“Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Ink Art #1

Installation of “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China”; courtesy ARTFIXdaily and The Metropolitan Museum of Art

* * *

Among the arbiters of artistic quality, few are as thorough, merciless, and true as time. Sure, it’s committed some slights, but over the long haul—and we’re talking hundreds of years—time has proven fairly impeccable in sorting out the great from the godawful. What history will make of the contemporary scene is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: none of us will live to see it. Should, however, Google prove successful in discovering a cure for death—no, really, the folks at the inestimable search engine are hard at work—some of us will take a lively interest in seeing how twenty-first-century art pans out. What will be gleaned from its jumble of grandiose theories, incessant politicizing, fashionable strategies, absurd auction prices, rampaging globalism, and general overabundance? Such thoughts came to mind while visiting “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China,” the Met’s first foray into contemporary Chinese art.

Granted, a casual afternoon spent trawling this-or-that art neighborhood will prompt similar puzzlements. But the currency of Chinese art, as both indicator of national identity and as an international phenomenon, is uppermost in the curatorial mindset of “Ink Art.” The subtitle makes that plain, as does the decision to install the exhibition in the permanent galleries of the Met’s Asian wing. Interspersing Crying Landscape (2002), an array of banners by Yang Jiechang, and Qiu Zhijie’s 20 Letters to Qiu Jawa (2009), a set of scrolls dedicated to the “suicidology of the Nanjing Yangzi River Bridge,” among towering examples of early Buddhist art isn’t a casual gesture. Continuity is the abiding leitmotif. Bimo, or brush and ink, is to Chinese art as oil paint is to the West. Tradition is a bolster; that’s all to the good. But how well is it being maintained?

Fig. 66b_Yang Jiechang_Crying Landscape

Yang Jiechang, Crying Landscape: Three Gorges Dam (2002), one from a set of five triptychs ink and oclor on paper, each triptych: 9 ft. 10-1/8″ x 16 ft. 4-7/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

* * *

Politics is an undercurrent of “Ink Art,” as is China’s current status as art world powerhouse. Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 loosened official strictures imposed on the arts and Soviet-style Socialist Realism lost its monopoly over aesthetic production. Art schools began exposing students to previously forbidden styles of art. Maxwell K. Hearn, the Met’s Douglas Dillon Chairman of the Department of Asian Art, writes that “movements such as Surrealism and Dada, long superseded in the West, [gained] new immediacy in China.” Given Mao’s repressive regime, how could artists experiencing newfound liberty resist the allures of art that had as its basis a blatant disregard for the status quo? A reawakened pull of native traditions was subsequently augmented and, in some cases, bedeviled by an increasing awareness of contemporary trends, particularly Conceptualism. The results have been curious, sometimes compelling, and often contradictory. A certain level of confusion is palpable throughout “Ink Art.” Take it from art-star Cai Guo-Qiang: “I always feel as though I am swinging like a pendulum between Chinese and Western culture.”

That China now generates art-stars points to myriad factors, not least the country’s rise as an economic power and its continued loosening of cultural constraints. “Loose” is, of course, a relative term. Ask Ai Weiwei what he thinks of his freedom and you’re likely to receive a pointed, sardonic response: China’s most famous artist has been a constant target of government suppression. Ai is included in “Ink Art,” but he’s not of it. A pair of ceramic pieces, some expert riffs on the readymade, and a tired jibe at Coca-Cola—these have little to do with either brush or ink and, as such, are marquee-value distractions. Curatorial liberties are taken elsewhere, and niggle at the exhibition’s primary conceit—unless, that is, you believe the lineage of Photoshop can be traced directly to the glories of bimo or that an ink-jet printer is cousin to Wang Xizhi, the fourth-century master calligrapher. Still, obligatory sops to our digital age don’t derail “Ink Art.” On the whole, the exhibition toes the proverbial line it set out for itself.

