Category Archives: Sculpture

“Death Is Not The End” at The Rubin Museum of Art, New York

Anonymous, Yama Dharmaraja (ca. 19th Century); Courtesy The Rubin Museum of Art/Photo by David De Armas

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“In a culture as fractured and fractious as our own, an avowal of understanding is rare and to be commended.”

The full review can be found at “The New York Sun.”

“Step By Step” at McKenzie Fine Art, New York, New York

Installation of sculptures by Jim Osman in “Step By Step”; courtesy McKenzie Fine Art

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“Austin Ballard, Ron Janowich, Jim Osman, and Raymond Saá are the featured artists in ‘Step by Step,’ and it’s a testament to the gallery’s curatorial eye that four very individual talents come off like peas in a pod.”

The full review can be found at “The New York Sun.”

(c) 2023 Mario Naves

“Harold Cousins: Forms of Empty Space” at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York

Harold Cousins, Untitled (Suspendu Plaiton) (c. 1968); courtesy the Estate of Harold Cousins and Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

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“Cousins deserves a seat at the table, his work holding its own with that of worthies such as Alexander Calder, Richard Stankiewicz, and David Smith.”

The full review can be found at “The New York Sun.”

“At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism” at The Whitney Museum of American Art

Henrietta Shore, Trail of Life (c. 1923), oil on canvas, 30 1/8 × 28″; courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee 2022.13
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What a difference a century makes. That’s the upshot of “At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism,” an exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art culled from its own holdings. In-house ventures can sometimes come off as so much house-cleaning, an opportunity to air out the storage racks and take stock of inventory. Which is, in fact, what Whitney curator Barbara Haskell has done. But by adding select loans from other institutions and private collections, she’s put together a show that has its own gestalt. Though the fervor of artistic innovation has a limited shelf life, the work on display continues to radiate a klutzy, almost childlike audacity. There’s a naivete at the heart of “At the Dawn of a New Age,” and it is winning.

Maybe relevant as well. Taking into account the lead time for museum shows, Haskell had to know her overview of the stateside response to European Modernism would overlap with the latest iteration of The Whitney Biennial. The latter is, of course, the always anticipated (and invariably vilified) overview of American art that attempts to locate the pulse of the current art scene. The Biennial’s track has been spotty; reading the tea leaves of contemporary culture always is. Still, you have to wonder: How many of the artists in the 2022 Biennial will make the cut of the 2122 model of “At the Dawn of a New Age?”

The vagaries of history are, of course, substantial. Both the production and consumption of art are radically different now than they were in 1913—that would be the year of the Armory Show in New York City, the signal event that introduced Americans to modern painting and sculpture. The dribs-and-drabs by which the innovations of Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism and Cubism reached audiences back in the day seems a veritable trickle from our vantage point. Artists out to create a distinctively 20th-century vision were primed for change, but often halting on the uptake. Still, who’s to say that knowledge slowly accumulated isn’t more deeply absorbed than that gathered from a world in which (to paraphrase the title of a recent film) everything everywhere happens all at once?

As with most cultural endeavors of a recent vintage, “At the Dawn of a New Age” seeks to expand the canon by featuring work by artists who have been overlooked and undervalued. Haskell has located more than a handful of figures whose inclusion will warm the cockles of a social justice warrior’s heart. But there are other matters of redress afoot. When Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney established the museum in 1930, the overriding emphasis was on realism. Though more outre strains of art were acknowledged, they weren’t necessarily embraced. Haskell notes that it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the Whitney began to backtrack and acquire non-representational art that its founders had passed on.

“At the Dawn of a New Age” sets out to highlight “the capacity of abstraction to reflect individual responses to the . . . groundbreaking spirit of the age.” Haskell places a premium on a cultural optimism she attributes to progressive political campaigns and, especially, advances in technology: “nowhere else were cities so illuminated, manufacturing processes so efficient, or new forms of communication and transportation so pervasive.” Though the promises of the machine age had been tested by the carnage of World War I, artists continued to take inspiration from the streamlined forms and regulated rhythms found in industry. You can see them at play in Stuart Davis’s Egg Beater No.1 (1927), as well as in the rigorously applied geometries and lustrous patina of Painting (c. 1921-22), a still-life by Patrick Henry Bruce.

Pamela Colman Smith, The Wave (1903), watercolor, brush and ink, and graphite pencil on paper, 10 1/4 × 17 3/4″; courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Mrs. Sidney N. Heller 60.42
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The hiccup is that Davis and Bruce are pretty much the only artists who fit comfortably within Haskell’s thesis. If anything, the true basis of the art featured in “At the Dawn of a New Age” runs contrary to the machine-tooled advances of modern life. It’s not technology that’s the impetus, it’s the natural world. In piece after piece, we see the human form or, as is more often the case, the landscape serve as armatures on which matters of pictorial or sculptural form are explored.

