Tag Archives: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Installation of “Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color”; courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art
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“Who knew the Greeks had such bad taste?” This comment was overheard at the preview for Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color, a head-turning exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This slight wasn’t targeted at the current denizens of Greece, but, rather, their ancestors of yore. You remember the type: chiton-clad Athenians — let’s not forget the ladies in their peploi! — sauntering through the agora, pondering the nature of reality or, perhaps, the role of hoi polloi within a democratic society. They’re the folks whose aesthetic sensibilities were found wanting, at least to one denizen of twenty-first-century museum culture.

What most of us know about life in antiquity is, I dare say, as broadly conceived as the above description. What most of us know about art from antiquity has been gleaned from trips to specific sites or cultural institutions here and abroad. Donatello and Michelangelo, Renaissance men who looked upon the arts of Greece and Rome as models of emulation, are, in significant part, responsible for codifying our notions about the nature and import of antique sculpture.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the pioneering eighteenth-century art historian, pressed the point: “The only way for us to become great, yes, inimitable, if it is possible, is the imitation of the Greeks.” No one seems to read Winckelmann nowadays except for the stray academic eager to score points by pegging the glories of Western art as harbingers of any and all social ills including, most indelibly, “seas of lily white, spectacled and tweed-wearing people” (as University of Iowa classicist Sarah Bond puts it).

Installation of “Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color”
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Chroma is blessedly free of such casuistry. The Met likely took a good hard look at its bread and butter — which would be, among much else, the stunning suite of galleries devoted to Greek and Roman art — and concluded that historical and artistic fact make for better box office than tendentious sermonizing. Or, maybe, the curators were just doing their job — you know, safeguarding the legacy of world art for the pleasure of gallerygoers.

Certainly, the efforts of Vinzenz Brinkmann, head of the Department of Antiquity at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Frankfurt, working in tandem with his wife Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, bear serious consideration. For over forty years, they’ve been knee-deep in the study of polychromy — that is to say, the application of paint on three-dimensional objects. The art world is filled with people who hate art but make it their business anyway. Vinzenz and Ulrike? They love their patch of multi-colored turf. Their eagerness is palpable.

It’s long been known, if not to the lay public then to anyone with more than a casual interest in the arts, that classical effigies were originally overlaid with color. Paint, being a less durable medium than marble or bronze, is incapable of withstanding the elements, let alone wear and tear over thousands of years. Historical accounts testify as to how colorful sculptures, having been unearthed through excavation, quickly lost their pigment after being exposed to sunlight and oxygen. The notion that (pace Winckelmann) “the whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is” — and, yes, you can see how extremists might exploit such a statement — has been a convention difficult to overcome. Faced with the preternatural beauty of the “Venus de Milo” as it is currently seen at the Louvre, the typical museum-goer can be forgiven for thinking that, yes, this is enough.

The Met show includes fourteen reconstructions of classical sculptures overseen and created by the Brinkmanns and their team. Utilizing a variety of approaches, featuring connoisseurship no less than high-tech gadgetry, they’ve managed to divine traces of color from, among other works, “Boxer at Rest,” a world-class masterwork at the Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, and a longstanding staple at the Met, a marble sphinx dated c. 530 BC. Most of the copies employ traditional materials — plaster and bronze, primarily. The Brinkmanns subsequently overlaid pigments and colors that were particular to the time and region. Rather than exhibit these colorized versions in a separate gallery, the curators have integrated them within the museum’s collection as a means of prompting contrast and comparison.

Installation of “Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color”
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How do the replicas stand up to the monochrome standbys? A wall label would have us believe that “with the absence of color, ancient sculpture loses its original animation and full range of meaning.” But curatorial selling points don’t necessarily coincide with aesthetic experience. For all the dutiful research the Brinkmanns have done, their reconstructions are — well, they’re awful. I mean, really awful. Even allowing the necessary wriggle room for stylistic conjecture, there’s reason to doubt the taste of everyone involved in this venture. Blame centuries of conditioning for such an appraisal, and you wouldn’t be altogether wrong. But when the best of these pieces look like Conan the Barbarian after spending too much time in a tanning bed, and the worst like rejects from a Fisher-Price outlet store, you know things are ass-over-tea kettle wrong.

A supporter of colorization might point to how the famed portrait bust of Nefertiti hasn’t suffered because of its polychromy. Scholars can readily point to numerous examples of the genre that prove the viability of the medium. (The Spanish are especially strong in polychromy.) But, really, how does “The Nefertiti Bust” stack up against “Boxer at Rest” as a work of sculpture? Color garnishes the former, bringing a degree of specificity to the bust’s streamlined — let’s not call it “generic” — dimensionality.

In contrast, the burnished patina overlaid on “Boxer at Rest” obscures the attention that’s been invested in its making. Material integrity, anatomical nuance, specificity of contour and the sterling embodiment of tragodía are diminished by somebody’s overwrought notion of mimesis. Other colorized facsimiles at the Met are considerably gaudier, what with their glassy eyes, faint attempts at painterly illusion, and color palette seemingly poached from a package of Necco Wafers. A conspiratorial soul might wonder if the point of Chroma is to wheedle a feel-good correspondence between, say, the “Nike of Samothrace” or the “Jockey of Artemision” with kitsch-mongers like Jeff Koons, Charles Ray and Takashi Murakami — between an era of high artistic achievement and our own age of bewildered expectations.

