Tag Archives: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Hercules Segers, The Mossy Tree (ca. 1625-30), lift-ground etching printed in green, on a light pink ground, colored with brush/unique impression, 6-5/8 x 3-7/8″; Collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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As much as a person might try, it’s impossible to escape the imprimatur and influence–some might say “taint”–of Hollywood. At the entrance to“The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers,” museum-goers encounter an introductory video narrated by the actor John Malkovich. It is, admittedly, an adroit fit: Malkovich has cultivated an air of idiosyncrasy and affectlessness in his choice of roles and in his public demeanor. Who better to introduce contemporary viewers to an intensely quixotic painter and printmaker known primarily to specialists of seventeenth-century Dutch art? Notwithstanding Malkovich’s stated admiration for Rembrandt, there’s something condescending, not to mention tiresome and predictable, in trotting out a movie star to clue us into the dimly remembered Hercules Segers (ca. 1589–ca. 1638). The Met wouldn’t be the first museum to poach upon the glitz of showbiz, and it won’t be the last. But do curators really think they need to goose the audience with a frisson of celebrity for it to sit up and take notice?

Having said that, “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers” does bring scholarly focus to a singular talent. Organized by Nadine M. Orenstein, the Met’s Drue Heinz Curator in Charge of the Department of Drawings and Prints, the exhibition draws heavily on European collections, especially the Rijksmuseum: its entire holdings of Segers work— seventy-four prints, two oil sketches, and one canvas—are currently ensconced on the Upper East Side. The scarcity of Segers’s art stateside accounts, in some measure, for this being the first American overview. Still, he’s never truly been an approachable artist—in our day or his own. Writing in 1678, the painter Samuel van Hoogstraten cited Segers as a “disregarded . . . great artist” who was “murdered by poverty”—this, in a cautionary text titled “How an Artist Should Conduct Himself Against the Blows of Fortune.” Van Hoogstraten’s interest may have been prompted by his teacher Rembrandt, who is known to have owned (and re-worked) Segers’s art. Certainly, van Hoogstraten’s telling of Segers’s fate and reputation is clouded by hearsay and romance. For decades following his death, poems and prints mourned and/or celebrated Segers’s “abject poverty.” Tragic stories die hard: Segers became (as the catalogue has it) the “poster child” for starving, misunderstood artists.

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Hercules Segers, The Tomb of the Horatii and Curiatii (ca. 1628-29), line etching printed with tone and highlights, colored with brush; unique impression, 5-1/16 × 7-11/16″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The historical record has been fleshed out some since Van Hoogstraten’s time, but it remains fragmentary, and somewhat contradictory. Writing in the catalogue, the historian Jaap Van Der Veen undergoes—and the pun will be forgiven, I hope—Herculean contortions in the attempt to hone in on the particulars of Segers’s life. Though peppered with qualifiers, Van Der Veen’s essay explains that Segers came from a moneyed family—his parents, Pieter and Cathelijne, were merchants—and was a student of the Flemish landscapist Gillis van Coninxloo. Segers eventually established himself as an artist and art dealer in Amsterdam, and experienced enough success to purchase a house on the Lindengracht in 1619. A few years later, however, Segers underwent financial distress: the house was put under foreclosure and his workshop dismantled. Van Hoogstraten’s claim that no one “wanted to look at [Segers’s] works in his lifetime” has been viewed as an indicator of the extreme indigence into which he had fallen. The support of Segers’ admirers and collectors couldn’t save him. Segers took to drinking and fell to his death down a flight of stairs. He was forty-nine.

Which would make Segers a run-of-the-mill character if his accomplishment didn’t extend beyond a ragged mythos. As it is, Segers’s art—and even more so the prints than the paintings—has a sneaking, slow-burning fascination. Though limited in scope and subject, Segers’s work is prone to moody flashes of ecstasy and marked by an overriding, somewhat cloistered eccentricity. Notwithstanding the stray still-life or Biblical scene, panoramic landscapes were the man’s métier. The bowl-shaped compositions are fairly pedestrian, and rarely veer from a foreground/middle ground/background orientation—a pictorial foundation that must have already seemed pat in the age of van Ruisdael, van Goyen, and Hobbema. Most of these vistas were, in fact, gleaned from second-hand sources. Their hyperbolic crags and tors are unlike other Netherlandish landscapes (and unlike the landscape of the Netherlands), and were pinched from Pieter Bruegel the Elder or, more likely, copies after Bruegel. Segers’s dependence on Bruegel’s example did allow a certain freedom, serving as a reliable armature for textural indulgence and experiments in blending the boundaries between painting and printmaking. It says quite a lot about Segers’s methodology that his mixed-media pieces retain an unpredictable élan some four hundred years after the fact.


Rembrandt van Rijn and Hercules Segers, Flight into Egypt altered from Tobias and the Angel by Segers (ca. 1653), etching reworked with drypoint and burin by Rembrandt; sixth state of seven Plate: 8-7/16 × 11″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The most exciting moments in “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers” occur when Segers takes a single etched image and calls it dramatically into question—making multiple impressions, wildly changing tonality and color, and, not a few times, dabbing at the print with colored ink and paint. The diminutive Valley with a River and a Town with Four Towers (ca. 1627–27) is seen in six distinct variations, the most startling of which is all but obscured by an immeasurably rich blue. Segers’s attention to texture, particularly in the geological formations, veers from being irritably delicate to coarse—bordering on clumsy—often within a single piece. As a printmaker, Segers was clearly not given to preciosity; so much so, that one can’t help but wonder if some pieces were one-offs that Segers never got around to discarding. Whatever the case, the prints pulse, and thrive, with risk. The paintings, and there are only a handful on display, are considerably less arresting—a reflection based, perhaps, on contemporary taste, but it is more likely that Segers brought a sharper sense of invention while at the printing press than when in front of an easel. Our narrator, John Malkovich, goes so far as to describe Segers’s prints as “avant-garde.” And you know what? For once that outmoded adjective is rightfully earned. Here in the far-flung twenty-first century, the outré character of Segers’s art may well be the most mysterious thing about him.

© 2017 Mario Naves

This article was originally published in the April 2017 edition of The New Criterion.

“Max Beckmann in New York” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

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Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket (1950), oil on canvas, 55-1/8 x 36″; The St. Louis Art Museum, Bequest of Morton D. May/All images are courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

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My students, art majors all, have been complaining about the readings I’ve been assigning as of late. These handouts—essays and excerpted vignettes by writers as diverse as Ernst Gombrich, Fairfield Porter, Camille Paglia, and Robertson Davies—are intended to give students an idea of the sweeping nature of art and art-making, both within academia and out in the much vilified “real world.”The point of these readings—or one of them, anyway—is to encourage students to think beyond mere self-expression and underline that, in the end, art achieves its own wily independence. The complaint is that the handouts are dispiriting. This response is prompted, in part, by the dawning realization—a realization that gains in intensity the closer graduation approaches—that the artist’s life is a tough row to hoe. There’s the cost of studio space in New York City, the vagaries of commerce, the niceties of keeping a roof over one’s head and, not least, the state of the world. What is the worth of art in an age of economic freefall, rampant terrorism, unceasing wars, and distracting technologies? Positivity of some sort would seem to be in order.

And then I found just the reading during an attempt at clearing out my bookshelves. Pulling out a dusty copy of Theories of Modern Art, Herschel B. Chipp’s indispensable compendium of statements, manifestos, and observations by artists, critics, and sundry outliers, I opened it to a random page. There I read that “art is creative for the sake of realization, not for amusement; for transfiguration, not for the sake of play.” The writer continues:

There are two worlds: the world of spiritual life and the world of political reality. Both are manifestations of life which may sometimes coincide but are very different in principle. I must leave it to you to decide what is the more important.

What follows is an avowal, albeit a quixotic one, of art’s primacy in the face of devastation—written, no less, by a refugee fleeing a culture upended by a group of demagogues bent on world domination, ethnic purity, and with few qualms about the cost these goals might take in human life. “Human sympathy and understanding must be reinstated . . . in the midst of a boundless world turmoil.” “On My Painting,” a 1938 lecture by the German artist Max Beckmann, carries with it echoes of life, here, in the twenty-first century.

