Tag Archives: The Museum of Modern Art

“Cindy Sherman” at The Museum of Modern Art

Mural from Cindy Sherman at The Museum of Modern Art; courtesy MOMA

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What would art be without fiction—that is to say, without the allusive sweep of metaphor?

Literature, music, painting, poetry, dance, film—you name it, every medium thrives when it embodies something beyond its material means. “Art that conceals art” is old news, of course, but that’s not to say it isn’t desirable or, in fact, an ongoing necessity. The human animal has craved the stuff since Day One.

Nowadays, you know, we’re more advanced than that. Fiction—it’s so passé. At least, that’s the lesson of Cindy Sherman, an eponymous retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

Devotees of the postmodernist pioneer would argue otherwise. Hasn’t Sherman been devoted to fiction or, at least, its attendant limitations since the first time she planted herself in front of a camera? She’s made a substantial career assuming an array of divergent identities, among them B-movie ingénue, corpse, biker chick, fashionista, fairy tale princess, Upper East Side dowager, pinup girl and, in a recent work, an Icelandic Norma Desmond.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #359 (2000); courtesy MOMA

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Sherman’s photographs are purposefully ersatz in costume and affect. Caked-on makeup, thrift shop wigs, garish mood lighting, cut-rate stage sets, desultory photographic technique and thank God for the advent of Photoshop—artifice is Sherman’s all. Arrant contrivance is a tool for investigating “the construction of contemporary identity,” “the nature of representation” and “the tyranny…of images.”

Reasonable avenues of inquiry, I suppose, but there’s a difference between inhabiting an invented persona and, as one wit had it, pretending to pretend. Novelty tits and a blank stare don’t prompt much in the way of sociological insight, let alone create a compelling fiction. The purpose they serve is to let us know that Cindy Sherman—front, center and oddly puritanical—is calling the shots. Here is an artist who doesn’t—or can’t—venture beyond the strictures of self. No amount of irony can redeem her cold, callow art.

© 2012 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 7, 2012 edition of City Arts.

Willem De Kooning, R.I.P.

Willem de Kooning, Excavation (1950), oil on canvas, 81″ x 100-1/4″; courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago

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De Kooning: A Retrospective is a sad experience not least because its trajectory is clear, cruel and swift.

No, I’m not talking about the awful inevitability of the “Alzheimer’s Pictures”: those pallid rehashes of de Kooning’s glory phase (see photo above) orchestrated by his dealer Xavier Fourcade, his estranged wife Elaine de Kooning and myriad assistants–by everyone, in fact, but the artist himself.

Rather, it’s the promising, at moments thrilling and ultimately deflating story of a draftsman possessed of angelic gifts whose knack for color existed only when he excised it altogether and whose signature, whiplash touch deteriorated into a splashy, frustrated mannerism. The Woman paintings–they were infamous in bygone feminist days; can they be “famous” in our post-everything age?–are especially desperate. They come off as one compulsive’s quest for a resolution that was never forthcoming. Perfectionism is, by definition, an impossible pursuit.

At the Times, ever brainy Holland Cotter discerns a link between de Kooning  and “the single most influential art movement of the 20th century”, Conceptualism. Go figure.

Click here for my review of MOMA’s 1997 overview of de Kooning’s late work and here for my thoughts on the de Kooning that might have been.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Dynamic Duo: Pat Lay and Theresa Ellerbock at Sideshow Gallery

sfl17

Pat Lay, SFL4OVO #17 (2010), collaged digital images on Epson archival paper mounted on archival museum board with MDF and wood backing, 85″ x 60″; courtesy Sideshow Gallery

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What is it with Rich Timperio and duos? Timperio–painter, arts impresario and Williamsburg pioneer–has made a specialty of mounting two-person exhibitions at Sideshow, the gallery he opened in 1999.

(In the interest of full disclosure: Timperio has included my work in the last few editions of Sideshow’s winter group exhibitions.)

Sideshow is a good-sized space, though not as encompassing as some of the hangar-like Chelsea spaces we could name, and decidedly hamish in tone: No attitude at the front desk. On a mission to provide “a stage for unseen work”, Timperio dedicates significant exhibition space to mid-career artists who can’t otherwise get a fair shake in a scene that values blue chip merchandise, youngsters fresh out of art school and not much in-between. Why Timperio has made a habit of pairing artists is anyone’s guess. But you know what? He’s got a knack for it.