Spiritualism, as well: nature long having served as a wellspring for those wanting to embody otherworldly longings. At the entry to the exhibition viewers encounter four paintings that are blatantly mystical in character. In them, Marsden Hartley toys with the astrological, Agnes Pelton immerses herself within a realm of fairies, Oscar Bluemner locates the Big Bang in New Jersey, and Georgia O’Keefe gleans the meditative in the microcosmic. The pieces are emblematic of a new age, all right, but not the one Haskell had in mind.

Any exhibition that includes at its center a deck of tarot cards has the future in its sights, but not necessarily futurism. The cards were commissioned in 1909 by A.E. Waite, the leader of the Independent and Rectified Rite of the Golden Dawn. Under his supervision, illustrator Pamela Coleman Smith delineated a full seventy-eight images for the tarot. The resulting array of symbols–charming amalgams of brittle medievalisms given a nouveau twist–aren’t the only thing by Smith on view. There’s also The Wave (c. 1903), a sinuous array of spirits rendered in watercolor, and not the only time we see the female form employed as a conduit for the transcendental. Others that did so include Arthur B. Davies, Adele Watson, Marguerite Zorach, Carl Newman and Richmond Barthé, whose African Dancer (1933), a haunting effigy rendered in plaster, is among the standout-out pieces in “At The Dawn of a New Age.”

Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, Congolais (1931), cherry, 16 13/16 × 7 7/8 × 9 1/4″; courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
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Sculpture is in short supply, but what there is on display is strong. Along with the Barthé, there is Congolais (1931) a portrait carved from cherry wood by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, an associate of W.E.B. DuBois and a figure who achieved a measure of notoriety in Europe. Gaston Lachaise, a sculptor best known for his balletic depictions of monumental women, is represented by the lilting bronze Dolphin Fountain (1924). Contorting themselves nearby are two Standing Female Figures (both c. 1925-26) by Elie Nadelman, an artist whose morphing of classical precedent and vernacular art looks more eccentric with each passing year. Isamu Noguchi is here as well, albeit fleetingly glimpsed with a gouache-and-graphite study of a hieratic form that is part-biomorph and part-mechanical doodad.

O’Keeffe is exhibited to clarifying effect, if only because the paintings are prime and few in number. If anything, both her strengths (composition & economy of shape) and limitations (color and surface) are put into relief by being in proximity to like-minds such as Pelton, Helen Torr, Loïs Mailou Jones, Joseph Stella, Arthur Dove and two painters previously unknown to me, Henrietta Shore and Edith Clifford Williams.

Shore’s Trail of Life (c. 1923) will keep Freudians busy comparing-and-contrasting its gynecological allusions to those found in O’Keeffe’s oeuvre. As for Two Rhythms (1916) by Williams: its sparsely applied color, carefully choreographed lines and sweeping arcs of space employs Surrealism as a springboard for something more allusive. Let’s hope our erstwhile curator has the moxie to place these two figures more firmly within our purview in future exhibitions. In the meantime, “At the Dawn of a New Age” proves itself a vivifying excursion. Would that all reappraisals of precedent were so gently applied and congenial in nature. 

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the November 2022 edition of The Spectator World.

“Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Installation of “Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color”; courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art
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“Who knew the Greeks had such bad taste?” This comment was overheard at the preview for Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color, a head-turning exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This slight wasn’t targeted at the current denizens of Greece, but, rather, their ancestors of yore. You remember the type: chiton-clad Athenians — let’s not forget the ladies in their peploi! — sauntering through the agora, pondering the nature of reality or, perhaps, the role of hoi polloi within a democratic society. They’re the folks whose aesthetic sensibilities were found wanting, at least to one denizen of twenty-first-century museum culture.

What most of us know about life in antiquity is, I dare say, as broadly conceived as the above description. What most of us know about art from antiquity has been gleaned from trips to specific sites or cultural institutions here and abroad. Donatello and Michelangelo, Renaissance men who looked upon the arts of Greece and Rome as models of emulation, are, in significant part, responsible for codifying our notions about the nature and import of antique sculpture.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the pioneering eighteenth-century art historian, pressed the point: “The only way for us to become great, yes, inimitable, if it is possible, is the imitation of the Greeks.” No one seems to read Winckelmann nowadays except for the stray academic eager to score points by pegging the glories of Western art as harbingers of any and all social ills including, most indelibly, “seas of lily white, spectacled and tweed-wearing people” (as University of Iowa classicist Sarah Bond puts it).