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Max Beckmann, Family Picture (1920), oil on canvas, 22-5/8 x 39-13″;The Museum of Modern Art

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Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Beckmann’s art knows that it doesn’t trade in easy optimism. There are sunnier exemplars for artists seeking a reason to keep on keepin’ on. Beckmann’s densely packed compositions are, after all, visited by nightmarish visions marked by displacement, violence, and anomie. Torture is a commonplace and claustrophobia the rule. Chronology is over-turned; historical touchstones shuffled. Myth permeates the proceedings, as does the theater. Mummers, harlots, royalty, and socialites engage in ritualistic narratives whose meaning remains occluded even as they take on grave momentum. If Beckmann’s hybrids of man and beast aren’t quite as elastic as those of Hieronymus Bosch or Francesco Goya, it’s indicative less of a lack of imagination than of an age in which faith was supplanted by doubt. Then there are the numerous self-portraits. Beckmann is pictured as ever confrontational, his terse slip of a mouth evincing a temperament hostile to, if not unamused by, nonsense. They are among the most daunting portraits in the history of art.

It came as a shock, then, to encounter a photo of an early version of Self-Portrait with Horn (1938) reproduced in the catalogue accompanying “Max Beckmann in New York.” Originally owned by Beckmann’s friend Stephan Lackner, the author and collector, the painting has since been acquired by, and become a staple of, the Neue Galerie, the museum of Germanic art located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. On the occasion of its 2008 exhibition, “Max Beckmann: Self- Portrait with Horn,” I commented on the picture’s “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.

It’s hard to believe that an image haunted by an indelible mix of skepticism and sobriety was once light-hearted. But there it is, in not-so-vivid black-and-white: Beckmann smiling. Why was the image transformed, and in no small way? Sabine Rewald, the Met’s Jacques and Natasha Gelman Curator for Modern Art and organizer of “Max Beckmann in New York,” conjectures that “confronting his so relentlessly cheerful self every day in the studio must have irritated [the artist].” As it stands, Self-Portrait with Horn is a powerhouse, even by Beckmann’s rigorous standards.

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Max  Beckmann, Paris Society (1925/1931/1947), oil on canvas, 43 x 69-1/8″; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY

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The Neue Galerie painting is one of seven self-portraits viewers encounter upon entering “Max Beckmann in New York.” As opening gambits go, it’s pretty bracing and divulges a surprising admixture of whimsy and artifice. The earliest self-portraits on display are dated 1923; the last is from 1950, the year of Beckmann’s death at sixty-six. Stylistically, Beckmann moved from softly modeled forms to flattened areas of color held in check by brushy black lines. (With the exception of Matisse, and including Picasso, no other twentieth-century painter employed black with as much dexterity or nuance.) Beckmann is revealed to have been more of a showman than some of us previously thought. Cognizant of the status conferred upon The Artist, Beckmann toyed with its presumptions. Whether donning a sailor suit or what looks to be a pair of pajamas, or even (and this is the giveaway) surrounding himself with circus trappings, Beckmann engages in a hugely underplayed form of self-deprecation. His “disdain for people was considerable,” wrote a journalist taking note of the artist in the early twenties, but “under his prickly shell he concealed a highly vulnerable sensitivity, one that he sometimes mockingly exposed.”

The impetus for “Max Beckmann in New York” is Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket, the afore-mentioned canvas from 1950. Painted during the winter and spring of that year, Beckmann depicted himself as being more vigorous and virile than the rumpled figure seen in photographs of the time. The stony visage and ever-present cigarette we know about, but Beckmann’s torso swells upward like those of the warriors seen on the red Attic vases of ancient Greece, heroic images from which he took inspiration. The painting isn’t without its well-played ironies: an insomniac suffering from heart ailments and given to anxiety should be allowed some license when translating physical frailty into pictorial muscle. Beckmann’s health gave out on the corner of Sixty-ninth Street and Central Park West–he died of a heart attack on the way to see “American Painting 1950,” an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Among that show’s featured attractions? Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket. The story is poignant (as Ms. Rewald notes), but am I alone in feeling that the artist might have derived a grim pleasure in its you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up circumstances?

Beckmann’s time as a New Yorker was brief: sixteen months. The road to the city was circuitous. Born in Leipzig in 1884, he studied at the Weimar Academy as a teenager and subsequently made his way to Berlin. Beckmann was ambitious from the get-go, setting himself up against the Old Masters he revered. (Early on, a critic described him as the “German Delacroix,” an appellation that must have been the source of no small pride for the young painter.) Beckmann was attuned to contemporary trends in art as well, taking note of the paintings by his countryman Louis Corinth, as well as those by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. Renown came early for Beckmann and continued after his stint as a medic during the First World War. He was discharged from the army due to exhaustion—PTSD in contemporary parlance—and who can wonder that the work became caustic, blunt, and forbidding? His success as a painter and teacher came to a halt with the advent of National Socialism. The Nazis tarred Beckmann as a “cultural Bolshevik” and “degenerate.” He fled to Holland with his second wife, Mathilde, known by the nickname Quappi. After ten years squirreled away in Amsterdam, Beckmann and Quappi were granted visas to the United States in 1947. They settled first in St. Louis and then New York.


Max Beckmann, center panel of Beginning (1949), oil on canvas, 69 x 59″; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Miss Adelaide de Groot

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“Max Beckmann in New York” includes fourteen paintings Beckmann created while living in the city, along with twenty-five works borrowed from New York collections. The show is by no means a retrospective, but it’s a reasonably full accounting all the same. The pictures span thirty years and include Beckmann’s best-known work: the magisterial Departure (1932–33), a triptych that has long been a mainstay of The Museum of Modern Art. This format was a favorite of Beckmann’s, recalling, as it did, Renaissance altarpieces. Among the highlights of the Met’s own collection is Beginning (1946–49), a triptych begun while Beckmann was exiled in Holland. A meditation on childhood (the original title was, in fact, L’Enfance), the work is beyond the bounds of rational analysis, particularly the crammed-to-the-rafters center panel in which, among much else, a sultry Amazon blows bubbles, a clown skulks in an alcove, and a cat wearing army boots is suspended, upside-down, from the ceiling. Beckmann was adamant that his art leave the studio with its mysteries intact. Responding to an American dealer who asked if a picture could be, you know, explained—presumably to aid in marketing—Beckmann ordered him to “take the picture away or send it back.”

New York City offered the kind of spectacle this most cosmopolitan of artists thrived on: “All in all, New York represents the most extreme case of grotesque gigantism until now achieved by mankind. It suits me just fine.” It’s odd that Beckmann never painted the city, at least directly. The Met show includes pictures of Frankfurt, Oakland, and San Francisco—but Manhattan? It’s seen only tangentially in Cafe Interior with Mirror-Play (1949), a vertiginous depiction of the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel, and Plaza (Hotel Lobby) (1950), a favorite watering hole of Beckmann’s. Ms. Rewald posits The Town (City Night) (1950) as an “‘homage’ to nocturnal New York,” taking as her cue the image of an envelope addressed to “Mr M Beckmann New York USA” located at the lower left of the canvas. It’s a reasonable supposition given the painting’s kaleidoscopic jumble and clash of cultural references. Beckmann was a devotee of New York nightlife—the clubs, dives, and stage shows in which “vulgarity reigned.” It’s an appropriately noisy picture, but not one of Beckmann’s finest efforts. The composition doesn’t quite hold true; it heaves and stutters, and the juxtapositions in scale are clunky and cramped. Over the top by even the standards of a sturdy fabulist, The Town (City Night) is a mish-mosh of demons, troubadours, commissars, phallic symbols, and, in dead center, a bound female nude. Sometimes splendid excess is less than splendid.

