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

* * *

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

Bingham Number 1

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

* * *

“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

* * *

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?

19. Bingham, Jolly Flatboatmen-300

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.

* * *

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

Stanley Whitney #1

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

* * *

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.

Stanley Whitney #2

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

“Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing” at The Studio Museum in Harlem


Trenton Doyle Hancock, . . . And Then It All Came Back To Me (2011), mixed media on paper, 9″ x 8″; courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery

* * *

Philip Guston has a lot to answer for—that is, if an artist is to be held responsible for the influence his work has on subsequent generations. After establishing himself as a Social Realist by way of de Chirico, Guston gained success for abstractions, at once tender and tenacious, that combined Monet and Mondrian with nary a seam. It was, however, the late-style turnaround, and the hubbub initially surrounding it, that made Guston an art world touchstone—what with those lumpish, cartoon-like images of disembodied limbs, cyclopean heads, bottles of booze, and the KKK. That the pictures were hard-won and powered by a profound respect for tradition—Masaccio and Giotto were heroes—has been a lesson lost on (or ignored by) many of his followers. Remember the brief but influential vogue for “Bad Painting” in the 1980s? Guston was its primary avatar. Any painter indulging in gimpy figuration, sloppy brushwork, and unconsidered compositions cited him as inspiration. There are better legacies for an artist.

“Few artists, save Philip Guston,” I wrote in my notebook upon entering “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing,”“have dedicated themselves as emphatically to the color pink as TDH.” A pink wave has, in fact, been painted along the bottom of the wall lining the Studio Museum’s sizable main gallery, and pink punctuates Hancock’s works-on-paper, which are largely black-and-white, with notable regularity. His work features a motley cast of cartoonish grotesques, not least a tuberous and swollen self-portrait, and points to an interest in the more outré precincts of contemporary comics. A glancing knowledge of Hieronymus Bosch is evident as well. All of this would be enough to assume that Hancock might count himself a Guston fan. Confirmation came with Step and Screw, a series of thirty drawings in which the Hancock doppelgänger has a slapstick encounter with Guston’s monolithic Klansmen; it also lists details of Guston’s life directly on the surfaces. Need more proof? The following sentiment can be gleaned from an installation of one-off drawings nearby: “Like Guston but blacker and worse.”


Trenton Doyle Hancock, Faster (2006), acrylic and mixed media on paper; courtesy the artist and Zang Collection, London

* * *

Given the fuzzy standards by which mainstream art abides, Hancock’s scribbled mot shouldn’t be mistaken for self-criticism. Self-aggrandizement is more like it, and who’s to say that’s a bad thing? Chutzpah is an integral component of an artist’s creative DNA. The notion that, yes, the world needs yet another thing to contemplate takes some moxie. But chutzpah unredeemed by aesthetic weight—that elusive mix of gravitas and play, mystery and mastery—isn’t enough. Hancock’s brio and initiative are self-evident, but is the work as undeniable and true as that of Guston or Bosch? “A visit to [Hancock’s] studio,” Bill Arning, the Director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, writes in the catalogue, “reminds us of an earlier ethos in which artists were supposed to be visionaries, rather than businessmen.” Hancock’s world—an over-the-top mythos devoted to gluttony, scatology and, less so, sex—qualifies as a “vision,” absolutely. But is it a vision the rest of us are inclined, let alone invited, to participate in?

“Skin and Bones” features halting drawings of Torpedoboy, a superhero dreamed up by a ten-year old Hancock, absurdist comic strips done not too many years later, and a suite of drawings based on photographs of missing children appropriated from milk cartons—a nod to the outsider artist Henry Darger, whose pedophiliac fantasies are another Hancock influence. A sense of stylistic trajectory, then, is provided, but doesn’t altogether illuminate the mature work. Of course, “mature” is used advisedly here. A pivotal component of the Hancockian gestalt is an unapologetic embrace of adolescence. Dutiful attention paid to bodily functions (vomiting is a leit-motif); post-apocalyptic scenarios and sentiments (“We done all we could/And none of it’s good); and a touch that is grubby, insistent, and taken with gross minutiae make Hancock’s work, as a friend observed, “boy’s art.” “Mini-revolutions” of the self, to use Hancock’s own terminology, are paramount. Given its excessive nature and narrow purview, Hancock’s work, particularly when he’s mixing media, is more diverting seen on a piecemeal basis. A body can stand only so much arrant ickiness.


