Tag Archives: Painting

First Hand: Joan Miró


Joan Miró, Untitled (1931), oil and ink on wood, 7-1/2 × 10-5/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Miró the miniaturist is preferable to Miró the proto-Abstract Expressionist. Modest formats endowed his line with a resiliency and wit that went noticeably slack over more expansive surfaces. Untitled (1931) is an irresistible case in point–a creation myth seemingly culled from a Petri dish.

© 2019 Mario Naves

Kurt Knobelsdorf at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects

 Kurt Knobelsdorf, cvs

Kurt Knobelsdorf, CVS (2010), oil on wood, 8″ x 10″; courtesy Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects

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In what is probably an apocryphal but nonetheless true-to-form anecdote, Donald Trump is said to have referred to a painting by Van Gogh as “a piece of cloth with some colored mud on it“. Nosing up to Kurt Knobelsdorf’s paintings, you’d think he’d taken The Donald at his word: Oil paint is allowed unabashed independence, its sludgy physicality milked for all it’s worth. Maybe for more than what it’s worth: Entranced by darkness, Knobelsdorf isn’t a sure hand at navigating between subtle elisions of light and blunt materiality.  There’s a difference between mystery and murk.

Having moved from Pennsylvania to Florida, you’d think Knobelsdorf would have been converted by the sweeping light typical of the region. Instead, he moves to Miami and is transformed into Albert Pinkham Ryder as done by Albert York.  Given the circumstances, it’s not an uninteresting combo; among the umpteen small paintings on display, maybe half a dozen make something of it. The best of them let in the daylight.

© 2011 Mario Naves

“Man, Myth and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jan Gossart, The Deposition (ca. 1525), oil on panel transferred to canvas; courtesy The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art has gone all out for the Netherlandish painter Jan Gossart (ca. 1478-1532).  A significant chunk of exhibition space and 8-1/2 lbs. of scholarship–the weight, I am told, of the exhibition catalog–have been devoted to the artist whose studies in Rome helped marry (in curator Maryan W. Ainsworth’s phrase) “heightened eroticism” to Northern meticulousness.

Given the evidence at the Met, it’s worth pondering if Gossart’s discovery of sex was entirely beneficial.  Providing the link between Jan Van Eyck and Peter Paul Rubens is no small thing, but stylistic conventions of the time don’t explain (or forgive) Gossart’s anatomical irregularities, stilted compositions or an unappealing sponginess brought to depictions of flesh. By displaying in close proximity works by Van Eyck, Albrecht Durer, Simon Benning and the inestimable Gerard David (with whom Gossart collaborated), the Met underscores the headliner’s artistic shortcomings even as it elaborates on historical context.

Still, Gossart cobbled together some spectacular machines, among them The Deposition (c. 1525), Portrait of a Man (Jan Jacobsz. Snoeck?) (ca. 1530) and the beyond crystalline A Young Princess (Dorothea of Denmark?) (ca. 1530).  If Gossart’s paintings function best as sums of their exquisitely delineated parts, then there are abundant pleasures to be had in cherry picking through them.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Bill Jensen at Cheim & Read

Detail ImageBill Jensen, Images of a Floating World (Passare) (2009), oil on linen, 26″ x 20″; courtesy Cheim & Read Gallery

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If Bill Jensen weren’t capable of making such awful paintings, his good ones wouldn’t be worth taking so seriously. His improvisatory method is inherently hit-or-miss. His scraped and scarred canvases often fail to distinguish between the grace note and the heavy hand.

Case in point: the forbiddingly dark canvases in the introductory gallery of Cheim & Read in Chelsea, where his recent efforts are on display. The paintings are reminiscent of Mark Rothko’s late attempts to channel an existential sublime. To Mr. Jensen’s credit, they aren’t as pretentious—if only because they’re hardly anything at all. They’re mainly comprised of barely perceptible fluctuations in patina. One gallery-goer, with a poetic flourish, dubbed them “19th-century landscapes engulfed in doom.”

The paintings do recall the moody scenes of Albert Pinkham Ryder, long a favorite of Mr. Jensen’s, but mostly the Ryders that have suffered catastrophic discoloration due to his notoriously blasé attitude toward materials. Sometimes subtlety is too subtle to bother with.

But that’s a handful of pictures. The rest of the 20 or so canvases, while uneven in quality, are less stark and earnest. They’re earnest enough, mind you, but Mr. Jensen’s labor-intensive resolve is bolstered by colors startlingly new to his work.

A painter for whom the natural world is less a recognizable subject than an ominous brew of portent, Mr. Jensen’s early palette was earthy to a fault. Its unimaginative tones tended to muffle, if not outright stifle, inventive arrays of marks, textures and shapes. Given Mr. Jensen’s desire to tap into nature’s grit and physicality, such a palette was appropriate. But sometimes mud is just mud.

So where did the shrieking primary colors come from? It’s as if someone turned on the lights in Mr. Jensen’s studio—or maybe the fireplace. Deep and lustrous blues, yellows and reds, remarkable for their relative clarity, burn with harsh intensity.