Take Sideshow’s current exhibition featuring Theresa Ellerbock and Pat Lay. Their work would seem to have little in common. Ellerbock trades in material nuance: paper and fabric are stitched together in geometric arrangements so gently stated–so fragile, really–they barely qualify as geometry at all. Lay’s totem-like sculptures and digital collages don’t abjure tactility, but, instead, coolly yoke it to a post-Dadaist Futurism: imagine Metropolis as funneled through the age of virtual reality. My initial response upon seeing this mismatched pair was:  What the hell is Timperio thinking?

But first glances lead to second glances and second glances to second thoughts, all of which ultimately revealed deep-seated correspondences–between structure and pattern, between piecemeal construction, compositional intricacy, frontal compositions and technology, both confirmed (Ellerbock’s insistence on the textural integrity of materials) and subverted (Lay’s contriving Persian carpets, or something like them anyway, from reproductions of computer motherboards).

In the end, Ellerbock and Lay bounce off the other in ways that are surprising, enlivening and not a little quirky. Give the ladies a hand. But don’t forget Timperio, who divined commonalities that do both artists proud.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Summer Doldrums

Photo courtesy of Eno Bull

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It’s summer-time, the livin’ is easy and the art critic is lazy. Not altogether lazy–my reviews of exhibitions by Kirk Stoller, Li Songsong and Sigmar Polke will be appearing in next week’s edition of City Arts and, of course, here. But, otherwise, I’d rather spend the next month or two either (a) in the studio or (b) visiting old favorites–minus, that is, the note-taking.

Knowing the blogosphere as the perpetually voracious animal that it is, I thought I’d use the summer months to stock up on the archives and re-visit pieces I haven’t thought about it in years. Here’s one I forgot about altogether, its memory having been usurped by a more thorough investigation of the same topic a year later.

PoMo MoMA

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #474 (2008), chromogenic color print, 90-3/4″ x 60″; courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures

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If your idea of a good time–or, at least, of art–is watching someone pretend to pretend, then you’ll be gladdened by the news that New York’s Museum of Modern Art will be mounting a full-scale retrospective of work by Cindy Sherman in February 2012.

The museum tells us that Sherman is “arguably the most influential artist working exclusively with photography” and that her oeuvre is “the unchallenged cornerstone of Post-Modern photography.” Makes you wonder: how unchallenged can it be if Sherman’s influence is still being argued?

As someone who finds Sherman’s early B-movie ingenue photos clever-but-not-more and all her subsequent pictures gratuitous-and-not-less, I’ll argue that Post-Modernism is what happens when mildly talented artists with limited imaginations become enamored of their own specious intellectualizing. Careerist nihilism is invariably disagreeable (witness the Met’s The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984) and usually condescending. Whether Sherman’s art holds any surprises will have to be seen next year.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Enough Already

Willem de  Kooning, 1982. Photographs by Linda McCartney.

Linda McCartney, Willem de Kooning (1982)

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How disappointing is the news that MOMA will be mounting a retrospective of work by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) in the fall of 2011?  Sure, Attic (1949) and Excavation (1950) remain miracles of painterly finesse and masterpieces of American modernism–hell, masterpieces of modernism period. But notwithstanding a bracing painting here and there, de Kooning basically shot his artistic wad round about the time he submitted the female form to his patented brand of slash-and-burn cubism. After that, the slide into mannerism was fitful but precipitous, culminating in the “Alzheimer’s Paintings”, pictures whose lack of purpose and elasticity is heartbreaking to behold.

Every generation needs a refresher course in history, I suppose, and John Elderfield, MOMA’s Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting And Sculpture and organizer of the upcoming retrospective, has the eye and the acumen to pull a revelatory rabbit or two out of his hat. But there’s something so, well, boring about the choice of de Kooning as the subject of appraisal, reappraisal, whatever. There’s been no shortage of recent exhibitions dedicated to the Dutchman–Larry Gagosian mounted a handsome encomium a few years back–and you’d think the hometown crowd would have had its fill of New York School triumphalism and its usual suspects. Isn’t it time somebody questioned the standard historical narrative? Another iteration of the received wisdom, we don’t need.