Installation of “Trenton Doyle Hancock: Skin and Bones, 20 Years of Drawing”; courtesy The Studio Museum in Harlem

* * *

Perhaps if the exhibition were guided by a more discerning curatorial hand, we’d be inclined to cut Hancock’s fantasies some slack. As it is, “Skin and Bones” will likely be off-putting for those not familiar with the installation aesthetic and run-of-the-mill for those who are. There’s a lot of stuff all over the place at the Studio Museum. Myriad and not always related pieces do battle with ersatz graffiti (and each other) in a higgledy-piggledy bid for attention. There’s the aforementioned pink wave, as well as a hasty wall decoration that clashes with the myriad works displayed upon it, discarded objects scrawled with urinating superheroes, and words, words, words—scrawled on the drawings, traversing the walls, everywhere. Verbiage, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, is the last refuge of an unconvinced draftsman. Hancock’s stream of written patter can be traced to a foundation in cartoons, but for a stylist as individual as this one, an abundance of cryptic literary flourishes is enough to make one think that he harbors some doubts about the visual efficacy of his art. Whether Hancock has, artistically speaking, too much or not enough meat on his skin and bones is an argument worth considering. Would that the work itself waylaid such mooting.

© 2015 Mario Naves

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

“Dogs & Cats: 21 Artists Unleashed and On the Prowl” at Mark Miller Gallery



* * *
I’m pleased to announce that two of my paintings will be included in Dogs & Cats: 21 Artists Unleashed and On The Prowl at Mark Miller Gallery. The exhibition runs from April 5-May 3, 2015. Please see the above for further information. And don’t forget Intricate Expanse, the exhibition I’ve curated at Lesley Heller Workspace.

“Intricate Expanse” @ Lesley Heller Workspace

Intricate Expanse

* * *

I’m pleased to announce “Intricate Expanse”, an exhibition I’ve curated for Lesley Heller Workspace.

“Intricate Expanse” features the work of six artists, each of whom creates encompassing compositions without sacrificing a distinct sense of their constituent parts.

Steve Currie, Laura Dodson, Karl Hartman, Tine Lundsfryd, Sangram Majumdar and Maritta Tapanainen don’t miss the proverbial forest for the trees, but embrace both simultaneously–to sometimes tenacious, often ruminative and, at odd moments, comic effect.

The notion of “expanse”, for these artists, includes the physical parameters of pictorial and sculptural space, as well as the sweep of imagery contained within them. “Intricacy” is embodied both through touch and vision, by attention paid to the particularities of surface and process, and the metaphorical allusions that are consequently set into motion.

The resulting pieces unfold and disperse even as they are punctuated by a consistent sense of focus.

The exhibition opens on Sunday, March 15, from 6:00-8:00 p.m. I hope you’re able to stop by.

“The Forever Now” at The Museum of Modern Art


Charlene Heyl, Carlotta (2013), oil, synthetic polymer paint and charcoal on canvas, 6’10” x 6’4″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

* * *

I met a sculptor for coffee recently, and the subject of noteworthy exhibitions came up for discussion—as it invariably does for artists working in New York City. The inescapable show on the agenda was “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” at the Museum of Modern Art. Yes, the show was a blatant sop to the box office, but the French master’s late manner is among the most sumptuous achievements of twentieth-century art, and MOMA did Matisse proud, crowd control and all. Woe betide the seventeen artists included in “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” an exhibition sharing the museum’s sixth floor with “The Cut-Outs.” My sculptor friend observed that these painters must be humbled by having their work adjacent to that of Matisse. How could any serious artist not be? After visiting “The Forever Now,” a different question demands to be asked: Are the featured painters even capable of recognizing Matisse’s greatness? Their art is, on the whole, absent the rigor, clarity, and joy inherent in even the least of the collages. A better title for the mish-mosh that is “The Forever Now” might be “Dazed and Confused” or, given that it follows on the heels of “The Cut-Outs,” “Buzzkill.”

That isn’t what Laura Hoptman and Margaret Ewing, respectively the Curator and Curatorial Assistant of MOMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture, would like us to believe. “The Forever Now,” they insist, captures a moment in which our cognizance of history has been transformed beyond understanding, largely because of the internet. “What characterizes our cultural moment,” Hoptman writes, “is the inability—or perhaps the refusal—of a great many of our cultural artifacts to define the times in which we live.” Atemporality, a phrase coined by the science-fiction writer William Gibson, denotes a world in which history has been rendered static and diffuse through technological advances. “The atemporal song, story, or painting contains elements of history but isn’t historical; it is innovative but not novel, pertinent rather than prescient.” Utilizing the “connoisseurship of boundless information,” the curators posit the atemporal aesthetic as optimistic, a “hopeful, even invigorating quest . . . [for] a broader, bolder notion of culture.” The irony the curators miss (or ignore) is how temporal their ideas are. The exhibition has hardly been mounted and it already feels out of date.