Old-school aesthetes may have misread the purity of classical sculpture, but who’s to say new school conservationists aren’t overcompensating for a culture in which overstimulation is the lingua francaChroma is probably best considered a lone pit stop on humankind’s eternal journey to bedevil its own finest impulses. In the meantime, let’s give it up for Mother Nature and Father Time, both of whom worked collaboratively to fine-tune our greatest achievements by ridding them of their excesses.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article was originally published in the August 2022 edition of The Spectator World.

“Winslow Homer: Crosscurrents” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream (1899/1906), oil on canvas, 28-1/8 x 49-1/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
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The advance buzz on Winslow Homer:Crosscurrents wasn’t good. “Woke Winslow” — that’s how observers, online and through the grapevine, pegged the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition of paintings and watercolors by Winslow Homer (1836-1910). The stalwart purveyor of maritime adventure and manly pursuits, woke? One glance at the enlarged black-and-white photo displayed at the front end of Crosscurrents–a blurred portrait of Homer in his Maine studio–makes clear that the fusty man with the impatient glare is no one’s idea of a social-justice warrior.

Looks aren’t everything, of course.Truth to tell, Homer’s art does touch upon important aspects of American history. But did the summer of 2020 really beg for a “diachronic focus on conflict and struggle in [Homer’s] production?” So promises Sylvia Yount, the Met’s Lawrence A. Fleischman curator-in-charge of the American Wing and co-organizer, along with Stephanie L. Herdrich, of Crosscurrents. Is it possible, in so many words, to reconcile “The Gulf Stream” (1899/1906), among Homer’s most iconographic canvases, with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter?

Consider “‘The Various Colors and Types of Negroes’: Winslow Homer Learns to Paint Race,” an essay in the exhibition catalogue by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Those familiar with Homer’s pictures of black life, whether as seen in the American South or the Caribbean, know they are characterized by a rare and carefully grained objectivity. Shaw knows this, but she’s not happy about it. So after commending Homer for “trusting his own instincts on coloring potently raced bodies,” Shaw puts him in his place for an “oblique reliance on the negatively stereotyped tropes of Black representation.” The professor giveth, and the professor taketh away.

The good thing about Crosscurrents is that it isn’t the catalogue. The begrudgery typifying our curatorial class is outshone at the Met by artistic fact. The show is the largest overview of Homer’s work in twenty-five years, containing eighty-eight pieces. “The Gulf Stream” is at its center, but there are other signal pictures on display. There are so many, in fact, that you begin to realize just how thoroughly Homer’s vision has been absorbed into the body politic. If anything, the work makes a case for the expansiveness of the American spirit. The old Yankee, bless his soul, does not go gently into that woke night.

Winslow Homer was born in Boston, Massachusetts. His father was a businessman prone to bad decisions, his mother an amateur watercolorist. The extent of Homer’s formal training was an eighteen-month apprenticeship to a commercial lithographer. A knack for the anecdotal and a clipped sense of composition, along with a daunting work ethic, led to a career in illustration. During the Civil War, Homer contributed on-site battlefield drawings for Harper’s Weekly. At the age of twenty-three, Homer packed his bags and headed to New York City, intent on becoming a painter.

Crosscurrents is divided into eight sections, each of which is devoted to a theme–the seaside of the Northeastern United States, for instance, or trips taken to tropical climes. “War and Reconstruction” opens the show, and the paintings featured in it are almost Tocquevillian in their perspicacity. Homer’s experience as a journalist, working amid the carnage of war and its aftermath, likely accounts for the sobriety typifying the imagery. Homer was no sentimentalist. The pictures are bare-bones dioramas endowed with almost Biblical portent: a foolhardy soldier taunts the enemy, children attempt to farm wartorn ground, and a pair of young women wander through a field of cotton.

A curator cares for and maintains the items that have been entrusted to her. Political activism–hell, political commentary–shouldn’t be a prerequisite for the job. But let’s not be naive. Politics haven’t just seeped into our institutions; they’ve inundated them. When Herdrich, the Met’s associate curator of American Painting and Sculpture, insists the work be viewed “through the lens of conflict,” you know that Homer is about to be dragooned into the intersectional hothouse.

Winslow Homer, The Cotton Pickers (1876), oil on canvas, 24-1/2 x 38″; courtesy the Lost Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
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Homer had a pointed, if subtle, sense of irony. “The Cotton Pickers” (1876) is swathed in a beneficent light, but it’s no Arcadian idyll. The women pictured are emancipated slaves; the cotton they carry a reminder of their servitude. It’s an uncanny painting, marked by quietude and suffused with intimacy. The author F. Hopkinson Smith, a friend of Homer’s and a capable painter in his own right, described the canvas as “the whole story of Southern slavery.” Hindsight endows the painting with a preternatural gravitas–a sense of history as a burden foretold.

The most renowned of Homer’s pictures are centered on the ocean and dramatized by storm. Skies are dank and gray; waves surge and then surge some more; boats capsize; and those who sail the sea or live by it–well, good luck to them. Nature is relentless and violent, unforgiving and ominous. Typical is the “Ship’s Boat” (1883), in which a cadre of men grasp onto the side of an upturned lifeboat. The murky distance to which they signal for rescue offers slim chance of hope.

