgia. The piecemeal and seemingly dehumanizing nature of contemporary relationships are deftly negotiated in the works-on-paper of Natasha Hesketh. Thomas Nozkowski’s off-kilter abstractions embody sharply felt if distinctly occluded encapsulations of lived experience. David Hornung’s ramshackle iconography–at once, homespun and hieratic–serves as a conduit for a dry and whimsical poetry. Matthew Blackwell and his revolving band of cartoonish grotesques are less given to reverie than a frantic and sometimes enraged form of slapstick.

Comedy filters through the work of more than a few of these artists. A mordant wit can be divined in the vases of Elisa D’Arrigo–gnarled vessels that admit to a balletically contrived pathos. Nancy Cohen’s hobbled amalgamations of biomorphic form and utilitarian purpose are charged with tender irony. Industrial means endow Fara’h Salehi’s sculptures of insect life with a streamlined efficiency that doesn’t waylay biological specificity. Specificity is also Loren Munk’s domain, albeit transferred to the art world, in which the ebb-and-flow of history is inventoried with unyielding diligence and chromatic punch.

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Nancy Cohen, Two-Step (2015), glass, metal, rubber, wire and handmade paper, 22 x 22 x 10″; courtesy the artist

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Other images are moody and mysterious, indicative of nothing so much as the limits of understanding. Stephanie Hightower’s paintings create an enigmatic patience game from diagrammatical overlays of topographical shapes, silhouettes, and fleeting allusions to history. Lee Tribe’s totemic effigies, whether rendered in steel or charcoal, evince a temperament alternately driven by the heroic and the haunting. The myriad and often unsettling complications of family are rendered with luminous clarity in the tableaux of Nancy Grimes.

A laundry list of artists only goes so far in elaborating the overriding theme of a given exhibition. The true test comes with how the works themselves engender and underline surprising commonalities, unbridgeable peculiarities, and nagging attractions. The juxtapositions set out in “Bête Noire” are multivalent, not a little irksome, stubbornly put forth, and undeniable in their integrity. The puzzlement is yours for the taking.

© 2017 Mario Naves

 

 

 

“Bête Noire” curated by Mario Naves @ Five Myles

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Invitation artwork: David Hornung, A View of Monuments (2017), matte acrylic and oil, 40 x 40: courtesy the artist

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I’m pleased to announce “Bête Noire”, a group exhibition I’ve curated for Five Myles, an exhibition and performance space located in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

“There are plenty of things that are irksome,” I write in the essay accompanying the exhibition, “but few of them call to us with something like passion. That damned thing won’t let me go and I insist on holding onto it. That’s the rub of bête noire and why it persists as a vital bit of phrase-making. This vexing quality pervades the work of the artists featured in “Bête Noire”; animates it, too.”

You can read the entire essay in the online catalogue accompanying the show.

The reception will take place on Saturday, November 11th, between 5:00-8:00 p.m.

The exhibition will run until December 17th. For information please check the Five Myles website.

“Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling” at The Walters Art Museum

 

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Manuscript formerly used as a book cover: German, Two Leaves from the Mirror of Human Salvation (late 14th century), ink and pigments on medium weight, cream-colored parchment, 12-3/16 x 9″; courtesy The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

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“Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling” isn’t much of an exhibition in terms of scale. Rounding out at twenty-four items, most of which are bantam in size and many being fragments, “Waste Not” doesn’t even merit anti-blockbuster status, squirreled away, as it is, in a side gallery. Then again, who would want spectacle-for-spectacle’s-sake at an institution as quixotic as this one? The Walters is a world-class museum and claims a healthy share of masterworks—credit goes to its founding collectors, the iron magnate William Thompson Walters (1820–1894) and his son Henry (1848–1931). Yet the appeal of the museum has less to do with star attractions than with an overriding and idiosyncratic catholicism. Does any single of work at the Walters register as forcefully as its wunderkammern: kaleidoscopic installations of paintings, sculpture, furniture, arms, armor, taxidermied animals, fossils, you-name-it–we-got-it? The Walters’ impressive array of works by Delacroix can barely muster the will to compete with such splendid excess.

“Waste Not” is of a piece with the Walters ethos; that is to say, it’s both encompassing and highly specialized. To get an idea of just how specialized, consider the source of the show’s opening quote: the third-century theologian Clement of Alexandria, not exactly a household name. In the fourteenth chapter of Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, a tract that takes heedless wealth to task, Clement advises that “riches, then, which benefit also our neighbors are not to be thrown away . . . they are useful and provided by God for the use of men.” Lynley Anne Herbert, the Robert and Nancy Hall Assistant Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, picks up Clement’s ball and runs with it, linking his notion of usefulness to concerns about “our planet’s limited resources.” (One can almost hear the public relations folks at the Walters breathing a collective sigh of thanks for a marketable angle.) “Waste Not” addresses not only material scarcity, but how that scarcity is transformed, as well as elaborated upon, because of significant changes in culture. There’s big stuff afoot in this small exhibition.