Fig. 32_Xu Bing_Song of Wandering AengusXu Bing, The Song of Wandering Aengus by William Butler Years (1999), pair of hanging scrolls; ink on paper, (left) 63-3/16″ x 51-1/2″, (right) 63-1/2″ x 51-7/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

* * *

“Ink Art” is divided into four sections, each dedicated to a specific motif—“New Landscapes,” “Abstraction,” “Beyond the Brush,” and “The Written Word.” It is the last of these that leaves the strongest impression. Given the primacy of calligraphy in Chinese culture— mastery of which, as Hearn notes, was a marker of a person’s “erudition and ideals”—it is appropriate that “The Written Word” centers “Ink Art,” albeit in forms that aren’t always recognizable. This is literally the case with Xu Bing, who appropriates the stylizations of calligraphy but alters and sometimes negates its meanings. In The Song of Wandering Aengus by William Butler Yeats (1999), Bing employs his own invention, “square word calligraphy,” and renders the title poem through symbols that transform English words into characters resembling Chinese. It’s a clever stunt skillfully deployed, as are Qui Zhijie’s Writing the “Orchid Pavilon Preface” One Thousand Times (1990–95) and Fung Mingchip’s Heart Sutra (2001), both of which privilege materials and process over legibility, and render calligraphy merely as a surface of aggregate mark-making. But even when artists aren’t explicitly engaging in “semantic subversions,” there remains an overriding sense that tradition is not a resource but more a plaything. A deadpan flippancy insinuates its way into “Ink Art”—a sense of closed horizons and narrow purviews. This is where doubts about the benefits of globalism and the exigencies of time start to nag.


Liu Dan, Detail of Ink Handscroll (1990), ink and color on paper, 37-3/4″ x 58′ 4″;
courtesy The San Diego Museum of Art and the artist

* * *

However unfamiliar we may be with contemporary Chinese art, there is nonetheless a sense of predictability that dampens the range and focus of “Ink Art.” Sloughing off the proceedings under the rubric of “been there, done that” is unfair—particularly given an artist like Liu Dan, a draftsman of supernal gifts who elaborates on the tradition of Chinese landscape painting with an evocative and eerie tactility. But local tweaks on international trends don’t necessarily build upon the store of human experience. If anything, these tweaks point not to the possibilities of art but to the finitude of the artistic imagination. Now the status quo, commentary and self-involvement, tweaked with political import, have rendered the mainstream of world art professional, brainy, and static. (Navel-gazing, by its very nature, leads nowhere.) “Ink Art” codifies this stasis with frustrating gravitas. Time will figure out which international figures of similar accomplishment—Minghip and Glenn Ligon, say, or Gu Wenda and A. R. Penck—are worthy of distinction. The rest of us, scratching our heads in the here-and-now, will cherry-pick our favorites and boggle at how samey the world has become.

© 2014 Mario Naves

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

The 22 Magazine; Collage

22 Magazine

The 22 Magazine, Volume IV

* * *

The current issue of The 22 Magazine is dedicated to the art of collage and contains interviews with a dizzying number of its practitioners. You’ll find an interview with your humble blogger on page 60. Thanks to Cat Gilbert for her heroic efforts in this venture.

“Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey” at The Brooklyn Museum


Wangechi Mutu, Once upon a time she said, I’m not afraid and her enemies became afraid of her The End (2013), mixed-media installation; courtesy The Brooklyn Museum

* * *

There is something misguided about Once upon a time she said, I’m not afraid and her enemies became afraid of her The End (2013), the first piece viewers encounter upon entering “Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey” now at the Brooklyn Museum, and it’s not the verbose title. It’s the work itself: a wall-sized diorama that combines ancient myth and post-apocalyptic spectacle, high-flown allusions and discount materials, image-mongering and set-design. The depicted scene—a centaur-like creature fleeing a squadron of pelt-covered robotic insects—is rendered all but negligible by an array of competing, ungainly, and ill-conceived materials; these include strapping tape, moving pads, faux snakeskin, wood veneer, animal fur, snippets from magazines, and paint. Once upon a time is shockingly literal in its construction. Talk about inertia: None of the materials are in the least animated. This is an opening gambit for a museum exhibition? You’d never know that the Nairobi-born, U.S.–educated, and Brooklyn-based Mutu is an artist of finely tuned precision.