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Max Beckmann, Quappi in Grey (1948), oil on canvas, 42-1/2 x 31-1/8″; Private Collection, NY

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Among the most striking aspects of Beckmann’s vision is that, notwithstanding his meditations on human folly and vice, it never descends into nihilism or despair. The paintings bristle and bump with appetite—for life’s absurdities, absolutely, but primarily for life itself. It’s worth mentioning that a number of Beckmann pictures concern themselves with everyday epiphanies—the ocean as seen from a hotel terrace; the forest surrounding a university town; an untended corner of the studio; and his beloved Quappi, whose handsome countenance appears repeatedly in the oeuvre. The center panel of Departure has famously—and rightfully—been cited as a marker of Beckmann’s holistic worldview. Blue skies and family, the painting would seem to suggest, sustain us in the midst of history’s cruelest turns. It’s no surprise that Beckmann disliked being lumped in with the Expressionists: self-pity and narcissism were antithetical to the “fullness, roundness, and the vitally pulsing” to which he aspired. The stern and heady embrace of “essential things” is palpable throughout “Max Beckmann in New York,” and is but one reason we should look to this demanding artist as a guidepost in our troubled times.

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the December 2016 edition of The New Criterion.

“Excruciating to Behold”: The Art of Diane Arbus

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Diane Arbus, A Castle in Disneyland, Cal. (1962), gelatin silver print, 20″ x 16″, courtesy the Estate of Diane Arbus

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My review of “diane arbus: in the beginning”, an exhibition currently on display at The Met Breuer, will be appearing in an upcoming issue of The New Criterion. In the meantime, here’s my take on “Diane Arbus: Revelations”, a show mounted by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005. The review was originally published in the March 21, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.

The photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971), on the evidence of “Revelations”, a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was incapable of taking a bad picture. Each and every photograph on display is, in its own way, riveting and, for that matter, definitive.

Arbus’ photos of drag queens, Jewish giants, James Brown and acne-scarred patriots are the stuff of legend–a fact fostered, in part, by her suicide in 1971. The work has become startlingly ubiquitous. (As someone who doesn’t consider himself an Arbus aficionado, I was surprised by how many of the photographs I was familiar with.) The mere mention of her name instantly brings to mind images that are clinical, unseemly and grotesque. Arbus’ fascination with the marginal and the dispossessed, with artifice, ethnicity and sex, is part of our culture’s common currency.


Allan Arbus, Diane Arbus (a film test), c. 1949

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Unlike August Sander or Walker Evans, two photographers without whom Arbus’ work is inconceivable, she is an identifiable type, a personality. The work, though distant, is aggressively individual. Arbus employed her subjects–however various, bizarre or banal–as a mirror to the self; she was, essentially, an expressionist. All the same, there are fine gradations to the art. A pair of photographs at the Met stand out as examples of everything that makes her a significant figure and everything that makes her a troubling artist. You can trace the sad and subtle arc of Arbus’ career from A Castle in Disneyland, Cal. (1962) to an untitled picture from 1970-71 of a woman from a “retarded school” with an attendant

Disneyland is a richly atmospheric picture. Arbus’ Disneyland is toy-like and rickety, a doll’s home, not a place for human beings. The quality of displacement is emphasized by diffuse, theatrical lighting–it’s as artificial as the title subject. Rather than commenting upon Disneyland’s cheesy allure, Arbus divines within it wisps of not unwelcome emotions. The photo has the temerity to suggest that illusions can embody longings that all of us–each of us–require to get by. Disneyland, though equivocal, is an unexpectedly merciful image.

Diane Arbus, Jewish Giant, taken at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, New York (1970), gelatin silver print, 19-7/8″ x 16″; courtesy The Estate of Diane Arbus

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And so it is with Arbus’ early photographs devoted to burlesque comediennes, persons of indeterminate gender, human pincushions and four Santas from Albion, N.Y. In each of them, Arbus acts as an enlightened voyeur and is dispassionate in her curiosity. In the process, she engenders within the viewer acceptance, if not outright sympathy, for what are often literally freakish personages.

Almost imperceptibly, however, a sharper tone enters the work. Arbus’ photographs become willful in their focus on the extremities of type and behavior. We become conscious that her subjects are less persons to be engaged than objects for exploitation. Who is looking through the camera lens is more important than the “who” being photographed. In the process of making herself the center of attention, Arbus purges her models of individuality. They are pegs upon which to hang the prerequisites of obsession. It’s no wonder the catalog superimposes an Arbus self-portrait over a scene of New York City–the artist, not the art, is predominant.


Diane Arbus, Untitled (7) (1970-71), gelatin silver print; courtesy The Estate of Diane Arbus

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The aforementioned photograph from 1970-71 is an example of this disconcerting phenomenon. The alarm we read in the face of the older woman as she walks with her disabled companion is heartbreaking. Open-mouthed, she jerks her head upward, rendering it a blur. Her ward looks toward Arbus (and, by fiat, us), distracted. The photographer, we realize, has violated their privacy–and, worse, their humanity. The photograph is excruciating to behold.

At some point in Arbus’ development–it’s hard to tell when, given the Met’s non-chronological installation–this dull strain of cruelty takes over and, in the end, overwhelms the work. The curators know this: That’s why the walls and lighting in the final gallery are brighter–some measure of uplift is necessary. It doesn’t work. Arbus, having come to the conclusion that life is cheap, cheapens us in the process. Walking into “Revelations”, you’re likely to think her status as a major artist is deserved. Walking out, you’ll despair that Arbus, whether through artistic choice or psychological need, had so thoroughly misapplied her gift.

© 2005 Mario Naves

“Turner’s Whaling Pictures” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

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James Mallord William Turner, Whalers (circa 1845), oil on canvas, 36-1/8″ X 48-1/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

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Forget what you know about Action Painting. Compared to the British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Jackson Pollock trifled in decoration, Willem de Kooning was deliberate to a fault, and Franz Kline played it safe. Has there been an artist who called into question the material properties of his art with as much ferocity and concentration? The four canvases included in “Turner’s Whaling Pictures”, as well as the suite of Turner works featured in “Unfinished,” a concurrent exhibition at Met Breuer, are marked by an astonishing painterly abandon. Scrabbled, roughhewn, and impossibly rich, the surfaces of the pictures feature any number of approaches to mark-making, all the while—and seemingly against the odds—conjuring up bracing fields of light, atmosphere, and place. As compendia of painterly incident, Turner’s work can’t help but make the surfaces of most art look like thin gruel.

Turner’s bravura is unmistakable and, for fans of painting, irresistible, but it’s not the curatorial focus here. As is hinted by the exhibition title, the virtuoso paint-handler plays second fiddle to the—well, documentarian isn’t quite the mot juste. Whaling may be the impetus for the pictures—sales, too; Turner was courting a collector whose business involved refining whale spermaceti into oil and wax—but it wasn’t the upshot, at least not explicitly. Turner embodied the spectacle inherent in a particularly hazardous sideline; still, few will look to the paintings for historical or scientific veracity. Leave that to Robert Brandard, whose Whalers in a series entitled From The Turner Gallery (1879–80), an engraving made after Turner’s oil-on-canvasHurrah! For the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish! (ca. 1846), neatly underscores the distinction between factual diligence and visionary splendor. Brandard’s is a dull piece of work, cataloguing objects at the expense of drama.

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James Mallord William Turner, “Hurrah! For the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!” (ca. 1846), oil on canvas, 35-1/2″ X 47-12″; courtesy Tate, London

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Drama was Turner’s forte; narrative, less so. That doesn’t stop Alison Hokanson, the Met’s Assistant Curator in the Department of European Paintings and the organizer of “Turner’s Whaling Pictures,” from attempting to uncover a causal link between the paintings and Moby Dick. Melville knew about Turner’s whaling pictures, though there’s no proof he actually encountered them; Turner died shortly after Melville’s masterwork was published, making it unlikely that he read it. Hokanson’s self-admitted “world of speculation” is overplayed—especially in the essay published in the Met’s spring “Bulletin”—but understandable and, in the end, no great liability. Alongside the Turners, Hokanson has included: tools of the trade (a harpoon and oil lamps); brisk and all-but-abstract watercolor studies; an 1839 edition of The Natural History of the Sperm Whale by Thomas Beale (a book Turner was conversant with); and, yes, a copy of Moby Dick, from which is displayed an illustration of the great white whale by Rockwell Kent.