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Venetian, Colossal Head in the Guise of Hercules (2nd Century/re-worked 14th century), marble, 18-3/16 X 15-5/16″; courtesy The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

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Chief among them being the advent and rise of Christianity. Among the most notable pieces in “Waste Not” is a second-century marble bust of Hercules that was re-carved some twelve hundred years later to represent a Biblical figure—who it might be isn’t certain—for the baptistery in Florence, whence it was excavated. The shift in symbolism wasn’t merely contextual. Christian artisans augmented the mythical strongman, presumably investing (or disguising) him with up-to-date spiritual significance; just how this was achieved through the relatively ham-handed re-drilling of Hercules’ hair is a good question. Elsewhere, the god Pan, he of the goat horns and hindquarters, is seen on a gold cameo over which a quote from Psalm Twenty-Six—“Lord, my Light and my Savior, whom shall I fear?”—was superimposed a millennium later. Other transformations we know about not through image or text, but through connoisseurship and chemistry. Turns out that a shard of blue enamel from a thirteenth-century Cross of the Mourning Virgin employed Roman glassware. As might have already been surmised, the exhibition labels, so often an annoyance, are a necessity here.

How else would we know that portraits of the original donors featured in a Dutch Book of Hours had been all but obliterated when the manuscript was acquired, down the line, by another family? Altering works of art is likely to strike twenty-first-century sensibilities as somewhat brutish, but it was standard practice during medieval times. Certainly, the role and reputation of the artist was less hallowed and, as such, art didn’t carry the hands-off imprimatur we experience today. Fair is fair, particularly for craftsmen with limited resources. In a recent interview, Herbert likened the melding of cultures and eras to the cut-and-paste verities of collage—a comparison that sounds relevant enough, but goes nowhere fast, particularly considering the comparative seamlessness of the objects seen at The Walters. We relish collage for its disjuncture. The medieval artisans re-imagining a painting or reliquary worked hard—or cleverly—to smooth out prohibitive discrepancies in style and import.

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Byzantine, Ring with an Intaglio of Pan (12th century), gold cameo, 1-1/6 x 1 x 1/2″; courtesy The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

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A certain degree of hyperbole is forgivable—it’s part of a curator’s job, after all—and, on the whole, Herbert has brought a nuanced sense of observation to “Waste Not”. Besides, who can resist such keen and, at times, surprising detective work? The most arresting object in the exhibition owes its existence to the want-not proclivities of medieval society, but also, in part, to dumb luck. You’d think that a 1455 edition of Aesop’s Fables, published not long after the invention of the printing press and purchased at the time at no small cost, would have its own intrinsic merits. But it’s the cover that’s the real prize—a twelfth-century page of parchment taken from an early Talmud subsequently used to protect the unbound pages of the Fables. Theory has it that the binder, having no knowledge of Aramaic, took a liking to the decorative lilt of the calligraphy and considered it choice material to work with. Whether that’s the case or not is, if not moot, then too appealing to dismiss altogether. It is within these kind of fine distinctions that “Waste Not” establishes itself as a scholarly exemplar of its kind.

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review was originally published for the August 10, 2016 edition of “Dispatch”, the blog of The New Criterion.

 

 

Cosmopolitan Primitive: The Art of Joaquin Torres-Garcia

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Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Construction in White and Black (1938), oil on paper mounted on wood, 31-3/4″ x 40-1/8″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, NY

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The following review was originally published in the July 26, 1999 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of “Joaquin Torres-Garcia: Arcadian Modern” at The Museum of Modern Art.

The Uruguayan painter Joaquín Torres-García (1874-1949) is an artist whose work has not been much in evidence in New York in recent years. For those of us who have been brought to a standstill by the cursory picture found in group shows here and there, the fact that Torres-García’s work has been consigned to the storage racks of our cultural institutions is frustrating.

Almost as frustrating is the mini-retrospective of his works-on-paper currently at Cecilia De Torres Ltd. This is not to say that the exhibition, which serves as a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the artist’s death, contains negligible works of art. Quite the contrary: There’s a lot to delight the eye in this handsome and heartfelt show. It’s frustrating in that the exhibition whets our appetite for a more comprehensive overview of the oeuvre. For what is in evidence is an art that is simultaneously modern and, if not quite anti-modern, then deeply nostalgic for the primordial. That it is so without overt contradiction makes Torres-García an all the more intriguing figure.

Although Torres-García was born and died in Uruguay, his formative years as an artist were spent abroad in a fairly discontinuous manner. Following the trajectory of the drawings included in the exhibition, one sees him traveling from Barcelona to New York to Paris to Montevideo and to Madrid. (He spent two years in Italy as well, a sojourn not documented in this show.) In Barcelona, he assisted Antonio Gaudí, and in New York he enjoyed the patronage of Isabelle Whitney.

 TG #2Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Construction (1931), mixed media; photo: Thomas Griesel; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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In 1926, Torres-García settled in Paris and met up with a veritable who’s-who of Modernism: Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Hans Arp and Sophie Tauber-Arp, Jean Hélion, Julio Gonzalez (a friend from Barcelona) and, most significantly, Piet Mondrian. Torres-García’s signature pictographs owe much of their organizing structure to the rigorous neo-plasticism of the Dutch master.

