Circle The Wagons!!!

Sideshow Exhibition

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If there’s any exhibition whose title warrants three exclamation points it’s the annual extravaganza at Brooklyn’s Sideshow Gallery. A recent painting of mine will be included amongst the hundreds of artworks festooning the walls of this venerable Williamsburg institution.  Hope to see you there.

© 2015 Mario Naves


“William Glackens” at The Barnes Foundation (November 8, 2014–February 2, 2015)

Glackens I

William Glackens, Cape Cod Pier (1908), oil on canvas, 26″ x 32″; Courtesy Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale

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There could be no venue more appropriate for “William Glackens” than The Barnes Foundation. Forget that the exhibition began its run elsewhere and, for that matter, the artist’s hometown status. Consider, instead, the relationship between Glackens (1870–1938) and Albert C. Barnes. The latter befriended “Butts”—Barnes’s nickname for Glackens— while attending Philadelphia’s elite Central High School. Their paths separated upon graduation: Barnes went on to study chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania; Glackens pursued art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, all the while working as an illustrator for the local press. They reconnected some twenty years later under radically different circumstances. Having moved to New York and traveled to Europe, Glackens became associated with “The Eight,” a group of painters dedicated to depicting the less polite environs of urban life—alleyways, burlesque shows, saloons, and tenement life. In the meantime, Barnes invented and put to market Argyrol, an antiseptic best known for its use in gonorrheal infections. He made millions and then took an interest in art.

Though Barnes’s enthusiasm for art was encompassing–he was particularly keen on painting, and his book, The Art in Painting, is essential, if often obstreperous, reading—Glackens steered him toward contemporary French art. Placing faith in Glackens’s eye, Barnes sent him to Europe on a mission to acquire “some good modern paintings.” The working budget was $20,000, the modern-day equivalent of close to half a million dollars. The works with which Glackens returned—canvases by Cézanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Pissarro, and other stellar figures—would form the corpus of Barnes’s collection. (Glackens’s notebook, with a list of available artworks, is on display in the exhibition; a “Pecasso” [sic] would’ve set you back $1,000 in 1912.) Glackens continued to act in an advisory position in the forming of Barnes’s collection—that, and Barnes acquired seventy-one works by his old friend. Glackens’s role in the shaping of The Barnes Foundation is beyond dispute. For that reason alone, history should confer its blessings on the man.

Glackens II

Albert C. Barnes and William Glackens, circa 1920; courtesy The Barnes Foundation

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As “William Glackens” proves, history should also consider him an artist of, if not quite the first rank, then closer than might have been expected. Those inclined to fob off Glackens as the maker of pre-Armory Show period pieces or, as is typically the case, a Renoir-wannabe, should prepare to have their preconceptions dusted off, washed up, and hung out to dry. The Barnes exhibition is revelatory. Over the course of almost one hundred pieces, “William Glackens” confirms what we knew about his skills as draftsman even as it deepens our appreciation of his gifts as paint handler. And then there’s Glackens’s palette! Looking at Cape Cod Pier (1908), with its backdrop of acidic orange, or the rainbow sweep of March Day, Washington Square (1912), we can’t help but succumb to their chromatic grandeur. An out-and-out sensualist, Glackens may have gleaned his painterly tics from Renoir, but he outclassed the Frenchman in terms of chromatic fullness, compositional structure, and, at distinct moments, psychological acuity. Glackens makes his hero seem wan in comparison—an observation reinforced by a subsequent jaunt through the museum’s permanent collection with its many Renoirs.

Glackens III

William Glackens, Family Group (1910/11), oil on canvas, 71-15/16″ x 84″; courtesy The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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Organized by the art historian and independent curator Avis Berman, “William Glackens” moves chronologically. We follow the young painter as he discovers Hals, Goya, Whistler, and Manet and pays homage to them with brusque and, at times, unruly brushwork—the fashionable women seen parading through In the Luxembourg (ca. 1896) are all but capsized by fleshy slurs of oil paint. Examples of Glackens’s newspaper work are characterized by an impressive brevity of touch, uncanny attention to anecdote, and a tone that is alternately sober and witty; Patriots in the Making (1907) and Far From the Fresh Air Farm (1911), Lower East Side panoramas both, evince a temperament not immune to comedy and resistant to easy sentiment. Sometime around 1908, Glackens the painter abandons a palette keyed to a supple range of grays and blacks, and amps up both light and color. Taking cues from the stern hedonism of Matisse and Bonnard’s tonal fields of knitted color, Glackens put into motion a post-impressionism that is lived-in, luxuriant and punctuated by moments of specificity— the anxious expression of the central figure in Children Rollerskating (ca. 1912–1914), say, or the surprising gust of wind coursing through At The Beach (ca. 1914–1916). Credit such moments to the former journalist and his eye for the telling detail.