Kent put the whale front and center, but good luck gleaning the animal in question from the Turner paintings. Only Whalers (ca. 1845), from the Met’s own collection, presents a whale with any clarity, and then just barely. The dense gray blur rearing its mountainous bulk at bottom left, seen only fleetingly, confirms that the paintings function more as verbs than as nouns. Were it not for an accompanying wall label, would viewers be able to discern the whale in another canvas titled Whalers, this one from London’s Tate? Probably not, but there it is, a blur of misty gray and dull pink—the latter being evidence that the whalers’ harpoon has hit its mark. In an earlier watercolor, Turner gives us a more concrete view of the whale, but, still, the emphasis is on the manner in which it dives into the waters. The whale, in Turner’s hands, is an unknowable force of nature. Lack of definition adds to its terrifying majesty.Turner 3.jpg

James Mallord William Turner, Wreck on the Goodwin Sands: Sunset (circa 1845), watercolor and graphite, with black chalk on paper, 9-1/8″ X 13-1/8″; courtesy The Morgan Library and Museum, Bequest of Miss Alice Tully

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It seems fitting, then, that Turner was something of a furtive presence in the art world of nineteenth-century Britain. The most charming item included in “Turner’s Whaling Pictures” is The Fallacy of Hope (1851), a lithographic portrait-cum-caricature of Turner by Alfred Guillaume Gabriel. (The title is taken from Turner’s self-stated postulate on the perils of art-making.) The original sketch was done at a social event and without the subject’s knowledge; Turner was notoriously reluctant to sit himself down for a proper portrait. Seen stirring a cup of tea, Turner stands to the side, taking in his surroundings with an air of sharp bemusement. The art critic John Ruskin, having heard about this “coarse, boorish, unintellectual, [and] vulgar” figure, ultimately found Turner to be a “somewhat eccentric, keen-mannered, matter-of-fact, English gentleman”. One might quibble with “gentleman”; if anything, Gabriel’s fond portrayal is something altogether more prole-ish. Otherwise, Ruskin pretty much hits the mark. Contrary to what the man himself believed, the Met’s exhibition proves that hope, when coupled by a huge talent, can pay off when it comes to the making of art.

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review was originally published for the July 6, 2016 edition of “Dispatch”, the blog of The New Criterion.

“Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, February 15–May 15, 2016

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Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self-portrait (1790), oil on canvas, 39-3/8 x 31-7/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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“Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” is a fascinating exhibition for reasons made plain by its title. Gender and context shouldn’t be the ultimate arbiters for why we value an artist, but they are inescapable factors when considering Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842). Much like Artemisia Gentileschi, another figure beloved by those who view the history of art through the lens of political correctness, Vigée Le Brun is an anomaly: a painter—and a successful one, at that—working at a time when women weren’t encouraged to pursue a career in the arts. It helped that Vigée Le Brun was to the studio born: her father, Louis Vigée, was a society portraitist and provided lessons at home. “You will be a painter, my child, or never will there be one” may be a statement indicative of paternal bias, but Vigée Le Brun’s talent was evident early on. Jeanne Maissin, the artist’s mother, pushed Vigée Le Brun to undertake more formal studies as a means of combating the depression she underwent upon the death of her father in 1767. Trips to the Louvre were supplemented by guidance from Gabriel François Doyen and Joseph Vernet, painters of considerable repute.

Maissin provided working space at home as well as financial support. But Vigée Le Brun achieved significant notice even as a teenager and helped supplement the family’s income through portrait commissions. After the studio was shut down by authorities in 1774—Vigée Le Brun had been operating without a license—the artist gained admittance to the Académie de Saint-Luc, an association guaranteeing a level of prestige, as well as that the studio remained open. Two years later she married Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, a distant cousin who had studied with François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and earned his keep as an art dealer. It was a difficult union. Vigée Le Brun realized fairly quickly that her husband’s appetite for collecting superseded the niceties of the bottom line. Le Brun couldn’t hold on to money. In recompense, he attempted to boost his wife’s reputation, hiking the prices of the work above those of her contemporaries. But Le Brun’s sway paled next to that of Marie Antoinette. How could it not? The young queen had a decisive if, ultimately, tumultuous effect on Vigée Le Brun’s art and life.

Marie Antoinette in Court Dress (1778) isn’t the first painting viewers encounter upon entering the exhibition, but its impact makes swift work of the surrounding pictures. Commissioned as a gift for the queen’s mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, this monumental showpiece codifies the requisite hauteur but, more so, evinces an ambitious artist eager to please. And please Vigée Le Brun most certainly did. The Empress was delighted with the canvas, and Marie Antoinette, having run through a disappointing series of portraitists, finally found a painter who did not “drive me to despair.” Marie Antoinette in Court Dress isn’t very good—its elision of pictorial space is vague when it isn’t flat-footed, and the attention to texture inconsistent—but as a piece of theater, it’s a tour-de-force, particularly for an artist who was all of twenty-two years of age. Indeed, one of the pleasures of “Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” is watching Vigée Le Brun develop while on the job, gaining surety in her rendering of the human form and pulling off portraits that are, in their attention to detail and character, more than documents of a doomed aristocracy.

Vigee Le Brun 5.jpg

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787), oil on canvas, 108-1/4 x 85-1/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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By the time we reach Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787) at the show’s midpoint, Vigée Le Brun has become a deeper artist in terms of skill and mood. A greater intimacy with her subjects, particularly the queen, accounts for the air of tender sobriety suffusing its portrayal of a mother and her three children. Here, Marie Antoinette is less a coquettish figurine seemingly molded from porcelain than a flesh-and-blood woman humbled by motherhood. (An empty bassinet at the right of the composition signifies the death of a fourth child.) Though the children are too moppet-like by half, Vigée Le Brun brought an unnerving degree of self-awareness and introspection to the gaze of Marie Antoinette. Vigée Le Brun would never altogether shed a brittleness of affect—the conventionality of her settings is a nagging constant—but the painterly approach became more fluid and precise. Rubens was a pivotal influence, and one can intuit his sensuality and esprit in the silky brushwork of Comtesse de la Châtre (1789) and the comic eroticism of Madame Dugazon in the Role of “Nina” (1787). Vigée Le Brun doesn’t achieve the heights set by the Flemish Master, but neither does she suffer from the comparison—at least, that is, in her finest efforts.

The finest of them all is the justifiably iconic Self-Portrait (1790). Political turmoil at home caused Vigée Le Brun to flee France in 1789; close association with the recently imprisoned queen did not, to put it mildly, put her in good stead with the revolution. Setting up shop in Rome, Vigée Le Brun was asked by the Uffizi to contribute a canvas to its gallery of self- portraits. The result earned plaudits from the top down: “All of Rome,” wrote the museum’s director, “is in awe of her talent.” It’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with the painting. Turning to the viewer as she daubs at a portrait of her deposed patron, Vigée Le Brun is fresh-faced, confident and without guile; beautiful, too. Though she went on to achieve fame and fortune throughout Europe and Russia, Vigée Le Brun never topped it and the work turned spotty and slick. Her subsequent portraiture traded too easily in mannerisms; particularly cloying are the kewpie-doll eyes and standard-issue pursed lips bequeathed to sundry courtesans, princesses, and queens. Flattery might elicit commissions, but it’s hell on art. Vigée Le Brun cruised on her mastery rather than expanding its parameters. Still, any show that includes a painting as winning as Self-Portrait, not to mention twenty or so additional pictures that are almost as good, deserves must-see status. And so it is with “Woman Artist in Revolutionary France.”

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the May 2016 edition of The New Criterion.

“Paintings by George Stubbs from the Yale Center for British Art” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


George Stubbs, Turf, with Jockey Up, at Newmarket (c. 1765), oil on canvas, 38″ x 49″; courtesy Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

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Gallery-goers interested in viewing the handful of paintings by George Stubbs (1724–1806) on loan from the Yale Center for British Art will have to engage in the museological equivalent of hunting and pecking. The eight canvases are snuggled almost imperceptibly within the Met’s collection of European painting and are surrounded by those of his countrymen, including Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence, Thomas Gainsborough, and, in a disappointingly sanguine mood, William Hogarth. As the Yale Center’s Louis I. Kahn building undergoes restoration, New Yorkers have been offered a sampling of an artist best known for paintings of horses. Given how large exhibitions can tax one’s attention, who’s to say the less-is-more approach is a bad thing? The encompassing overview of John Singer Sargent’s portraits, concurrently on view at the Met, all but exhausts one’s capability for pleasure: the hits just keep on coming. A smattering of pictures, on the other hand, allows for a degree of measure that encourages focus.

