Catharsis Unfulfilled: The Art of Chaim Soutine


Installation of Life and Death: Still Lifes and Select Masterworks of Chaim Soutine at Paul Kasmin Gallery; courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery

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The following article was originally published in the June 1998 edition of The New Criterion and is posted here on the occasion of Life and Death: Still Lifes and Select Masterworks of Chaim Soutine at Paul Kasmin Gallery (until June 14).

Walking through the exhibition An Expressionist in Paris: The Paintings of Chaim Soutine, I was put in mind of the philosopher Susanne K. Langer and her book Problems of Art, published in 1957. In a chapter titled “Expressiveness,” Langer differentiates between “the expression of feeling in a work of art” and self-expression. For Langer, expressiveness is experience given shape and vitality through the artist’s realization of form. “What [the artist] expresses,” she writes, “is … not his own actual feelings, but what he knows about human feeling.” The jumble of life, then, is not explicated but made recognizable and whole. Langer adds that this “knowledge may actually exceed his entire personal experience.” In contrast, she brusquely likens self-expression to a crying baby. Giving precedence to the artist’s psychological disposition, self-expression surrenders the artwork’s structural logic. That such logic reinforces the aesthetic—and, yes, emotive— capabilities of a work of art is lost on those who make self-expression their métier. Cézanne, for example, may have been a cold fish, but could anyone dispute the “expressiveness” of his paintings?

The paintings of Chaim Soutine (1893–1943) exemplify the dilemma of self-expression. I don’t mean to imply that his oeuvre is equivalent to a child wailing for its mother. Soutine’s work is, after all, credible and handsome. Yet it is rarely moving—at least, in a way that we feel we should be moved by it. Visitors to An Expressionist in Paris will, certainly, exit the show with a definite impression of Soutine’s art. Soutine’s imagery—with its page boys, pastry cooks, and carcasses—is forceful. The work’s tangled surfaces, heated colors, and roiling brushwork will leave their mark. Not a few viewers will ruminate on the instability of Soutine’s psyche and recall him as an artist given to violent emotions. Such observations have merit. But how many viewers will find themselves engaged with the paintings half as deeply as Soutine was himself? How many would want to go that far? My guess is very few. For what defines Soutine as an artist is a striving for catharsis that remained unfulfilled.

The last time New York saw a retrospective of Soutine’s work was at the Museum of Modern Art in 1950. An Expressionist in Paris will, in all probability, be the only opportunity a generation will get to see the work in depth. As such, it is a superlative chance to acquaint oneself with the paintings of this fierce, if problematic, artist. In an age of blockbusters one is tempted to remark that the exhibit includes a “mere” fifty-six paintings. Curators Norman L. Kleeblatt and Kenneth E. Silver, however, make their case for Soutine with uncommon diligence. Kleeblatt and Silver posit Soutine as a “liminal” figure—an outsider both in relation to the European avant-garde and as a Jew in Paris. More importantly, they celebrate his paintings as painting. Given the luxuriant nature of Soutine’s art, any other approach would be tantamount to fraud.


Chaim Soutine, Plucked Goose (1932-33), oil on panel, 19-1/4″ x 16-1/2″; courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery

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An Expressionist in Paris is divided into three sections, each devoted to a different critical interpretation of Soutine’s art. We are led through galleries featuring Soutine the primitive, the master painter, and, finally, the prophet—prophet, that is, of Abstract Expressionism. It is debatable whether such categories add to our appreciation of Soutine’s work. As topics for inquiry, they are better suited to a catalogue essay than to the arrangement of pictures, which is likely to result in a misrepresentation of the art. The installation, however, underplays the regimentation of the exhibition’s thesis. Even so, the show is somewhat misleading. It ends, for example, with a gallery of landscapes. They are among Soutine’s most emphatic pieces and make for a knock-out finale, but the paintings date from the early 1920s. Works that post-date them are included in the beginning and mid-point of the exhibition. Accustomed as we are to chronological surveys of artists’s careers, An Expressionist in Paris leaves us with a misleading assessment of Soutine’s progress as an artist.

