Tag Archives: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Stubbornly Independent: Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait With Horn (1938), oil on canvas, 43-1/2″ x 39-3/4″; courtesy The Neue Galerie

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The following review was originally published in the August 5, 2008 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of “Max Beckmann in New York“, an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. My review of that exhibition will be appearing in the December 2016 edition of The New Criterion.

Felix Nussbaum’s Self in Concentration Camp (1940), a painting included in the exhibition Max Beckmann: Self-Portrait With Horn at the Neue Galerie, is as bleak as the title implies. Wearing a wool cap, a tattered jacket and a lean beard, the artist looks askance with steely distrust. In the background, a figure defecates into a large metal can. There’s barbed wire, a sky the color of steel wool and an air of Boschian portent.

Bosch’s hell couldn’t compare with Hitler’s. While studying in Rome, Nussbaum, a German Jew, heard Hitler’s minister of propaganda advocate for the Nazi ideal of art; Nussbaum realized soon enough that neither he nor his paintings fit the standard. Nussbaum spent the majority of the war in hiding, continuing to paint, and ultimately died in Auschwitz at the age of 39. Self in Concentration Camp has the awful clarity of a foregone conclusion.

Nussbaum’s painting is diverting enough to make one curious as to what else he did. It’s included in the Neue Galerie exhibition to provide a sense of social and artistic context. There are paintings, drawings and prints—all portraits—by other Beckmann contemporaries as well, but none can equal the brooding power of Self-Portrait with Horn, not even the magisterially detached Self-Portrait in Front of Red Curtain (1923) by the man himself. As for the rest: Heinrich Hoerle, Georg Scholz, Ludwig Meidner, Otto Dix and George Grosz are little more than historical wallpaper. Beckmann thunders through the gallery.

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Felix Nussbaum, Self-Portrait in Concentration Camp (1940), oil on wood, 52.5 x 41.5 cm.; courtesy The Neue Galerie, NY

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Beckmann (1884-1950) achieved early success; a self-portrait of the time depicts an unctuous talent with a glib hand for self-aggrandizement.

The First World War put an end to Beckmann the Dandy. He suffered a nervous collapse while serving as a medical orderly on the Belgian front. The paintings that followed his recovery were cramped and muscular dioramas rife with bizarre symbols and occluded narratives. Amalgams of the city, the torture chamber, the Garden of Eden, the circus and the King’s tribunal, Beckmann’s world held an unsparing mirror to the horrors and absurdities of the 20th century.

Beckmann kept a skeptical distance from Modernism—the past weighed too heavily for him to fully embrace radical innovation—but that’s not to say he wasn’t interested. Certainly, Beckmann took inspiration from Matisse’s subtle elisions of color and line. But mostly he was stubbornly independent.

Beckmann lumbered through history, fascinated with the eternal ubiquity of humankind’s foibles, illusions and cruelties. Myth haunted his art, as did a florid sense of purpose: Each person must go through life with the knowledge of, as Beckmann put it, “the murder everyone commits … [Y]ou can never rid yourself of your past, you must carry the corpse along, and Life beats the drum.”

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Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait With A Saxophone (1930), oil on canvas, 140.5 x 69.5 cm.; courtesy Kunsthalle, Bremen, Germany

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Beckmann was modern enough for the Nazis to peg him as degenerate. Over 20 of his paintings were included in “Entarte Kunst (Degenerate Art),” the infamous 1937 exhibition mounted expressly to ridicule modern “Jewish” and “Bolshevik” art. A self-described “good German,” Beckmann was bewildered by the rise of National Socialism and conflicted about leaving his home country. But on the opening night of “Entarte Kunst,” he and his wife, Quappi, took a train to Amsterdam, where they would live in exile for the next 10 years. It was there that Beckmann painted Self Portrait with Horn.