George J. McNeil, Dingbat discoGeorge McNeil, Dingbat Disco (1982), oil, sand and twine on canvas, 56″ x 65″

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The most exciting thing about MOMA’s recent Abstract Expressionist New York exhibition was the gritty intensity of early Robert Motherwell, the show-stealing bravura of Alfred Leslie and the slow-burning intensity of Richard Pousette-Dart–that is to say, painters usually sloughed off as second- and third-tier players. Norman Bluhm is a problematic painter–so, too, are William Baziotes and Jack Tworkov–but, over the long haul, these not-so-usual suspects were more consistent, more flexible, more rigorous and more searching than de Kooning or, at least, post-1950 de Kooning. Can you imagine what a George McNeil retrospective at MOMA might look like? Neither can MOMA.That’s the problem and our loss.

© 2011 Mario Naves

William Kentridge at The Museum of Modern Art

William Kentridge. Drawing from <i>Stereoscope</i> 1998–99. Charcoal, pastel, and colored pencil on paper, 47 1/4 x 63" (120 x 160 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of The Junior Associates of The Museum of Modern Art, with special contributions from Anonymous, Scott J. Lorinsky, Yasufumi Nakamura, and The Wider Foundation

William Kentridge, Drawing from Stereoscope (1998-99), charcoal, pastel and colored pencil on paper, 47-1/4″ x 63″; courtesy MOMA

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Included in the catalogue accompanying William Kentridge: Five Themes, an important if ultimately exasperating exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, is a DVD featuring preparatory studies for several of the artist’s animated films and theatrical projects. Admirers of Kentridge’s poetic indictments of racism, industrialization, and arrant capitalism will gain insight into a working process that is more meticulous than the finished pieces necessarily let on. This is to Kentridge’s credit. Given the resolutely handmade nature of his finest work—stop-motion films made from constantly worked and re-worked charcoal drawings—overt fussiness would only diminish its gritty, elusive spell. But the DVD also sheds light on Kentridge’s greatest liability: an aesthetic hubris that has, with increasing frequency, come to dominate a singular accomplishment.

It’s there to see on the DVD’s menu. The table of contents is placed against a white wall riddled with black smudges—it’s the artist’s studio. Shortly after the screen comes up, Kentridge—portly, balding, slump-shouldered, and possessed of distinctive bushy eyebrows—wanders in from stage left, stopping just short of the DVD’s text. He’s dressed in a white shirt, black pants, and black shoes: a costume as codified as Joseph Beuys’s safari gear or Andy Warhol’s platinum wig. Kentridge engages in low-key mugging; crossing his hands and feigning mild bewilderment, he comes across as an unkempt, middle-management Buster Keaton. It’s a cute moment, but it’s also clearly a star turn and, as such, off-putting in its presumed self-deprecation. Kentridge’s art has, based on the evidence at MOMA, increasingly become a means for self-congratulation. The DVD cameo is a small example of a disheartening tendency.

False modesty, after all, doesn’t become an artist who gained international renown for his moral center. Born in 1955 in Johannesburg, South Africa, Kentridge decided on a life of art, turning away from the “family business”—his parents had achieved national prominence as lawyers working against the policies of Apartheid. Kentridge studied and taught printmaking, but theater and mime classes taken during a year spent in Paris were pivotal. Upon returning to Johannesburg, Kentridge devoted himself to drawing, all the while harboring doubts about an artist’s cultural role, doubts engendered by self-consciousness about his race (white), ethnicity (Jewish), and the “rather desperate provincial city” he called home. In 1989, he created Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris, the first of nine short films that took as their basis South Africa’s troubled social structure.

But don’t mistake the series, collectively titled 9 Drawings, as agitprop. Kentridge’s impetus and imagery are, admittedly, blatant: Soho Eckstein, the chief protagonist in the films, is the cliché of the cigar-chomping corporate fat cat; elsewhere, racial oppression and economic inequities are depicted with heartbreaking candor, patent outrage, and little room for interpretation. Kentridge’s draftsmanship, keyed to an encompassing black, is harsh and graphic, recalling Goya, Daumier, and Käthe Kollwitz. But the best analogy may be to the great German painter Max Beckmann.

Like Beckmann’s deeply astringent art, Kentridge’s work is anchored by portent that is beyond the realm of logical explanation, but not in the least bit Surrealistic. As a consequence, Kentridge’s stock characters and situations are interrupted, augmented, and, with astonishing stealth, redeemed by narrative and symbolic shifts of emphasis. The Eckstein character, for instance, turns out to be more multifaceted and sympathetic than one might expect. That Kentridge’s dreamlike elisions are as inevitable as they are inexplicable goes some way in explaining his stark and novel gift.