The closest “William Glackens” comes to a show-stopper is Family Group (1910–11), a monumental portrait of the artist’s wife, son, sister-in-law, and a family friend in their Fifth Avenue apartment. It’s some kind of machine—Glackens takes the notion of luxe, calme et volupté and goes over the top with it. The surroundings in which the figures are ensconced is not just sumptuous, but ridiculously sumptuous: the image fairly careens with pattern, vigorous brushwork and colors saturated beyond the call of representation. Even as the composition threatens to convulse under its rhythms, the picture is held in place by a wiry tension—a sense of psychological dislocation, really. Family dynamics are ever thus, we surmise, and Glackens never attempted that kind of frisson again (though he hints at it, most markedly, in the Hopperesque The Soda Fountain [1935]). Mostly Glackens was content to revel in the pleasures that only painting can provide—whether it be embodied in a vase of roses, the French seaside, or the play of light against a far-off Statue of Liberty. What he may have lacked in originality (or innovation), Glackens made up for in perspicacity, depth, precision, and pleasure, pure pleasure. The telling of American art will have to make a larger place for William Glackens, as will the rest of us.

© 2015 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the January 2015 edition of The New Criterion.

“Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lauder #1

The Lauder Residence; courtesy Habitually Chic

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Leonard A. Lauder has one nice apartment. This observation should be fairly self-evident. Lauder was, after all, chief executive of Estée Lauder, the cosmetics giant for which he is now Chairman Emeritus. His digs are likely to be spectacular—and not worth mentioning, particularly in an exhibition review. Still, the issue will be raised for anyone attending “Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection”: the first items encountered are two huge photographs of the Lauder residence, its elegant environs festooned with myriad blue-chip artworks. Did the Met really need to remind us that the rich lead different lives? This introductory moment of hubris is offset by the exhibition itself and, not least, Lauder’s generosity. Given the supercharged state of the art market, he could have cashed in his collection of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Fernand Léger to the tune of—yes, that’s right—one billion dollars. Instead, the Lauder homestead has been emptied of its treasure trove. The paintings, works-on-paper, and sculptures featured in “Cubism,” eighty-one pieces in total, are a promised gift to the Met and the rest of us as well.

Truth be told, our greatest museum’s collection of twentieth-century art has never been that great. The Met’s relationship with modern and contemporary art has been rife with false starts, misguided decisions, and significant bungles. The collection is renowned as much for glaring omissions as for the scattering of masterworks it can rightfully claim. When the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing—the section of the museum dedicated exclusively to twentieth-century art—opened in 1987, the art critic Hilton Kramer, writing in The New Criterion, bluntly asked: “Who needs it?” The Met, Kramer went on, “does not even have the shadow of a twentieth-century collection of the size and substance which this elephantine facility calls for.” As architecture, the Wallace Wing continues to be a Chinese box of pinched and ungainly galleries. Thomas Campbell, the museum’s current director, has rued its museological unsuitability. Still, the Met’s “shadow” collection has gained substance over the past three decades. The Lauder Collection will bring greater credibility to the Met’s dribs-and-drabs take on Modernism. Lauder’s gift is, in fact, among the most significant in the museum’s history.


Pablo Picasso, Three Nudes (1906), gouache, ink, watercolor and charcoal on white laid paper, 24-3/8″ x 18-7/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Hyperbole? Hardly—if anything, it’s an understatement. Even in a city with no shortage of Cubist masterworks, “Cubism” is a thrilling reminder of the movement’s primacy. It’s exhausting, too. How many great pictures can a body stand? If there are more than a half dozen so-so works in The Lauder Collection, good luck finding them. Lauder came late to Cubism, acquiring the first pieces in 1976. The “shock of the new” had long since dissipated; Cubism was, for those with the cash to spend, an easy sell and increasingly difficult to come by. That didn’t prevent Lauder from amassing a collection that should be the envy of any museum you’d care to name, including the Museum of Modern Art. The consistency of the Lauder Collection is so unremitting that even the most doctrinaire Picassophile may forgive the absence of a seminal work like Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon. Besides, at a historical moment when MOMA’s permanent collection has been reshuffled for the sake of this-or-that trend—not fatally, mind you, but enough to make one worry about its vital signs—who’s to say The Met, with the Lauder gift in tow, won’t become the go-to stop for early Modernism?

The Lauder Collection includes two studies for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, as well as Three Nudes (1906), a diaphanous Rose Period sketch for a never-realized painting that may depict a brothel, and certainly evinces a young Picasso beginning to disrupt the conventions of pictorial space. Elsewhere, we see Picasso and his fellow “mountaineer” in Cubism, George Braque, tussle with the pictorial fracturing put in motion by Cézanne, and subsequently watch them disrupt representation without sacrificing it altogether. The exhibition is divided into didactic sections that are light in touch: the close relationship between Picasso and Braque is informatively glanced upon, as is the use of color by a notoriously monochromatic movement. The introduction of collage is given significant space, and there are hints of the Constructivism that would follow in its wake. Picasso outnumbers Braque two-to-one in terms of the number of pieces on display, but the latter artist holds his own—testimony, at least in part, to their rigorous interdependence during Cubism’s formative years. Turns out, Braque needed Picasso’s flash as much as Picasso gained rigor from Braque’s more tempered approach.

