Tag Archives: The Morgan Library & Museum

“John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal” at The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

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John Singer Sargent, Lady Diana Manners (1914), charcoal; Private Collection. Photography by Christopher Calnan

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Charcoal is among the most generous and frustrating of drawing mediums. Generous in that it lends itself to ready manipulation and, as such, is forgiving in its malleability; each mark and erasure increases the depth and tactility of both the image and the sheet of paper itself. Frustrating because its material consistency makes for dirt, and lots of it. Ingraining itself into the nooks and crannies of the hand, charcoal will also leave a halo of black dust on the area surrounding the drawing surface. Anyone who has even briefly experimented with charcoal quickly realizes its potential as well as its liabilities. You either love or hate the stuff. Having said that, bets are that folks on either side of this split will exit “John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal” energized, amazed, and delighted. Sargent had a singular gift for oils and watercolor; we all know that. But charcoal? That comes as a surprise, though less for Sargent’s deftness of touch than for his delving into the medium at all.

The Morgan show is, in fact, the first time a museum has dedicated itself exclusively to Sargent’s efforts in charcoal. Organized by Richard Ormond—the coauthor of the Sargent catalogue raisonné, former director of London’s National Portrait Gallery, and grand-nephew of the artist—along with Laurel Peterson, the Moore Curatorial Fellow in the Morgan’s Department of Drawings and Prints, “Portraits in Charcoal” is an exhibition whose aesthetic reach goes beyond its modest scale. The fifty-some drawings on display have been installed with a gentility that befits the era and milieu in which they were created—that is to say, Victorian, aristocratic, and artistic. Should there be a hue and cry from the politically correct among us regarding the 1 percent for whom Sargent plied his trade, well, they can stand in line behind the artist himself. At the age of fifty-one, the much sought-after portraitist declared there would be “no more paughtraits . . . I abhor and abjure them and hope never to do another especially of the Upper Classe.”

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John Singer Sargent, Henry James (1912), charcoal, 24-5/16 x 16-1/8″; The Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

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This distaste didn’t prevent Sargent from allowing himself some wiggle room. He was, after all, wise to the status and possibility afforded by hobnobbing with the social elite. While Sargent gave up portraiture in oils, he continued doing “a lot of mugs in coke and charcoal.” A “lot”? Think seven hundred and fifty. For the cultured classes, a Sargent charcoal portrait was de rigueur. Writing in the catalogue, Ormond wryly notes that “How do you like your Sargent drawing?” became a query that peppered London dinner parties, practically guaranteeing responses from all and sundry. Not that Sargent’s clients were always pleased by the drawings. Lady Cynthia Asquith summarily dismissed Sargent’s portrayal of her as being “the foulest woman I have ever seen.” The son of Bishop William Lawrence donated a portrait of his father to Washington’s National Gallery, stating that “we would be glad to have it a thousand miles from home.” Sargent was not uncritical of his own work. Writing to Edith Wharton about a charcoal portrait of their mutual friend Henry James, Sargent predicted that “I shall not be surprised if you pronounce it a failure.”

The typical viewer has the advantage of not being personally or professionally invested. We are at a welcome remove, here, in the twenty-first century, even when the portraits are figures whose import still resonates. The aforementioned drawing of Henry James is included in “Portraits in Charcoal”—looking not at all a failure, by the way—as are portraits of the poet William Butler Yeats, a twenty- three-year-old Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother), the actress Ethel Barrymore, and Winston Churchill—who, though somewhat put off by Sargent’s picture, thought one “must not look a gift portrait in the mouth.” A double self-portrait from 1902 opens the show, and it is the stiffest thing on display. Pictured as serious and somewhat cherubic, Sargent doesn’t do much more than skim the shallows of representation. Ormond needn’t remind us of the artist’s reticence while taking in the drawing; it’s there to scan. Virtuosity was wasted on self- portraiture—a point made abundantly clear by Lady Evelyn Charteris Vesey, Viscountess de Vesci (1910), a drawing placed in close vicinity to the Double Self-Portrait.