That’s the most of it, but not all of it: Silky purples, fluctuating runs of rust and unsullied greens evince the exhilaration of a painter who’s finally getting a handle on the expressive capabilities of color.

Most surprising, because radically atypical, is the milky blur cascading through Luohan (Light Step) (2003-6)—a color that’s almost, but not really, whitish purple. Elusive and unnamable hues are an indicator of Mr. Jensen’s growth—at last!—as a colorist.

All of which would be meaningless if the palette were divorced from his process and rhythm. It’s not: Color thrives as an integral component of the whole. An admirer of Chinese calligraphy, Mr. Jensen’s canvases don’t achieve its elegance or fluidity (an attribute true of his works-on-paper), but his whiplash brushstroke does embody its slippery allusiveness.

Obscured behind abraded veils of color, Mr. Jensen’s trails of oil paint bristle and twist, at times with bracing recklessness. The signature small formats—37 by 28 inches is stretching it for Mr. Jensen—attain a monumental effect. Intuitively gauging the relationship between gesture and surface area, he creates a heaving internal scale that belies each painting’s modest size.

Mr. Jensen’s best pictures—Scorched Field (2004-5), Luohan (Persona) (2005-6), Bog (2004-6), The Red House (Jimi Hendrix) (2004-6) and the evanescent St. Sebastian (2005-6)—smolder as if they were lit from within; a glow, sometimes corrosive, emanates from beneath innumerable scrims of paint. It’s hard to know where Mr. Jensen’s densely layered paintings begin and end. Deciphering his tracks is pointless. The images can’t be unraveled; Mr. Jensen’s approach defies practical logic. The paintings coalesce in ways that mystify the audience and, as is evident from their spontaneity and momentum, the artist himself.

In the catalog essay “The Elbow and The Milky Way,” the critic John Yau writes of how Mr. Jensen’s paintings “cannot be seen all at once … [and] must be experienced both visually and physically.” They achieve a “state of simultaneity, of a complexity that engages more than just our eyes.” So far, so good—but then Mr. Yau insists that Mr. Jensen shares a “philosophical basis” with Jasper Johns and Robert Ryman.

Say what? The stock in trade of Mr. Johns and Mr. Ryman, a drably pedantic literalism, couldn’t be further from Mr. Jensen’s scrabbled poetry. The pictorial seductions (such as they are) found in Mr. Johns’ and Mr. Ryman’s paintings are deracinated, banal and short-lived. Mr. Jensen’s paintings are full-bodied, bottomless and repay repeated looking.

Mr. Yau’s essay is otherwise clear-eyed and perceptive. Likening Mr. Jensen to Jackson Pollock is right, particularly given the urgency bordering on desperation that marks, if not outright defines, the oeuvres of both men. Mr. Yau sharpens the focus on the pictorial hurdles that Mr. Jensen sets for himself and, not least, his “maverick” status.

In that regard, Mr. Jensen is quintessentially American. He follows in the proud tradition of headstrong individuals, unapologetic eccentrics and outright loners punctuating the history of American art, such as Thomas Eakins, Louis Eilshemius, Arthur Dove, and peers like Pat Adams, David Fertig and Andrew Masullo.

Self-reliance may be the American way, but it’s not without social and political liabilities. In art, it’s less fraught with consequence, so it can provide a heady sense of possibility. The “wild, anarchic beauty” of Mr. Jensen’s art (the dead-on phrase is courtesy of Mr. Yau) underlines that truth and is evident—thrillingly, ineradicably—in the artist’s successes as well as his failures.

We shouldn’t ignore (or forgive) the frequency of the latter. Mr. Jensen wouldn’t have integrity if he didn’t risk falling on his ass. Nor would he make good paintings if he didn’t dust himself off and give it another go. Tenacity is the rule. Mr. Jensen is the real thing, and all the more rare because of it.

© 2007 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 11, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.

Tom Goldenberg at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries


Tom Goldenberg, Quadrant (2010), oil on linen, 60″ x 72″; courtesy the artist

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In the aptly titled canvas Grandview (2003), on view at Salander-O’Reilly, the painter Tom Goldenberg pays homage to the rolling hills of Dutchess County, doing so through color (a beneficent yellow suffuses the canvas) and, in particular, composition. He transforms the three-part structure of landscape painting–foreground, middle ground, background–by multiplying it by three, so the eye takes a full nine steps before it reaches the bucolic clouds drifting over the horizon.

Even with the sky, things are complicated: The clouds press forward, collapsing distance by propelling it toward the surface of the canvas. In fact, each section of the picture has its idiosyncrasies: Mr. Goldenberg’s deceptively straightforward depiction of farmland is, in reality, a fairly intricate (not to say abstract) orchestration of space, rhythm and incident.

He does something similar to the hills of Italy in Monte Argentario (2003), though not as persuasively. Perhaps a familiarity with upstate New York allows Mr. Goldenberg a greater sense of pictorial license. Then again, Dutchess County can’t claim indigenous cactus, the subject behind the exhibition’s most inspired passage of painting.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 28, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.