Lauder #3

Juan Gris, Still Life with Checkered Tablecloth (2015), oil and graphite on canvas, 45-7/8″ x 35-1/8″

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If Picasso and Braque were the pioneers of Cubism, Léger and Gris were two of its most accomplished practitioners, codifying stylistic innovation in the service of complete and utterly distinct worldviews. Léger’s machine-based aesthetic is seen at its most elegant within the steely gradations of Three Women (1920), and its most muscular in The Smoker (1914) and Houses Under the Trees (1913), “tubist” masterworks that all but rollick off the wall. The gallery devoted exclusively to Gris is something special, if only because he’s given short shrift in New York museums and, for that matter, the standard telling of art history. A classicist in temperament with a deft hand for pearlescent shifts of tone, Gris brought an exacting intelligence to Cubism that mark him as something more—much more—than a mere follower. Gris’s use of collage carries with it greater wit than Braque ever managed and his palette is not only engagingly discordant, but more structurally sure than anything Léger and, especially, Picasso put into order. Thank Leonard Lauder for not stinting on this sly, sleek, and surprisingly eccentric figure. But thank him mostly for a bit of philanthropy that will continue to provide pleasure (and puzzlement) for generations to come.

© 2014 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 edition of The New Criterion.

“Thomas Hart Benton’s ‘America Today’ Mural Rediscovered” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Benton #1Thomas Hart Benton, Changing West (1930-31), oil on canvas, 92″ x 117″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Having inadvertently entered “Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered” through the exhibition’s exit, I was surprised to see Jackson Pollock’s Pasiphaë (1943), a pre-drip accumulation of hurried pictographs, on prominent display. Actually, I wasn’t that surprised, given that Benton (1889–1975) is probably best known by contemporary audiences as Pollock’s mentor. After studying under Benton at The Art Students League, Pollock became a lifelong friend, though the older artist stated, “the only thing I taught him was how to drink a fifth a day.” The relationship between the archetypal American Regionalist and “Jack the Dripper” has often been remarked upon, largely because of the disparity between the former’s homespun mannerism and the latter’s radical embrace of abstraction. But the commonalities between the two are, in pictorial terms, structural and real. The headlong rhythms of Pasiphaë are identical to those coursing through America Today (1930–31), albeit stripped of Yankee Doodle finery. Turns out “a fifth a day” was only part of the equation.

The Met has done handsomely by Benton, giving America Today—a sprawling, almost Homeric state of the union diorama—ample berth in its American Wing. The Pollock canvas is included as an addendum to the Benton mural, ensconced as it is in a side gallery with works by Stuart Davis, John Steuart Curry, Reginald Marsh, Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, and others. These pieces provide cultural context, just as a gallery featuring studies for America Today offers insight into Benton’s working methods. The main event is squirreled away in a cloistered space redolent of its original site: a boardroom at The New School. The Art Deco leanings of the New School architect Joseph Urban are evident in aluminum-leaf wood moldings that simultaneously frame and snake through the mural. They’re a curious fillip: Urban’s sleek, rectilinear surfaces stand in contrast to Benton’s knotted, organic stylizations. Though both men worked in happy conjunction on the commission, all but irreconcilable strains of Modernism are evident in their respective visions.

Benton #2

Thomas Hart Benton, Instruments of Power (1930-31), oil on canvas; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Benton’s relationship to Modernism was complicated. Regionalism was as much anti-European (and anti-urban) as it was pro-American or, perhaps it is better said, pro-midwest American; its best known practitioners were based in Missouri (Benton), Kansas (Curry), and Iowa (Grant Wood). Boosters of the style viewed it as a bulwark against the oncoming tide of abstraction from across the Atlantic. It was no small irony that Regionalism was eventually ousted from the limelight by The New York School, a movement for which Benton’s former student was poster boy. Still, Benton was no bumpkin. Though he claimed himself “an enemy of Modernism,” his formative years were spent in Paris palling around with Stanton MacDonald-Wright and Diego Rivera. The influence of Cubism, Futurism, and Surrealism is evident in even his most doctrinaire slices of Americana. Instruments of Power, the center panel of America Today, is a collage-like amalgam of veering industrial forms. Francis Picabia would’ve approved of Benton’s paean to the machine; it is, after all, close kin to I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie (1914), the Dadaist gadfly’s masterwork.

