Cosmopolitan Primitive: The Art of Joaquin Torres-Garcia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 1999 Mario Naves



Wuxtry! Wuxtry!


Mario Naves, Fresno (2015), acrylic on panel, 36″ x 48″‘; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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I’m pleased to announce that my work will be featured in two exhibitions
opening in December.

A new painting will be on display in “Festivus”, a sampling of gallery artists at Elizabeth Harris Gallery. The show runs from December 3-19. The opening will take place on Saturday, December 5, from 3:00-6:00 p.m.

One of my collages will be sharing wall space with myriad artworks at Lesley Heller Workspace as part of the gallery’s annual Holiday Salon Show. The exhibition opens on Sunday, December 13, with a reception from 12:00-6:00 p.m., and continues until December 20th.

I hope to see you at both receptions!

Morandi Times Two

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Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta (Still Life) (1956), oil on canvas, 13-3/4 x 17-11/16″; courtesy Private Collection and David Zwirner Gallery. (c) 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome.

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The following review was originally published in the September 23, 2008 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of “Giorgio Morandi” at David Zwirner Gallery (until December 19) and “Giorgio Morandi” at The Center for Italian Modern Art (through June 25, 2016).

The first thing you’ve got to say about the Met’s new exhibition of Giorgio Morandi’s paintings, prints and drawings is this: It’s about time.

Over the past few years, a handful of almost surreptitious gallery exhibitions were devoted to the Italian modernist. The pickin’s were slim—10 paintings in each venue, if that—but they were enough to set gallery-goers drifting out in a haze of pleasurable disbelief. Why wasn’t this great—hell, sublime—painter getting the widespread attention he deserves?

The answer isn’t hard to pin down. Morandi painted tenderly choreographed arrays of bottles and boxes and the stray landscape—that’s about it. The pictures aren’t sexy. Dusty with isolation, Morandi’s homely dioramas are redolent of studio quietude. A Morandi doesn’t demand attention; it beckons for intimacy.

Working in collaboration with the Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna (MAMbo), the Met show is the first complete Morandi exhibition organized in the United States. It’s installed in the lower level of the Robert Lehman Wing, a space whose physical remove and hushed ambience are suited to the artist’s restraint. The entirety of the oeuvre is touched upon with uncommon deliberation. After traversing over a hundred pieces, you want more. The Met has done up Morandi right.

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Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta (Still Life) (1949), oil on canvas, 12 X 17-15/16″; courtesy David Zwirner Gallery. (c) 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome.

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Born in Bologna, Morandi studied at his hometown’s Academy of Fine Arts (his interest in art having been grudgingly capitulated to by his businessman father). The experience was dispiriting: The school, Morandi wrote, “served only to plunge me into a state of deep unrest.” Skepticism about art as an academic discipline stayed with Morandi even as he returned to the Academy some 20 years later to teach etching. As an instructor, he preferred teaching technical procedures over aesthetics.

Painting, not polemic, drove Morandi. After an infatuation with Futurism’s radical bromides, Morandi looked for inspiration in less flashy precedents: Chardin, Seurat, Corot, Cézanne. His paintings don’t play into the standard Modernist narrative. Stylistic innovation and the spotlight didn’t interest him. “In the eyes of the Grand Inquisitors of Italian art”—he means the art establishment—“I remained but a provincial.” Obscurity suited Morandi fine.

Morandi’s fascination with natura morta was loving, remorseless and, in the end, inexorable. Hindsight reveals as much in early experiments with Cézanne-esque facture and Cubism, but it isn’t until the mid- to late teens that Morandi’s signature motif gains real emphasis. You can feel it in the elongated vessels in a Picasso-influenced canvas. But it was Surrealism or, rather, its Italian offshoot, pittura metafísica, that made Morandi’s imagery concrete and contributed the profound heft he brought to oil paint.

Metaphysical painting involved itself less with Freudian theory than with unsettling nostalgia. Giorgio de Chirico was its best known and definitive practitioner. His dreamscapes of isolated plazas, zooming architecture and longing for Renaissance clarity were spartan in tone, if not always in composition. Morandi’s forays into this ascetic realm were even more distilled—to the point where metaphysics was almost beside the point.

