Tag Archives: The Jewish Museum

Candor Not Kitsch; The Paintings of Florine Stettheimer

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Florine Stettheimer, Nude Self-Portrait (ca. 1915), oil on canvas, 48-1/4 x 68-1/4″; courtesy Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer

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The following review originally appeared in the September 1995 edition of The New Criterion. It is posted here on the occasion of “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry” at The Jewish Museum, New York, NY. Additional thoughts on Stettheimer can be found here.

As the end of the century approaches, it becomes increasingly obvious that the standard histories of twentieth-century American art are in need of revision. Reputations that once seemed incontrovertibly major now appear meager, while so-called minor talents are beginning to look substantial, or, at least, more interesting than was once supposed. (This is assuming, of course, that artists are to be judged by their art rather than by extra-aesthetic criteria.) And while the myth of the great lost artist is largely that, there are, undoubtedly, fine painters and sculptors who have not yet met with serious appraisal and are unknown to the general public, as well as to those who make art their vocation.

Such may be the case with Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944). I first encountered Stettheimer’s paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, about four years ago, while meandering through a survey of twentieth-century American painting cobbled together from the museum’s holdings. Her Cathedral paintings, four works that take as their subject the social and cultural life of New York City from the late Twenties to the early Forties, took me by surprise. While the artist’s name was vaguely familiar, the paintings were new to me and curious. Their idiosyncrasies recalled folk art, but the Cathedral paintings were decidedly not the work of an “outsider”: their humor betrayed an artistic temperament as sophisticated as it was acerbic. I found the Cathedral paintings funny and diverting—diverting enough to make me wonder what else Stettheimer had accomplished.

Since then I have learned, from friends and colleagues, that discovering Stettheimer by happenstance is something of a commonplace among her admirers. It was reassuring, then, to read that both Elisabeth Sussman and Barbara J. Bloemink, organizers of the Stettheimer show now up at the Whitney, learned about her as a result of pursuing other projects: Sussman, while writing about Irene Rice Pereira; Bloemink, while researching the correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe. Their shared enthusiasm for Stettheimer’s work has resulted in a most welcome exhibition.

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Marcel Duchamp, Portrait of Florine Stettheimer (1925), charcoal, 20.1 x 13.8″; courtesy of the Jewish Museum

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Manhattan Fantastica is the first full-scale retrospective of Stettheimer’s work since 1946, when her friend Marcel Duchamp organized a posthumous exhibition of her paintings at MOMA. Although she exhibited sporadically during her lifetime, Stettheimer’s only solo exhibition, at M. Knoedler & Company in 1916, was poorly received, an experience which left an indelible mark on her. Subsequently, Stettheimer refused commercial representation, even turning down Alfred Stieglitz’s invitation to exhibit at his gallery, forsaking probable notoriety.

Being of independent means and, one feels, a resolute demeanor, Stettheimer could afford such isolation. For her, painting became an entirely private pursuit, and though she freely showed her work to those in her circle, it was not for sale and she did little to promote herself as an artist. It is fortunate, in fact, that her work still exists at all. Stettheimer intended that her entire artistic output be destroyed upon her death. Her sister Ettie, acting as executor, refused to do so, instead making arrangements to have Stettheimer’s paintings placed in museums throughout the country. In a roundabout way, Manhattan Fantastica has the peculiar distinction of being the product of family disloyalty.

If Stettheimer’s obscurity was, in part, of her own making, her paintings did eventually acquire an enthusiastic, if small, audience. Sussman attributes the rehabilitation of Stettheimer’s reputation to feminism, gay liberation, and Pop Art, taking pains to inform us that Jasper Johns holds her paintings in high esteem, as did Andy Warhol. Those of us less inclined to consider Johns and Warhol as oracles of wisdom are lucky that “Manhattan Fantastica” is as good as it is. By the current standards of the Whitney, the surprisingly no-nonsense presentation of this exhibition must seem hopelessly passé; it treats Stettheimer’s paintings with respect, allowing them breathing room with a minimum of pushy wall labels. Given the “inspiration seen in the installation of Edward Hopper and the American Imagination, up the stairs from Manhattan Fantastica, one should be grateful for small (and uninspired) favors.