Kentridge’s art is, in fact, counterintuitive: political anger and philosophical suasion are sharpened by his embrace of mutability. Kentridge is, in his own allusive manner, an ideologue skeptical of ideology. The process by which he creates the films both makes blunt this attribute and renders it subtle. We watch as charcoal drawings transform themselves before our eyes, their smudgy range of tones fluttering, coalescing, and just as swiftly dissipating. Erasures morph into an oncoming tide; a ledger turns into a raging current. Diagrams become corporeal and a banker drowns in his own tears. Flesh—whether black, white, torn, beaten, or caressed—is rendered with breathtaking tenderness. (Kentridge is the rare contemporary artist capable of evoking sex as a coefficient of love.) The films are defiantly grubby and purposefully primitive. The manner in which they stutter and shift is reminiscent of the silent cinema—at MOMA, you can watch a Kentridge homage to the Meliès Brothers, whose roughhewn work is suited to his dour and pointed visions.

Drawing is the inescapable foundation of Kentridge’s artistry, but film provides it with lyricism and life. The actual works on paper are disappointing; without the camera providing momentum and fluidity, the images are lumpy and undistinguished. They are political cartoons rather than provocations imbued with grace—the relative intangibility of film is vital to Kentridge’s art. The work that follows upon 9 Drawings is more expressly physical and, not coincidentally, gimmicky. The method that informs Stereoscope (1998–1999), the finest installment of 9 Drawings, is diminished when put into the service of mechanized puppet shows, mini-dioramas, and multiscreen video installations. The latter suffer from being tech-heavy, over-orchestrated, and arty. The Dadaesque figurines featured in Black Box (2005) are compelling when static, but when they pirouette, run, and galumph they’re no more than wind-up contrivances. A puppet show favoring the puppet-master—or, at least, the computers he’s programmed—has its priorities in the wrong place.

Black Box is a meditation on colonialism—a natural subject for an artist who came of age during Apartheid. But the most remarkable thing about the piece is how unnatural, how forced and pedantic, it is. Kentridge is forever spelling things out for us; the same goes for I Am Not Me, the Horse Is Not Mine (2008), a mishmash denunciation of Stalin’s Russia, and the whimsical The Artist in the Studio (2003). Each is intermittently brilliant—Kentridge’s herky-jerky riffs on Constructivism are particularly delightful—but, on the whole, they’re programmatic and cluttered, all but self-defeating. You begin to realize how much at sea Kentridge has been since the fall of Apartheid. No wonder we see more and more of him in the drawings and films. Deprived of the historical circumstances under which he thrived as an artist, Kentridge indulges passions that are not immediately his own. He’s left only to celebrate his own cleverness. It’s a luxury to which Kentridge is entitled, I guess, but art and history (not to mention politics) benefit from less egotistical preening. 9 Drawings proves the point with brute and haunting elegance. The rest, however, is little more than an impressively convoluted and overambitious postscript.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Originally published in the April 2010 edition of The New Criterion.

Richard Serra at The Museum of Modern Art

Installation of Richard Serra’s sculpture at MOMA

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We’ve all seen them: School groups in museums, attended to by their teachers and led by docents who dutifully introduce them to the world of art. This exposure is meant to encourage curiosity in culture and instill a sense of aesthetic awareness. But art is a hard, if not impossible, sell to children: A lot of its pleasures depend on and are deepened by experience. Plus, most art doesn’t move.

But you’ve got to start somewhere, right? Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years, on view at the Museum of Modern Art, would be an ideal pedagogical tool. It’s certainly kid-friendly. Mr. Serra has transformed the museum from a building full of stuff that’s good for you into a gargantuan playground of sloping corridors, towering hideaways and places to ditch your friends.

That the sculptures are kind of scary increases the fun. A commanding figure in the international scene, Mr. Serra has the pull and reputation to translate his ambitious vision into daunting realities. Anyone encountering his immense, undulating walls of Cor-Ten steel can’t deny the skill with which he draws spectators into the teetering parameters and hollows. Looping like Möbius strips, Mr. Serra’s “torques” engulf the viewer. We don’t look up at them; they look down at us.