America Today consists of ten panels, the majority of them measuring close to eight feet high, and each focusing on a specific theme: among them, the coal and steel industries, the “changing West,” the “deep South,” and “city activities,” both on the subway and in the dance hall. The compositions are kaleidoscopic in effect, and their torsions supple and transitions fluid, notwithstanding abrupt disjunctions in scale, setting, and anecdote. Race relations are touched upon, as are disparities in wealth and moral stricture. In one panel, a burlesque show coexists with a revival meeting, a boxing match and a couple kissing passionately on a park bench. Benton’s symbolism is ham-handed, but his juxtapositions of imagery can be droll. Note, for instance, how the postures of hoochie-coochie girls, a woman in prayer and a fashionable strap-hanger rhyme even as their curvilinearity becomes less pronounced as the composition moves toward the picture’s edge. Benton’s knack for caricature is too hospitable to melodrama and invariably emits a whiff of hoke. America Today doesn’t quite escape period-piece status.

Benton #3

Thomas Hart Benton, City Activities with Subway (1930-31), oil on canvas; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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In an accompanying video, happily sequestered in a separate room, Thomas P.Campbell, the museum’s Director and CEO, makes a case for Benton’s relevance—the inequity of capital, the shifting landscape, sexual mores, that kind of thing. The aesthetic relevance of America Today is, however, more problematic, if only because (as a painter friend has it) “there is something to Benton after all, godammit.” Undeniable sophistication doesn’t altogether redeem florid, willful, and—let’s just say it— silly theatricality. Benton is hard to take seriously even as we have to grant him a degree of seriousness. The most damning moment at the Met comes in the aforementioned exit gallery. Down the wall from Pasiphaë is a painting by the sixteenth-century Netherlandish artist Abraham Bloemaert. Moses Striking the Rock (1596) is the chronological odd canvas out, but its mannerisms are as extravagant, stilted, and cornpone as Benton’s. Point taken: the reach of art traverses centuries. Still, dragging a not-so-good painting out of storage is an odd way to bolster the star attraction. Benton, ever ornery, doesn’t need help in thwarting his own gifts.

© 2014 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the November 2014 edition of The New Criterion.

The Review Panel; Philadelphia at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

RP-Philly.10.8.2014I’m looking forward to participating in The Review Panel, this time around held at the venerable Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Hope to see you there.


Trevor Winkfield “Georges Braque & Others: The Selected Art Writings of Trevor Winkfield, 1990–2009.” The Song Cave, 204 pages.


Johannes Vermeer, The Allegory of Faith (ca. 1670-72), oil on canvas, 45″ x 35″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The Allegory of Faith (ca. 1670–72) is the Vermeer painting no one likes to talk about. At least that’s the consensus amongst those of us who regularly visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in order to commune with Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca. 1662) and Study of a Young Woman (ca. 1665–67)—staples of the collection that encapsulate everything we hold dear about the most evanescent of Dutch Masters. Turning to The Allegory of Faith hanging nearby, we continue to marvel at the artist’s crystalline technique even as the heart drops in response to its stilted imagery. Vermeer’s avowal of religious principle is encumbered by ham-handed symbolism, melodramatic beyond the call of duty. Who could find anything redeemable in this monumental lapse of magic, in such cluttered and over-the-top hokum? Trevor Winkfield, that’s who.

In Georges Braque & Others: The Selected Art Writings of Trevor Winkfield, 1990–2009, Winkfield declares The Allegory of Faith as nothing less than Vermeer’s “greatest achievement.” Citing the picture’s “suppressed manic overtones,” Winkfield elaborates on “the hilarity of [Vermeer’s] amateur operatic performance”:

As the eye ricochets from one object to another to the other, a veritable connect-the-dots constellation of spheres and curves emerges, starting with [the title figure’s] beady eyes.

Writing an encomium to a picture that’s long been dismissed as a minor effort—the Met itself gently chastises The Allegory of Faith by calling it “atypical”—might seem a post-modernist jape, but Winkfield isn’t out to glorify kitsch. He takes the painting seriously. Reading on, he adroitly guides us through the intricacies of the painting, culminating in “one of the most voluptuous objects in Dutch art”: the globe on which Faith has placed her foot. Okay, well—that globe is something special. Maybe the same could be said about the painting in which it appears? Disagree all you want with the “excitement” Winkfield divines in The Allegory of Faith; there’s no doubting he has looked at the picture with a penetrating and appreciative eye.


Lubin Baugin, Still-life with Chessboard (The Five Senses) (1630), oil on wood, 55 cm. x 73 cm.; courtesy Musée du Louvre, Paris

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A painter’s eye, actually. Though not a household name (and keeping in mind that fame is rarely a reliable barometer of artistic worth), Winkfield has garnered an ardent following for his paintings—kaleidoscopic pictures that combine playing card iconography, Neo-plasticist rigor, Dadaist disjunction, and unapologetic cheek. While Winkfield has made New York City home since 1969, his British roots are palpable in all his work—whether sitting at the keyboard or ensconced in the studio, his eccentricity is front-and-center. As such, he’s prone to particular, not to say “private,” enthusiasms and is keenly attuned to artists who are idiosyncratic or little known. Florine Stettheimer, Gerald Murphy, and Albert Pinkham Ryder are favorites, as is “the tortoise that wins,” Myron Stout. Have you heard of the seventeenth-century French painter Lubin Baugin? Neither had I, but after reading Winkfield’s thoughts on Baugin’s still-lifes, you’ll want to see them—like, now.