De Chirico is in the mix in the handful of Morandi’s metaphysical paintings on display. Set on anonymous surfaces, a selective array of things are stringently orchestrated—a fruit dish, a pipe, cylinders and, the only blatantly “surrealist” object, a bisected mannequin’s head. Items float inside boxes with unearthly poise, the boxes themselves denatured and transparent. The best of the lot, a canvas from 1919, is passive-aggressive: The still life confronts us with dreadful quietude.

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Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta (Still Life) (1952), oil on canvas, 16-1/8″ x 18-1/8″; courtesy David Zwirner Gallery and a Private Collection. (c) 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome.

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An air of mystery, however understated, continued to filter through Morandi’s paintings, as did an unrelenting concentration on placement. Portent became less important than softly stated anxiety over representation. “Nothing is more abstract than what we actually see,” Morandi famously said. The harder Morandi looked at stuff on his table, the more elusive it was. The bristling trail left by his brush became increasingly forthright, agitated and meditative. Morandi’s search is palpable; the paintings question themselves right in front of our eyes.

Morandi’s palette is grayed and dusky—ochres, burnished browns, smoky off-whites and, in a lone hedonistic gesture, a pinkish and orange cream in a trio of canvases from 1956. His tabletops are almost pro-forma—a horizon that, at rare moments, curves or slopes. Morandi’s objects nudge each other, as though trying to situate themselves with some fleeting sense of logic. Elisions of space, gravity and viewpoint create a just barely discernible electricity. In an odd way, you feel the paintings before you see them.

The artist himself appears in two rare self-portraits. Striking the same pose in each—Morandi, with slumped shoulders and palette in hand, sits despondently in thought. One painting is monumental, heavy and solid—Morandi the Mountain. The other is intangible, almost ghostlike; in it, description yields to mood and specificity to abstraction. Both paintings are about the impossibility of grabbing hold of a moment. Their tenacious doubt is unshakable, and a gift.

(c) 2008 Mario Naves


“Paintings by George Stubbs from the Yale Center for British Art” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


George Stubbs, Turf, with Jockey Up, at Newmarket (c. 1765), oil on canvas, 38″ x 49″; courtesy Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

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Gallery-goers interested in viewing the handful of paintings by George Stubbs (1724–1806) on loan from the Yale Center for British Art will have to engage in the museological equivalent of hunting and pecking. The eight canvases are snuggled almost imperceptibly within the Met’s collection of European painting and are surrounded by those of his countrymen, including Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence, Thomas Gainsborough, and, in a disappointingly sanguine mood, William Hogarth. As the Yale Center’s Louis I. Kahn building undergoes restoration, New Yorkers have been offered a sampling of an artist best known for paintings of horses. Given how large exhibitions can tax one’s attention, who’s to say the less-is-more approach is a bad thing? The encompassing overview of John Singer Sargent’s portraits, concurrently on view at the Met, all but exhausts one’s capability for pleasure: the hits just keep on coming. A smattering of pictures, on the other hand, allows for a degree of measure that encourages focus.

Of course, Sargent was a greater artist than Stubbs. Stubbs had nowhere near the American’s facility—few painters do—and distilling the quiddities of personality was less important than representational accuracy. Sargent deserves the gala treatment; Stubbs, not so much. Even on the slim evidence at the Met, the narrow range of Stubbs’s talents and interests is evident. A brittleness in execution—a lack of spatial pliability and compositional invention—can make him seem an inspired folk painter. Stubbs was, in fact, self-taught. An apprenticeship with the painter and engraver Hamlet Winstanley was short-lived, the younger artist bristling at the copying typical of art instruction at the time. Flesh interested him more than plaster, and Stubbs set into motion his own course of study, learning human anatomy at York County Hospital and, later, animal anatomy through the dissection of horses. The latter took place at his farmhouse outside of York, wherein Stubbs made drawings from artfully posed carcasses. Stubbs did not lack drive; certainly he wasn’t squeamish.