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Florine Stettheimer, Family Portrait II (1933), oil on canvas, 46-1/4 x 64-5/8″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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The first painting one sees upon entering Manhattan Fantastica is New York/Liberty (1918), a view of the southern tip of Manhattan, replete with the Staten Island Ferry, the Brooklyn Bridge, Woodrow Wilson, and a lumpish, three-dimensional Statue of Liberty jutting out from the painting’s surface. What is remarkable about New York/ Liberty is neither the picture’s formal resolve—as painting, it has its problems—nor its amusing agglomeration of details, but its heartfelt celebration of the United States and, in particular, New York City. New York/Liberty is a picture about love, and it is indicative of our times that Stettheimer’s patriotic valentine is as unnerving as it is. As unnerving, one might say, as it is moving. While it is easy to see why fans of camp would find an image like New York/Liberty appealing, its corniness, if you will, is genuine. Stettheimer’s paintings carry a candor that shows up most contemporary kitsch-based art for the snobbery that it is.

Florine and her sisters, Ettie and Carrie, along with their mother, Rosetta, opened their home on the Upper West Side to some of the most important artists of the time; among those who attended the Stettheimers’ salons were Charles Demuth, Elie Nadelman, Gaston Lachaise, Marsden Hartley, and Duchamp. It was this milieu that prompted some of Stettheimer’s finest paintings, and Sussman and Bloemink are wise to concentrate on her mature period. Her pre-stylistic paintings, of which there are few on view, are best left to Stettheimer specialists. Certainly, a painting like Family Portrait #1 (1915), with its lackluster drawing and halting brushwork, makes one commiserate with the critics who panned the Knoedler exhibition. Even so, this painting holds a key to understanding the course Stettheimer’s mature work would take and it can be found in the flower arrangement which sits just right of center. It is the one part of Family Portrait #1 where Stettheimer follows the logic of painting and, as such, it delivers, especially in its use of hard, strong color. The flowers are so convincing, in fact, that they have more emotional life than the mannequins which surround them.

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Florine Stettheimer, Portrait of My Sister, Ettie Stettheimer (1923), oil on canvas mounted on hardboard, 40 3/8 × 26 1/4″; courtesy The Jewish Museum

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Stettheimer’s portraits of family and friends can be fun, but in a circumscribed way. Each portrait is crammed with incident, sometimes to an almost encyclopedic extent, relating to its subject. Writing in the catalogue, Bloemink deciphers the imagery found in some of the portraits, and it’s colorful stuff: Stettheimer made sure all the relevant information was there, including, for instance, Carl Van Vechten’s favorite tabby. But, as works of art, the portraits miss the forest for the trees. Stettheimer is so intent on making her portraits specific that they become mired in details. Consequently, they function better as rebuses, albeit nutty ones, than as orchestrated works of art. Admittedly, the portraits are filled with morsels of splendid painting—the muffled, nubby landscape seen in the distance of Portrait of My Sister Carrie W. Stettheimer with Dollhouse (1923), for instance— but they also divulge Stettheimer’s folk-art mannerisms as flimsy drawing. The one exception is Portrait of Ettie (1923), a scarily unforgettable portrait of her sister. Lying on a chaise longue while floating in a deep blue space, Ettie is overwhelmed by what appears to be a burning Christmas tree; it is as persuasive a piece of Expressionist-style dabbing as Stettheimer ever did. With Portrait of Ettie, Stettheimer’s obsessiveness achieves the visionary.

Stettheimer became more confident as a painter the more cartoonish her work became. One can see this in Picnic at Bedford Hills (1918), a picture of the artist, her sisters, Nadelman, and Duchamp lunching on what could be described as a skewed Fauvist landscape. Here Stettheimer’s figures take on a caricaturish stylishness not unlike that found in the more upscale cartoons of the time, and this comic exuberance informs her best paintings. While Stettheimer’s work suggests biography—which is, more often than not, exactly what it is—it is not necessary to read her best paintings as such to gain pleasure from them. Her work has its own oddball momentum, and the small dramas played out in the paintings gain comedic and pictorial dimension the less they rely on biographical particulars. This may be why Stettheimer’s finest paintings are her multi-figure compositions. She’s at her best when building rhythms between forms, especially a multiplicity of forms, and using her particulars for emphasis.

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Florine Stettheimer, Spring Sale at Bendel’s (1921), oil on canvas, 50 x 40″; courtesy of The Philadelphia Museum of Art, gift of Miss Ettie Stettheimer

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Such is the case with Lake Placid (1919), Asbury Park South (1920), and Spring Sale at Bendel’s (1921), the latter of which must qualify as Stettheimer’s masterpiece. One of Stettheimer’s great loves was dance—the maquettes for her own unrealized ballet, Orphée of the Quat’z Arts, are impressive and weird—and a strong sense of choreography buoys these paintings. Spring Sale at Bendel’s, in particular, is a ceaseless flow of movement, unified by an acidic pink that has Stettheimer’s name on it. (Stettheimer’s color sense veered toward the poisonous.) Its images of women shopping and trying on outfits have the cadence and theatricality of an MGM musical, and it is made up of silly bits of business: a small yellow dog wearing a sweater emblazoned with a dollar sign, women diving for sale items. Here Stettheimer’s minutiae lend comedy to a painting with an already comic momentum. The final result is an elegant giddiness, cosmopolitan and without pretension.