That is, when she’s making collages. When devoting herself to sculptural flourishes, theatrical devices, and cinematic experiments, Mutu is as hapless as any traditional artist made antsy by a technology-besotted mixed-media culture. The aforementioned moving pads, especially, are given some kind of workout, having been installed along walls, exit doors, and columns to form a pseudo-junglescape—which is punctuated by fiery-red panties. Mutu doesn’t fare much better with Suspended Playtime (2008), a Beuysian installation of wadded-up garbage bags that is less environmental agitprop than traffic obstacle. You’d think an encompassing imagination might lend itself to video and computer-generated imagery, but the sci-fi moralism of The End of eating Everything (2013) and Eat Cake (2012), wherein an elaborately costumed Mutu squats on the forest floor consuming and tromping on a chocolate cake, are hampered by oh-so-political import. The best thing about the video Amazing Grace (2005) is the soundtrack: the artist singing the title song in her native Kikuyu. Hearing it drift through the galleries provides some respite from the surrounding galumphery.


Wangechi Mutu, Family Tree (2012), mixed-media collage, 20″ x 14-1/2″; courtesy The Brooklyn Museum

* * *

Given the intrusive nature of such gimmickry, Mutu’s collages seem almost beside the point. It’s as if she were mortified to be considered a maker of mere pictures. Mutu wouldn’t be the first artist intent on proving her PoMo credentials. More than a few traditionalists have mixed media in the grand pursuit of “contemporaneity.” Perhaps the allusions to Hannah Höch and Romare Bearden, artists without whom Mutu’s work is inconceivable, have been too steady and clear, too redolent of precedents confirmed rather than of precedents transformed. Certainly, convention hampers Mutu’s smaller works on paper, wherein the cut-and-paste aesthetic coasts too readily on Dada-esque disjunction. Anyone with a soft spot for the art of collage will derive some pleasure from the cobbled portraits of Family Tree (2003), a suite of thirteen meditations on the “cleavages in our humanity.” But Mutu’s elisions of imagery and reference are too automatic in their cleaving. The verbiage surrounding the pieces—talk of “uncoupling from imperialist modernity” and the “inchoate noumena of history”—struggles mightily to elevate them above the status of handsome contrivances.


Wangechi Mutu, Le Noble Savage (2006), ink and collage on Mylar, 91-3/4″ x 54″; courtesy The Brooklyn Museum

* * *

A shift in format size results in an upturn in ambition and artistic worth. When working on a scale not commonly associated with collage—in other words: big—Mutu’s knack for ornament and abundance overpowers received tropes, thereby enlivening her vision. The accumulation of bits-and-pieces culled from National Geographic, art-history texts, catalogues of industrial machinery, and, less overtly, pornography endows her iconography with symbolic heft and aesthetic necessity. Mutu’s characters, though somewhat ambiguous in gender, are Amazonian. The sinuous title figure in Noble Savage (2006) strikes a pose reminiscent of both a model on the catwalk and the Statue of Liberty. Sinuously cobbled together from myriad collage elements, Mutu’s “savage” is set against an atmospheric expanse of painterly incident and engulfed within a meticulously cut field of paper fauna. Here the combination of fairy tale ambiance, steam-punk grit, and an oleaginous Surrealism gains elegance and clarity through sheer material accumulation. Surface area, as it turns out, counts for a lot. Granted, the work is slick to a fault, but its opulence impresses all the same. Would that Mutu risked outright vulgarity. Anything that makes an artist as self-conscious as this one reach beyond the strictures of self is a good thing.

The most telling facet of “A Fantastic Journey” is its overriding, unapologetic professionalism. Say what you will of the “Cullud Grrl from Out of Space,” as the essayist Greg Tate dubs her, Mutu is nothing if not assured in her approach to artist-hood. She has her bases covered—politically, artistically, theoretically, and as a public persona. The canniness of the oeuvre as a cultural marker is inseparable from an art world that rewards tidy packaging. In that regard, Mutu is less a Postcolonial artist than a post-MFA phenomenon. Any controversy that might have once been generated—about, say, the often tragic confluence of sex, race, and culture—has been rendered mainstream and all but toothless. This says as much about our society’s ability to absorb pretty much anything as it does about Mutu’s studied art. But would there be any doubts if Mutu brought to her work the humanistic gravitas of Romare Bearden, the idiosyncratic perspicacity of Hannah Höch, or the out-of-left field absurdity of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, another pivotal influence? Instead, she cruises on expertise and platitudes. Mutu is only forty-one; she has time to broaden and deepen her art. Perhaps the success she’s currently experiencing will allow the freedom to do just that.