Homer’s paintings of tropical climes are, on the whole, less roiling in character. Certainly, the clarifying Caribbean sun suited Homer’s gift for watercolor, wherein the barest swipe of the brush yoked a radiant sense of climate from the white of the page. Homer thrived on the immediacy offered by the portability of watercolor: “I prefer every time a picture composed and painted outdoors. The thing is done without your knowing it.”

Which isn’t to say that life in the sunshine was without hazard. And here we circle back to “The Gulf Stream.” It’s a gripping image, for sure: a lone black man, shirtless and distracted, lies on a teetering skip, its mast broken off at the base. Blood filters through the surrounding waves; sharks are circling. Pitched on the horizon is a schooner sundering away from the crisis at hand. The canvas brings to mind a host of precedents, not least John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark” (1778) and Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa” (1818-19). Homer’s painting is starker in its theatricality and not tied to a specific narrative– which may account for the consternation engendered upon its initial public display.

Viewers wanted a backstory. Homer did not suffer the public gladly. “The unfortunate negro,” he wrote, “will be rescued & returned to his friends and home, & ever after live happily.” Over and out! He went on: “I have crossed the Gulf Stream ten times & I should know something about it. The boat & sharks are outside matters of very little consequence.”

“Outside matters of very little consequence?” Nonsense. Artists are rarely the best interpreters of their own work. Contrary to Homer’s testy dismissal of narrative, “The Gulf Stream” betrays grim determination, a stoic refusal to grant credence to the most trying of circumstances. Homer’s moralism, like that of Melville or Conrad, is inescapable and weighted, stubbornly independent and elusive in its probity. Like the best art, “The Gulf Stream” resists ideological pigeonholing or the machinations of fashion. Homer will survive the distrust and condescension of our theory-besotted gatekeepers. In the meantime, Crosscurrents is filled with paintings that merit our puzzlement and earn our pleasure.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article was originally published in the June 2022 edition of The Spectator World.

“Charles Ray: Figure Ground” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Charles Ray, Huck and Jim (2014), stainless steel, 9 ft. 3 . in. × 54 in. × 53 . in.; collection of Lisa and Steven Tananbaum

An abundance of ironies circulates around the sculpture of the Los Angeles–based artist Charles Ray (born 1953), none of which redound to the work’s benefit. Take the use of floor tape in “Charles Ray: Figure Ground,” a mid-career overview of an “elliptical, often irreverent” talent. We’re familiar with the means by which visitors to museums and galleries are reminded to keep a distance from a work of art, thereby avoiding potential damage to the object on display. At the Met, each of Ray’s sculptures is surrounded by floor tape that is gritty in texture and has been laid out to create a non-violable space measuring about three feet across. “Don’t touch the art”; we get it. Still, my curiosity was piqued. After exiting the show, I strolled past some large Rodin bronzes in the nineteenth-century galleries. They weren’t surrounded by tape. Later, I made a pit stop at two favorite pieces in the Greek and Roman wing: an Aphrodite, rendered in marble, dating to around the second century A.D., and a Hellenistic bronze of a man from about the same time. The courtesy of floor tape had not been extended to these mainstays of the collection. Some works of art, it seems, are more worthy of protection than others.

Lenders to “Figure Ground” likely stipulated that their loans be given adequate security. An internet search reveals that an original Ray can cost as much as $3 million. Given that kind of money, you have to sympathize with the institution or collector making demands. Investments, however, are one thing; art, another. The thing about a Rodin effigy or a piece of antique statuary is that their surfaces elicit a distinct pleasure—of sensuality and sensation, a longing for tactility. That is part of their enduring appeal. The sculptures of Charles Ray— what kind of person would want to touch one of those things? Figurative though they may be, and often nude, the works have all the bodily allure of a newly minted refrigerator or, and this analogy is more to the point, the stainless-steel tables used for autopsies and embalming. Ray’s predominant métier is, in fact, stainless steel—sometimes painted, often polished to a blinding sheen. The artist’s creative process combines “the analog and the digital as well as human and robotic hands.” Any tool or material is fair game; it’s what the artist does with them that matters. What Ray does, along with assistants and craftsmen, is render a given material simultaneously anti-septic and icky, slick and severe. This is an art that makes a fetish of the inhuman.

Ray’s supporters demur. In the catalogue, Brinda Kumar, the Met’s Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, lauds the artist’s “modalities of touch.” In Ray’s sculpture, “the potentiality of material, of matter, is made active, i.e., it is in mattering [emphasis in original] that the object is set into motion through time”—the sentence goes on. Kelly Baum, the museum’s Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Curator of Contemporary Art, invokes the word “pattern”—as noun, verb, and theoretical cornerstone: “Ray’s patterns very often lead to other patterns; behind every prototype is another prototype to which it is related via a chain of signification.” There’s more about pattern in Baum’s essay, most of it murky in definition. Ray himself gives away the game with 81 x 83 x 85 = 86 x 83 x 85 (1989), one of the earliest pieces in the show. Anyone conversant with twentieth-century American art will recognize that it stems from Richard Serra’s “prop” series. In replacing rough-hewn steel with high-gloss aluminum, Minimalist showboating is transmuted into corporate kitsch. Ray, in other words, gilds Serra’s lily. Ever the faithful postmodernist, Ray passes off smug commentary as High Art. It’s enough to make one forgive Serra and his bullying ways.