Torres-García’s constructivism was less pure than Mondrian’s and given to pan-cultural symbolism. A wide variety of artistic and cultural motifs–from African masks to Greek amphoras, from the art of Northwest Coast Native Americans to the Eiffel Tower–informs his pictorial vocabulary. Torres-García’s compositional armatures serve as cubbies within which abbreviated, linear symbols are stacked and packed. That architectonic framework takes on the character of a beehive–efficient, busy and dense.

The artist’s iconography is concise and snappy, reflecting his love of the high-end cartoons he discovered while living in New York. Although those emblems carry specific correlatives-in Tradíción (1936), one sees Torres-García graphing out his artistic philosophy–one doesn’t necessarily have to read each piece as a kind of cosmological rebus. His pictures, by turn whimsical and stoic, add up as art even if we remain unsure of their ultimate meaning.

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Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Constructive with Four Figures (1932); photo by Pablo Almansa; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Torres-García’s universalist diagrams, with their melding of the modem and the mythic, bring to mind the stirrings of the New York School. A small pencil drawing, ca. 1937-38, could well be the blueprint for Adolph Gottlieb’s series of pictographs. Of course, there was always something a bit phony about Gottlieb’s primitivist longings and there was, one gathers, a modicum of self-delusion to Torres-García as well. Here, after all, was a worldly and sophisticated man who claimed to be “a primitive.” His paintings, however, transmute such incongruity into an earthy and engaging vision.

“The artist,” wrote Torres-García. “is a moral being.” Such an axiom may seem naive to us today, but that says more about our own culture than it does about Torres García’s encompassing and humane art.

© 1999 Mario Naves

 

 

“Intricate Expanse” @ Lesley Heller Workspace

Intricate Expanse

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I’m pleased to announce “Intricate Expanse”, an exhibition I’ve curated for Lesley Heller Workspace.

“Intricate Expanse” features the work of six artists, each of whom creates encompassing compositions without sacrificing a distinct sense of their constituent parts.

Steve Currie, Laura Dodson, Karl Hartman, Tine Lundsfryd, Sangram Majumdar and Maritta Tapanainen don’t miss the proverbial forest for the trees, but embrace both simultaneously–to sometimes tenacious, often ruminative and, at odd moments, comic effect.

The notion of “expanse”, for these artists, includes the physical parameters of pictorial and sculptural space, as well as the sweep of imagery contained within them. “Intricacy” is embodied both through touch and vision, by attention paid to the particularities of surface and process, and the metaphorical allusions that are consequently set into motion.

The resulting pieces unfold and disperse even as they are punctuated by a consistent sense of focus.

The exhibition opens on Sunday, March 15, from 6:00-8:00 p.m. I hope you’re able to stop by.

Anne Arnold (1925-2014)

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Anne Arnold in her New York studio, circa 1971; courtesy of Alexandre Gallery

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The sculptor Anne Arnold died on June 20, 2014 at the age of 89. The following review originally appeared in the May 17, 2012 edition of City Arts.

The sculptures of Anne Arnold, on display at Alexandre Gallery, are so masterful—so pointed and witty, economically configured and nuanced—that you can’t help but wonder: Why has it been twenty-four years since this artist was last graced with a solo exhibition?

Read the catalogue accompanying Anne Arnold: Sculpture from Four Decades and you’ll get an idea. Both veteran curator Chris Crosman and critic John Yau make a point of Arnold’s “singular position in American sculpture”—that is to say, how the work sits firmly aside the run of –isms that typify the usual telling of post-war American art. You know the routine: Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Post-Modernism, etc., etc. and blah, blah, blah. What to do with an artist whose vision touches lightly, if at all, on these blue-chip precedents and, instead, goes its own blessed way?

You hope that the Alexandre show will dismantle “preconceptions about what ‘important’ art means” and that it “broadens our sense of history, progress in art, and what we consider modern.” The sophistication of Arnold’s meditations on the animal kingdom—dogs are the specialty, but her empathy and know-how extend to pigs, rabbits, cats and hippos—will be plain to anyone with the eye to see it. And there’s the rub: Arnold’s achievement is predicated on the visual and not on extra-aesthetic rationales or, as Crosman has it, the “self-consciously ‘radical’”.

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But Arnold’s art is radical—radically humane. Only a temperament in tune with sensibilities outside of her own—in fact, outside of her own species—could contrive personages as true and soulful as these. Don’t be fooled by the work’s accessibility and charm. It’s a sculptor of stringent gifts and focus that could pull off pieces like Ohno (Skunk) (1974-75) or Gretchen (Dachshund) (1978) without devolving into a cloying, folksy mannerism.

Which isn’t to say Arnold’s art doesn’t benefit from being accessible and charming. Viewers who don’t take instantaneous delight upon encountering Arnold’s work should check for a pulse—or a sense of humor. Delight is deepened upon realizing how seamlessly Arnold absorbs a cross-historical range of inspiration—from early dynastic Egypt and the Aztec Empire to American “primitives” and Russian Constructivism. But it is in direct experience, both in the barnyard and without, that Arnold’s art finds its locus and generates its abundant pleasures.

© 2012 Mario Naves

 

“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.

Gauguin

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.