Of course, Sargent was a greater artist than Stubbs. Stubbs had nowhere near the American’s facility—few painters do—and distilling the quiddities of personality was less important than representational accuracy. Sargent deserves the gala treatment; Stubbs, not so much. Even on the slim evidence at the Met, the narrow range of Stubbs’s talents and interests is evident. A brittleness in execution—a lack of spatial pliability and compositional invention—can make him seem an inspired folk painter. Stubbs was, in fact, self-taught. An apprenticeship with the painter and engraver Hamlet Winstanley was short-lived, the younger artist bristling at the copying typical of art instruction at the time. Flesh interested him more than plaster, and Stubbs set into motion his own course of study, learning human anatomy at York County Hospital and, later, animal anatomy through the dissection of horses. The latter took place at his farmhouse outside of York, wherein Stubbs made drawings from artfully posed carcasses. Stubbs did not lack drive; certainly he wasn’t squeamish.


George Stubbs, Freeman, the Earl of Clarendon’s gamekeeper, with a dying doe and hound (1800), oil on canvas, 40″ x 50″;courtesy Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

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Stubbs’s devotion to the intricacies of equine form did not go unnoticed. The intensive accuracy of his studies caught the eye of patrons—Stubbs received his first commissions from aficionados of both horses and art—and would eventually lead to the publication of his 1866 treatise, The Anatomy of the Horse. Stubbs became sought after as a niche painter and achieved an enviable level of success, providing him the financial wherewithal to purchase a home in the exclusive London neighborhood of Marylebone. Though Stubbs would branch out to other genres, including historical dioramas, landscape, and depictions of more exotic fauna like that of the little known “kongouro,” the non-horse pictures were met with less acclaim. When a failed collaboration with the ceramicist Josiah Wedgewood left him in debt, Stubbs began taking on commissions to paint dogs. Patronage from the Prince of Wales eased his later years. At the time of his death, Stubbs was working on a suite of engravings whose title makes plain the peculiar nature of his fascinations: A comparative anatomical exposition of the structure of the human body with that of a tiger and a common fowl.

Oddly enough, and alas, horses are on short supply at the Met—only Turf, with Jockey Up, at Newmarket (ca. 1765) and Lustre, Held By a Groom (ca. 1762) feature Stubbs’s trademark animal. Elsewhere, we see hunting dogs, a doe, a mound of dead birds, and, in Two Gentlemen Shooting (ca. 1769), a partridge balletically stilled in mid-air having just been pelted with buckshot. Oh, yes, and humans: not only the aforementioned hunters, jockey, and groom, but Freeman, the Earl of Clarendon’s gamekeeper, who is pictured in a starkly dramatic composition, holding off a dog from an injured deer. The Met informs us that the gamekeeper will shortly administer the “coup de grâce,” thereby delivering the wounded animal from its suffering. Well, maybe. There’s enough ambiguity in the man’s gaze to give one pause: Freeman’s gesture is more conciliatory than not and his visage distinctly Solomonic. The neoclassical triangulation of the figures, if not the moody landscape that serves as their backdrop, undergirds the supposition. As moral theater, Freeman, the Earl of Clarendon’s gamekeeper, with a dying doe and hound (1800) has more gravitas than one might initially think.


Newmarket Heath, with a Rubbing Down House (ca. 1765), oil on canvas, 12″ x 16″; courtesy Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

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Notwithstanding the stern Mr. Freeman, Stubbs’s human figures are either doughy and generic—his gentleman hunters are stock types and nothing more—or, as in the regal Turf, with Jockey Up, at Newmarket (ca. 1765), so much a part of the animal that to make a distinction between the two is pointless. In delineating animal forms, Stubbs employed an analytical approach that emphasized contour, thereby bringing a sharp and sinewy angularity to forms. There is, for example, an almost Egyptian sense of pictorial codification to the two dogs seen in Two Gentlemen Going a Shooting (1768). Less impressive is the patchwork nature of Stubbs’s compositions; figures are decals stuck on to a surrounding rather than being integral components of it. The most unified picture of the bunch is Newmarket Heath, with a Rubbing Down House (ca. 1765), in which figures of any sort are absent. The brutalist authority of the title structure is quelled by a gentle—dare one say “tender”?—suffusion of afternoon light. Stubbs never let the painting leave the studio, sensing, perhaps, that he’d achieved something closer to poetry than mere hard-won verisimilitude. For that one grace note alone, the Met’s jewel-box exhibition of Stubbs’s work is worth a visit.

© 2015 Mario Naves

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

“Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lauder #1

The Lauder Residence; courtesy Habitually Chic

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Leonard A. Lauder has one nice apartment. This observation should be fairly self-evident. Lauder was, after all, chief executive of Estée Lauder, the cosmetics giant for which he is now Chairman Emeritus. His digs are likely to be spectacular—and not worth mentioning, particularly in an exhibition review. Still, the issue will be raised for anyone attending “Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection”: the first items encountered are two huge photographs of the Lauder residence, its elegant environs festooned with myriad blue-chip artworks. Did the Met really need to remind us that the rich lead different lives? This introductory moment of hubris is offset by the exhibition itself and, not least, Lauder’s generosity. Given the supercharged state of the art market, he could have cashed in his collection of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Fernand Léger to the tune of—yes, that’s right—one billion dollars. Instead, the Lauder homestead has been emptied of its treasure trove. The paintings, works-on-paper, and sculptures featured in “Cubism,” eighty-one pieces in total, are a promised gift to the Met and the rest of us as well.

Truth be told, our greatest museum’s collection of twentieth-century art has never been that great. The Met’s relationship with modern and contemporary art has been rife with false starts, misguided decisions, and significant bungles. The collection is renowned as much for glaring omissions as for the scattering of masterworks it can rightfully claim. When the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing—the section of the museum dedicated exclusively to twentieth-century art—opened in 1987, the art critic Hilton Kramer, writing in The New Criterion, bluntly asked: “Who needs it?” The Met, Kramer went on, “does not even have the shadow of a twentieth-century collection of the size and substance which this elephantine facility calls for.” As architecture, the Wallace Wing continues to be a Chinese box of pinched and ungainly galleries. Thomas Campbell, the museum’s current director, has rued its museological unsuitability. Still, the Met’s “shadow” collection has gained substance over the past three decades. The Lauder Collection will bring greater credibility to the Met’s dribs-and-drabs take on Modernism. Lauder’s gift is, in fact, among the most significant in the museum’s history.


Pablo Picasso, Three Nudes (1906), gouache, ink, watercolor and charcoal on white laid paper, 24-3/8″ x 18-7/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Hyperbole? Hardly—if anything, it’s an understatement. Even in a city with no shortage of Cubist masterworks, “Cubism” is a thrilling reminder of the movement’s primacy. It’s exhausting, too. How many great pictures can a body stand? If there are more than a half dozen so-so works in The Lauder Collection, good luck finding them. Lauder came late to Cubism, acquiring the first pieces in 1976. The “shock of the new” had long since dissipated; Cubism was, for those with the cash to spend, an easy sell and increasingly difficult to come by. That didn’t prevent Lauder from amassing a collection that should be the envy of any museum you’d care to name, including the Museum of Modern Art. The consistency of the Lauder Collection is so unremitting that even the most doctrinaire Picassophile may forgive the absence of a seminal work like Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon. Besides, at a historical moment when MOMA’s permanent collection has been reshuffled for the sake of this-or-that trend—not fatally, mind you, but enough to make one worry about its vital signs—who’s to say The Met, with the Lauder gift in tow, won’t become the go-to stop for early Modernism?