Joe Bradley, Man Made Dirigible (2008), grease pencil on canvas, 5′ x 8′; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

* * *

“The Forever Now” is MOMA’s first overview of contemporary painting in thirty years. (That it’s taken the premier museum of modern art that long to get its act together vis-à-vis the artform is its own disheartening statement.) The curators are desperate to prove painting relevant by top-loading it with up-to-the-moment nomenclature and references. Scan the catalogue and wall labels; you’ll come across a daunting amount of heady thinking and sweeping statements. Were you aware that we collectively suffer from “teleologically programmed brains” or that zombies “are perfect embodiments of the atemporal”? The latter is a telling and trendy ploy. Rather than stick their necks out to prove that painting continues to be a viable means of artistic expression, the curators provide themselves with an out. The dead-but-alive trope is beyond convenient, allowing for wiggle room in which to hedge bets about the choices that have been made. Forget William Gibson: the real inspiration here is Vladimir Botol, the Slovenian author who coined the phrase “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” So much for connoisseurship and optimism. “The Forever Now” is an unwitting exercise in, you know, whatever.

Of course, any institution attempting to provide a coherent overview of a cultural moment is asking for trouble, and, in that regard, Hoptman and Ewing should be cut some slack. Who doesn’t want to grab a handle, any handle, in these slippery times? Forget artists; everyone is alternately entranced and befuddled by our technological moment. It’s not so much that history is in flux—come on, history is always in flux—but that its reach has become so encompassing and immediate. In a world overrun by virtual imagery, it’s little surprise that makers of pictures and objects have become antsy, looking over their shoulders lest the tide passes them by. This doesn’t mean, however, that an overweening degree of self-consciousness—the chief characteristic defining “The Forever Now”—qualifies this-or-that painter as an oracle or mirror. How does “squatting in [the] foreclosed real estate” of art history qualify as a peculiarly contemporary phenomenon? With the exception of our forebears painting on the cave wall—who, after all, started the whole thing from scratch—artists of every epoch have relied and thrived on the fluidity of history. Sure, the world was once a smaller place. But to conclude that its increasing rapidity and breadth put a stop on culture is to indulge in a short-sighted brand of historical arrogance.

116441Laura Owens, Untitled (2013), Flashe paint, synthetic polymer paint and oil stick on canvas, 11’5-3/8″ x 9’7/8″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

* * *

Then again, perhaps MOMA’s crystal ball is clear in its reflections. If so, our permanent future is blatantly second-hand. Pastiche is the coin of the realm. The artists included in “The Forever Now” can’t see a hard-won individual style for a distracting grab-bag of visual tics. Slacker professionalism is the atemporal rule. Josh Smith has nothing to paint about so he paints everything, including rehashes of Neo-expressionism which was enough of a rehash the first time around. Joe Bradley’s scrawled stick figures make Jean-Michel Basquiat look like Michelangelo; Laura Owens employs Photoshop as a means of resurrecting Abstract Illusionism—you remember, the floating brushstroke school of painting long consigned to the dustbin of kitsch. Oscar Murillo is, I am told, the artist of the moment; the expert riffs on Rauschenbergian assemblage take second place to his unstretched canvases piled on the floor, through which viewers are welcome to rifle. Such gimmickry is typical, and connotes nothing so much as a loss of scope and invention. The lone exceptions are Amy Sillman, Mark Grotjahn, and, maybe, Charlene von Heyl and Michael Williams, each of whom possesses an engagement with the medium that hints at some kind of forward momentum. How well they’ll follow up on it remains to be seen, but, in at least this one pivotal respect, their work exposes the ready-made obsolescence at the core of “The Forever Now.”

© 2015 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the March 2015 edition of The New Criterion.

“Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

Blume #1

Peter Blume, Vegetable Dinner (1927), oil on canvas, 25-1/4 x 30-1/4″; courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

* * *

There is no place better suited to pondering the attractions and limitations of eccentricity than Philadelphia—at least, during this past fall and into the new year. The city hosted three retrospectives of painters whose oeuvres generate interest less through a command of the medium than through a strident emphasis on (or indulgence in) idiosyncrasy. The Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania mounted “Dear Nemesis; Nicole Eisenman, 1993–2013,” while the venerable Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts presented “David Lynch: The Unified Field” and “Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis.” While each artist can claim a degree of material proficiency, the true litmus test for oddballs is visionary authenticity. Eisenman’s jaded symbolism rarely transcends hipster pastiche, while Lynch’s true métier is film: not one of his mixed-media grotesqueries has the queasy magnetism of Blue Velvet. Blume, however, is a different creature altogether. Even the blandest picture seen in “Nature and Metamorphosis” exposes Eisenman and Lynch as pikers. Blume (1906–92) was the real thing.