George Stubbs, Freeman, the Earl of Clarendon’s gamekeeper, with a dying doe and hound (1800), oil on canvas, 40″ x 50″;courtesy Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

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Stubbs’s devotion to the intricacies of equine form did not go unnoticed. The intensive accuracy of his studies caught the eye of patrons—Stubbs received his first commissions from aficionados of both horses and art—and would eventually lead to the publication of his 1866 treatise, The Anatomy of the Horse. Stubbs became sought after as a niche painter and achieved an enviable level of success, providing him the financial wherewithal to purchase a home in the exclusive London neighborhood of Marylebone. Though Stubbs would branch out to other genres, including historical dioramas, landscape, and depictions of more exotic fauna like that of the little known “kongouro,” the non-horse pictures were met with less acclaim. When a failed collaboration with the ceramicist Josiah Wedgewood left him in debt, Stubbs began taking on commissions to paint dogs. Patronage from the Prince of Wales eased his later years. At the time of his death, Stubbs was working on a suite of engravings whose title makes plain the peculiar nature of his fascinations: A comparative anatomical exposition of the structure of the human body with that of a tiger and a common fowl.

Oddly enough, and alas, horses are on short supply at the Met—only Turf, with Jockey Up, at Newmarket (ca. 1765) and Lustre, Held By a Groom (ca. 1762) feature Stubbs’s trademark animal. Elsewhere, we see hunting dogs, a doe, a mound of dead birds, and, in Two Gentlemen Shooting (ca. 1769), a partridge balletically stilled in mid-air having just been pelted with buckshot. Oh, yes, and humans: not only the aforementioned hunters, jockey, and groom, but Freeman, the Earl of Clarendon’s gamekeeper, who is pictured in a starkly dramatic composition, holding off a dog from an injured deer. The Met informs us that the gamekeeper will shortly administer the “coup de grâce,” thereby delivering the wounded animal from its suffering. Well, maybe. There’s enough ambiguity in the man’s gaze to give one pause: Freeman’s gesture is more conciliatory than not and his visage distinctly Solomonic. The neoclassical triangulation of the figures, if not the moody landscape that serves as their backdrop, undergirds the supposition. As moral theater, Freeman, the Earl of Clarendon’s gamekeeper, with a dying doe and hound (1800) has more gravitas than one might initially think.


Newmarket Heath, with a Rubbing Down House (ca. 1765), oil on canvas, 12″ x 16″; courtesy Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

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Notwithstanding the stern Mr. Freeman, Stubbs’s human figures are either doughy and generic—his gentleman hunters are stock types and nothing more—or, as in the regal Turf, with Jockey Up, at Newmarket (ca. 1765), so much a part of the animal that to make a distinction between the two is pointless. In delineating animal forms, Stubbs employed an analytical approach that emphasized contour, thereby bringing a sharp and sinewy angularity to forms. There is, for example, an almost Egyptian sense of pictorial codification to the two dogs seen in Two Gentlemen Going a Shooting (1768). Less impressive is the patchwork nature of Stubbs’s compositions; figures are decals stuck on to a surrounding rather than being integral components of it. The most unified picture of the bunch is Newmarket Heath, with a Rubbing Down House (ca. 1765), in which figures of any sort are absent. The brutalist authority of the title structure is quelled by a gentle—dare one say “tender”?—suffusion of afternoon light. Stubbs never let the painting leave the studio, sensing, perhaps, that he’d achieved something closer to poetry than mere hard-won verisimilitude. For that one grace note alone, the Met’s jewel-box exhibition of Stubbs’s work is worth a visit.

© 2015 Mario Naves

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

Steve Currie: Gone Fishing


Steve Currie, Terminal (2014), stainless steel wire, plastic tube, bobbers and hydrostone, 112″ x 72″ x 60″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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The following essay appears in the catalogue accompany Gone Fishing, an exhibition of sculpture by Steve Currie currently on view at Elizabeth Harris Gallery.

While rifling through a folder of reviews written about the sculpture of Steve Currie, a passing observation caught my eye, not least because it points to the puzzling nature of his art.

Writing about a 1998 Currie exhibition, the critic Kenneth Baker discerned a Minimalist current informing the work, particularly in the deployment of materials. Minimalism, it is worth recalling, abjured mimesis and association–that is to say, metaphor–in favor of unencumbered materialism. The what-you-see-is-what-you-see approach (to iterate Frank Stella’s deathless phrase) has its adherents, but Currie isn’t one of them. Baker ultimately pegged him as “no true Minimalist”. He was right to do so. Though Currie came of age toward the tail end of the style’s dominance, he proved too restless a talent to settle for the easy-out. No literalist dead-ends for this sculptor. Inviting aesthetic discomfort in the cause of artistic potential, Currie has forever been welcoming of a certain impurity.