The Lauder Collection includes two studies for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, as well as Three Nudes (1906), a diaphanous Rose Period sketch for a never-realized painting that may depict a brothel, and certainly evinces a young Picasso beginning to disrupt the conventions of pictorial space. Elsewhere, we see Picasso and his fellow “mountaineer” in Cubism, George Braque, tussle with the pictorial fracturing put in motion by Cézanne, and subsequently watch them disrupt representation without sacrificing it altogether. The exhibition is divided into didactic sections that are light in touch: the close relationship between Picasso and Braque is informatively glanced upon, as is the use of color by a notoriously monochromatic movement. The introduction of collage is given significant space, and there are hints of the Constructivism that would follow in its wake. Picasso outnumbers Braque two-to-one in terms of the number of pieces on display, but the latter artist holds his own—testimony, at least in part, to their rigorous interdependence during Cubism’s formative years. Turns out, Braque needed Picasso’s flash as much as Picasso gained rigor from Braque’s more tempered approach.

Lauder #3

Juan Gris, Still Life with Checkered Tablecloth (2015), oil and graphite on canvas, 45-7/8″ x 35-1/8″

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If Picasso and Braque were the pioneers of Cubism, Léger and Gris were two of its most accomplished practitioners, codifying stylistic innovation in the service of complete and utterly distinct worldviews. Léger’s machine-based aesthetic is seen at its most elegant within the steely gradations of Three Women (1920), and its most muscular in The Smoker (1914) and Houses Under the Trees (1913), “tubist” masterworks that all but rollick off the wall. The gallery devoted exclusively to Gris is something special, if only because he’s given short shrift in New York museums and, for that matter, the standard telling of art history. A classicist in temperament with a deft hand for pearlescent shifts of tone, Gris brought an exacting intelligence to Cubism that mark him as something more—much more—than a mere follower. Gris’s use of collage carries with it greater wit than Braque ever managed and his palette is not only engagingly discordant, but more structurally sure than anything Léger and, especially, Picasso put into order. Thank Leonard Lauder for not stinting on this sly, sleek, and surprisingly eccentric figure. But thank him mostly for a bit of philanthropy that will continue to provide pleasure (and puzzlement) for generations to come.

© 2014 Mario Naves

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

“Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Ink Art #1

Installation of “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China”; courtesy ARTFIXdaily and The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Among the arbiters of artistic quality, few are as thorough, merciless, and true as time. Sure, it’s committed some slights, but over the long haul—and we’re talking hundreds of years—time has proven fairly impeccable in sorting out the great from the godawful. What history will make of the contemporary scene is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: none of us will live to see it. Should, however, Google prove successful in discovering a cure for death—no, really, the folks at the inestimable search engine are hard at work—some of us will take a lively interest in seeing how twenty-first-century art pans out. What will be gleaned from its jumble of grandiose theories, incessant politicizing, fashionable strategies, absurd auction prices, rampaging globalism, and general overabundance? Such thoughts came to mind while visiting “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China,” the Met’s first foray into contemporary Chinese art.

Granted, a casual afternoon spent trawling this-or-that art neighborhood will prompt similar puzzlements. But the currency of Chinese art, as both indicator of national identity and as an international phenomenon, is uppermost in the curatorial mindset of “Ink Art.” The subtitle makes that plain, as does the decision to install the exhibition in the permanent galleries of the Met’s Asian wing. Interspersing Crying Landscape (2002), an array of banners by Yang Jiechang, and Qiu Zhijie’s 20 Letters to Qiu Jawa (2009), a set of scrolls dedicated to the “suicidology of the Nanjing Yangzi River Bridge,” among towering examples of early Buddhist art isn’t a casual gesture. Continuity is the abiding leitmotif. Bimo, or brush and ink, is to Chinese art as oil paint is to the West. Tradition is a bolster; that’s all to the good. But how well is it being maintained?

Fig. 66b_Yang Jiechang_Crying Landscape

Yang Jiechang, Crying Landscape: Three Gorges Dam (2002), one from a set of five triptychs ink and oclor on paper, each triptych: 9 ft. 10-1/8″ x 16 ft. 4-7/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Politics is an undercurrent of “Ink Art,” as is China’s current status as art world powerhouse. Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 loosened official strictures imposed on the arts and Soviet-style Socialist Realism lost its monopoly over aesthetic production. Art schools began exposing students to previously forbidden styles of art. Maxwell K. Hearn, the Met’s Douglas Dillon Chairman of the Department of Asian Art, writes that “movements such as Surrealism and Dada, long superseded in the West, [gained] new immediacy in China.” Given Mao’s repressive regime, how could artists experiencing newfound liberty resist the allures of art that had as its basis a blatant disregard for the status quo? A reawakened pull of native traditions was subsequently augmented and, in some cases, bedeviled by an increasing awareness of contemporary trends, particularly Conceptualism. The results have been curious, sometimes compelling, and often contradictory. A certain level of confusion is palpable throughout “Ink Art.” Take it from art-star Cai Guo-Qiang: “I always feel as though I am swinging like a pendulum between Chinese and Western culture.”

That China now generates art-stars points to myriad factors, not least the country’s rise as an economic power and its continued loosening of cultural constraints. “Loose” is, of course, a relative term. Ask Ai Weiwei what he thinks of his freedom and you’re likely to receive a pointed, sardonic response: China’s most famous artist has been a constant target of government suppression. Ai is included in “Ink Art,” but he’s not of it. A pair of ceramic pieces, some expert riffs on the readymade, and a tired jibe at Coca-Cola—these have little to do with either brush or ink and, as such, are marquee-value distractions. Curatorial liberties are taken elsewhere, and niggle at the exhibition’s primary conceit—unless, that is, you believe the lineage of Photoshop can be traced directly to the glories of bimo or that an ink-jet printer is cousin to Wang Xizhi, the fourth-century master calligrapher. Still, obligatory sops to our digital age don’t derail “Ink Art.” On the whole, the exhibition toes the proverbial line it set out for itself.

Fig. 32_Xu Bing_Song of Wandering AengusXu Bing, The Song of Wandering Aengus by William Butler Years (1999), pair of hanging scrolls; ink on paper, (left) 63-3/16″ x 51-1/2″, (right) 63-1/2″ x 51-7/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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“Ink Art” is divided into four sections, each dedicated to a specific motif—“New Landscapes,” “Abstraction,” “Beyond the Brush,” and “The Written Word.” It is the last of these that leaves the strongest impression. Given the primacy of calligraphy in Chinese culture— mastery of which, as Hearn notes, was a marker of a person’s “erudition and ideals”—it is appropriate that “The Written Word” centers “Ink Art,” albeit in forms that aren’t always recognizable. This is literally the case with Xu Bing, who appropriates the stylizations of calligraphy but alters and sometimes negates its meanings. In The Song of Wandering Aengus by William Butler Yeats (1999), Bing employs his own invention, “square word calligraphy,” and renders the title poem through symbols that transform English words into characters resembling Chinese. It’s a clever stunt skillfully deployed, as are Qui Zhijie’s Writing the “Orchid Pavilon Preface” One Thousand Times (1990–95) and Fung Mingchip’s Heart Sutra (2001), both of which privilege materials and process over legibility, and render calligraphy merely as a surface of aggregate mark-making. But even when artists aren’t explicitly engaging in “semantic subversions,” there remains an overriding sense that tradition is not a resource but more a plaything. A deadpan flippancy insinuates its way into “Ink Art”—a sense of closed horizons and narrow purviews. This is where doubts about the benefits of globalism and the exigencies of time start to nag.


Liu Dan, Detail of Ink Handscroll (1990), ink and color on paper, 37-3/4″ x 58′ 4″;
courtesy The San Diego Museum of Art and the artist

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However unfamiliar we may be with contemporary Chinese art, there is nonetheless a sense of predictability that dampens the range and focus of “Ink Art.” Sloughing off the proceedings under the rubric of “been there, done that” is unfair—particularly given an artist like Liu Dan, a draftsman of supernal gifts who elaborates on the tradition of Chinese landscape painting with an evocative and eerie tactility. But local tweaks on international trends don’t necessarily build upon the store of human experience. If anything, these tweaks point not to the possibilities of art but to the finitude of the artistic imagination. Now the status quo, commentary and self-involvement, tweaked with political import, have rendered the mainstream of world art professional, brainy, and static. (Navel-gazing, by its very nature, leads nowhere.) “Ink Art” codifies this stasis with frustrating gravitas. Time will figure out which international figures of similar accomplishment—Minghip and Glenn Ligon, say, or Gu Wenda and A. R. Penck—are worthy of distinction. The rest of us, scratching our heads in the here-and-now, will cherry-pick our favorites and boggle at how samey the world has become.