Sussman and Bloemink conclude Manhattan Fantastica with the Cathedral paintings, perhaps taking their cue from Linda Nochlin’s 1980 essay on the artist, “Rococo Subversive,” wherein they are heralded as Stettheimer’s masterpieces. (The essay is included in the catalogue.) Some four years later, I find the Cathedral paintings—dedicated to Broadway, Fifth Avenue, Wall Street, and Art—still funny and diverting, but something of a letdown. Like the portraits, they are bursting with telling, hilarious details, but the details are clumped together on the canvases in such a way that one’s eye tends to bump into the various scenarios depicted; there’s little pictorial flow. If Asbury Park South achieves the dynamism of dance, a painting like Cathedrals of Wall Street simply strikes a pose. Stettheimer’s spark, so present in her best paintings, is missing here, and her color and paint handling, having become subservient to illustration, are less vital. If the charm of most folk art lies in the anecdotal, then so it is with the Cathedral paintings. Despite their eccentricities, they are tame—tame, that is, for Stettheimer.

The introductory wall label of Manhattan Fantastica states that “no history of American Modernism can truly be complete without Stettheimer’s work.” This is standard curatorial hyperbole, but it is difficult to be unsympathetic all the same. That she was a fascinating character in the cultural life of early-twentieth-century New York is unquestionable. As a painter, however, Stettheimer is a minor, one could say marginal, figure. Marginality, as it has come to be known in the political sense, is, of course, what the contemporary art world finds so appealing about her: Why else would Soirée/Studio Party (1917–19) grace the cover of Artforum? Stettheimer’s marginality, however, is both her chief asset and chief liability, and to politicize her work misses the point and dishonors her art. (I wonder what Stettheimer herself would think of the “social consciousness” Nochlin foists upon her—probably come up with a biting painting or two, I’d imagine.) A handful of these paintings—Spring Sale at Bendel’s, Lake Placid, Asbury Park South, Portrait of Ettie, Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P. T. Barnum (1924), and, maybe, Russian Bank (1921)—are undeniable gems worthy of posterity. But if the artist revealed in Manhattan Fantastica is an erratic one, even the least convincing of her pungent paintings have more to offer than, say, the clever fripperies of her friend and champion Marcel Duchamp. So give the Whitney credit for doing it right. Manhattan Fantastica adds an honorable chapter to the understanding of the art of our misunderstood times.

© 1995 Mario Naves

 

“Édouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940” at The Jewish Museum

Edouard Vuillard, Self-Portrait with Waroquy (1889), oil on canvas, 36-1/2″ x 28-1/2″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Long gone, I hope, are the days when the French painter Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940) was pooh-poohed as being insufficiently radical or, if you prefer, overly bourgeois—as if art steeped in domesticity and comfort somehow precluded pictorial innovation. If Édouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940, an exhibition at the Jewish Museum, doesn’t put that avant-gardist trope to bed, nothing will.

Actually, make that the first three galleries. In them, we encounter an artist of brooding intensity and startling economy. The standard telling of Intimism underlines how a select group of painters brought Impressionist facture out of the sunlight and into the dining room. Dubbing themselves the Nabis—from the Hebrew and Arabic, meaning “prophets”—these artists looked for inspiration in the color-laden symbolism of Paul Gauguin, the decorative flourishes of Art Nouveau and the flat spaces found in Japanese prints. The resulting imagery spoke (as the novelist André Gide had it) “in a low tone, suitable to confidences.”

Edouard Vuillard, Woman in a Striped Dress (1895), oil on canvas, 25-7/8″ x 23″; courtesy The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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Low, confidential and given to unnerving moments of introspection. New Yorkers familiar with MoMA’s Interior: Mother and Sister of the Artist (1893), a cornerstone of the permanent collection, know Vuillard wasn’t inspired by hearth and home so much as haunted by them. In the best paintings, familial complexity is distilled into images of daunting psychological nuance. (Not for nothing is Proust’s name bandied about when speaking of Vuillard’s art.) A blunt emphasis on pattern and architecture reinforces a signature strain of emotional pressurization. The curators insist on the theatricality of Marie Opening the Window (1893), a portrait of Vuillard’s sister, as if its cloistered drama were somehow diminished by it.