We see Beckmann from the waist up, standing slightly off center. He wears an orange and black patterned robe. His right hand reaches up tentatively. His left grasps a white horn. To the right is a red and black bar—a curtain, maybe, or a canvas—that puts us at a distinct remove. A mirror frames his grand pate. Beckmann’s mouth is set with grim determination. His expression is a mix of suspicion, fear and curiosity. Rarely has isolation been rendered as airless and monumental.

The horn is a recurring motif in Beckmann’s art, and its symbolic import is clear even as its meaning is elusive. Writing in the catalog, art historian Jill Lloyd chases down associations and comes up with a provocatively inclusive jumble. There’s sex, of course—Jung is dragged in for a passing reflection on the horn as both a penetrating object and a receptacle—but also memento mori, a Courbet hunting scene, an instrument to summon “conscience and attention,” a gramophone, a clown’s prop and, oh yes, music.

The most disconcerting thing about Self-Portrait with Horn is its silence.Beckmann brings to the horn a weird kind of vulnerability and pathos. Seeming to strain under its own ineffectuality, the horn arcs toward us with something approaching desperation. There’s something fast and mean in how the red and black drape obscures it. Beckmann admired the Courbet painting for its “beautiful clear triumph.” Whatever triumph exists in the stunted space in which the artist and the horn are imprisoned has been rendered moot. It’s a harsh and lonely picture.

Ms. Lloyd likens the Beckmann self-portrait to those of Rembrandt and Van Gogh. The German’s vision was too wide-ranging to settle for Vincent’s narrow self-involvement. Though less charitable than Rembrandt, Beckmann was equally honest, introspective and incisive. The 300 year or so gap between Rembrandt and Beckmann is virtually extinguished by shared conviction, authority and moral truth. What would an exhibition exploring their commonalities reveal? The Neue Galerie could do worse than attempt an answer.

© 2008 Mario Naves

Originally published in the August 5, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

Masterful Shortcomings: The Art of Ken Price

Met PriceInstallation view of Ken Price Sculpture; A Retrospective; photo by Suzanne DeChillo and courtesy The New York Times

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The following reviews originally appeared, respectively, in the March 10, 2010 edition of City Arts and the November 29, 2004 edition of The New York Observer. They are posted here on the occasion of Ken Price Sculpture; A Retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (until September 22, 2013) and Ken Price: Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Works on Paper 1962-2010 at The Drawing Center (until August 18, 2013).

Animism has never been Ken Price’s strength. The ability to endow inert material with the stuff of life has eluded the veteran ceramicist to the frustration of those of us admiring of his streamlined variations on biomorphic abstraction. The sculptures are, admittedly, fetching: Who could resist those precisely calibrated gestures, fluid contours and breathtakingly abraded surfaces? Would that these virtues encouraged adoration, but Price’s unremitting elegance tamps down our enthusiasm and any vitality the work itself might embody. You get the feeling that life is altogether too base and vulgar to suit Price’s artistic program.

Well, maybe vulgarity suits him. That Price has embraced turds and orifices as inspiration isn’t revelatory or revolutionary—Surrealist scatology has a long and relatively noble tradition. Severity of formal purpose, probably gleaned from Minimalism, imbues Price’s work with no-nonsense principle. Add a distillation of shape that takes off from Hans Arp and stops just short of being cute, and you have an artist who skirts overt ickiness.

Which doesn’t mean that Price doesn’t have it in him: Eeezo is genuinely repulsive. A fleshy swaddling of upright tubers punctuated by a gaping maw, Eeezo generates clammy élan through its pearlescent veneer, pimply surface and milky pallor. The work is something between ghastly, garish and tacky, which, for this artist, is some kind of achievement.