Well, maybe not “forever”, but Currie has been working and exhibiting in New York City for close to thirty years. That he’s managed to do so without succumbing to fashion or capitulating to cynicism is remarkable in and of itself: the art scene isn’t the most accommodating (or kindest) place for those with independent temperaments. As a veteran of this milieu, Currie has witnessed a fair share of cultural and ideological shifts. Taking them in with a sense of measure and, I like to think, bemusement, Currie carried forth in the studio, questioning the limits of his vision even while prodding at the sculptural tenets of the day. In doing so, he’s discovered tangents that are diverting, sometimes fruitful and sometimes dubious, and always worth investigating.

gone_fishingSteve Currie, Gone Fishing (2015), stainless steel wire, plastic tube, fishing poles and hydrostone, 112″ x 80″ x 26″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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The title of this exhibition provides an example of how Currie has strayed from any kind of orthodoxy. As a thematic marker, Gone Fishing connotes a level of disengagement, at least from the mundane worries of the here-and-now. As sculptural fact, “fishing”, for Currie, is an avowal of the benefits of play, of following where the logic–or illogic–of the work takes him.  Whether twisting fine lengths of wire or making casts of hydrostone (a cement derived from gypsum), Currie evinces a healthy acceptance of their material and allusive capabilities, even when they lead down pathways he could never have imagined. This aesthetic flexibility–along with a deadpan whimsy that marks Currie as the most disarming of artists–extends to the recent use of found materials: those would be the fishing bobbers and poles punctuating his signature amalgamations of systematic modularity and free form improvisation.

The incorporation of readily identifiable objects within abstract structures seems, on the face of it, a lopsided and potentially foolhardy endeavor. Wouldn’t these prefab items call attention to themselves at the expense of sculptural unity? One can’t help but be reminded of Marcel Duchamp’s remark that no work of art could hope to improve upon the inherent beauty of an airplane propeller. And, sure enough, the bobbers are, in their streamlined elegance, impressive combinations of functionality and design. That’s what caught Currie’s eye when he chanced upon them in the window of a fishing supply store near his Brooklyn studio. But an object remains “found” only to the extent to which it is endowed with poetic import. Currie transforms the fishing bobbers into integral adjuncts of a larger artistic context. They remain themselves and yet they don’t. Currie’s slight of hand is pivotal to the work’s integrity, and beguiling to boot.


Steve Currie, Adrift (2014), stainless steel wire, roots, plastic tube and bobbers, 117″ x 79″ x 54″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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It helps that Currie has long employed industrial materials and proven them un-industrial—in other words, pliable and humane. But the inclusion of the bobbers and, for that matter, the dried roots seen here-and-there, is unexpected even if the adroitness with which they’ve been synthesized is no surprise at all. Synthesis is, after all, Currie’s forte. As a sculptor, he’s less interested in essentializing forms than in creating a dialogue between contradictory impulses. Forget how he enlivens the buck-stops-here ethos of Minimalism with a limber strain of Surrealism. Consider, instead, the oddball tete-a-tetes generated between mechanical surfaces and organic rhythms; stolid architectural forms and graceful expanses of line; diagrammatic emphases and animal-like shapes; and, of course, volume and mass simultaneously confirmed and thwarted. What, finally, do we end up with? Donald Judd meets Paul Klee meets Wild Kingdom meets Tinker Toys, after which they collectively manage to defy gravity as deftly as Fred Astaire. And that’s just where Currie starts.

A recent trip to Asia affected Currie in ways still new to him, but references to topiary gardens and airplane terminals are there to be gleaned, albeit less as biographical markers than as extensions of the artist’s fascination with the world, both natural and otherwise. And it’s this fascination—turned outwards, appreciative and questioning—that endows the work with its droll animism. When ensconced in the studio–a locale whose isolation can engender the worst kind of self-absorption–Currie doesn’t tune out the particularities of what’s out there; the world is, in fact, ushered inside the door. As both philosophy and art, this approach is remarkably grounded and blessedly unpretentious. “No true Minimalist” Currie is, without a doubt. But the truth of his art lies in how thoroughly these quietly ambitious sculptures engage and enthrall the eye. Every artist should be as encompassing and true.