© 2014 Mario Naves

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

“Forces of Nature/Natural Forces” at Pratt Institute

Forces of Nature:Natural Forces

* * *

I’m pleased to announce that several paintings of mine will be included in Forces of Nature/Natural Forces, a faculty exhibition at Pratt Institute curated by Lisa Banner.

Please see the invite above for more information.

Irrepressible: The Paintings of Melissa Meyer

Meyer 1

Melissa Meyer, Inky (2013), oil on canvas, 60″ x 78″; courtesy Lennon, Weinberg Inc.

* * *

A version of this essay originally appeared in a brochure accompanying Melissa Meyer; New Paintings, a 2001 exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery. It is posted here on the occasion of Melissa Meyer; Recent Work at Lennon, Weinberg Inc. (until February 15).

Few brushstrokes in contemporary art declare themselves as irrepressibly as those of Melissa Meyer.

Translucent and expansive, Meyer’s signature squiggles move across the canvas with a lighter-than-air élan. These marks can be likened to calligraphy or doodling, but only if it’s understood that such comparisons are convenient rather than conclusive. Her brushstrokes are, after all, too independent to relinquish themselves to symbol and too driven to be tagged as automatism. They may unfurl, stretch, shimmy and skitter, but they do so with purpose and personality. One of Meyer’s clubby lines will snarl itself into a bewildered knot; another wiggles with brazen impetuosity. A third lopes nonchalantly, holding its own between neighbors who are, if not quarrelsome, then muscular enough to brook any guff.

Mayer 2Melissa Meyer, Devlin (2013), oil on canvas, 70″ x 80″; courtesy Lennon, Weinberg Inc.

* * *

Each of the canvases is predicated on a grid that, however informal in delineation, retains a compositional authority. This structural arbiter is then overlaid and augmented by Meyer’s brushwork. She handles the disjunction between organization and abandon with a dexterity so exuberantly off-the-cuff that it ceases to be a disjunction at all. Amiably insisting that discipline and freedom need not be absolutes, Meyer reconciles the irreconcilable. When a rush of red overlaps its box-like compartment, it states its case decisively but doesn’t dishonor its surroundings. Similarly, when a wash of blue envelops a drawling skein of green, it does so with the calm embrace of a blessing, not the admonishing finality of negation. Meyer posits a pictorial and, by inference, philosophical concord that is forever open to flux.

Meyer’s work refuses to buy into the shopworn argument that the harsher the medicine, the better it is for you. She knows that artistic worth isn’t measured in provocation alone and that pleasure can be its own profound reward. Her paintings–jubilant, buoyant and often tender–are a source of sustenance. We willingly lose ourselves in their tangled delights.

© 2001 Mario Naves

“Mike Kelley” at MOMA/PS1

Mike Kelley #1

Mike Kelley, Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991-1999), plush toys sewn over wood and wire frames with styrofoam packing material, nylon rope, pulleys, steel hardware and hanging plates, fiberglass, car paint and disinfectant, overall dimensions variable; courtesy The Estate of Mike Kelley and MOMA/PS1

* * *

As much as art criticism can be defined by rules, there is one rule that has proven fail-safe: Be skeptical of any exhibition that comes with a soundtrack taken from the haunted house attraction at an amusement park. Ambient drones, scattered voices (sometimes intelligible, often not), the generalized rustle of forces knocking about—leaven them with an underlay of rock music and imbue the proceedings with mood lighting, and you can wager that the resulting objet d’art is impossibly portentous. That it should also be of minimal aesthetic value is likely—or so one would think. But “Mike Kelley,” a thirty-year overview of the California-based artist’s work now on view in Queens at MOMA PS1, is the exception that proves the rule. That is, at least, the verdict of Holland Cotter at The New York Times. He writes that the exhibition is “a huge show that should be huge” and that the work is “great.” Cotter doesn’t mention the exhibition’s audio component. Given his track record as cheerleader for the temporarily outré, maybe Cotter is inured to such things. For some critics, spooky noises are par for the course.