Eeezo has wisely been segregated from the rest of the work; its brute presence would only distract from Price’s usual run of stylish blips and blobs. Unfortunately, three sizable sculptures—Lying Around, Simple-istic and Percival—are displayed front-and-center. There’s no compelling aesthetic reason for their bigness unless price tag counts; this tabletop intimist has yet to get a handle on a larger scale. It’s enough to make you love Price’s more masterful shortcomings.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Ken Price Drawings

Drawings by Ken Price; courtesy Art Fag City

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If you’re familiar with the ceramic sculptures of Ken Price–those overrefined glosses on the tradition of biomorphic form–you’ll want to check out his drawings at Matthew Marks’ shoebox gallery on 21st Street. They’re not recommended, mind you, just odd: They depict erupting volcanoes, lightning, the ocean, and blobby, aquatic-like creatures in the company of buxom young women–not-so-distant cousins of Gauguin’s Tahitian nudes.

The pictures are reminiscent of underground comics, the animated film Fantastic Planet, and the fervent imaginings that line the margins of a high-school student’s notebook. Rendered in a flat-footed, psychedelic style, they pay little attention to the niceties of line or shape. (Color fares a mite better.) The drawings aren’t studies for sculptures; they tell us less about Mr. Price’s art than Mr. Price the artist. It turns out he’s a guy given to rather pedestrian daydreams. Mr. Marks felt that was reason enough to mount an exhibition–depending on your frame of mind, you might grant that he has a point.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Again?: Impressionist Painting

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Claude Monet, Luncheon on the Grass (1865-66), oil on canvas; courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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A version of this article originally appeared in the August 5, 2002 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (until May 27).

Another Impressionist show? That’s how most of us who take an interest in the art scene reacted to the news that the Metropolitan Museum of Art would present The Age of Impressionism: European Painting from the Ordrupgaard Collection, Copenhagen. It’s a question laced with cynicism. Any show dedicated to Impressionist art equals boffo box office for the institution hosting it–one can readily imagine the powers that be at the Met sitting abruptly at attention when presented with the umpteenth opportunity to exhibit Monet, Manet, Degas et al.

The financial realities of mounting major museum exhibitions are inescapable, of course, and I’m not oblivious to how profits can aid in bolstering an institution’s commitment to culture. Nor am I unaware of the intended purpose of wooing a general public with stuff they like–once hooked, or so the reasoning goes, they’ll stay hooked. Yet there has to be a sociological study in the offing that examines the differences in how the general public and a more specialized audience view exhibitions of art. I bring this up because a painter friend recently told me how, when he went to the Met with family who were visiting from the West Coast, his relatives insisted on seeing The Age of Impressionism rather than the Thomas Eakins retrospective. Being an amenable host, my friend acquiesced, though not without griping: “Listen, I like the Impressionists as much as the next guy, but enough is enough.” He went on to note that “any exhibition that includes even a single painting by Renoir is, by definition, totally worthless.”

impressionism_18Henri Fantin-Latour, Édouard Manet (1867), oil on canvas, 46-5/16″ x 35-7/16″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Well, I can’t stomach Renoir either, but I’m not about to badmouth The Age of Impressionism. Notwithstanding the five Renoirs, it’s an amazing exhibition. This is where the general public, with its seemingly insatiable appetite for Impressionist art, proves itself right: Impressionism was one of history’s most astonishing artistic epochs. Its riches are limitless. How could anyone ever not want to celebrate it?

More various than deep, the Ordrupgaard Collection is neither definitive nor encyclopedic. Still, any curator who does intend to mount a definitive show of Impressionist painting had better write down the Ordrupgaard’s phone number; there’s at least a baker’s dozen of masterpieces in the collection. If some of the paintings are less masterpieces than curiosities–like Ingres’ depiction of Dante, Delacroix’s portrait fragment of the novelist Georges Sand and a painting by Eva Gonzales, Manet’s pupil who met an untimely death–then they qualify as curiosities of a high order. I’d include in the same category Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s sketch for Le Moulin de la Galette (1875-76) and The Ruse, Roedeer Hunting Episode (Franche-Comté) (1866), a weird, waxworks-like tableau by the overrated Gustave Courbet.