Charles Ray, Family Romance (1993), painted fiberglass and hair, 53 x 85 x 11″;
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Peter Norton Family Foundation

Minimalism, with its brute insistence on the object and inherent hostility to metaphor, is, nonetheless, Ray’s jumping-off point: material obduracy sets the tone. Admittedly, the work is peppered with post-conceptualist fabulation, and you’d best believe that identity politics enter into it. Be thankful that Baum and Kumar did not include Oh!? Charley, Charley, Charley . . . (1992), a mixed-media piece in which eight life-size figures of the artist engage in a variety of sexual antics. Ray’s most emblematic work, Family Romance (1993), is featured at the Met: mom, dad, little brother, and baby sister are seen holding hands, each of them nude and equal in height and proportion. This not-so-happy family has been manufactured with a mannequin-like verisimilitude. Shifts in scale, particularly when it comes to the human body, are invariably disconcerting. But Ray doesn’t do much more than distort form in order to make a joke about—what, exactly? A wall label informs us that Family Romance “decouples the human and the ‘natural,’ disassociating sex, gender, and race from biology.” There is nothing more reliable than torturous circumlocution when obscuring an achievement of rank stupidity.

Race also figures into Ray’s art—kind of, sort of, almost. Sarah Williams (2021)—that’s right, the guise Huckleberry Finn adopted in Mark Twain’s classic nineteenth-century novel—proves particularly relevant in that it bears comparison with James Earle Fraser’s Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt (1939). You’re familiar with the latter, of course: the bronze effigy of our twenty-sixth president recently removed from its perch at the American Museum of Natural History for its presumed endorsement of racial inferiority. Mores change over time, as do considerations of the body politic. Still, it should be noted that Fraser’s stated intention with the monument was to honor Roosevelt’s “friendliness to all races”—a fact worth reiterating at a cultural moment when intention is privileged over artifact. The intention fueling Sarah Williams is, we are told, a critique of “race-based relations of domination and subordination.” For right now, that will do. But how kindly will forward-thinking Americans esteem Ray’s overscaled depiction of a black man kneeling behind a white boy in 2122? History has its own wiles, and they can be humbling. In the meantime, “Figure Ground” is an exhibition of unremitting nihilism, staggering narcissism, and unapologetic pretension.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the March 2022 edition of The New Criterion.

“Alice Neel: People Come First” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Alice Neel, Margaret Evans Pregnant (1978), oil on canvas, 57 3/4 × 38″. Gift of Barbara Lee, The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women. Courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Let’s talk real estate. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has allocated the same amount of space to the American painter Alice Neel (1900–84) as it did for the art and artifacts of Byzantium; the reign of Hatshepsut, queen and, later, pharaoh of Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt; two outlays of tapestries from medieval and Renaissance Europe; and a career-spanning exhibition of the French romantic painter Eugène Delacroix. However you might esteem the subjects explored in these shows (I’m fairly agnostic on Delacroix, myself), there is little doubt that each body of work merited the grand treatment, that they are subjects worthy of sweeping scholarly focus. But what about a second-tier talent whose aesthetic purview was nowhere near as encompassing as her meanness of spirit? Museums have galleries set aside for temporary exhibitions, and those galleries need to be filled. Square footage, when doled out by an important institution, connotes prestige. “Alice Neel: People Come First” will have repercussions. Notice must be paid.

Not that Neel’s work has been without an audience in the decades since her death; nor did Neel suffer inattention during her working life. Anyone invited to sit and chat with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show had, in one way or another, achieved a notoriety rare in American culture. For a visual artist, this kind of recognition—that is to say, the imprimatur of mainstream media—is all but unheard of. Neel’s fame came relatively late. As with most artists, she sacrificed much in terms of comfort and security to pursue her work. Neel did possess that most vital of traits: tenacity. Where would she have been without it? Painters who worked figuratively during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism had a tough go of it; the advent of neo-Dadaism didn’t exactly provide an accommodating context for an artist taken with the human condition and its many foibles (though Neel did locate a friendly toehold within the irony-laden precincts of Pop Art). Gumption propelled Neel’s art, as did gall. Johnny Carson couldn’t help but bestow his favors on the feisty old lady and her crazy pictures.

Alice Neel on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson

Longevity became Neel; flattery followed on its heels. Few of us get to hear ourselves described as the best at anything. Neel lived to hear herself pegged as “the best portrait painter of the twentieth century.” Given her renowned irascibility, she likely cast a skeptical eye on the sobriquet, knowing full well how wheels are greased in even the most outré precincts of the art world. What, then, would the self-described “Mother Hubbard” make of the claims surrounding “People Come First”? The Met is, after all, touting Neel as “one of the century’s most radical painters.” What century might that be? Before you can say “champion of social justice”—which the museum does, in fact, say—you’ll know the aforementioned century is the current one, despite her death in the 1980s. “In an era of record income inequality, resurgent white nationalism, and xenophobia, Neel’s painterly advocacy of humanity in its multiracial and multicultural manifestations, her inclusive, democratic spirit, and her commitment to social justice all serve to enhance her posthumous reputation, making her art seem all the more relevant, even urgent.” Enter Alice Neel, Patron Marm of All That Is Woke.