Then again, how important is a straightforward assessment of Soutine’s progress? In her catalogue essay, “The Late Works: Regression or Resolution?,” Esti Dunow considers the distinctions between Soutine’s early and late work. Until I read it, however, I had not given Soutine’s development a second thought. The show’s tripartite structure doesn’t, as one might suppose, cloud Soutine’s maturation as a painter; rather, it divulges the constancy of his vision. One could speak of pictures that are more composed—or, should one say, less frenzied?—than others. This might lead to an analysis of how he approached his chosen art form at different times in his life. But Soutine, in a sense, came to us whole. An Expressionist in Paris reveals an artist both self-confident and monomaniacal. There is no sense of evolution or exploration to the work. His is an art without scope. Soutine’s paintings are flawed by the tortuous confines of his own world view.

A friend once stated that Edward Hopper was a great artist but a so-so painter. The converse is true for Soutine: he was a so-so artist but a great painter. Soutine avoided the theatrics typical of Expressionist art. He achieved this feat chiefly through his extraordinary gift as a paint handler. Who can doubt his love of oils? Soutine’s scraping, dabbing, dotting, and slashing of paint is fervent and expert. The blouse of the reclining woman in Siesta (c. 1934) and the frock of The Pastry Cook (c. 1927) have enough gusto to sustain an entire painting. In Soutine’s pictures, the world is rendered as flesh. People, animals, houses, hills, and kettles all share the same membranelike skin. Consequently, the images have a fragility, as if they were capable of being bruised. Yet even when a flurry of brushstrokes approaches the hysterical—as in Group of Trees (c. 1922)—we never question its veracity. Soutine’s French Expressionism makes German Expressionism look thin and mannered. It reminds us that what we may admire about, say, Ernst Kirchner is not his passion, but, rather, his style.


Chaim Soutine

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Soutine’s authenticity does, however, have its limits. The paintings are unremitting. However breathtaking their surfaces, bravado alone cannot compensate for the one-note character of the work. And what a note! Each painting is pitched at such a level of intensity that one is grateful for the respite offered by a negligible work like Young English Girl (c. 1934). Oddly, though, the work doesn’t grate. We savor each painting’s sumptuousness, but remain distanced from raw emotionality. A wall label informs us that “Soutine’s painting was the residue of a ‘process’ in which the artist seemed to lose all sense of self in the ecstatic moment of creation.” I don’t doubt the bit about “the ecstatic moment of creation.” But the loss of “all sense of self”? Soutine’s sense of self is omnipresent and indomitable. In painting after painting, he imposes himself on the subject. This accounts for the cloistered tenor of the work and explains why Soutine was classified, at one time, as a primitive.

That Soutine’s art had little room for anyone but the artist himself is particularly blatant in the portraits. However soulful his subjects may appear—whether it be the village idiot or Madeleine Castaing, Soutine’s patron—they remain anonymous. Rembrandt may have been his hero, but Soutine lacked the Dutch Master’s empathy. Soutine blanketed his rage onto the sitter. The portraits, ultimately, have nothing to do with the other person and everything to do with Soutine. The two finest portraits in the exhibition are atypical. No one would mistake Portrait of a Man (Emil Lejeune) (c. 1922–23) or Woman in Red (c. 1923–24) for works by anyone else but Soutine. Both are characteristically stormy with contorted figures made up of so much Silly Putty. They are also, however, real people. Looking at the supercilious expression on Monsieur Lejeune’s face, one gets a good idea of how highly he esteemed himself. One gets a good idea of what Soutine thought of him, too. This give-and-take is rare in his work.