© 2015 Mario Naves

Pratt Institute Alumni Exhibition 2015

In the Window and Underfoot

Mario Naves, In the Window and Underfoot (2015), acrylic on panel, 18″ x 24″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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I’m pleased that my paintings were selected for the 2015 edition of the Pratt Institute Alumni exhibition, held concurrently with, yes, Alumni Day. The show opens on Saturday, September 19th, with a reception from 2:00-4:00 p.m., and continues through October 19th. You can find more information here.

“Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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George Caleb Bingham, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845), oil on canvas, 29″ x 36-1/2″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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“Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River” is an exemplary feat of scholarly and curatorial acumen. Both the exhibition and accompanying catalogue bring historical and artistic breadth to a defining motif found in one artist’s oeuvre: riverboat denizens on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. That the American painter George Caleb Bingham (1811–79) was not a great artist shouldn’t detract from the efforts of The Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth and the Saint Louis Art Museum, the show’s organizers. Nor should kudos be withheld from Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, the Met’s curator of American painting and sculpture, and the assistant research curator Stephanie L. Herdrich. They’ve installed “Navigating the West” with a steady eye for the links between Bingham’s drawings and paintings. Don’t worry: this isn’t a “specialists only” endeavor. The most heartening thing about the show is its accessibility. In terms of what it has to tell us about the quiddities of style, “Navigating the West” is, in the best sense of the phrase, user-friendly.

It doesn’t hurt that the centerpiece is Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845), a staple of the Met’s collection and the exhibition’s sine qua non. Bingham’s masterpiece beggars literary explication—as does any picture worth its salt. A grizzled older man, smoking a corncob pipe, sits in an impossibly slim boat; though his hands have placed an oar in the water, there is no sense of propulsion. To his right is a dark-haired boy, possibly Native American, casually leaning against a cargo box. Chained to the bow is a small mammal—a bear, we are told, but the physiognomy remains indeterminate. Each figure meets our gaze in a distinctive manner: the man, frank but cautious; the boy, engaging and open; the bear, solicitous. A riverbank suffused in an all-but-obliterating light serves as the backdrop. A sleek run of silvery-pink clouds hovers over the scene, the lone portion of the canvas evincing movement. The river is crystalline. A preternatural quietude dominates. Fur Traders Descending the Missouri is an iconic image gathered from the ether.

Bingham DrawingGeorge Caleb Bingham, Fur trader, for Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845) and the second later version, Trappers’ Return (1851), brush, black ink and wash over pencil on off-white wove paper, 11-1/2″ x 9-1/2″; courtesy The People of Missouri, acquired through the generosity of Allen P. and Josephine B. Green Foundation

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It wasn’t, of course. Not a little forethought went into composing the picture, and myriad alterations occurred during the course of painting. As “Navigating the West” makes plain, Bingham was a fastidious craftsman. He executed numerous studies in graphite and ink before putting brush to canvas. Though the drawings were transferred directly to canvas, intriguing differences occur between the sketches and the final image. The adult figure in Fur Traders Descending the Missouri appears younger on paper and, as seen elsewhere, the boy considerably less supple. A video presentation and catalogue essay delineate, in exacting detail, the process informing the image through the use of infrared technology. We are alerted to shifts in scale and perspective, and how portions of the original image have been excised, often radically. Most interesting—at least, for those of us who have long been puzzled by Bingham’s bear—is how the animal was streamlined into its existing state. The Met wants us to believe that “the underdrawing of the bear . . . puts to rest any remaining confusion regarding [its] identification.” But physical fact overrides original intention. That’s one odd creature. Who’s to say a glitch in specificity doesn’t add to the uncanny nature of the painting?