Winkfield is a convincing writer, even when he dedicates time to subjects of quizzical merit—not just The Allegory of Faith, but Marcel Duchamp, Paul Signac, and Jasper Johns. Winkfield is acute enough in his observations to prompt second thoughts on these and other subjects. Conversational and witty, biting when necessary, and generous when deserving, Winkfield is a rarity: an art critic whose prose is a pleasure to read. Neither as terse as Fairfield Porter or as frothy as Henry McBride, Winkfield nevertheless recalls both in his independence and clarity. He has little patience for received pieties. After likening Abstract Expressionism to a “garrulous uncle whose bulky form hogs both fireplace and conversation,” he concludes that it should be considered “a transitory phenomenon and not the be-all and end-all of a national aesthetic.” Winkfield dismisses as “piffle” the notion of art’s immortality, describes the Last Supper as “one of Leonardo’s most boring conceptions,” and bemoans the Victorians’ use of oil paint: “it had to be battered into the slickness of an illustration for them to understand it.”


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Failed art lends itself more readily to words than good art, so it’s a measure of Winkfield’s literary abilities that he’s at his best when waxing enthusiastic. An encompassing sense of historical, biographical, and aesthetic measure is brought to each essay, all without sacrificing an engaging bonhomie. Winkfield’s gift for the turn of phrase—for the sound, as well as the sense of words—is delightful and sharp. Gerald Murphy could “evoke melting butter on a pewter plate” simply by painting a wedge of yellow. Braque’s late Studio paintings “are illuminated only by calcium shafts of moonlight.” Chardin “delved into the personality of a plum more astutely than anyone before him.” In an unforgettable commendation, Graham Sutherland’s landscapes are described as so “densely umbrageous we might be staring at the lining of a bowel.” It is at moments like these—chatty yet incisive, slightly off-kilter and deeply perceptive—that Georges Braque and Others establishes itself as that rarest of animals: an indispensable addition to the corpus of art criticism.

© 2014 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the October 2014 edition of The New Criterion.

This Just In . . .


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. . . from the custodial staff at MOMA/P.S.1


Art Amnesty
October 26, 2014–March 8, 2015
Courtyard and 2nd Floor Main Galleries

LONG ISLAND CITY, NY, September 12, 2014—MoMA PS1 presents Bob and Roberta Smith’s Art Amnesty from October 26, 2014, to March 8, 2015.

Bob and Roberta Smith are issuing a call to Artists. Pack it in. Bob and Roberta Smith are delighted to offer an Amnesty for your Bad Art. Turn in your brushes and video cameras. Hand in your chisels and marble.

Bob and Roberta Smith are offering an opportunity for artists to dispose of their artwork at MoMA PS1, and to retire from making art. Beginning October 2, artists are invited to deposit their art in dumpsters located in the museum’s courtyard, which will be emptied as needed throughout the period of the Art Amnesty. Those who wish to exhibit their work one final time before it is destroyed may bring their art to the 2nd Floor Main Galleries, where museum staff will install it for public view. The museum will accept work under the Art Amnesty during regular hours, subject to certain restrictions that will be published at The exhibition reprises and expands upon their Art Amnesty originally presented at Pierogi Gallery in 2002.

As part of the Art Amnesty, the Smiths will also make available a pledge form at the museum that can be signed by any artist or member of the public: I PROMISE NEVER TO MAKE ART AGAIN. Those who commit themselves will receive an official I AM NO LONGER AN ARTIST badge designed by Bob and Roberta Smith, and shall be invited to create one final drawing for inclusion in the Art Amnesty gallery exhibition, using materials provided onsite. Those wishing simply to discard a work will be asked to sign a pledge that reads I NEVER WANT TO SEE THIS WORK OF ART AGAIN.

While the Art Amnesty provides an occasion for artists to clear out their studios, it also serves other needs. Those who have been the victims of gifts of art, for example, are invited to dispose of these unwanted aesthetic presents at the museum. And as the Smiths note, “Many successful artists have recently voiced embarrassment that their work commands high prices. Artists may also use the opportunity of the Art Amnesty to expel certain works of art from the art market and demote them to objects unburdened by grand expectations and dashed dreams.” The Smiths will be the first to contribute to the Art Amnesty, discarding a batch of work previously exhibited in New York.

Reconsiderations: Wassily Kandinsky


Wassily Kandinsky, circa 1913

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The following essay originally appeared in the December 2009 edition of The New Criterion.

The Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) occupies a pioneering role in the modernist canon. He was among a handful of artists who first ventured into abstraction. Pure abstraction, that is: Picasso and Braque, while delving into the headier precincts of Synthetic Cubism, had already made pictures with relationships to observed phenomena that were, if not exactly strained, then tenuous. But it was left to figures like Kandinsky to jettison representation altogether. Given the skepticism with which abstraction was greeted at the time, such a pursuit betokened sensibilities made bold (or reckless) by their aesthetic convictions.

Kandinsky’s radical achievement is the subject of a sweeping retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.  Kandinsky is, among other things, a reminder that retrospectives don’t always shine a generous light on their subjects.  What’s striking about the six signature abstractions installed toward the exhibition’s beginning isn’t their sophistication, but the manner in which that sophistication was misprised. In arrays of wiry lines, random puffs of color, and pinched, convulsive rhythms, the paintings struggle against their own pretensions.

The paintings exude a certain fervor, but not the kind that emanates from exquisitely honed compositions. Kandinsky was an adherent of Theosophy, a mish-mosh of mystical bromides made influential by Madame Blavatsky, the self-proclaimed practitioner of levitation, clairvoyance, and other sideshow hijinks. It was Kandinsky’s artistic goal to evoke this immateriality prized by Theosophists. The Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, another follower of the hermetical Madame, wrote that if an artist is “to approach the spiritual … [he] will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual.” Escaping the tangible world was the Theosophical artist’s highest calling.

800px-Wassily_Kandinsky,_Improvisation_27,_Garden_of_Love_II,_1912._Exhibited_at_the_1913_Armory_ShowWassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II) (1912), oil on canvas, 47-3/8″ x 55-1/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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As Kandinsky writes in Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911):

“A painter, who finds no satisfaction in mere representation, however artistic, in his longing to express his inner life, cannot but envy the ease with which music, the most non-material of the arts today, achieves this end. He naturally seeks to apply the methods of music to his own art. And from this results that modern desire for rhythm in painting, for mathematical, abstract construction, for repeated notes of color, for setting color in motion.

“This borrowing of method by one art from another, can only be truly successful when the application of the borrowed methods is not superficial but fundamental. One art must learn first how another uses its methods, so that the methods may afterwards be applied to the borrower’s art from the beginning, and suitably. The artist must not forget that in him lies the power of true application of every method, but that that power must be developed.

In manipulation of form music can achieve results which are beyond the reach of painting. On the other hand, painting is ahead of music in several particulars. Music, for example, has at its disposal duration of time; while painting can present to the spectator the whole content of its message at one moment.”

Oil paint, in its fleshy malleability, is intensely material, and paintings are physical objects with an adamant stake in the here and now. How did abstraction enable painters to navigate the conundrums posed by Theosophy? In The Triumph of Modernism, Hilton Kramer divines the crucial role Theosophy played in the development of Kandinsky’s vision. Kramer writes of how, “in the realm of art at least, a silly idea may sometimes form the basis of a serious accomplishment”:

“Theosophy supplied a systematic cosmology to which the new abstract art could readily attach itself. For the pioneers of abstraction were as eager to have their art ‘represent’ something—even, in some special sense, to have it represent ‘nature’—as the most academic realist, and theosophy gave them a meaningful world beyond the reach of appearances to ‘represent’ in a new way. Thus, abstraction can be said to have made its historic debut as an esoteric form of representational art. Art for art’s sake had nothing to do with the advent of abstraction. It was a means to an end.”

Comprised of close to one hundred paintings and over sixty works on paper, “Kandinsky” will likely define his achievement for the next few generations—or, at least, until the Guggenheim feels it necessary to re-celebrate the artist who is its sine qua non. Originally known as The Museum of Non-Objective Painting, the Guggenheim was founded on the spiritualist aspirations exemplified by Kandinsky’s paintings. Solomon R. Guggenheim collected over one hundred and fifty of them on the advice of his friend, the painter and connoisseur Hilla Rebay. As the museum’s first director, Rebay underscored Kandinsky’s predominance by devoting permanent galleries to the work. The curators of “Kandinsky” have keyed into the special relationship between artist and institution—it’s right there to deduce from the show’s smart selective pacing, nuance, and range.


Wassily Kandinsky, Moscow I (1916), oil on canvas, 59.5 x 49.5 cm.; courtesy The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

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Kandinsky began painting at the age of thirty. A student of law, economics, and statistics at the University of Moscow, he was on track for a life in academia,when inspiration or, rather, inspirations struck. Attending a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin and seeing Monet’s Haystack paintings in 1896 confirmed Kandinsky’s artistic longings, but it was a Moscow sunset that put him over the top. Marveling at “the garish green of the grass, the deeper tremolo of the trees, the singing snow with its thousand voices or the allegretto of the bare branches, the red, stiff silent ring of the Kremlin walls,” the disaffected law student concluded: “To paint this hour, I thought, must be for an artist the most impossible, the greatest joy.” Kandinsky did, in fact, paint an almost literal transcription of this euphoric scenario twenty years later in Moscow I (1916).