Soutine captured more personality with the title figures of Still Life with Herrings (c. 1916), and, in fact, dead animals gave rise to some of Soutine’s lushest painting. But his best paintings are the landscapes. Like van Gogh, an artist whom Soutine supposedly hated and without whom his art is unimaginable, Soutine found in landscape a subject pliable enough to withstand his vision. He saw in nature underlying rhythms that echoed the turbulence of his temperament. The landscapes have the sinew and sweat of a wrestling match. Trees stretch arthritically over the expanse of the canvas. Houses pulse, thrust, and dip with malevolent force. Hills are writhing masses of brawn shoved into the viewer’s space. A few of the pieces are near-abstractions, as brushstrokes snarl into clotted skeins of nubby paint. What prevents them from being too much is their pathos. Van Gogh, one feels, found solace in his cypress trees and starry nights. Soutine was not so fortunate. His paintings evince an artist arduously longing for a release that was never forthcoming. Frustration gives these tumultuous paintings their power; it also explains their marginality.

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Chaim Soutine, Landscape at Céret with Red Trees (c. 1919), oil on canvas, 21-1/4″ x 25-1/2″; courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery

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To come to the conclusion that Soutine was a failed artist is as unjust as claiming that he made the world safe for Francis Bacon. In our culture of diminished expectations—where, as one wag had it, Morris Louis begins to look like Michelangelo—we are likely to esteem Soutine’s struggle highly, even if that struggle remained largely unrealized. Still, the merits of his art are not all negative. His knack as a painter—a pure painter one is tempted to append—is irrefutable. That’s why a lot of us will come back to him with respect, if only for one painting at a time. Soutine, like his friend Amedeo Modigliani, will continue to rest as a minor light in the pantheon of twentieth-century artists—an honorable painter good for a modest charge. For what An Expressionist in Paris confirms is that Soutine, too, is a stylist rather than a fully rounded artist. That his work shows us what talented stylists are capable of is true enough. It also shows us why they don’t fly as high as the masters.

© 1998 Mario Naves

“Jasper Johns: Regrets” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

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Jasper Johns, Regrets (2013), oil on canvas, 67″ x 96″; courtesy the Museum of Modern Art

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A regular Vanity Fair column is the “Proust Questionnaire,” wherein a celebrity is asked a range of questions, the answers to which are presumably revealing if not exactly Proustian in length: Tidy quips are the norm. (The column takes off from a questionnaire Proust filled out as a precocious fifteen-year-old.) A few years back, Jasper Johns, the man who “changed the course of American painting,” was asked to participate. His answers were laconic, bemused, and without grammatical niceties like punctuation and uppercase letters. When queried as to what form he would prefer to take upon being reincarnated, Johns replied: “must I decide before I die.” Some of the replies were telling. What is your greatest regret, Mr. Johns? “An absence of clarity.”

Now we have “Jasper Johns: Regrets” at the Museum of Modern Art, an exhibition devoted to the artist’s recent efforts. That’s right: Johns’s drawings, prints, and paintings have bypassed the commercial gallery scene and been deemed “museum-ready” by no less an authority than The Behemoth of Fifty-third Street. Given Johns’s reputation and, lest we forget, the astronomical prices his work fetches at auction, how could MOMA not glad-hand the status quo? Johns is, after all, a lynchpin of the standard telling of twentieth-century art. Along with his neo-Duchampian comrade-in-arms Robert Rauschenberg, he provided the transition between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, between serious (if often overblown) attempts at tapping into the unconscious to the canny (if sometimes perspicacious) coopting of mass media.

Much has been made of the exhibition’s title-conceit and Johns’s age. How might the notion of “regret” inform the work of an eighty-three-year-old artist? Mortality and retrospection can, of course, filter their way through art. The dearth of color at MOMA intimates gravity: Gray is the rule. The source material for the new work—a circa-1964 photograph of the British painter Lucian Freud—can lead to conjecturing about how one blue chip painter considers another. But Johns is less interested in Freud—whose psycho-sexual riffs on nineteenth-century figure painting have little in common with neo-Dadaist bromides—than the photograph itself. Having been recovered from Francis Bacon’s notoriously ill-kempt studio, John Deakin’s picture is folded, spindled, and mutilated beyond repair. For Johns, the Freud portrait is like a target or a can of Savarin coffee—a peg on which to hang, and merely hang, paint.