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George Caleb Bingham, The Jolly Boatmen (1846), oil on canvas, 38-1/8″ x 48-1/2″; courtesy the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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Trappers’ Return (1851) was Bingham’s attempt at recapturing the lightning-strikes-once frisson of Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. It would be folly to pin the flat affect of this version on a more readily identifiable bear, but the painting isn’t much more than expert. Though Bingham’s luminism is more consistently applied, magic is markedly absent—as it is, for that matter, in the rest of the river paintings. Pictures like The Jolly Flatboatmen (1846) and Raftsmen Playing Cards (1847), whose raffish goings-on and mythic vistas prefigure The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by some forty years, have their appeal. Still, even within the circumscribed purview of “Navigating the West,” Bingham’s classicist tendencies wear thin; an over-reliance on pictorial formula is readily discernible. Self-educated as an artist, Bingham achieved a certain level of skill, and his orchestrations of form—especially, the multi-figure compositions—are fairly deft, but orchestrations they remain. Poussin, whom the paintings bring to mind, uncovered paradise within immaculate artifice. For Bingham, artifice was misprised as truth. Rosy sentimentality prevails. The pictures cloy.

Bingham met with considerable success during his lifetime, not least because of the popularity of prints made after the river paintings (not all of which were authorized by the artist). His homegrown idylls are hard to deny. Who could resist the notion of a perpetually sunny day given to idle pursuits? That the way of life seen in his paintings was fast becoming a thing of the past was remarked upon by contemporary observers: Bingham’s ragamuffins were, as one writer had it, “doing almost too well” (italics in original). Be that as it may, the exhibition’s organizers have wisely cast their net on Bingham’s strongest work—examples of his portraiture, a few of which are on view at the Met, are stiff and amateurish—and they’ve done so in a manner that puts into relief Bingham’s not immoderate charms. If one canvas and one canvas alone constitutes his gift to history, so be it. The majority of artists are shuttled off to oblivion. Fur Traders Descending the Missouri guarantees that Bingham won’t meet that fate. “Navigating the West” reinforces the ghostly primacy of a peculiarly American masterwork.

© 2015 Mario Naves

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

Sunny and Expansive: The Art of Stanley Whitney

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Stanley Whitney, Dance the Orange (2013), oil on linen, 48″ x 48″; courtesy The Studio Museum in Harlem

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The following review was originally published in the April 5, 2005 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of “Stanley Whitney: Dance the Orange”, an exhibition currently on display at The Studio Museum in Harlem.

The press release accompanying an exhibition of paintings by Stanley Whitney, on view at Esso Gallery in Chelsea, contains a lengthy excerpt from an essay by one Teresio Ottavio Camenzio. He describes Mr. Whitney’s abstractions thus: “Painting, from within the picture.”

This turn of phrase suggests that painting is a process within which the artist immerses himself. Mr. Camenzio goes on to relate that for Mr. Whitney, putting brush to canvas “reveal[s] his wishes differently from how he expected.” Surprise, then, is an integral component of Mr. Whitney’s art.

That an artist is a medium for forces beyond his control is a sentimental notion, but that’s not to say it can’t be true. Works of art–the good ones, anyway–share a startling inevitability, the sense that they sprung, fully formed, from the materials in which they were shaped. How many artists are willing to abdicate their egos to such a self-abnegating endeavor?

Mr. Whitney does, though not as much as one would like. Each of his squarish canvases is a brick-like accumulation of color separated by a series of horizontal striations. The paintings expand toward the center with a series of large rectangles aligned roughly along the midpoint of the canvas. These are topped off by a similar but smaller array of forms; a row of two horizontal rectangles is tucked underneath. All of it is fitted within the parameters of the canvas, like cardboard boxes inside a storage cabinet.

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Installation shot of “Dance The Orange” at The Studio Museum in Harlem; courtesy Arts Summary; A Visual Journal/photo by Adam Reich

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This standardized armature admits to discrepancies in scale, shape and rhythm–but just barely and begrudgingly. Unable to relinquish a reliance on all-over uniformity, Mr. Whitney’s attitude toward composition–the considered and balanced arrangement of dissimilar forms–is neither casual nor rigorous: it’s disregarded. The recurring superstructure, however much it may be tweaked here and there, isn’t an organic element of the work’s shaping; it’s an imposition that stifles the paintings. Flexibility is called for. The artist could ease up on the controls.

Then again, Mr. Whitney probably depends on paint-handling and color to enliven the regulated compositions. To his credit, he almost gets away with it. Possessed of a distinctive touch–offhand, a little cloddish, scruffy but never sloppy–Mr. Whitney is loath to overstate his case and, as such, discloses a modest and amiable nature. The variegated palette brimming with chalky purples, sharp yellows and bright aquamarines (to name just three hues) is, in its warmth and bumptiousness, of a piece. The layered surfaces and glowing tones would suggest the influence of Mark Rothko, though Mr. Whitney doesn’t partake of existentialist romance; color, for him, is a conduit to joy. The pictures are sunny in the best sense of the word.