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John Singer Sargent, Double Self-Portrait (1902), graphite, 6-1/2 x 7-1/2″; Private Collection, Georgia

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Talk about a lack of reticence! Lady de Vesci is a woman to be reckoned with—elegant, to be sure, and possessed of an intellect as keen as it is unforgiving. We tread lightly lest we incur her displeasure. And so it goes: one drawing after another, wiped, smeared, and dabbed at until an uncanny sense of person-hood emerges from the gritty depths of the medium. Portrait commissions tend toward flattery, and Sargent wasn’t averse to confirming youth, beauty, status, and dignity when the occasion called for it. But portraiture, at its finest, discloses and elaborates upon the human spirit—its depths and sorrows, convictions and contradictions. The greatest portraits are put into motion with empathy, acuity, and, on the part of the artist anyway, necessary understatement. Whatever the backstory to the lives of Rabbi Charles Fleischer, Major Henry Lee Higginson, Eugenia Huici Errázuriz, or Ellen Peabody Endicott, you will know them in significant measure after encountering them through Sargent’s hands. Congratulations to all concerned at the Morgan. “Portraits in Charcoal” is an astonishing exhibition.

© 2019 Mario Naves

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

“Drawing Surrealism” at The Morgan Library & Museum

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Joseph Cornell, Untitled (c. 1930), collage, 9-7/8″ x 7-3/8″; courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum

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If memory serves correctly, it was the critic and artist Sidney Tillim who observed that the Surrealists couldn’t paint well because they were too preoccupied by bad dreams. The point is sardonic, but not off base. In privileging imagery or, to use parlance particular to the style, putrefaction over aesthetics, Surrealism erred on the side of illustration—on rendering, instead of embodying, “bad dreams.” Once an artist begins delineating visions gleaned from the unconscious in an insistently conscious manner, how genuinely surreal can they be? Notwithstanding exceptions like Joan Miró, whose forays into automatism were emboldened by an encompassing playfulness, the Surrealists employed paint not as a forum for possibility and pleasure, but merely as a means, often perfunctory in character, to otherworldly ends.

But what about the famously direct medium of drawing? Drawing lends itself more readily to quixotic musings—the route from the imagination to the page being less fettered by materials and more open to curious fancies and untested ideas. That’s the impression left by Drawing Surrealism, an array of over 160 works on paper by seventy artists. The usual suspects are present and accounted for at the Morgan: Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Miró, André Masson, André Breton (the self-proclaimed “Pope” of Surrealism), Man Ray, and, alas, the overly prolific Max Ernst. Lesser lights and hangers-on are included, as are marquee names—Picasso, Kahlo, Pollock—and a host of artists operating outside the main Surrealist satellites: Adriano del Valle from Spain, Japan’s Ei-Kyu, and Peru’s César Moro. Leslie Jones, the curator of Prints and Drawings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the exhibition organizer, extols Surrealism as “a dynamic international discourse.”

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Wolfgang Paalen, Fumage (Smoke Painting) (c. 1938), oil, candle burns and soot on canvas, 10-3/4″ x 16-3/8″; courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum

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Welcome to the age of curatorial globalism. Drawing Surrealism is similar to Inventing Abstraction, a concurrent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, wherein a bevy of inescapable figures is peppered with local heroes, dark horses, and bit players known primarily, if at all, to specialists of the genre. Though Jones pays due diligence to Paris and, later, Manhattan, where Surrealist methodologies informed the nascent New York School, the exhibition is centered less on artistic capitals than on “an approach . . . that can go where no other pictorial practice can.” Given Surrealism’s cultural reach, such a tack isn’t inappropriate. As an evocation of a particular community of artists, however dispersed, Drawing Surrealism is coherent and surprisingly fulsome.

The exhibition succeeds in reverse proportion to the significance of its contents. Most of the pieces are anything but major: they’re small in size, almost willfully slight and remarkably non-committal in their assault on the “reign of logic.” The medium contributes to the casual air, as does the march of time. History has a tendency of ironing out the kinks (and the kinkiness) of techniques and imagery that were, at one time, shocking or repellent. Perhaps Jones hasn’t been illogical enough in setting out the parameters of Surrealist strategies. The exhibition is fairly didactic, being arranged in discrete sections devoted to distinct approaches: among them, frottage, collage, decalcomania, and cadavre exquis, the collaborative Surrealist parlor game. Does the Morgan show conjure up a milieu wherein (as a chapter heading has it) “works on paper [are] in service of the revolution”? Not a chance: a woozy mildness prevails.