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John Deakin, Photograph of Lucian Freud (circa 1964), gelatin silver print with paper clips, 12-11/16″ x 12-11/16″ x 9/16″; courtesy the Museum of Modern Art

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Deakin’s photo is included in “Regrets,” along with two sizable oil paintings by Johns, a dozen studies on paper, a suite of etchings, and a series of monoprints based on numeric stencils—the latter being the only works that don’t explicitly refer to the Freud picture. I say “explicitly” because you never know with this artist. Johns says he regrets an absence of clarity, but it’s long been his stock-in-trade. Johns’s vaunted artistic strategy—“Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”—is cited early on in a wall label. As a corrective to the hairy-chested mythopoeia of the New York School, Johns’s deadpan pedanticism presented a tongue-in-cheek alternative. But it proved no less resistant to formula than the umpteenth de Kooning knock-off. Over the years, Johns has finessed his approach through the inclusion of myriad biographical, cultural, and historical reference points. Not, however, by artistic means. Johns has trod the same sludgy ground since a dream prompted him to paint the American flag almost sixty years ago. His art has gone nowhere. Jasper Johns has been ever thus.

In most of the new work, Johns creates a mirror-image of Deakin’s photo, wherein a sizable tear at the bottom left is transformed into a centralized, monolithic form that is then topped by a skull. Freud—seen in a seedy bedroom, his face hidden by a fleeting gesture—is all but obliterated by marks that emphasize shape and material at the expense of recognizability. A range of materials is employed in delineating this superstructure—most agreeably with ink on plastic, most lugubriously with oil on canvas. In Study for Regrets (2012), the phrase “Regrets, Jasper Johns” is rubber-stamped in the upper right-hand corner. (Johns had the stamp fabricated well before conceiving the work in the current exhibition, in order to make short shrift of the myriad requests and invitations he receives.) This trope appears on a larger scale in the paintings, and its execution is just as second-hand: The phrase comes courtesy of a screen print. Elsewhere, we see Johns scribbling notes alluding to The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, and, in a welcome burst of color, an untitled watercolor is accented with saturated reds, blues, and yellows—a palette reminiscent, in no small way, of MOMA’s very own Map (1961), a signature Johns image.


Jasper Johns, Untitled (2013), watercolor on paper, 22-1/4″ x 31″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Count all of the above as signposts of master painters long gone (Goya), recently gone (Freud and, tangentially, Bacon), and still with us (Johns). But, really, who cares? Aesthetic engagement is prompted by an artist creating a compelling, absorbing, undeniable, and, not least, available fiction. How convincingly this is put into motion depends on a bewilderiing number of factors, primary among them formal control, material command, and a willingness to let the audience enter into the work—to share the vision. Johns’s art is confounding in that it trades in a stunningly willful brand of obfuscation. It doesn’t even allow the courtesy of a “my way or the highway” option. There is no way with Johns. Each of his abstruse rebuses is a calculated rebuff to anyone not clued into their byzantine minutiae. It’s enough to make you think that art is a mummified parlor game masquerading as intellectual provocation. Given Johns’s current stature, a lot of people, many of them influential, are content with that idea. Now that is something to regret.

© 2014 Mario Naves

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

The Review Panel

2014 May Review Panel

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I’m pleased to have been asked to participate in The Review Panel, David Cohen’s invaluable (and often contentious) series of critical conversations about current exhibitions of contemporary art. The panel takes place on Friday, May 2nd, at the National Academy Museum. I hope you’ll be able to attend.

23rd Street Pastorale

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Sprint Flatiron Prow Art Space; photo by Laura Dodson

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Of the countless venues for art in Manhattan, the Prow Art Space is among the most highly trafficked. It is, after all, located at the base of The Flatiron Building as an adjunct to its sponsor, Sprint. How many New Yorkers, rushing along 23rd Street, actually stop to look at the art in this street level display? A better question is how could they not look–particularly with Stephanie Hightower’s brash paintings declaring their presence through the tumult of pedestrian and vehicular traffic?