Mr. Serra is probably best known for the Tilted Arc controversy. Bisecting Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, his 120-foot-long running steel wall was commissioned by the General Services Administration in 1979 for the sake of the greater good. But to hell with aesthetics: Workers considered it a traffic obstacle. (The sculpture was also accused of attracting rats.) Public art typically functions as a modest complement to a city space. Mr. Serra put the 800-ton gorilla in the town square. Tilted Arc didn’t withstand the notoriety: It was removed and destroyed.

The sculptor’s early efforts are part and parcel of the heady milieu of the late 1960’s. Experiments with rubber, lead and neon reflect the pretensions of Conceptualism, Minimalism and performance art. A title, Remnant(1966-67), a hanging slab of vulcanized rubber, encapsulates the chief characteristic of Mr. Serra’s works around that time: inertia. They’re not self-sustaining art objects, but merely leftovers from specific actions: cutting, for instance, or tearing and splashing. Mr. Serra, in a fleeting moment of humility, admits that the “residues … didn’t always qualify as art.”

Nonetheless, he trumpets their purpose and presence: “Some of [them] were so replete in their exploration of material and the simplicity and singularity of the process that they would go unquestioned.” Has it occurred to Mr. Serra that the questions (forget the answers) weren’t worth the trouble?

The Prop series, dating from the late 60’s and early 70’s, incorporated a much-needed sculptural dimension and an intimidating—because potentially dangerous—equipoise. Utilizing thick lead planks and poles, Mr. Serra employed a house-of-cards logic. (One of the pieces is even subtitled House of Cards.) Precarious balance holds the props together. Four-foot-square sheets of lead touch, lean and balance with alarming necessity. In 2-2-1: To Dickie and Tina (1969-94), a pole glances lightly off a quintet of lead slabs, holding it all together and preventing collapse, disaster and lawsuits. A glass wall cordons the audience away from theProps, presumably because the slightest elbow bump would send them toppling. Threat is vital to Mr. Serra.

He’s a consummate showman, and an unforgiving one. Entering the sixth-floor galleries, visitors come upon Delineator (1974-75). A 10-by-26-foot sheet of steel lies on the floor: just another exercise in unadulterated material, you might think—until you look up. Affixed to the ceiling is another sheet of steel the same size. Mr. Serra’s shtick is to diminish the viewer, making him subservient to art and the artist’s will. Theatrical domination leads to awe—of a sort, anyway. Practicality becomes a focus: Gee, you think, it must’ve been a bitch to get that up on the ceiling.

From the mid-70’s on, Mr. Serra’s sculptures increasingly rely on engineering; the “how” outstrips “why.” This is especially true of Mr. Serra’s three-ring circus on the second floor: a parade of humongous funnels of steel, their surfaces burnished rich and ruddy with rust. Art often feels abandoned in MoMA’s cold and cavernous spaces, but the ebb-and-flow created by Mr. Serra’s edifices does much to remedy the shopping-mall ambiance. They’re great conversation starters: After the novelty of scale and size has lessened, museum-goers can mosey through the torques, squeezing around their edges and taking pleasure in Mr. Serra’s chutzpah and ingenuity. And again, we wonder how the installation crew dealt with these monsters.

Ultimately, Mr. Serra’s tremendous skill is overpowered by hubris. Aesthetics take a backseat to haughty spectacle. Responding to the Tilted Arcimbroglio, Mr. Serra stated that “art is not democratic. It is not for the people.” Engagement with the people? Creating objects that enrich our experience? Mr. Serra is above such mundane matters. He’d rather bully the audience than transfix them.

Perhaps it does take a 7-year-old’s sense of wonder to get around Mr. Serra’s heaving machinations. By the time I got to Torqued Ellipse IV(1998) and Intersection II (1992-93), both ensconced in the sculpture garden, I couldn’t help but smile at how Manhattan’s lofty buildings humanized the sculptures, effectively putting Mr. Serra’s overweening art in its place. The trees peeking over the top of each piece provide a lovely grace note.

Once outside, kids can run around and enjoy themselves without guards shushing them. Adults can inhale deeply and relish the sunlight. No one should have to withstand art for too long.

(c) 2007 Mario Naves

Originally published in the June 4, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.