None of which is surprising. Diktats and notions that were once the purview of a select group of academics have become part and parcel of everyday life. Joe and Jane Lunchbox are conversant, nowadays, with “hetero-normativity,” “cultural appropriation,” and “privilege.” Anyone who has cracked open an exhibition catalogue in recent years, or cherry-picked through any number of specialized journals, will recognize the type of writing that strong-arms art into the service of political fashion. Try taking a tipple each time the words “justice” or “identity” pop up in the essays and wall labels accompanying the Met show—inebriation will be achieved swiftly. Making light of the strained verbiage typical of our time shouldn’t mitigate its cumulative effect. Reading about Neel’s “female-lived experience,” the “gendered struggles” of her subjects, and the “intersubjectivity” of the resulting portraits is to realize how over-intellectualized argot can become run-of-the-mill. It’s depressing, and a disservice to the liberating capacities of art. Listen to Neel, during the advent of Feminism, tell it: “When I was in my studio, I didn’t give a damn what sex I was . . . I thought art is art.” Neel didn’t suffer ideological grandstanding gladly. Why subject her work to it?

Neel hailed from Merion Square, Pennsylvania, the fourth of five children born to Alice Concross Hartley and George Washington Neel, an accountant by trade. Neel attended the Philadelphia School for Women, purposely setting out to avoid the Impressionist-influenced curriculum fostered at the better-known Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. (Even at a young age, Neel knew her own mind.) While studying painting and drawing, she met and later married the artist Carlos Enriquez, a Cuban émigré of some means. The couple moved to Havana, but the relationship proved rocky. Enriquez left the marriage, taking the couple’s daughter with him. Neel subsequently had a nervous breakdown and was committed to the suicide ward of Philadelphia General Hospital. After having been placed in the care of her mother and father, Neel ended up in New York City, spending a formative period living and working in Spanish Harlem. She moved to Greenwich Village—a neighborhood Neel dismissed as “honky tonk”—and settled on the Upper West Side. Along the way, she worked for the WPA, fellow-traveled with Communist culturati, took a host of often troublesome lovers, and became a fixture of the New York art scene.

Alice Neel, Two Girls, Spanish Harlem (1959), oil on canvas, 30 x 25″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston;
Gift of Barbara Lee

“People Come First” begins with a gambit that is partly a dare and definitely a grabber. Margaret Evans Pregnant (1978) portrays a nude woman toward the end of her term. The sitter, scaled close to life-size, is wedged between the top and bottom edges of the canvas. Evans confronts us with an expression that is both uninhibited and wooden—a mask that portends vulnerability. The posture is rigid, the belly alarmingly convex. Evans appears to be gripping the yellow footstool upon which she’s seated. Neel’s rendering of the hands and arms is awkward, and their tensions unclear. Does Evans hold on because the incipient responsibilities of motherhood are pressing upon her consciousness? Or is it because the floor tilts at an angle parallel to the picture plane? A mirror in the upper right hand of the picture reflects a different woman—or so it seems, anyway; the likeness is iffy. The mirror is, in and of itself, problematic: it’s out of sync with the overall composition. The more time spent with Margaret Evans Pregnant the more its glitches are revealed. Art should withstand the long look, not crumble beneath it.

All of which will strike fans of Neel as moot. Didn’t you read the exhibition title? People come first. “Paint your power,” the catalogue intones, “paint your politics.” In the introductory essay, Kelly Baum and Randall Griffey—who, along with the curatorial assistant Brinda Kumar, organized the Met show—write of how “Neel embraced imperfection as intrinsic to the human condition” and how “we are wrong to assume perfection from her.” Neel’s lack of perfection, in this circumstance, lies in her independence as an individual and as an intellect. (Neel had some choice opinions that wouldn’t withstand the puritanical dictates of our internet overlords.) Forget, for a moment, the curators’ backdoor clarion call for conformity. What might be said about Neel as a painter—as a person involved in an art form with its own distinct history and attributes? It’s worth reiterating that a painting, before it is anything else, is a painting. Once that essential prerequisite has been engaged—once it has been complicated, questioned, and brought to resolution—viewers can move on to the work’s “embedded code[s]” and “innuendo.” Prioritizing theory over matter and political intent over aesthetic fact are convenient means for setting aside critical distinctions. Righteous obfuscation is no substitute for the real thing.

After the ice-breaker that is Margaret Evans Pregnant, the exhibition stumbles precipitously with a showcase of Neel’s early forays into Social Realism. Forever down with the proletariat, Neel depicted protest marches, dock workers, sundry members of the intelligentsia, and unsung corners of the urban landscape with an earnestness that is leaden when it’s not amateurish. Was there an unwritten law at the time that political art had to be awash in that distinctive and deadening brown? If so, Neel’s palette followed suit. Works-on-paper depicting vignettes of bohemian domesticity are preferable in their relative lightness of touch, though they are marred by an uncertain handle on caricature. Max Beckmann looks to have been an influence, along with Chaïm Soutine, the Soyer brothers, and van Gogh. Neel jettisoned the somber affectations of her generation round about the mid-1950s— particularly as she took increased notice of her neighbors in El Barrio. Georgie Acre No. 2 (1955) and, especially, Two Girls, Spanish Harlem (1959) signal a welcome shift—the everyday awakening potentialities of form. Neel’s chromatic range gained in brightness, her brushwork speed and vigor, and the compositions a measure of clarity or, if you prefer, bluntness.