Which is welcome given a context that was (in Breton’s words) “beyond all aesthetic or moral preoccupation.” Of course, how much viewers cotton to the visions of Pavel Tchelitchew, Federico Castellón, Leonora Carrington, and Alfonso Ossorio will depend on one’s taste for distant vistas populated by (as a friend bluntly put it) “icky tits-and-ass.” Over-exposure to Surrealist imagery inevitably calls into question its conventions, and pinpoints how meager—how humdrum, really—the imagination can be. It’s worth recalling that Freud, the sine qua non of Surrealist thought, considered Dalí’s conscious mind more interesting than his unconscious mind, and that Alberto Giacometti broke with Surrealism because of its strictures, likening the school’s practices to masturbation. In the end, Surrealism proved a finite and unyielding ethos.

url-1Man Ray, Untitled (Abstract “Smoke”) (1928), gelatin silver, rayograph print, 9-5/8″ x 7-7/8″

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Surrealism found its truest expression in artists who stepped outside the purviews of self and followed the exigencies of their materials. The inherent disjunction of collage lent itself to provocative, often funny and, in the case of the unapproachable Joseph Cornell, tender ruminations on culture and memory. Early experiments in dripping and blotting will look dated (or easy) to contemporary eyes, but not so the pictorial freedom it allowed Miró, Masson, Arshile Gorky, Matta, Pollock, Richard Pousette-Dart, and, albeit through a long and tortuous process, Mark Rothko. The lone anomalous inclusion at the Morgan is Ellsworth Kelly who, even at his loosest, is a quintessential classicist. But credit Jones with rescuing Man Ray from his own dilettantism. She’s done an impeccable job of winnowing through the photograms and selecting a handful of exquisite apparitions. For those alone, Drawing Surrealism is a must-see.

© 2013 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 2013 edition of The New Criterion.

“Painting On Paper; Josef Albers in America” at The Morgan Library & Museum

Josef Albers, Color Study for White Line Square (not dated), oil on blotting paper with gouache, pencil and varnish; courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum and The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

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Painting On Paper; Josef Albers in America is exactly what we’ve come to expect from The Morgan Library: a precisely calibrated exhibition centered on a finite aesthetic compass, a specialist’s delight that nonetheless has tangible pleasures to offer the layman. It’s also a rare treat to witness Albers, that most pedantic of artists, let down his guard.

Josef Albers (1888-1976) embodied the principles of the Bauhaus, the influential German art school founded in 1919. Though he attended other institutions, Albers’s studies at the Bauhaus and, in particular, with color theorist Johannes Itten proved decisive. Albers began teaching at the Bauhaus in 1923 and became a full professor at the school’s Dessau outpost two years later. The Bauhaus closed in 1933 under pressure from the Nazi regime—the school’s teachings not being sufficiently Aryan.

Albers and his wife Anni subsequently left for the United States, both of them having accepted teaching posts at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. (“Germans to Teach Art Near Here” reads a December 1933 article from the Asheville Citizen.) But it was Albers appointment as Dean of Yale’s Design Department in 1950 and the publication of his seminal text Interaction of Color that codified his historical standing. Albers’s signature suite of paintings, collectively titled Homage to the Square, put into practice the goal of “maximum effect with a minimum of means.”

Josef Albers, Color Study for Homage to the Square (not dated), oil on blotting paper with gouache, pencil and varnish; courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum and The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

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Truth to tell, a little of Homage of the Square goes a long way–sometimes minimum means result in minimum ends. Seen en masse, Albers chromatic and compositional structures—always effective, invariably inflexible–lend themselves more to finger tapping and clock-watching than aesthetic contemplation. Still, among the surprises at the Morgan is the first of the series—a rarely exhibited panel rendered in, of all things, black and white. For aficionados of Modernism’s more austere outposts, this inclusion has to count as something of an event.

The majority of Josef Albers in America is dedicated to informal studies on paper. Covered with scrawled notations, flurried applications of color and grease stains, they reveal Albers’s rigorous methodology at its most approachable. No Platonic exegeses here, thank you; instead we have the remnants of work-a-day life in the studio. The Morgan show allows us to experience Albers as a man given to curiosity and play—and it prompts double-takes.

Did you know that this most stringent of pedagogues relied largely on colors used straight from the tube or that his insistence on “hands off” surfaces didn’t preclude experiments with varnishes? Contemporary sensibilities will relish the diaristic nature of Albers’s works-on-paper and, in the case of the lush tangencies of Variant/Adobe, Study for Four Central Warm Colors Surrounded by 2 Blues (ca. 1948), swoon to them. Elsewhere, Albers daubs to charming effect, toys with perspective and posits Mexico as “the promised land of abstract art”—all the while exemplifying one man’s “craziness about color.”

© 2012 Mario Naves

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