Cotter’s “great” recommendation is prefaced by a description of Kelley’s art as “perfectly horrid.” This phrase isn’t a condemnation. It is high praise. Kelley is among the more notable purveyors of “abjection,” a school of art dedicated to exploring the furthest reaches of anomie. Add to this brew the disappointments of childhood, as well as obligatory homages to seamy sex and bodily functions, and you’ll have an idea of the overriding tenor of Kelley’s vision—a chilly admixture of nihilism and nostalgia, of sentimentality glossed over with rank self-indulgence. “My entrance into the art world was through the counter-culture,” Kelley wrote, “where it was common practice to lift material from mass culture and ‘pervert’ it to reverse or alter its meaning.” Admirers laud the “unashamed intellectuality” of this “giant,” of his Barnum-esque embrace of physics and metaphysics, social constructs and gender identity, punk rock and Superman comic books. PS1 extols Kelley’s “dark and delirious” exploration of the “fault lines between the sacred and the profane.” Hardly an exhibition of contemporary art comes down the pike without high-flown theorizing. Kelley had no small role in codifying its parameters.

Mike Kelley #4

Mike Kelley, Pay For Your Pleasure (detail) (1988), oil paint on Tyvek; courtesy MOMA/PS1

* * *

The work that typifies Kelley’s vision—“oeuvre” isn’t right word given his stylistic capriciousness—is Pay for Your Pleasure (1988), a series of towering banners featuring painted portraits of poets, philosophers, artists, politicians, and religious leaders emblazoned with quotes specific to the individual pictured. Affectlessness of craft coincides with the cynicism of the accompanying sentiments (often taken out of context). A perfect marriage of form and content, you might think, but Kelley’s miserabilism—there’s no other word for it, really—places him above such potentially redemptive concerns. “Everything bad that happens happens because of a conscious, intelligent concerted ill-will”—this statement from Antonin Artaud defines Kelley’s distinctive brand of tunnel vision. Kelley mandated that any institution displaying Pay for Your Pleasure include an artwork made by a local criminal. At PS1 this honor goes to Arthur Shawcross, also known as the Genesee River Killer. Shawcross raped, killed, mutilated, and claimed to have cannibalized his victims—most of them prostitutes, but also children. Donation boxes for victims’ rights groups, another Kelley mandate, are placed nearby. Does a wan nod to empathy compensate for sick sensationalism? “Since no pleasure is free, a little ‘guilt’ money is in order.” We’re all implicated, don’t you know.

The novelty of PS1 as a cultural institution lies in its former role as a public school and the degree to which it retains an institutional grittiness. Much of the building has been left “as is,” replete with weathered surfaces, cavernous spaces, period linoleum flooring, and raw, unfinished rooms. (The basement galleries are an irresistible draw for children thanks to their scariness.) A self-conscious romanticism is inherent in the decor of PS1 and, as such, often trumps the art to which the museum is ostensibly dedicated. Kelley, being a consummate showman, holds his own against this setting. His pieces—through scale, yes, but also force of will—dominate the surrounding spaces. Whether using means that are traditional (oil paint), technological (light boxes, gas tanks, projections, videos), homely (stuffed animals retrieved from a thrift shop), or piecemeal (color-coordinated mosaics), Kelley deals in brutalist theater—a my-way-or-the-highway descent into ugliness. Art as engagement? Forget it. To paraphrase an old New Yorker cartoon, Mike Kelley suffered for his art and now it’s our turn. Kelley’s work, in its insistence on sensory overload and emotional submission, is as unremitting and slick as a Hollywood blockbuster.

Mike Kelley #2

Mike Kelley, Mike Kelley as the Banana Man (1981); courtesy The Estate of Mike Kelley and PS1/MOMA

* * *

Unlike the typical Hollywood product, however, Mike Kelley—the artist, not the exhibition—didn’t have a happy ending. The “tragic death” mentioned in an introductory wall label is an elision meant to obscure, out of curatorial politesse presumably, the artist’s suicide last year at the age of fifty-seven. Knowing this biographical particular can’t help but color one’s perception of the art, but even friends who weren’t aware of Kelley’s passing found themselves disconcerted—“moved” seems too positive an emotion in this context—by “Mike Kelley.” Whatever else you can say about the man and his art, this much is true: He wasn’t a con man out to milk the prestige of art. He wasn’t, in other words, Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst or Banksy or fill-in-the-blank. There is, at the core of Kelley’s art, something real—something unappetizing, sure, but also genuine. Sincere self-disgust is better than the usual posing, but not much better and, from all appearances, not good at all for Kelley. Perhaps we should be grateful that Kelley found an outlet for his demons—for a time, anyway. Those of us disinclined to indulge (or celebrate) life’s miseries are free to seek our pleasures elsewhere.