The Ordrupgaard Collection came into being through the dedication of one man, Wilhelm Hansen (1868-1936). An astute businessman and a self-starter, Hansen made his fortune in the insurance industry, his greatest achievement being the founding of Dansk Folkeforsigkringanstalt, a company that provided life insurance to those of modest means. Inspired and assisted by a painter friend, he began collecting art at age 21. He would eventually form a consortium, along with another Danish collector and the art dealers Winkel & Magnussen, with the aim of “obtaining good and outstanding art for Scandinavia.” Their sights were set predominantly, if not exclusively, on French painting. They would eventually amass a world-class collection.

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Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop (ca. 1882-86), oil on canvas, 39-3/8″ x 43-5/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Disaster struck in 1922 with the collapse of the Landmandsbanken, the bank from which Hansen and his cohorts borrowed heavily. In order to pay off his debts, Hansen was forced to sell off a heartbreaking chunk of the collection: Seven Cézannes, nine Monets, six Manets, four Gaugins, along with pieces by Degas, Pissarro, Sisley, Corot, Delacroix and Daumier, were sold at auction. (One of the sale’s beneficiaries would be the redoubtable Albert C. Barnes.) Disappointed but not deterred, Hansen was intent on rebuilding the collection and did just that–not to its former glory, perhaps, but to a glorious end nonetheless. It would not be reading too much into things to say that Hansen’s drive is in evidence throughout The Age of Impressionism.

And what evidence there is! Count among the exhibition’s showstoppers Camille Corot’s Hamlet and the Gravedigger (1870-75), Honoré Daumier’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza Resting under a Tree (1864-66), Charles François Daubigny’s Seascape (Overcast) (1874), Edouard Manet’s Basket of Pears (1882), and The Flood: Banks of The Seine, Bougival (1873), a solid-as-a-rock tour de force by Alfred Sisley. Berthe Morisot’s Woman with a Fan: Portrait of Mme. Marie Hubbard (1874) is the single finest canvas I have seen by this artist. Claude Monet’s roughhewn and masterful The Cliffs near Sainte-Adresse, Overcast (1881-82) points resolutely to the 20th century. Still Life, a 1901 picture by Odilon Redon, locates more poetry in three peppers, a lemon and a water jug than this Symbolist painter ever discovered in the confines of his own cobwebbed imagination. As for Edgar Degas, his two New Orleans pictures remind us that we have yet to fully comprehend his incisive genius.

The Age of Impressionism also includes, in its two introductory galleries, a sampling of Danish painting. That these works don’t match those of the French artists isn’t surprising, although I would disagree with one observer whom I overheard say to his wife, “Let’s skip all these Danes and get to the real stuff.” A lot of the Danish work is real enough, and appealingly odd. Christen Købke and Wilhem Hammershøi, an artist who transmuted Vermeer’s quietude into the sparest melancholy, are painters deserving of the appreciative attention they’ve received in recent years. I hope some of that attention will extend to L.A. Ring, whose three paintings impress with their pinched and forbidding clarity. As it stands, the Danish contingent serves as estimable filler for a surprisingly sharp summer crowd-pleaser.

© 2002 Mario Naves

Witches & Toadstools; The Art of Neo Rauch

The following article was originally published in the May 29, 2007 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of the exhibition Neo Rauch; Heilstätten at David Zwirner (until December 17, 2011).

The paintings of Neo Rauch are dense with symbols. They’re bathed in a cloudy 19th-century ambiance, burdened with portent and packed with strange, incongruous happenings. Figures situated in claustrophobic interiors or within landscapes that are no less oppressive engage in mysterious and sometimes ritualistic acts. A single canvas can contain myriad events and things; the smaller paintings, while less various in imagery, feel just as knotty.

In Der Nächste Zug (The Next Move/The Next Draw) (2007), one of a suite of paintings on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, two dandies sit and smoke in the foreground, momentarily lost in thought. Behind them, a couple—a man and woman, perhaps; it’s hard to tell—has sex. A painter’s palette, a large book and a claw-like object are stacked on a nearby canopy bed. A smear of gray oil paint—a brushy affectation—floats in front of it. The space depicted is fairly sensible; the juxtaposition of people and things inhabiting it is anything but.