The organizing conceit of A Painter and His Muses is the role Jewish patronage played in the Parisian art world—a fascinating historical fillip and as good an excuse as any to mount a summer crowd-pleaser. But a truer title might be What’s Love Got to Do With It? It was, after all, about the time Vuillard began an extended relationship with his dealer’s wife that the art slackened, its gains in scale, vigor and sumptuousness being a lousy recompense for a marked loss in tone, pith and bite. Which is no reason to forego the astringent pleasures shunted toward the front end of this handsomely mounted, if lopsided, exhibition.

© 2012 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 8, 2012 edition of City Arts.

“Slick With Calculation”: The Art of Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley, Mizrah (2011), oil on canvas, 36″ x 48″; courtesy The Jewish Museum

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A version of this article originally appeared in the July 28, 2008 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Kehinde Wiley/The World Stage: Israel at The Jewish Museum (until July 29, 2012).

In the catalog accompanying The World Stage: Africa, Lagos~Dakar, an exhibition of Kehinde Wiley’s paintings at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the artist holds forth on various aspects of his work—among them, his African heritage, the role of mimicry in art, being a twin, and themes of gender and postcolonialism. He lists as his peers Allen Ginsberg, Britney Spears, Fragonard, Versace and Kara Walker. He’s not crazy about Spike Lee or Titian, and is suspicious of Barack Obama—“his rabbit holes,” Wiley says, “are capable of losing structural integrity by virtue of their own weight.”

Which is to say: Let’s be be thankful that Mr. Wiley has found employment as a famous artist rather than as an addle-brained cultural theorist.

His models are exclusively young men, typically in hip-hop garb, striking poses based on figures in paintings by Tiepolo, say, or David. They’re set against elaborate and vibrantly colored patterning derived from different cultures and eras—you’ll find Islam in Mr. Wiley’s art, and the Rococo. Skillfully rendered and smartly conceived, the paintings mix and match historical periods for reasons both Pop (Peter Paul Rubens meets the Wu-Tang Clan) and political (Peter Paul Rubens, make room for the African diaspora).

To his credit, Mr. Wiley himself isn’t altogether sold on art as “a site of normalizing and redemption,” as the catalog puts it. His skepticism evinces a painter resistant to the clichés of art as “transgression,” as well as an African-American wary of pigeonholing, equivocal about the notion of “black art.”

All the same, Mr. Wiley is savvy to the arresting power of confrontational imagery. He’s kin to showmen like John Currin and Matthew Barney, though Mr. Wiley’s sociological foundation is graver than porn and Vaseline.

Kehinde Wiley, Leviathan Zodiac (2011), oil and gold enamel on canvas, 95.75″ x 71.75″; courtesy The Jewish Museum

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Mr. Wiley’s recent paintings are part of his “World Stage” series. Establishing studios in China, the first site where he set up shop, and then in Nigeria and Senegal, Mr. Wiley adopts aspects of regional culture. In China, he looked at Communist propaganda and adapted it to his own needs.

Something similar informs the African paintings: A number of them are based on public monuments that recall Soviet socialist realism. Taking into account the reproductions in the catalog, they are like most nationalist sculpture, stiff with symbolism.

Notwithstanding what must have been jarring contrasts in environment and custom, Mr. Wiley seems pretty much untouched by his travels. His pictorial formula remains intact. Whether he’s in Africa, in China, or navigating 125th Street, Mr. Wiley is always himself. Motifs gleaned from the immediate surroundings—primarily, pattern and palette—are subsumed by his trademark style. Mr. Wiley doesn’t open himself up to disparate cultures—he merely Kehinde-izes them.

The stately men seen in The Wise Men Greeting Entry Into Lagos (2008) and Rubin Singleton (2008)— a spectacularly elaborate play of floral arabesques and a wonderfully garish camouflage jacket—hail from either Dakar or Lagos. (Mr. Wiley and his film crew look for “models” as they stroll down city streets.)

There’s an impressive and chilly finesse to Mr. Wiley’s realism. He doesn’t take pleasure in putting brush to canvas—it slides efficiently, but with no sense of urgency—but likeness is carefully delineated. Elsewhere he’s coy: Benin Mother and Child (2008) pictures a young man holding a fan and basket; you think the painting is mislabeled until you find out that it’s based on a matriarchal sculpture.

But it figures—Mr. Wiley isn’t interested in his models for who they are as individuals, but what they can be as archetypes. Warholian anonymity, slick with calculation, is the point. It’s disconcerting how blithely Mr. Wiley denatures his subjects.