Get closer and you’ll register how these abstractions are more specific in image–more representational, really–than you might initially think. Then take a look at Hightower’s smaller paintings on panel and, especially, the accompanying photographs of Dorothea Hokema, an artist of rigorous means and romantic temper. The impetus for the installation becomes clear: the urban landscape, exemplified by New York and Berlin, is the locus for their collaborative (and exuberantly punctuated) exhibition City is Landscape/Landschaft!


Stephanie Hightower, Prow 1 (2014), oil on canvas, 60″ x 64″; courtesy Cheryl McGinnis Gallery

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Working in conjunction with Cheryl McGinnis Gallery, the driving force behind the Prow Art Space, Hightower and Hokema offer an exegesis on “the surface and the structure of urban spaces.” Nothing new in that—cities, even in their grittiest corners, have long served as inspiration for artists. But Hightower and Hokema perform the nifty feat of both honoring the city as sociological construct and as a platform for abstraction. In doing so, they explore “the physical environment we inhabit and the one we imagine.”


Dorothea Hokema, Bricks and Sticks, Harlem (2013-14), c-print on aluminum dibond, 15.4″ x 20.4″; courtesy the artist

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The artists will elaborate on this venture, along with Cyriaco Lopes, at The New York Public Library in conjunction with the corresponding exhibition Urban Arcadia: Landscapes of New York and Berlin at the same venue. For more information click here.

© 2014 Mario Naves

“Gauguin: Metamorphoses” at The Museum of Modern Art


Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit (c. 1900), oil transfer drawing, 22-1/16″ x 17-13/16″; courtesy a Private Collection and The Museum of Modern Art

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An assignment I give my students at Pratt Institute is to make a list of ten artists whose work they dislike or don’t understand. The lesson is intended to generate discussions about artistic merit, the quiddities of taste, and (as one young wag put it) “walking a mile in Jeff Koons’s shoes.” Koons has topped these lists for some time, as have others of neo-Duchampian ilk. The original Duchampian, Marcel, pops up regularly, as do sundry Minimalists and a number of abstractionists—usually under the rubric of “a kid could paint that.” A frequent figure on these pedagogical hit lists is Paul Gauguin (1848–1903). Surely there are artists more deserving of undergraduate ire than the French Post-Impressionist? It turns out Gauguin is admonished for a number of things: arbitrary color choices, an inconsistent navigation of pictorial space, halting draftsmanship, ungainly surfaces (Gauguin preferred working on coarsely woven canvases), and cultural naiveté—the whole “primitivist” excursion to Tahiti.

It’s tempting to dismiss Gauguin’s inclusion to a youthful lack of sophistication, but even sophomores are right sometimes. Gauguin is a nettlesome figure and, as such, an artist deserving of skepticism. It was, I believe, the British painter and critic Patrick Heron who dubbed Gauguin a “great bad painter”: an acknowledgment of Gauguin’s primacy as Modernist antecedent—Fauvism is inconceivable without his example, as is Expressionism—while intimating the limitations of his accomplishment. You can chalk up Gauguin’s failings to his being self-taught—the paintings are rarely fluid in their depiction of the human form—but this likely made him less skittish about taking pictorial liberties, particularly with color. (A surfeit of chutzpah didn’t hurt either.) The Museum of Modern Art’s first monographic exhibition dedicated to Gauguin, “Gauguin: Metamorphoses,” offers contemporary audiences an opportunity to commune with this frustrating and vital figure.

Just don’t expect a full retrospective. Like the Magritte exhibition MOMA mounted last fall, “Metamorphoses” is selective in its purview. A handful of paintings—some of them iconographic, a few rarely seen—are on view, but Gauguin’s works on paper, especially his prints and transfer drawings, predominate, with three-dimensional pieces in wood and clay providing a notable backdrop. Did the current vogue for inter-disciplinarity inspire the decision to highlight Gauguin, the man of many mediums? Whatever the case, the results are scholarly and often bracingly intimate. While MOMA’s claim that Gauguin “more than any other major artist of his generation . . . drew inspiration from working across mediums” is curatorial hype—you’d think these folks had never heard of Edgar Degas—still, the exhibition does make an “arguable” case for Gauguin’s “innovative” approach to working on paper. As laid out at MOMA, Gauguin’s experiments in woodblock printing are considerably more evocative than the signature works on canvas.