In other pictures, people burn flags a stone’s throw away from a bomb and a large saltshaker. A medieval pageant features an Annie Oakley–like figure, a black panther and a man in a Taurus mask being burned at the stake. A small dragon perches on an anvil. A Johnnie Walker doppelgänger with wooden planks strapped to his legs strides with unflinching determination. History is recalled, distorted and traversed. Indications of our own age are rare: some graffiti, a passing nod to Walt Disney and, in Vater (Father) (2007), a camera held by the artist himself.

Mr. Rauch’s images are parables muffled by alienation and bereft of discernible morals. Having come of age in a divided Germany, the Leipzig-based painter employs the conventions of Social Realism—its leaden sense of purpose, in particular—without endorsing its false promises or capitulating to its aesthetic constraints. The paintings aren’t expressly political; they thwart propaganda even as they evoke its typical gestures. They do, however, evince a profound sense of history’s failings. In important ways, Mr. Rauch continues to be an East German artist.

The paintings defy easy categorization; comparisons to Surrealism or Dadaism only go so far. Mr. Rauch’s pictures do embrace the irrational, but they aren’t emblems of the subconscious or challenges lobbed at Western civilization. The only thing that links the artist to Expressionism is nationality. And likening Mr. Rauch’s idiosyncratic imagery to the bland certainties of Pop Art is specious: His commingling of styles is best seen as epitomizing the scattershot aesthetic of postmodernism. Mr. Rauch reveals its hollow aspirations even as he builds upon its artifices—a deftly underplayed paradox.

One gauge of Mr. Rauch’s accomplishment is how adamantly his work resists interpretation. “Meaning” is present but, by and large, not entirely of consequence. There are no one-to-one signifiers among Mr. Rauch’s bleak cast of anonymous men and women, shabby environments and baffling customs. It’s enough that these anti-narratives have been realized, thoroughly and with dour persistence, by the act of putting brush to canvas. His inventions make sense on their own terms—the only kind of logic we can ask an artist to fulfill.

Mr. Rauch tells us that his paintings emanate from his artistic “trans­mitter”: They grow “out of the floor of my studio, as if it was a Witches Circle [of toadstools] … without preconceptions.” Fortunately, this kind of overblown romanticism is obscured in the pictures. That doesn’t mean Mr. Rauch’s florid statements are bogus, though. Careful inspection of his surfaces, with their scrubby variations in tone and texture, testify to his improvisational methods. Avoiding bravura, Mr. Rauch’s brush can take on a startling independence, relying on a mostly subdued and intermittently velvet palette of dim greens, blues and a recurring alizarin.

These 14 paintings—collectively titled para, a linguistic play on the prefix for “beside” or “beyond”—were created specifically for the Met’s mezzanine galleries. Those airless, shoebox enclosures are among the least-accommodating spaces in any New York museum; they’re certainly ill-suited for an artist who thrives when working large. Mr. Rauch has made the most of it. With the exception of Vater and Die Fuge (The Fugue/The Gap) (2007), monumental canvases shuffled off to an adjacent gallery, the paintings are small or emphatically horizontal—that is to say, appropriately scaled to their environment. Still, Mr. Rauch has been stiffed: He deserves the space to realize his ambitions.

Both preoccupied and distracted by history, Mr. Rauch refuses to be hobbled by it. Compare Warten auf die Barbaren (Waiting for the Barbarians) (2007) to Balthus’ The Mountain (1936), a staple of the Met’s collection. The canvases bear an uncanny resemblance to each other, but Mr. Rauch’s enigmatic panorama is too unsettled and stern to succumb to the French master’s brittle nostalgia. However despondent the scenario or antiquated the imagery, a painting by Mr. Rauch points forward—albeit in ways that are hard to pin down. What they have to say about culture or, for that matter, the future is no small cause for concern. In the meantime, Mr. Rauch’s elusive lessons are here to puzzle over.

© 2007 Mario Naves