© 2014 Mario Naves

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

“Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Whatever else you can say about it, Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years provides confirmation of a literary adage. Until recently, the aphorism “Art is what you can get away with” had merely been attributed to the Pittsburgh-born artist Andrej Varchola Jr., better known to the world as Andy Warhol (1928–1987). The quote has served as a neat marker of Warhol’s bemused detachment and artistic achievement. For observers not inclined to applaud Warhol’s iterations of celebrity culture and Madison Avenue bromides, the statement is a self-aware petard on which the artist’s platinum wig can be hoisted. Woe should the maxim prove an invention! But it is, in the end, Warhol’s and Warhol’s alone. This fact comes courtesy of, not the organizers of Regarding Warhol or some-or-other historian out to establish his Pop Art bona fides, but rather, the museum’s gift shop. That’s where you’ll find block prints emblazoned with the quote, complete with a background reproduction of a Warhol silkscreen. This feat of scholarship will set you back anywhere from ten to two hundred dollars.

Warhol would have relished the irony. He doubtlessly would have admired the other merchandise available for purchase: the books, the postcards, the coffee mugs, the calendars, scarves, and candy bars. Yes, candy bars; the wrappers of which are emblazoned with Warhol self-portraits and additional aphorisms. (“All I ever really want is sugar” being, in this case, the most fitting.) Warhol may have cast a puzzled eye at the skateboards emblazoned with his signature iconography, if only because skateboarding had yet to become a sizable subculture during his lifetime. But Warhol would have recognized his aesthetic in unapologetic full bloom. He was, after all, an entrepreneur par excellence. “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” But would Warhol recognize the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is currently giving his work a berth previously set aside for ancient Egypt, Byzantine reliquaries, fifteenth-century Prague, Renaissance tapestries, and seventeenth-century Delft?


Eminences All:  Andy Warhol, Charlie Chaplin and Louis Armstrong

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Not that the Met is equating Twenty Marilyns (1962), Warhol’s Day-Glo homage to the dead movie bombshell, with the glories of Byzantium. Museological real estate doesn’t translate into artistic parity. Or does it? The verbiage surrounding Regarding Warhol might lead you to think otherwise. The curator Mark Rosenthal posits Warhol as an artist of “profound psychological depth,” a “revolutionary” who “encouraged the embrace of all possibilities for uninhibited cross-fertilization and hybrid creations.” The exhibition catalogue is replete with far-reaching plaudits, many from artists whose art can be traced directly to Warhol’s example. Did you know that the perpetually aloof painter of Brillo boxes, car crashes, and Chairman Mao is a twentieth-century eminence on the scale of Charlie Chaplin, Louis Armstrong, and Ernest Hemingway? “I think [Warhol is] absolutely a giant,” writes Julian Schnabel. “There’s something at the bottom of all of his work,” the cinema auteur and serial plate smasher continues, “that is absolutely heartbreaking.”

Schnabel’s right, but not for the reasons he thinks. Warhol is a giant . . . of marketing. As a painter, printmaker, draftsman, photographer, and filmmaker—you know, as an artist—Warhol is, at best, a curiosity. As with Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí, the artists from whom he gleaned lessons in strategy and PR, Warhol’s influence is more consequential than his achievement. He did possess artistic knowhow for layout, color, and recognizing the hypnotic power that could be elicited from repetition and pattern. For line, too: anyone familiar with the shoe drawings Warhol created as a commercial illustrator in the 1950s can attest to their period charm. But Warhol is less an artist than a phenomenon—a cultural tsunami that poached upon the prestige afforded by art while simultaneously undermining its principles. Having your Campbell’s soup and eating it, too—that’s the rule Warhol imparted. The consequences of this legacy have been broad and numbing. “The Warhol Effect,” it’s called and it’s endless.

Video Art: Ozzy Osbourne and Family

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Regarding Warhol  is a sprawling, unwieldy exhibition. Though the entire oeuvre is glanced upon, it’s not a retrospective per se, but an overview of Warhol’s impact on contemporary art. Peppered in between forty-five Warhol masterworks are one hundred paintings, drawings, prints, videos, and sculptures by a who’s who of blue chip art stars: John Baldessari, Gerhard Richter, Gilbert & George, Matthew Barney, Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Avedon, Richard Prince, and Sigmar Polke. The work of Jeff Koons is seen in abundance, and why not? Few artists have exploited Warhol’s pro-capitalist ethos with as much cynicism and chutzpah. Also included is the cartoon-based imagery of Takashi Murakami, whose international art industry makes the Factory, Warhol’s famed Union Square studio, look rinky-dink in comparison. (The Factory is partially recreated toward the end of Regarding Warhol.) Snippets of reality TV shows are available for viewing—Warhol’s movies having cleared the way, apparently, for The Osbournes. The concluding chapter of the catalogue is an accounting of Warhol-influenced artists not included in the exhibition.

Regarding Warhol is divided into five thematic sections: “Daily News: From Banality to Disaster,” “Portraiture: Celebrity and Power,” “Queer Studies: Shifting Identities,” “Consuming Images: Appropriation, Abstraction and Seriality,” and “No Boundaries: Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle.” That the Metropolitan Museum has seen fit to codify a laundry list of politically correct nostrums says much about the utter irrelevance of Postmodernism as an artistic force. A movement that predicates itself on the anti-aesthetic is, by definition, invalidated when given the stamp of approval from an institution dedicated to the preservation of High Art. What we’re left with is a glib array of politicized attitudes buffed to a glossy sheen. These are sometimes clever, often pretentious, and invariably smug. They are, above all, indecipherable without accompanying wall texts. Visitors to Regarding Warhol spend more time reading than looking. Given the paucity of visual interest (forget visual pleasure), can you blame them? So much art, yet nothing to see.

Hans Haacke, Taking Stock (unfinished) (1983-1984), acrylic on canvas with artist’s frame, 95″ x 81″ x 7″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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But stuff—well, there’s a lot of that to contend with. Cady Noland fills an aluminum basket with the leftovers from an automobile repair shop; elsewhere, she drills bullet holes into an aluminum cutout of Lee Harvey Oswald. Damien Hirst—can’t have an overview of contemporary art without this diamond-encrusted huckster, can we?—provides a simulacrum of a pharmacy display case. The reliably didactic Hans Haacke is represented with slams against the late North Carolina senator Jesse Helms—Helmsboro Country (1990) is an over-sized package of cigarettes—and Margaret Thatcher. Robert Gober prints a musical score on a wax effigy buttocks—complete with human hair. In this context, the art school primitivism of Jean-Michel Basquiat and tepid stylization of Alex Katz come as a relief. Matisse is also on view, though not in the exhibition proper. Take a minute and watch a snippet of the reality show featuring Ozzy Osbourne and his family—there look to be Matisse drawings hanging in their living room. The heavy metal rocker has good taste in art. Who knew?

Regarding Warhol is a veritable obstacle course of knee-high metal bars. Given the preponderance of guardrails, you’d think the organizers were worried about viewers wanting to nose up to, say, Keith Haring’s graffitied poster of Elvis Presley or the wan celebrity portraiture of Karen Kliminik and Elizabeth Peyton—as if their surfaces somehow redeemed each artist’s sticky adolescent nostalgia. But material sensuality is beyond the ken of these artists. They’re too besotted with the slick calculations of mass media and divorced from the possibilities of hands-on media. Notwithstanding the recurring emphasis on sexuality and its “shifts,” artists working in the Warholian tradition are a fairly puritanical bunch. Materials and processes are employed only to the extent that they illustrate a theory. This is a generation of artists for whom materials are objects of distrust—impediments to vision rather than agents in shaping it. No wonder, then, that many of the objects on display are either factory-made or amateurish in execution. The humanity implicit in touch is either denied or deemed pathetic. This is the coldest Met show on record.