Installation of “Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color”
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Chroma is blessedly free of such casuistry. The Met likely took a good hard look at its bread and butter — which would be, among much else, the stunning suite of galleries devoted to Greek and Roman art — and concluded that historical and artistic fact make for better box office than tendentious sermonizing. Or, maybe, the curators were just doing their job — you know, safeguarding the legacy of world art for the pleasure of gallerygoers.

Certainly, the efforts of Vinzenz Brinkmann, head of the Department of Antiquity at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Frankfurt, working in tandem with his wife Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, bear serious consideration. For over forty years, they’ve been knee-deep in the study of polychromy — that is to say, the application of paint on three-dimensional objects. The art world is filled with people who hate art but make it their business anyway. Vinzenz and Ulrike? They love their patch of multi-colored turf. Their eagerness is palpable.

It’s long been known, if not to the lay public then to anyone with more than a casual interest in the arts, that classical effigies were originally overlaid with color. Paint, being a less durable medium than marble or bronze, is incapable of withstanding the elements, let alone wear and tear over thousands of years. Historical accounts testify as to how colorful sculptures, having been unearthed through excavation, quickly lost their pigment after being exposed to sunlight and oxygen. The notion that (pace Winckelmann) “the whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is” — and, yes, you can see how extremists might exploit such a statement — has been a convention difficult to overcome. Faced with the preternatural beauty of the “Venus de Milo” as it is currently seen at the Louvre, the typical museum-goer can be forgiven for thinking that, yes, this is enough.

The Met show includes fourteen reconstructions of classical sculptures overseen and created by the Brinkmanns and their team. Utilizing a variety of approaches, featuring connoisseurship no less than high-tech gadgetry, they’ve managed to divine traces of color from, among other works, “Boxer at Rest,” a world-class masterwork at the Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, and a longstanding staple at the Met, a marble sphinx dated c. 530 BC. Most of the copies employ traditional materials — plaster and bronze, primarily. The Brinkmanns subsequently overlaid pigments and colors that were particular to the time and region. Rather than exhibit these colorized versions in a separate gallery, the curators have integrated them within the museum’s collection as a means of prompting contrast and comparison.

Installation of “Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color”
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How do the replicas stand up to the monochrome standbys? A wall label would have us believe that “with the absence of color, ancient sculpture loses its original animation and full range of meaning.” But curatorial selling points don’t necessarily coincide with aesthetic experience. For all the dutiful research the Brinkmanns have done, their reconstructions are — well, they’re awful. I mean, really awful. Even allowing the necessary wriggle room for stylistic conjecture, there’s reason to doubt the taste of everyone involved in this venture. Blame centuries of conditioning for such an appraisal, and you wouldn’t be altogether wrong. But when the best of these pieces look like Conan the Barbarian after spending too much time in a tanning bed, and the worst like rejects from a Fisher-Price outlet store, you know things are ass-over-tea kettle wrong.

A supporter of colorization might point to how the famed portrait bust of Nefertiti hasn’t suffered because of its polychromy. Scholars can readily point to numerous examples of the genre that prove the viability of the medium. (The Spanish are especially strong in polychromy.) But, really, how does “The Nefertiti Bust” stack up against “Boxer at Rest” as a work of sculpture? Color garnishes the former, bringing a degree of specificity to the bust’s streamlined — let’s not call it “generic” — dimensionality.

In contrast, the burnished patina overlaid on “Boxer at Rest” obscures the attention that’s been invested in its making. Material integrity, anatomical nuance, specificity of contour and the sterling embodiment of tragodía are diminished by somebody’s overwrought notion of mimesis. Other colorized facsimiles at the Met are considerably gaudier, what with their glassy eyes, faint attempts at painterly illusion, and color palette seemingly poached from a package of Necco Wafers. A conspiratorial soul might wonder if the point of Chroma is to wheedle a feel-good correspondence between, say, the “Nike of Samothrace” or the “Jockey of Artemision” with kitsch-mongers like Jeff Koons, Charles Ray and Takashi Murakami — between an era of high artistic achievement and our own age of bewildered expectations.

Old-school aesthetes may have misread the purity of classical sculpture, but who’s to say new school conservationists aren’t overcompensating for a culture in which overstimulation is the lingua francaChroma is probably best considered a lone pit stop on humankind’s eternal journey to bedevil its own finest impulses. In the meantime, let’s give it up for Mother Nature and Father Time, both of whom worked collaboratively to fine-tune our greatest achievements by ridding them of their excesses.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article was originally published in the August 2022 edition of The Spectator World.

“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


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.


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

Fulvia Plautilla

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