Kandinsky’s turn to abstraction is set out with clear, inevitable logic. The exhibition begins with Colorful Life (1907), a storybook vista whose Byzantine composition and clusters of jewel-like color recall, respectively, Art Nouveau and Hinterglas Bilder, a form of folk painting done on glass. Kandinsky brought the same palette, albeit applied in larger swatches, to the landscapes and fairy tale fragments featuring princes, horses, and castles he painted upon moving to Germany in 1908. The saturated colors, flurries of brushstrokes, and increasingly roughhewn structures typical of the work done in Munich and Murnau are textbook examples of Expressionism, the highly charged style developed and propounded by Der Blaue Reiter, an artists’ group founded by Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Alexei von Jawlensky, and other notables.


Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 19 (1911), oil on canvas, 120 x 141.5 cm.; courtesy Stadtische Galerie im Lebenbachhaus, Munich, Germany

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Kandinsky veered away from recognizable imagery around 1911. Forms become less defined and concrete; space is rendered kaleidoscopic, turbulent, and bottomless. Kandinsky’s symbols can be relatively clear-cut: the elegant couple out for a stroll with their dog in Impression VI (Sunday) or the towering onlookers in Improvisation 19 (both 1911). At other times, a loping collection of black lines and color patches suggests, rather than delineates, a galloping horse or a mountain range. Two years later, not even a subtitle—Moscow, say—can codify a turbulent expanse of pictorial incident. Experience had been denatured into pure sensation. The “spiritual in art” had been realized.

But at what cost? Abstraction is now a stylistic trope in a culture overrun with them; its revolutionary character resides largely in period documentation. It is difficult, at this date, to appreciate the risk inherent in Kandinsky’s art. But risky it was: Consider his enemies. Though Kandinsky achieved positions of pre-eminence in the cultural bureaucracies of Communist Russia—he had returned to his homeland in 1914—Kandinsky was eventually pegged as “bourgeois” and fired on charges of being “an emigrant.” Returning to Germany, he found his pictures lumped under the Nazis’ “degenerate” rubric. Kandinsky’s art was anathema to the twentieth century’s two most pernicious political regimes. Abstraction was a dicey pursuit.

Outside of their historical context, however, Kandinsky’s paintings lose power. Essentially drawings embellished with arbitrary rushes of color, Kandinsky’s iconic abstractions scrabble for a uniformity that’s never forthcoming. Shapes and rhythms, lines and brushstrokes scrunch toward the center of each composition and fizzle toward its edges. A veritable rainbow is spread over the surfaces with staccato insistence, but it doesn’t amplify or generate much in the way of spatial complexity or intrigue. And forget about light: With rare exceptions—the Guggenheim’s Black Lines (1913) is a sparkling case in point—Kandinsky’s variegated palette resulted in musty hodgepodges of pigment.

Ausstellung "Entartete Kunst" im Galeriegebäude am Münchener Hofgarten (Eröffnung am 19. Juli 1937).Kandinsky painting seen at top left in the Degenerate Art exhibition in 1937

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During his sojourn in Russia, Kandinsky came under the influence of Constructivism; as a consequence, his jangled conglomerations of line, symbol, and geometry began to tighten and focus. Expressionism gave way to something controlled in its process if not in its ultimate effect. By the time he returned to Germany in 1922 for a teaching stint at the Bauhaus, Kandinsky’s approach was, by and large, commensurate with the school’s rigorous aesthetic. Contours became finite, surfaces uninflected, forms were rendered punchy and graphic—the paintings exhibit the influence of his friend and colleague Paul Klee. Unlike the Swiss master, Kandinsky couldn’t reconcile (or pressurize) his iconography within the picture’s frame. The picture plane was merely a container of images, rather than a vital participant in their realization.

Kandinsky’s lack of concern with a format’s perimeters poses less of a problem in the works on paper. Ensconced in one of the museum’s tower galleries, Kandinsky’s watercolor and India ink pieces are the most engaging incarnations of his vision. In them, Kandinsky’s totemic diagrams are at home; the small scale renders his otherworldly portentousness modest, notational, and approachable. Plumes of sprayed color—usually a dusky haze of rust-brown—are predominant and provide a unifying environment wherein Kandinsky’s emblems can convincingly teeter, totter, and, in the ethereal Into the Dark (1928), ascend with grave purpose.

The final ramp of the Guggenheim is devoted to the work Kandinsky created in Nazi-occupied France, where he resided in the final years of his life. The paintings done in Paris are ornamental inventories of Surrealist-inspired motifs. With their candied pastels and Miró-like blips and blobs—the Spaniard was a close friend—the pictures are delightfully scattershot in demeanor and clean in resolution. The best of them, Succession (1935), trots out an array of biomorphic forms and does so without apology. It’s as if Kandinsky, freed from the challenges of invention, was having fun for the first time in his life. The free-floating whimsy of Around the Circle (1940) and Various Actions (1941) are winning enough that you can forgive their cornball hieroglyphics and irresolute compositions.