Alice Neel, Black Draftee (James Hunter) (1965), oil on canvas, 60 x 40″; courtesy COMMA Foundation, Belgium

Neel’s signature attribute is unquestioned immediacy—you know: first try, best try. Eschewing preparatory drawings, she painted directly on the canvas and from direct observation. Beginning with a wiry under-drawing, usually keyed to a cool variation of blue, Neel applied flattened patchworks of pigment, juxtaposing warm and cool tonalities and surfaces that are constitutionally resistant to sensuality. Neel’s brusque treatment of the surroundings in which her subjects are ensconced is cursory-bordering-on-negligent, but it can be effective. The settee in Andy Warhol (1970) or the chaise longue upon which the subject of Pregnant Woman (1971) reclines are marvels of bare-bones delineation. Both pictures are, in their own flagrant way, arresting. The tension between painted form and diagrammatic notation is as rude as it wants to be, and adroitly choreographed. Over the long haul, however, Neel’s pictorial flourishes flatten the expressive intent of her art. She puts one in mind of Francis Bacon—another semi-Expressionist swallowed whole by exquisitely cultivated mannerisms. By the time we reach Black Draftee (James Hunter) (1965), a canvas displayed toward the back end of the exhibition, we are grateful to see Neel not take up her brush all that much.

Black Draftee (James Hunter) would make a striking centerpiece for a more concise and, I would argue, better exhibition. As it is, “People Come First” oversells Neel’s achievement and, in particular, her vaunted humanism. Really, who does come first? Notwithstanding an atypical and often eccentric range of sitters, Neel doesn’t do much plumbing of character. Miserabilist superficiality was her gig. There are exceptions: artists like Benny Andrews, Geoffrey Hendricks, and (not included at the Met) Faith Ringgold make themselves felt, as does Richard in the Era of the Corporation (1978–79), a painting of Neel’s son in which he evinces an understandable level of wariness. Even then, it’s the Corporation that is Neel’s starting point; Richard is there as a type. And so it goes: New Yorkers, in all their multiplicity, are rendered goggle-eyed, pasty-skinned, and splayed like butterflies in a curio cabinet. Whatever the initial attraction or relationship between sitter and artist, the resulting paintings are peculiarly neutral in affect. They exist, primarily, as emblems of Neel’s nervy savoir-faire. Denizens of twenty-first century-America shouldn’t mistake representation for “allyship” or “anarchic humanity” for significant art. There are better exemplars for our fractious age than a painter endowed with a cruel and unlovely gift.

(c) 2021 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the June 2021 edition of The New Criterion.

“Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Felix Vallotton, The White and the Black (1913), oil on canvas, 44-7/8 x 57-7/8″; courtesy the Kunstmuseum Bern, Hahnloser/Jaeggli Foundation, Villa Flora, Winterthur

* * *

If only for the inclusion of The White and the Black (1913), the retrospective of the Swiss painter and printmaker Félix Vallotton (1865–1925) merits its subtitle. The Met has given special emphasis to the painting, and can you blame it for doing so? It’s an arresting picture. Toward the right of the canvas, a black woman, clad in blue and smoking a cigarette, sits pensively on a bed. The object of her attention is a reclining white woman who is nude and—what exactly? Sleeping, maybe; posing, perhaps. (Her posture suggests a degree of self-awareness.) The title conjures a Whistlerian focus on color harmonies, and the image bears a knowing resemblance to Manet’s Olympia (1863). The relationship between the two women is provocative in its ambiguity. Was Vallotton, a committed leftist and anarchist sympathizer, commenting on class divide—exploring unstated tensions between mistress and servant? He didn’t leave a paper trail regarding intent; the exhibition catalogue is mum on the subject. We are on surer footing in guessing that the curators are keying into contemporary woke culture by bestowing a prominent berth to The White and the Black.

As a feat of painting, The White and the Black owes nothing to Whistler, only nods to Manet, and strays far afield from Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, both of whom Vallotton counted as friends. Paul Gauguin is the nearest correlative, partly for the confluence of eroticism and race, mostly for the elasticity and import given to color—the expanse of sea green serving as the backdrop, especially. That, and the painting isn’t . . . good. Or, rather, not as good as it portends. The longer one stays with The White and the Black the more its shortcomings are revealed. The nude feels as if she has been airlifted from another galaxy. (As a variation on Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, it likely was.) The concomitant disconnect suggests that we’re looking at a painter who hasn’t altogether mastered the intricacies of pictorial space. The disquieting thing about “Painter of Disquiet” is, in fact, how consistently Vallotton misses the mark set by his not inconsiderable ambitions. The critic and artist Patrick Heron memorably dubbed Gauguin a “great bad painter.” Vallotton doesn’t rank that high. Still, the exhibition should pique the interest of those with a taste for idiosyncratic talent and fin de siècle culture.