© 2014 Mario Naves

This article was originally published in the January 2014 edition of The New Criterion.

The More The Merrier


The Cultured and Huddled Masses at Sideshow Gallery

* * *

I’m pleased to announce that a painting of mine will be included in Sideshow Nation II; At The Alamo, Rich Timperio’s annual extravaganza at Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg.

The opening will, if history tells us anything, be swamped with art-lovers of all stripes.

This time around the opening takes place on Saturday, January 4th, from 6:00-9:00 p.m. The exhibition runs until March 3rd. Additional information can be found here.

Tender, Tenacious and Forceful: The Prints of Paul Resika

DCF 1.0

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

© 2013 Mario Naves

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

“Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” at The Philadelphia Museum of Art

The City

Fernand Léger, The City (1919), oil on canvas, 7′ 7″ x 9′ 9-1/2″; courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, A.E. Gallatin Collection

* * *

“Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” is, in focus and scope, an ambitious enterprise and, as such, often exhilarating. Anyone fascinated by the trajectory of, and crosscurrents within, early Modernism will count this exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a “must see.” Be aware, however, that it isn’t a typical monographic overview. Only a third or so of the pieces on display are by Léger. The majority of items—drawings, paintings, sculptures, architectural maquettes, theater designs, films, and posters—are by his friends, colleagues, and contemporaries. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more impressive Who’s Who of the Avant-Garde: among those included are Piet Mondrian, El Lissitzky, Robert Delaunay, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Pablo Picasso, Le Corbusier, Francis Picabia, and lesser lights like Amédée Ozenfant, Theo van Doesburg, Gino Severini, Georges Vantongerloo, and Marcel Duchamp. By the time viewers reach the end of this sprawling exhibition, they can be forgiven for wondering if its emphasis has been misplaced. “Modern Art and the Metropolis, with Special Guest Fernand Léger” is more like it.

Make that “With Special Guest Painting, The City.” Here is where the exhibition is brazenly Philly-centric. Anna Vallye, the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art and exhibition organizer, is on a mission. She wants to posit The City (1919), a cornerstone of the museum’s collection and already an iconic painting, as a cultural game-changer on par with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). The Léger picture, after all, “capture[s] the shifting ground of knowledge of the modern self and world”:

Everything that in the Demoiselles concentrates and amplifies with the heated immediacy of sexual initiation, in The City shatters and disperses with an alienating force, like an approaching locomotive.

That The City takes as its subject “a public, collective, and disunited subject” is key to understanding Vallye’s attempt at taking Picasso down a peg. Léger, having brought modernism out of the studio—and, lest we forget, out of the boudoir—and into the streets, proved himself down with the people, or so the reasoning goes. At a time when the definition of art is increasingly elastic, being a populist is preferable to anything so sniffy as a mere painter.

Leger Photo

Fernand Léger circa 1916

* * * 

Truth be told, Léger (1881-1955) was a populist. A relative latecomer to Cubism, Léger brought to the style a voluble, robust, and rambunctious—dare one say masculine?— character. In the introductory galleries, Leger’s distinctive riffs on Cubism, derisively referred to as “Tubism” by a critic of the time, barrel over the competition. The propulsive rhythms and insistent convexities of Houses Under Trees (1913), Contrast of Forms (1913), Acrobats at the Circus (1918), and even the relatively restrained Smoke Over Rooftops (1911) don’t crash the party; they dominate it. It’s clear that the parameters of easel painting were something of a constraint on Léger’s vision. (“Abstract art,” he would write, “is in trouble when it tries to do easel painting.”) Léger looked to Renaissance murals and modernist architecture as means of giving pictorial form to societal shifts brought about by advances in technology. Not that all these advances were beneficent. Having served in the military during the First World War, Léger witnessed the industrialization of combat and the “blinding and new” reality it ushered in.