Wassily Kandinsky, Various Actions (1941), oil on canvas, 35-1/8″ x 45-3/4″; courtesy The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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All the same, the Surrealist impulse in Kandinsky’s late work is curiously anemic—vivifying maybe but, ultimately, insignificant. Of the French paintings, Kramer astutely notes that they were “not a conversion to Surrealism, but a struggle to move into the orbit of Surrealist freedom.” Kandinsky’s biomorphs are singularly devoid of any existential correlative. The impulse to poetic fantasy is strongly and repeatedly expressed, but it seems to lack any real roots in the artist’s experience. In the end, Kandinsky’s concept of the “spiritual” was too bloodless perhaps, too metaphysical and otherworldly, to permit him to become the kind of erotic poet he saw triumphantly at work in Miró. We are given the design of an imaginary universe, but not the thing itself.

“Without a specific and profound spiritual content,” Kramer goes on to say, “Kandinsky felt, abstract painting would simply decline into decorative trivialities.”

One cannot dismiss Kandinsky’s achievement as “trivial,” but there is an abiding sense upon leaving the Guggenheim that his ambitions far outstripped their realization—or, instead, his ambitions muddled their realization. Kandinsky was too much in thrall to the tenets of Theosophy to transcend his own evangelical willfulness or, in the later paintings, to come out from underneath them to play. Mondrian may have been sold on Madame Blavatsky’s blather as well, but his oeuvre is rooted in the prerequisites of the studio, not in woozy hocus-pocus. The same cannot be said of Wassily Kandinsky.

© 2009 Mario Naves

The Equal Opportunity Aesthete: Sigmar Polke

Polke 1

Sigmar Polke, Mao (1972), synthetic polymer paint on patterned fabric mounted on felt with wooden dowel, overall: 12’3″ x 10’3-1/2″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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A version of this article originally appeared in the May 3, 1999 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010 at The Museum of Modern Art. Additional thoughts about Polke can be found here.

It’s been said that anyone approaching the contemporary art scene, with its bewildering array of styles and attitudes, should do so with an open mind. All the same, there are events so incredulous that one is reminded of the old joke about the guy who was so open-minded his brains fell out. Such is the case with Sigmar Polke: Works on Paper, 1963-1974 at The Museum of Modern Art.

It should be understood that Mr. Polke (born 1941), a German artist who came of age during the 1960s, is considered one of the era’s defining figures. Not every painter is feted with a show at the premier museum of twentieth-century art, as well as concurrent exhibitions at prestigious galleries like Michael Werner and Knoedler & Company. Such treatment signals an artist of import, one whose fans are vocal and effusive. Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker, posited Mr. Polke as “the artist who rescued painting”. Margit Rowell, chief curator of drawings at MoMA and organizer of Works on Paper, declares in the accompanying catalogue that Mr. Polke’s art “regenerate[s] the language and meaning of Western artistic experience.” In The New York Times, Roberta Smith peppered her review with adjectives like “astounding” and “engrossing”.

Polke 2Sigmar Polke in the Eifel Mountains of West Germany, 1993; photograph by AVN and courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Given the earth-shaking tenor of such kudos, you might think that Mr. Polke’s accomplishment stood alongside that of the Old Masters. Ms. Rowell does go on to suggest that Mr. Polke is, in spirit, a late 20th-century equivalent to Hieronymous Bosch. Now, Bosch painted his share of fantastic scenarios, but even these are prosaic compared to the huzzahs that have greeted Mr. Polke’s trifling art. The Polke phenomenon, if we can call it that, is the most recent manifestation of hero worship in an art world that worships the anti-heroic.

Polke 3

Sigmar Polke, Moderne Kunst (1968); courtesy the Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society, NY/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

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Mr. Polke culls his images from commercial illustration, movie posters, newspaper photographs and comic books. When he’s not aping mass media sources, Mr. Polke flirts–or maybe “toys” is a better word–with modernist abstraction. He’s an equal opportunity aesthete: Kandinsky and kitsch, Spider-Man and Lee Harvey Oswald, it’s all the same to him. A cursory appropriator, Mr. Polke is incapable of investing an image with pictorial heft. (The MOMA show features innumerable drawings that aspire to doodle status.)

His sensibility, shaped by Pop Art and a lax nihilism, is shapeless–a non-sensibility. He’s an artist for whom art is a diversion. That the work is bereft of anything resembling traditional draftsmanship is, if we are to believe his devotees, a badge of honor–a neo-Dadaist strike against, well, whatever. Ms. Rowell writes that Mr. Polke “accorded himself a freedom from all authority except that of his own will.” Exactly. This show documents the numbing delusions of narcissism.

© 1999 Mario Naves

Anne Arnold (1925-2014)


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’”.


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