Only Ibrahima Sacko (2008) escapes the artist’s conceptualist straitjacket, and you can’t help but cheer on his puckishness. If anything, the artist’s work succeeds best as pure form—his expert riffs on figure and ground would’ve made Clement Greenberg smile. But these disjointed amalgamations of specificity and artifice don’t quite know what they are, except that they’re by Kehinde Wiley. I wish he’d get out of the way and let the paintings fulfill their promise.

© 2008 Mario Naves

New Year’s Eve with Florine Stettheimer and Isabella Rossellini

Florine Stettheimer (c. 1910) and Isabella Rossellini (c. 1980)

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Being a new hand at blogging, I’ve been curious as to what kind of items bring people here. According to WordPress’s handy stats menu, it’s this, that, the other thing, Egon Schiele and Wassily Kandinsky. But what accounts for yesterday’s preponderance of visitors wanting information on the American painter Florine Stettheimer? Certainly, there are worse artists to seek out upon putting the past year to bed and few who lend themselves better to witty revelry. At the very least, I was prompted to dust off this review of The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons, an exhibition in which Stettheimer figured prominently, as well as to again make public my fervent wish to be within whispering distance of Isabella Rossellini.

Postscript. It figures: Stettheimer’s Heat (c. 1919) was mentioned by Roberta Smith–you know, the better half of Sarah Jessica Parker’s favorite art critic–in yesterday’s New York Times. Thanks to Mercy Wright for the tip.

© 2010 Mario Naves

 

Eva Hesse at The Jewish Museum

Eva Hesse, Repetition Nineteen III (1968), latex and filler over canvas stuffed with polyethylene sheeting, rope and unidentified materials; courtesy The Jewish Museum

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It’s unfair to judge an artist, an ethos and a decade by an exhibition the scale of Eva Hesse: Sculpture, on display at the Jewish Museum. There have to be better ways to eulogize a “great American artist,” Minimalism and the 1960’s than an abruptly circumscribed overview of signature sculptures or pieces representative of important stylistic shifts.

Hesse is a hugely influential figure. Her investigations of industrial materials, repetitive forms and bodily dysfunction imbued the blunt severity of Minimalism with Surrealist-inspired psychological tension. They’re seen as forming a bridge between an impersonal machine-tooled art and something intimate and diaristic. Hesse’s early death—of a brain tumor in 1970, at the age of 34—imparts the awful force of prophecy to her fleshy skeins of rope and membranous “accretions” of fiberglass and polyester resin.

Yearning is her leitmotif: The sculptures strain under the dictates of anonymity and order. Imperfections resulting from material processes endow Hesse’s vessels and “skins” of latex with a wobbly fragility. The work’s plaintive character—its bathos, really—is genuine. So, too, is Hesse’s dogged search for art that “accedes to its non-logical self.” But mostly the sculptures are pretentious and inert.

In an interview, artist Mel Bochner stated that “there was something ‘haunted’ about [Hesse’s] work. Maybe it’s haunted by all those lost ‘contexts’ of the 1960s.” He’s right: The air of morbidity hanging over Eva Hesse: Sculpture is unrelated to her tragic death. Minimalism is the grim reaper here, and the 1960’s its partner in crime.

Minimalism’s disavowal of metaphor, of art’s ability to take on an independent life through illusion, has left a catastrophic mark on several generations of artists.

Hesse was fascinated by the brutal permanence of Minimalist art, but attempted to wriggle out from under its intractable weight. She failed. The chinks Hesse put into Minimalism’s façade—by allowing chance incident, say, to augment a work’s final shape—only underscore its deadening authority. The curse of “anti-form” (now there’s a quaint bit of 60’s cant) is that it squelches artistic potential. Nihilism is bad enough; coupled with know-nothing portentousness, it’s insufferable.

In tweaking the tenets of Minimalism, Hesse mistook molehills for mountains; her work feels overblown. Sculpture that thrives upon the vitality of form either held no interest for her or was beyond her talents. A healthy engagement with the transformative possibilities of material and metaphor can redeem almost anything. There’s nothing redemptive about Eva Hesse: Sculpture. It commemorates an artist, an ethos and a time whose import are vastly overrated.

© 2006 Mario Naves

Originally published in the June 4, 2006 edition of The New York Observer.

Chaim Soutine at The Jewish Museum

Chaim Soutine, Madeleine Castaing (1929), oil on canvas, 39-3/8″ x 28-7/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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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.

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.

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.

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

Originally published in the June 1998 edition of The New Criterion.