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Felix Vallotton, Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty (1885), oil on canvas, 70 x 55 cm.; courtesy Cantonal Museum of Fine Arts, Lausanne

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Born in Lausanne to a middle-class Protestant family, the sixteen-year-old Vallotton forsook his studies in Greek and Latin, heading, instead, to Paris in order to pursue art. He enrolled at the Académie Julian and haunted the galleries of the Louvre, becoming enamored with the paintings of da Vinci, Dürer, and Ingres. With a boost from the painter Jules Lefebvre, his teacher at the Académie, Vallotton’s work was exhibited at the Salon des Champs-Élysées in 1885. It wasn’t long before the young artist began exploring less traditional byways. Working as an art critic for the Gazette de Lausanne, Vallotton singled out Henri Rousseau for special praise, and he began doing woodcut illustrations for a variety of periodicals. These caught the collective eye of the Nabis, and Vallotton was invited to join a group that counted among its members Vuillard, Bonnard, and Maurice Denis. Subsequently ensconced within the Parisian avant-garde, Vallotton exhibited in the Salon des Indépendants and socialized with the likes of Félix Fénéon, Gertrude Stein, Paul Verlaine, and Thadée Natanson, the publisher of the influential literary magazine La Revue blanche. Radical politics were a continuing fascination for Vallotton, albeit one tempered by his marriage to Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, a widow of considerable wealth and influence.

Vallotton’s work for the popular press generated notoriety and won admiration. A critic of the time dubbed him the “Baudelaire of wood-engraving.” As a presumed nod to this honorific, the Met exhibition opens with Vallotton’s starkly configured black-and-white prints, largely of events taking place in the streets of Paris. Truth to tell, their cumulative effect is underwhelming. The high-contrast pictures devoted to the World’s Fair have a punchy appeal, as does Vallotton’s use of caricature. But the images are muddled—puzzle pieces that don’t snap into place—and one is reminded that the best cartoonists stylize form with flair and rhythm. The good bourgeois citizens of France, as pictured by Vallotton, are ill-configured stereotypes in compositions with little interior logic. Vallotton was better when sticking to nineteenth-century academic standards of figuration. Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty (1885) and The Sick Girl (1892), though stiff and stagey respectively, are more convincing. Not convincing at all is The Five Painters (1902–03), Vallotton’s portrait of himself, Vuillard, Bonnard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, and Charles Cottet. A cut-rate Madame Tussaud wouldn’t settle for the dour and dusty mannequins Vallotton has shuffled into place.

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Felix Vallotton, Box Seats at the Theater, the Gentleman and the Lady (1909), oil on canvas, 18-3/16 x 15″; courtesy Private Collection

* * *

A suite of prints titled Intimités, along with a group of related paintings, explore the quiddities of (mostly illicit) romantic intrigue: men and women, ensconced within well-appointed interiors, rendezvous and embrace. The hothouse atmosphere of The Lie (1897) generates erotic ten- sion, and the stately tones sweeping through The Visit (1899) underscore the unseemly machinations of seduction. Composition, more than mise en scène, was a strong suit. Vallotton employed asymmetry to striking effect, and his cropped vistas and subtle shifts in vantage point add a welcome frisson of modernity. The Bon Marché (1898), a tripartite homage to the venerable department store, is remarkably gutsy in how a slurry of figures is clearly situated within a centralized area of darkness. Box Seats at the Theater, the Gentleman and the Lady (1909) is a study in structural concision and skewed geometry that would have made Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec smile—Guy Pène du Bois, too. And that’s the problem: the work can’t help but recall better painters. The Met’s decision to hang Vallotton’s portrait of Gertrude Stein side by side with Picasso’s depiction of the collector points to how relatively stolid and unadventurous Vallotton was as an artist. The oeuvre, though not without its diversions, makes for a bumpy ride. “Painter of Disquiet” is best considered a curiosity that’s never quite as curious as it wants to be.

© 2020 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the January 2020 edition of The New Criterion.

First Hand: Petrus Christus

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Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop (1449), 39 x 33″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Compared to Portrait of a Carthusian and the supernal The Lamentation, both of which are within a 10-minute walk at the Met, A Goldsmith in his Shop (1449) isn’t much more than an inventory populated by a trio of marionettes. But what an inventory it is! The reflection in the convex mirror at bottom right is the least of it. The cabinet of goods on the back wall, along with the cloth ribbon unfurling at stage right, are beguiling enough to transform a higgledy-piggledy composition into a tour de force.

© 2019 Mario Naves

“Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Ilona Keserü, Wall Hanging With Tombstone Forms (Tapestry) (1969), stitching on chemically dyed linen, 62 x 147-1/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

* * *

“If you’re going to do something, do it right”— so goes the old adage. Would that Randall Griffey, a curator in the Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, had heeded the advice. The exhibition he’s organized, “Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera,” is touted as a “fresh and perhaps surprising” take on “artists who have adopted, adapted, and even critiqued” the New York School. It is, in actuality, much ado about nothing—nothing, that is, spread over acres of canvas. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, particularly given some of the featured artists. These include significant figures like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, David Smith, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Kline, along with artists tangential to, or following upon, Abstract Expressionism: Alfonso Ossorio, Joan Mitchell, Morris Louis, Isamu Noguchi, and others. There are also outliers—the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely, for instance, and Ilona Keserü, a Hungarian artist who will be new to a lot of us—as well as artists whose ties to the New York School are, if not altogether tenuous, then markedly anachronistic. “Epic Abstraction” is all over the place, yet, in the end, not in as many places as it should be.