Andy Warhol, Brillo Soap Pads Box (1964), silkscreen and enamel on plywood, 17″ x 17″ x 14″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Then again, there are those who might argue that it’s also the brainiest. Arthur Danto, the art critic for The Nation and a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, famously posited Warhol as a fellow deep thinker, a “transformative” figure whose silk- screened imitations of Brillo boxes brought about “the end of art”—the “end” being the beginning of “our post-historical era in which, with qualification, anything goes.” Danto and Rosenthal rather welcome this sea of change, not least because it affords promiscuous conjecturing independent of the objects under consideration. As history has proven, Warhol’s noncommittal ironies accept any sort of claptrap thrown at them. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to—and a lot of people aren’t. Rounding the corner of the exhibition’s second gallery, I came across a trio of museumgoers standing in front of Brillo Soap Pads Boxes (1964). Actively discussing Warhol and his role in shaping culture, the most voluble of the three remarked that Warhol “was smarter than most people suppose, but not as smart as a lot of people would like us to think.”

Artists who’ve picked up Warhol’s ball don’t run with it so much as run in place. Tweaking the extra-aesthetic can’t obscure a poverty of invention; certainly, it adds nothing to the development of art. Barbara Kruger channels Madison Avenue in the cause of anti-capitalism, Cindy Sherman pimps the Old Masters as a commentary on identity, and Ryan Trecartin, whose manic videos are located toward the end of Regarding Warhol, explores the furthest reaches of self-indulgence because—well, because he can. But all these artists really do is confirm their own lack of imagination. (Confirmation of their nihilism being a foregone conclusion.) Warhol insisted on his own superficiality. Duchamp, whose presence hovers over the proceedings, couldn’t, in the end, stomach “the easy way out” of neo-Dadaism. Thumbing one’s nose is a formula whose frisson is as tired as it is guaranteed. Regarding Warhol is an essay in stasis.

Gavin MacLeod and Andy Warhol in a publicity shot for Love Boat

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That Warhol opened the floodgates for any number of art school navel-gazers, over-intellectualized gadflies, and celebrity-smitten ideologues will come as no surprise to even the most cursory observer of the art scene. When Rosenthal opens his essay by declaring that Warhol “gave permission [for artists] to do virtually anything in the name of art,” you can’t help but think that the curator doth cheerlead too much. How deeply does Rosenthal believes  his own guff ? Arguing that Warhol is a sociological “beacon”’—that he had anything profound to say about mass media, gay rights, and (say what?) the evolution of abstract painting—is to trade in arrant hyperbole. Rosenthal twists himself into knots trying to convince himself that vapidity wasn’t the artist’s true métier or his most damning limitation. Movie stars, newspaper advertisements, and processed food provided this working-class son of Slovakian immigrants readymade pegs on which to hang vaguely formed notions of democratic culture. A distinctly American figure, Warhol had nothing profound to say about American life. There’s a difference between elaborating upon a subject and succumbing to its excesses. Alexis de Tocqueville, Warhol ain’t.

Warhol was a willing and eager accomplice to the most callow tendencies in American culture. Which isn’t to say he didn’t know the lay of the land, particularly when it came to currying favor from the rich, famous, and powerful. Notwithstanding the “oh wow” trappings of his deadpan public persona, Warhol was a shrewd operator. Anyone who can navigate downtown bohemia and the Upper East Side with nary a false step knows how to please most people—the right people—most of the time. The art may have initially held up a mirror to the mundane (Dr. Scholl’s foot remedies, for instance) and the glamorous (Monroe again, but also Jackie O. and Marlon Brando), but it soon evolved into the most obsequious form of flattery. Expensive, too. Warhol became a sought-after portraitist by a clientele whose wealth and social standing didn’t prevent them from recognizing the cachet afforded by a mere whiff of the outré. In 1969, Warhol began publishing Interview magazine, in which celebrities were lionized with panting adulation. Andy The Brand became ubiquitous; he seemed to be everywhere, including as a passenger on Love Boat, a 1970s TV sitcom. “How does an artist know when a painting is really successful?” a character asks Warhol-as-Warhol. “When the check clears,” answers the artist. The laugh track responds appreciatively.

Separated At Birth?: Rembrandt van Rijn and Andrej Varchola, Jr.; both images courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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But no one’s laughing now. There’s too much money involved. At auction, Warhol’s paintings have garnered staggering amounts of money—absurd amounts of money, really. A work-on-paper, the low medium on the pricing totem pole, could set you back $4 million. In 2005, Christie’s sold a Warhol painting for close to $72 million. This tendency could change. The Andy Warhol Foundation announced the divestiture of its remaining Warhol inventory—twenty thousand pieces that have an estimated worth of $100 million. This move may well devalue the Warhol stock. Alberto Mugrabi, a collector whose family owns a whopping 800 Warhols, was outraged: The Foundation has “a great product, and they’re pushing it out into the market like cattle.” Be that as it may, the Foundation calculated its decision with timing that would have made Warhol envious. It came just as the Met was opening the doors to its “innovative presentation” of his art.

The Foundation, in other words, knows the value of having “a great product” associated with an institution renowned for its august character, its encyclopedic scope, and its Rembrandts. Placing a figure renowned for unrelenting blandness within a stone’s throw of a painter who is nothing if not a benchmark of quality is a smashing career move. Business is the best art and so is ensuring its ongoing viability. But what kind of business do museums conduct? The preservation of culture, ostensibly; separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff. Of course, we’ve reached a stage where the “gate” takes precedence over artistic merit. Today’s mega-museums have wholeheartedly embraced the shopping mall aesthetic. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been, if not entirely innocent of commercial calculations, then cognizant and proud of its role in maintaining the highest standards. Regarding Warhol is something new for our greatest museum—a capitulation to market forces and mass culture that doesn’t think twice about how mendacious, crass, and ugly it is. Rembrandt will always be Rembrandt; his integrity is fixed and true. But the Met’s integrity? Its fate remains to be seen.

© 2012 Mario Naves

Originally published in the December 2012 edition of The New Criterion.

“Goofing around becomes him”: The Works-on-Paper of Ellsworth Kelly

Installation of Tablet 1949-1973 at The Drawing Center

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This article originally appeared in the July 1, 2002 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Ellsworth Kelly; Plant Drawings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (until September 3).

An artist may save every scrap of paper he’s ever doodled on, but does that mean they’re worth looking at? The ephemera culled from the flat files of the abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly, currently the subject of the exhibition Tablet 1949-1973, now at the Drawing Center, are worth looking at, although one should bear in mind that they function less as ends than as means.

Each of the 188 scribbles, scrabbles and sketches on view offers evidence of an eye ever attuned to visual stimuli. Mr. Kelly takes inspiration where he finds it: from a sno-cone wrapper to a photograph of sailboats to a scrap of canvas riddled with blotches. He also sketches upon whatever surface is at hand–a gallery announcement from Julian Levy, a dinner invitation from Sidney Janis or a telegram from Mom. These notations aren’t much more than throwaways, but they are free-flowing and inquisitive, foolhardy and funny. They are, in short, everything Mr. Kelly’s art–his real art, one wants to say–is not.

Installation of Tablet 1949-1973 at The Drawing Center

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As someone who finds Mr. Kelly’s real art beautiful and boring, I had a fine old time at the Drawing Center. It’s refreshing to see this most controlling of hedonists let down his hair; goofing around becomes him. One does, however, wonder about the hubris entailed in such an everything-but-the- kitchen-sink venture. Only an artist convinced of his Midas touch would dare such a thing.

Still, there are signs that Mr. Kelly doesn’t take himself too seriously. The show’s nonhierarchical installation–two rows of identically scaled frames ring the gallery without pause for emphasis–establishes, albeit in a back-handed manner, that this is an artist for whom aesthetic discrimination is paramount. Wise to the slim aesthetic weight his doodles carry, Mr. Kelly makes no distinctions here. The irony is that his doodles come closer to achieving the vitality we expect from art than his museum-ready masterworks. Is it unjust to claim that Tablet 1949-1973 is all the Ellsworth Kelly any reasonable person should ever need? I don’t think so.

© 2002 Mario Naves

Additional thoughts on the art of Ellsworth Kelly can be found here.