Those with a memory that extends beyond the day-glo verities of Pop Art may recall the name Peter Blume and, if so, perhaps dismissively. He’s typically lumped with the Magic Realists, a cadre of mid-twentieth-century painters who pursued Surrealist-inspired imagery with a sobriety that was distinctly American and employed technical finesse that was too fussy by half. They were steamrollered by Abstract Expressionism, of course. Compared to the cinema-scope heroics of the New York School, Paul Cadmus, Jared French, George Tooker, Pavel Tchelitchew, and Blume looked positively retrograde, what with their Renaissance-like rectitude, unembarrassed deployment of narrative, and dreamy portent. But that was before the advent of Post–Modernism. The subsequent loosening of hierarchies did much to cheapen culture, but it also plucked out of obscurity a host of artists—a handful of them deserving of acquaintance. Walking through the Blume retrospective, I couldn’t help but be relieved that I wasn’t suffering the umpteenth iteration of the received wisdom. At moments, relief was transformed into pleasure. “Nature and Metamorphosis” is, in many ways, an unforgettable exhibition.

Blume #2

Peter Blume, The Eternal City (1937), oil on composition board, 34″ x 47-7/8″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

* * *

Not least because Blume’s pictures can be spectacularly awful. Could even the forgiving embrace of the camp aesthetic welcome Man of Sorrows (1951)? Blume renders a signal moment from the New Testament as if it were a Warner Brothers cartoon, with the requisite exaggerations in form, rhythm, and color; that the image is delineated with finicky expertise makes it all the more brittle. Fobbing off as kitsch Man of Sorrows or, for that matter, Blume’s hallucinatory farmland panoramas from the 1960s doesn’t do justice to their over-the-top vulgarity. Still, if art can’t be redeemed by the artist’s convictions, it can derive power from them, and, whatever else one might say about Blume’s oeuvre, there isn’t a false moment in it. Over the course of fifty-six paintings, some of them real showpieces, and over a hundred drawings, “Nature and Metamorphosis” makes clear the pull of one artist’s preoccupations, and underlines the deliberation and skill with which they were realized. The exhibition is, in pacing and focus, a model of its kind. Credit Robert Cozzolino, the PAFA Senior Curator and Curator of Modern Art, for making a strong case for a quizzical artist.

Born Piotr Sorek-Sabel, Blume immigrated to the United States from Belarus on the initiative of his father who sought to avoid imprisonment for participating in the anti-Czarist revolution of 1905–07. Growing up in the East New York section of Brooklyn, Blume evinced an early interest in art. He studied painting and drawing at the Educational Alliance and the Art Students League, where he struck up a friendship with his fellow student Alexander Calder. By 1924, Blume had rented a studio on 13th Street in Manhattan and became part-and-parcel of the New York scene, encountering an A-list of entrepreneurs, artists, and poets including Alfred Stieglitz, Charles Demuth, Hart Crane, Marcel Duchamp, Buckminster Fuller, Malcolm Cowley, and Constantin Brancusi. Blume met with success—Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Alfred H. Barr Jr. were early supporters—as well as controversy. The Eternal City (1937), Blume’s allegorical take on fascism in which Benito Mussolini is pictured as a jack-in-the-box, was castigated for reasons both pictorial and thematic. For every comment on its artistic shortcomings (“plastically dumb”) there was an accusation of political pandering. The Eternal City was eventually acquired by MOMA after having been rejected for display by the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Blume #3

Peter Blume, The Italian Straw Hat (1952), oil on canvas, 22-1/4 x 30-3/8″; courtesy The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

* * *

At this date, The Eternal City comes off as so much obscurantist moralism. The same goes for The Rock (1945–48) and Tasso’s Oak (1957–60), rickety parables both. Like a lot of fabulists, Blume was better off keeping things simple. Early pieces like Hyacinth (1925), Pig’s Feet and Vinegar (1927), and Vegetable Dinner (1927) assume a dry pictorial clarity that underplays the uncanny to hypnotic effect. Surrealism comes to the fore in kaleidoscopic dreamscapes like Parade (1929–30) and South of Scranton (1930–31), and eventually succumbs to an increasingly fetishistic attention to detail. All the while, Blume’s drawings take in the Old Masters and Automatism, Brueghel and Bosch no less than Masson and Miró, to impressively contradictory effect. He never took his eye off the natural world—the diminutive Study for Summer (1964) could be mistaken for a Rembrandt sketch—even as the works in oil become increasingly unnatural. The finest of the later paintings is The Italian Straw Hat (1952), a tensely rendered depiction of a room in the artist’s house, which includes, among other things, the title object, a sewing basket, and a Calder mobile. Even the aforementioned paeans to country life are arresting, that is if you can stomach their overripe theatricality, slick facture, and lurid coloration. Scratching one’s head may not be the highest form of aesthetic response, but it’s exactly what “Nature and Metamorphosis” elicits and, in the end, that’s enough to make it a diverting and significant exhibition.

© 2015 Mario Naves

This article was originally published in the February 2015 edition of The New Criterion.