Griffey is, admittedly, working with limited means. “Epic Abstraction” is predominantly composed of work from the museum’s holdings, as well as promised gifts; loans are few and far between. Having long had a fractious relationship with modernism proper and contemporary art specifically, the Met can’t boast a comprehensive collection of either. A history of caution bordering on suspicion makes for a spotty acquisition record. The museum’s array of pre-war modern art has filled out, and for the better, since the establishment of the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing in 1987. The “contemporary” Met, in marked contrast, continues to have a bumpy adolescence. The exhibition program at the soon-to-be-vacated Met Breuer is a case in point: it has veered from breathtaking and brilliant to cluelessly au courant. None of us possesses a crystal ball; divining the staying power of this or that figure is tough work. Still, one wishes curators would exhibit even a scintilla of moxie and independence. How many roll-outs of auction-house darlings or iterations of ideological fashion do we need? “Epic Abstraction” capitulates to these tendencies.

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Chakaia Booker, Raw Attraction (2001), rubber tire, steel and wood, 42 x 32 x 40; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

* * *

 

The show begins with a negligible sculptor and ends with a willful painter—no, not Pol- lock and Carmen Herrera, as the exhibition title suggests, but Dan Flavin and Elizabeth Murray. Murray’s multi-paneled relief painting can make a claim to being epic—or, at least, big— and is suitably abstract. But Flavin? Industrial lighting—the métier is “cool white fluorescent light”—doesn’t count as either. Turning a corner, viewers encounter an untitled 1958 canvas by Kazuo Shiraga, a proponent of Gutai, the Japanese equivalent of Abstract Expressionism. Shiraga’s painting—a visceral accumulation of gestural brushstrokes—sends a signal, softly stated but emphatic all the same, that what’s to follow is a reimagining of the canon. The shift isn’t radical or abrupt. Pollock follows in some abundance, as does Mark Rothko and, to a lesser degree, Clyfford Still. The trajectory of “Epic Abstraction” is, in fact, fairly predictable. Repeat after me: the excesses of the New York School are winnowed down into the ephemeral expanses of Color Field painting, which, in turn, devolves into the obdurate literalism of Minimal Art. All of which receives pushback from the anything-goes ethos of Pluralism, culminating in . . . Alexander Calder? Well, that’s unpredictable.

The inclusion of the Calder mobile has, one feels, less to do with enlarging on stylistic or chronological continuity than with scrambling to fill precious exhibition space. Too bad Four Directions (1956) is Calder in crowd-pleasing mode: bland doesn’t equal epic. Or does it? That does seem to be the upshot of “Epic Abstraction.” With the exception of a spectacular set piece—Mrs. N’s Palace (1964–77), in which the sculptor Louise Nevelson is seen at her most theatrical—wishy-washiness predominates. This is true even when taking into account the nods to globalism and identity politics—neither of which is inherently bad as long as the indicative works are inherently good. As it is, pieces by Mark Bradford, Alma Thomas, and Thornton Dial— African-Americans, all—are as stately, static, and dull as Kenneth Noland’s October (1961), Robert Mangold’s Column Structure (VIII) (2006), Anne Truitt’s Goldsborough (1974), and anything by Barnett Newman and Ellsworth Kelly, the oeuvres of whom are looking more underwhelming with each passing year. Kudos to the Hortense and William A. Mohr Sculpture Purchase Fund for recognizing the imagination and grit coursing through Raw Attraction by Chakaia Booker (2001). Though relatively modest in size, the Booker piece—a muscular accumulation of rubber tires, steel, and wood—reverberates beyond its physical scale. Now we’re talking epic.

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Joan Snyder, Smashed Strokes Hope (1971), oil on canvas, 72 x 144″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

* * *

The Met exhibition would be improved in diversity and quality through the addition of artists like Ed Clark, Martin Puryear, James Little, Melvin Edwards, Terry Adkins, Lisa Corinne Davis, and Nanette Carter. Are any of them in the permanent collection? They should be. And what about the painter Jack Whitten, whose three-dimensional work was recently fêted at the Met Breuer? Since I’m making a wish list, let me mention The Flesh Eaters by William Baziotes (1952), The Battle by Conrad Marca-Relli (1956), Rising Green by Lee Krasner (1972), and Diva by Marthe Keller (1993). The Met owns all of them, and they are of a size, scope, and merit to have supplanted pictures by the overly eclectic Jennifer Bartlett, the relentlessly stringent Bridget Riley, and the just-plain-dreadful Yayoi Kusama. It’s a boon that Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Snyder are seen at the top of their games (Snyder’s 1971 Smashed Strokes Hope is the most cohesive and nuanced work I’ve seen by the artist), and the Keserü tapestry is idiosyncratic enough in rhythm and construction to prompt one’s curiosity for more. If only “Epic Abstraction” had built upon that idiosyncrasy. There are better methods of adoption, adaptation, and critique than settling for blissful and boring.

© 2019 Mario Naves

 

This review originally appeared in the March 2019 edition of The New Criterion.

“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

* * *

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

* * *

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.

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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

* * *

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

* * *

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.

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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

Diane Arbus - People and Other Singularities

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.

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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.

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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