Gauguin #2Paul Gauguin, Nave Nave Fenua (Delightful Land): From Noa Noa (Fragrance) (1893-94), woodcut printed in color on wove paper, line in silk; 13-3/4″ x 8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art

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Paper, because of its immediacy and relative disposability, encourages spontaneity. The second-hand nature of printmaking, though bound to technical rules of process, has a similar propensity. Gauguin’s initial forays into the latter, a series of zincographs titled The Volpini Suite completed in 1889, are clubby in approach and not altogether convincing in their stylizations of form. All the same, they have an engaging story-book quality that mitigates their shortcomings. Woodcut lent itself more readily to Gauguin’s vision. Its graphic character endowed his distortions of form with structural rigor and allowed for elisions of mood that rendered Gauguin’s romanticism palatable. Not that Gauguin was a printmaking purist; far from it. The centerpiece of “Metamorphoses” is a series of prints titled Nave nave fenua (Delightful Land) (1893–94), wherein the image of a “Tahitian Eve” is seen in four states and a number of variations. Part of their allure can be traced directly to Gauguin’s willingness to give anything a try in terms of inking, color, and detail. MOMA’s inclusion of the original woodblock is an enlightening grace note—offering insight into the printmaking process, as well as providing stark evidence of the artist’s hand.

Woodblocks for other prints are included as well, and do Gauguin the sculptor no favors. The block for Nave nave fenua has a sculptural integrity missing from Eve with the Serpent and Other Animals (ca. 1889), an oak carving hobbled by an unrelenting lack of malleability. Time hasn’t been kind to Gauguin’s sculptural homages to Tahiti. At this date, his totems and reliefs come off as ethnographic kitsch. The lumpish Head with Horns (1895–97), a beast-like effigy that may be a self-portrait, doesn’t rise to the occasion of generic folk art. Gauguin’s appropriation of stylistic motifs native to Tahiti are just that: appropriations. There’s no reinvention, just brute imitation. Gauguin’s ceramics are marginally better: Cup Decorated with the Figure of a Bathing Girl (1887–88) has a lovely, lilting rhythm. Even so, it can’t touch the eerie atmosphere that accrues in Gauguin’s watercolor monotypes and oil transfer drawings, the latter of which is a process that can be likened to carbon copies. Lightness of touch isn’t something we necessarily associate with this artist, but there’s a ghostly ease to Marquesan Landscape with Figure (1902) and the everyday reverie that is Two Tahitian Women with Flowers and Fruit (ca. 1899), a fragmentary scene of harvesting. Paper, in Gauguin’s case, engendered poetry. “Metamorphoses” contains not a few moments of unalloyed beauty.


Paul Gauguin, circa 1891

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What about Gauguin the self-proclaimed savage, the man who quit his job as stock-broker and abandoned his family in the hopes of accessing “authentic” reality in Tahiti? Notwithstanding “The Primitivist’s Dilemma,” a blandly lugubrious catalogue essay by Hal Foster, Gauguin’s role as “cultural interloper” is underplayed. A degree of political correctness informs “Metamorphoses” but doesn’t define it. If there’s one Herculean task MOMA has accomplished, it is in downplaying this most arrant of egotists. The myth Gauguin manufactured around himself will remain potent, no doubt; myths have a way of sticking around. But the exhibition’s emphasis on the particularities of technique and how they bolster vision puts the spotlight squarely on art. Which proves that an institution as fraught with contradictions, prone to fashion, and obsessed with box office as the Museum of Modern Art can still deliver the goods. “Metamorphoses” is a reminder that a trip to 53rd Street need not be a duty; that it can, in fact, be a pleasure, a necessity, and a treat.