The finest of them has been corralled into the back gallery, presumably because of its size (large) and its character: It’s the only picture that strays from the signature format. Admittedly, introducing an extra row of color may not seem like a big deal, but in an art of circumscribed form, an extra bit of not much can mean quite a lot–in this case, a more expansive sense of ease. In the end, you’ll thank Mr. Whitney for pointing out just how pleasurable pure color can be.

© 2005 Mario Naves

A Feather or Two

Tania BrugueraTania Bruguera; photo by Tony Martin © Wales News Service and with a tip of the hat to Hyperallergic

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This news just arrived in the e-mail box: “The Museum of Modern Art has acquired Tania Bruguera’s Untitled (Havana 2000), a major performance and video installation that was conceived for and shown at the VII Bienal de La Habana in 2000.”

This is a feather in the cap for (pace MOMA) “one of the foremost figures in contemporary art”. Actually, make that the second feather: Bruguera has been selected as the first artist-in-residence for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

Come again? Even the Times blinked at this “unusual” appointment, one that entails “recruit[ing] undocumented immigrants for the city’s highly popular new municipal identification-card program, IDNYC.”

Forget aesthetics–how politically efficacious is it to appoint an artist who has previously exhibited an alarming lack of empathy for her constituency? Here are some thoughts on one artist’s self-involvement and the delusions it can foster.

© 2015 Mario Naves

Energy and Indifference: The Art of Albert Oehlen

Oehlen #1

Albert Oehlen, Born To Be Late (2001), inkjet print and mixed-media on canvas; Collection of Carla and Fred Sands, Los Angeles, CA

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The following review originally appeared in the June 7, 2004 edition of The New York Observer. It is posted here on the occasion of “Albert Oehlen: Home and Garden”, an exhibition currently at The New Museum.

There’s a lot to distrust about the paintings of Albert Oehlen, not least their venue. With rare exceptions–the photographs of Joel Sternfeld, say–Chelsea’s Luhring Augustine has dedicated itself to the glitzy verities of corporate nihilism and a worldview that’s loathe to admit the complexities of art lest they get in the way of a good, or rather a bad, time. Mr. Oehlen’s canvases fit in the with the gallery’s chilly anti-humanism.

Certainly, any artist touted as a founder of Germany’s “bad painting movement” is likely to have reservations about his chosen art form. Mr. Oehlen’s pictures are big, jumbled repositories of photo-based images: intestines, cheesecake pin-ups, a fuse box, a ladle, the Star of David and–I’m not kidding–the kitchen sink. Yet he isn’t a representational artist. The pictures are, for all intents and purposes, abstract.

The images provide an armature for painterly flourishes–or, to be exact, painterly defacement. Negation is Mr. Oehlen’s M.O. Alternately hasty, lethargic and careless, each painting is a Pop-inflected parody of the conventions of Abstract Expressionism. Like his peers, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, Mr. Oehlen spends a lot of energy proving his indifference; painting, that dead and silly thing, isn’t worth bothering with. That’s the pose, anyway. Oehlen #2

Albert Oehlen, Party Dreams (2001), inkjet print and mixed media on canvas; courtesy Cristin Tierney Gallery

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Yet Mr. Oehlen can’t be dismissed as a Conceptual artist in painter’s drag. Stay with the canvases and you’ll see what I mean. Each composition is rigorously accounted for, its spatial construction tamped-down and complicated. One’s eye is never led astray–the pictures hold. Mr. Oehlen’s take on painting may be equivocal, but he’s wise to its inner workings, seeing each canvas through to the end. He’s more of a painter than we might like to admit.

The pictorial chaos that Mr. Oehlen courts may be a means of wiggling out from under the nihilism that is his postmodern birthright–or so I like to think. I’m probably reading too much into his work. After all, the palette is nonexistent, and the pictures are grating in their insolence. Evasion can be as much an academic exercise as anything else. Still, you never know. Should Mr. Oehlen muster the will to actually believe in something, he might find himself the founder of good German painting.

© 2004 Mario Naves