But how much of an effect did the war have on Léger? Any feelings of despair or cynicism provoked by first-hand contact with its carnage are markedly absent from the work. Léger was, in fact, invigorated by the contact with his “new companions” in the Engineer Corps—“the whole of the French people”. Then there was the “dazzling” sight of “the breech of a 75-millimetre gun which was standing uncovered in the sunlight: the magic of light on white metal.” World War One didn’t alter Léger’s take on the machine. If anything, it emboldened a sensibility already entranced by the machine’s regularity, precision, and power. Admittedly, a revived humanism did enter the work, if not always in imagery—Léger’s figures are always robots or symbols, never flesh-and-blood entities—then in spirit and reach. Compare Leger’s art with that of post-war contemporaries like Otto Dix, Max Ernst, or Max Beckmann, and Léger comes off as positively sunny. Not every artist who has experienced suffering has to suffer in the studio. Léger remained something of a utopian until the end of his days. You can’t help but think: More power to him.

The exhibition’s most literal moment of angst is found in The City. Just below center is a hulking figure rendered in a smudgy array of grays—engulfed in shadow, presumably— stalking a more individuated silhouette. This vignette is of a piece with a panorama that is, if not typified by threat, then overwhelmed by impersonal phenomena: maze-like passageways, towering shards of architecture, cluttered purviews and fractured words, signs and figures. During the war, Léger pined for Paris: “If I’m lucky to go back there . . . I’ll walk about in it like I’ve never before walked about there.” Though the poet Blaise Cendrars likened The City to Paris’s Place Clichy, where he and Léger wandered the streets after war’s end, the painting doesn’t depict a specific location. Rather, The City provides an unmistakable sense of (to use a contemporary phrase) information overload. In Léger’s hands, the urban environment is a monumental entity whose components disassemble even as they demand our attention. Notwithstanding subtle shifts in space, the composition is relentlessly frontal. The City brings to mind Yeats’s “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,” albeit without the Biblical intimations. It is a testament to Léger’s talent that the composition holds together without sacrificing its compellingly disjointed energy.

RMN106726Fernand Léger, Composition à le main et aux chapeaux (1927), oil on canvas, 97-3/4″ x 73″; courtesy Centre Pompidou, Paris

* * *

Léger’s contemporaries did not miss this accomplishment. The critic Maurice Raynal called The City “a performance more than a painting.” Cendrars remarked upon the thoroughness with which Léger tapped into the dynamism of industry: “The painting becomes an enourmous thing that moves.” Yvan Goll, another poet, described the canvas as “a monstrous entity striding toward us.” Vallye commends The City for ingraining the social transformation of post-war Paris, and for having “opened painting to a fateful and exhilarating contamination”—that is to say, popular culture: “As painting ushered in cultural practices traditionally foreign to itself,” she continues, “the work produced became an uneasy hybrid, laced with generative frictions.” The curator’s up-to-the-minute jargon—can we please excise the word “practice” from the lexicon of art?—is enough to make one think she values the art of painting for everything it isn’t. Still, you don’t have to completely buy into the line about Léger’s “new ethics of modernity” to find truth in Vallye’s assertions. “Modern Art and the Metropolis” makes a heartening brief for the inclusivity of influence, of art as an absorptive and transformative endeavor.

Given its central role in “Modern Art and the Metropolis,” The City pops up curiously early, following quickly on introductory galleries placing Léger within the context of Cubism and Futurism. The painting itself is surrounded by myriad studies, done on canvas and paper, which emphasize how Léger went about bending both styles to his will. At this point the exhibition dedicates itself, in a series of discrete and didactic segments, to the aforementioned contaminants or, as the wall texts have it, “Publicity” and “Spectacle.” We see Léger’s art in the midst of advertising, print illustrations, movies, designs for the theater, and “Space,” a category reflecting the artist’s faith in the “simple and rational architecture that is going to conquer the world.” Ballet Mécanique (1923–1924), the experimental film Léger made with Dudley Murphy, is highlighted, as is Charlot Cubiste (1924), the painted plywood relief of Charlie Chaplin in which it figures prominently. Léger had mixed feelings about the cinema, fearing that money and celebrity, along with the “frightful ‘good taste’ of the French,” would stunt the art form. In many respects, the amateur film critic proved prescient.