© 2014 Mario Naves

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

Same As It Ever Was: The 2014 Whitney Biennial

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The Whitney Museum of American Art; courtesy Rhys Ernest

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The following review was originally published in the May 2012 edition of The New Criterion and is posted here on the occasion of “Whitney Biennial 2014”, an exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art.

The first thing you need to know about the Whitney Biennial is that it doesn’t mean anything. Sure, it provides a window, albeit a highly selective one, into that confusing subset of culture known as “the art world.” As such, its interest is primarily sociological. The Whitney may tout its ‘signature exhibition’ as a ‘site of contention, conversation and debate,’ but it’s less about ‘”rewrit[ing] standard narratives” than a confirmation of establishment taste. If you’re curious about some of the ideas filtering through contemporary artistic thought—about “contradictory layers of synthetic nothingness,” “widespread opposition to top down systems of rigid authority”, and, er, “looping ropes and threads of rancid oily cum”—the Biennial is the place to go.

If that isn’t sufficiently diverting, you can ponder whether the curators have fulfilled the requisite quotas, ideologies, and agendas, not least if the recently minted MFA favored by this-or-that board member has been given the appropriate amount of floor space to improve the work’s market value. You can wonder, too, if the art of painting has forever been consigned to the margins—the examples at the Biennial being few, far between, and marred by gimmicky installation. As for the artists involved: each gets an impressive line on their resumé that may translate, at least temporarily, into some kind of fame. The Biennial will tell you a lot about the circus surrounding the scene, but as an indicator of art’s continuing vitality? The Biennial doesn’t mean anything.

Biennial #2Detail of Bjarne Melgaard’s Think I’m Gonna Have a Baby (2014) at the Whitney Biennial; photo by Kaitlin Karolczak

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The 2012 edition is particularly anemic. There’s nothing outrageous on view, though you might be taken aback that almost the entirety of one floor has been transformed into a dance studio. As it was, watching the choreographer Michael Clark running his crew through their paces was a highlight. Here was a refreshing moment of enthusiasm and unironic pride, particularly on the part of the dancers—many of whom didn’t correspond to the standard physical type associated with the art form. But the inclusion of a dance troupe in a setting usually devoted to static objects likely had more to do with “breaking boundaries” than with seeking to divine a true commonality between disparate art forms. Such a stunt points to curators eager to maintain their “bleeding edge” bonafides. They want us to know who’s in charge.

If anything, the Biennial points to the scattershot mindset typical of mainstream contemporary art. As an aesthetic imperative, “anything goes” has long de-evolved into a reflexive array of gestures that point to current events (hello Occupy Wall Street!), new technologies (always with the technology!), and the abject (so 1990s!). Commentators have pointed up the Biennial’s lack of focus, but how different is that from an afternoon spent going to galleries in Chelsea or, for that matter, visiting the studios of any art school you’d care to name? Given the amount of by- the-book posturing at the Whitney—what with all the stuff scattered, hung, draped, and impeccably arranged to no discernible upshot—even the most charitable soul might wonder if it isn’t time to start un-mixing media in the effort to figure out what isn’t art.

Is there anything worth spending time with at the Biennial? Folks have been waxing enthusiastic over Hearsay of the Soul (2012), a multi-screen installation by the filmmaker Werner Herzog and a paean to the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Hercules Segers. Andrew Masullo’s cheery, candy-colored abstractions raise a smile. Then there’s the artist who works with construction materials to streamlined and elegant effect—I can’t remember the name. The worry is that if I weren’t already an admirer of Herzog’s films and Masullo’s paintings, I might forget their names as well. Encompassing surveys of art risk a certain amount of cross-cancellation of temperaments. But it’s as if the Biennial has made anonymity its goal. Perhaps individual vision is considered un-democratic. Say this much: The 2012 Biennial is pretty much over by the time you enter the museum’s doors. Sometimes life is wasted on art.

© 2012 Mario Naves

“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

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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

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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

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“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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.


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