Gerald Murphy, Razor (1924), oil on canvas, 32-1/4″ x 36-1/2″; courtesy Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection

* * *

Displayed near Ballet Mecanique are additional films celebrating speed and rhythm, including Abel Gance’s The Wheel (1922) and, in a gratuitous byway dedicated to Parisian Dada, cinematic efforts by Duchamp, Picabia, René Clair, and Man Ray. (That Léger loaned his work to some of the Dadaists’ stunts doesn’t mean their nihilistic trivialities have to be vindicated for, like, the umpteenth time.) Vintage posters by Cassandre, Jean Carlu, and Francis Bernard are juxtaposed with Léger’s own studies for posters, his set designs for the film L’Inhumaine (1924), and canvases like Composition with Hand and Hats (1927), with its droll orchestration of hats and playing cards, and the steely grandeur of Mechanical Element (1924). Razor (1924), a proto-Pop canvas by the underrated Gerald Murphy, an American expatriate and friend of the artist, holds its own in this heady milieu. Then there is Leger’s delightful work for the theater. The reconstructed backdrop for Skating Rink, a ballet commissioned by the Ballet Suédois in 1921, would seem to capsize the exhibition through size alone—it measures 16’ x 32’—but is dwarfed, in aesthetic terms, by the playful primitivism of Leger’s costume designs.

It is at this point, however, that “Modern Art and the Metropolis” loses steam, at least Léger-wise. What can it mean that the theatrical studies, at least as seen in Philadelphia, are considerably less engaging than those of his peers? As charming as Curtain Design for Skating Rink (1922) might be, it can’t hold the proverbial candle to, say, El Lissitzky’s Victory Over The Sun (1923), a suite of ten lithographs done for an opera, endowing the conventions of Russian Constructivism with unexpected comic sprightliness. Man Ray and Delaunay-Terk bring a crystalline eye for color, counter-point and interval to costume design. And then there’s Alexandra Exter, who is, for this critic anyway, a find. A trio of Exter’s marionettes bridges the folkloric and the modern with consummate ease. If her poichoir studies of stage lighting are for specialists only, Construction (1922–23), a brash orchestration of geometric forms done in oil on canvas, deserves greater renown. The Museum of Modern Art owns the picture and could do worse in establishing its PC-bonafides than placing the Exter on public view in the permanent collection. Perhaps Curator Vallye’s next project will be the resuscitation of this intriguing figure’s “practice.” We can hope as much, anyway.


Alexandra Exter, Construction (1922-23), oil on canvas, 35-1/8″ x 35-3/8″, courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, The Riklis Collection of McCrory Collection

* * *

A loss of vigor continues in the galleries dedicated to “Space,” an exploration of the relationship between color and architecture that constitutes the exhibition’s finale. (Léger’s studies for a never-realized mural at Rockefeller Center, seen in a side gallery directly before the exit, are the stuff of self-parody and barely count as a postscript.) As seen in the company of de Stijl, Léger comes off as an adept and not altogether convinced follower; he’s fairly knuckled under by the rigorous élan of Mondrian and Van Doesburg. Léger’s omnivorous love of architecture—he considered himself the Modernist painter “closest in contact with the new builders”—seems to have coincided with a diminution in invention and purpose. Modernist innovation consequently became reiterated, not transfigured, and the loss of tone is palpable. When ticky-tacky contrivances by Ozenfant, Le Corbusier, and Willi Baumeister encroach upon Léger’s star-power you know something’s gone awry. Still, Léger’s increasing pictorial flabbiness shouldn’t detract from an exhibition replete with significant pleasures. Whether The City will ascend to the rank of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon remains to be seen. In the meantime, The Philadelphia Museum should be encouraged to stick out its curatorial neck more often if doing so results in exhibitions like “Modern Art and the Metropolis.”

© 2013 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the December 2013 edition of The New Criterion.

Ho, Ho, Ho

Holiday Delights* * *

I’m pleased to announce that a painting of mine will be on display in Holiday Delights, a group exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery. You’ll find all the pertinent information above. Hope to see you at the opening/holiday party on December 7th.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 179 other followers