Brice Marden at The Museum of Modern Art & Sean Scully at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Brice Marden with MOMA exhibition catalgoue; photo: Kendall Herbst

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“Who is Brice Marden painting for?” That’s what one veteran painter asked after visiting the Brice Marden retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Feeling impressed but dispassionate, he observed: “It’s as if Marden constantly looks over his shoulder as he paints.”

In a 1976 interview, Mr. Marden answered the question: “I paint for myself. I paint for my wife … really at heart, [I paint for] anybody who wants to see it.”

Every artist wants an appreciative audience; otherwise, what’s the point? A painting is there to be seen, implicitly, by someone else. All the same, there’s a difference between taking an audience into account and playing to the crowd. Mr. Marden fits into the latter category, and it’s worth pondering who—or what—constitutes the “crowd.”

The standard complaint about Mr. Marden is that he’s elegant to a fault, whether it’s applied to the early monochromatic canvases that put him on the map or the expansive networks of looping calligraphic lines that he’s pursued in recent years. It’s an apt, if frequent, criticism: Mr. Marden rarely shakes off his penchant for the immaculately contrived mark. He can’t help but advertise his own good taste when putting brush to canvas.

In that regard, he has something in common with Sean Scully, another contemporary abstract painter with a major reputation. Mr. Scully’s recent paintings, drawings and prints are featured in Wall of Light, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sean Scully Raphael 2004 oil on linen, 108 x 144 inches Courtesy Galerie Lelong

Sean Scully, Raphael (2004), oil on canvas, 108″ x 144″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Mr. Marden and Mr. Scully clearly take inspiration from Abstract Expressionism: the encompassing “American scale” of painters like Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko; the romantic notion that nonrepresentational form can carry spiritual portent; the conviction that art-making is a quest of heroic proportions. The work of both men is inconceivable without the example set by the New York School.

It’s equally true that their careers have been predicated on slipping out from under its imposing shadow by looking to cultures and epochs far removed from our own.

At Mr. Marden’s MoMA show, there’s a suite of painfully self-conscious collages using reproductions of antique sculptures and paintings by Goya and Fra Angelico to highlight the tradition in which he works. The Cold Mountain series and subsequent canvases are equally frank, if more circumspect, about his debt to Asian art, especially Japanese calligraphy.

Mondrian, Rothko and Philip Guston inform Mr. Scully’s stacked arrays of jutting blocks of color. His palette—smoldering, dusky, elegiac and occasionally punctuated by vibrant tones—points to the blacks, grays and tans found in the paintings of Goya, Zurbarán and Velázquez.

These links to precedent are palpable and admirable. Tradition or, as Mr. Marden has it, “that one big thing,” is a vital force, an indispensable foundation. Yet what do Mr. Marden and Mr. Scully contribute to that tradition, really?

Mr. Marden’s prowess with color is indisputable: Any painter whose palette is unnamable, even when a canvas is dedicated to a single hue, clearly possesses a gift. The Whitney’s tripartite Summer Table (1972-73) is, in its implacable richness, almost impossibly evocative. The later canvases are defined more by drawing than painting, but his ever broadening line admits to velvety and, at times, lurid tones.

Mr. Scully’s talent is for color as well. You’ve got to love how a lone vertical slab of brooding green anchors Barcelona White Bar (2004), an orchestration of deep reds, oranges and grays. However bulky and monolithic the compositions, Mr. Scully’s palette enlivens them with bold rhythms and counter-rhythms.

Overall, however, the handsomeness of both men’s work is suffocating.

Mr. Marden is incapable of making an honest mark. However intuitive, spontaneous and worked his surfaces and brushwork appear, they are calculated from the get-go. Effect, not exploration, defines the work. A colleague suggests that placing a Marden canvas next to a vintage Pollock would offer an eye-opening comparison. I’m more inclined to see how one would fare alongside a Richard Diebenkorn painting; Mr. Marden’s pictorial techniques have their basis in Diebenkorn’s quietly tenacious process.

If Mr. Marden flaunts his sensitivity, Mr. Scully bullies the room. It’s not an unappealing approach: Forthrightness, even arrogance, can be bracing in art. But Mr. Scully is content to reiterate compositional formulas—his puzzle-like variations on the grid are, at this date, a trope that has lost its reason for being. The wisps of bright color that peek out from behind the crevices of his geometries are an easy and annoying mannerism. The physicality of his paint-handling is, in its own way, as overbearing as Mr. Marden’s and sometimes confused: The touch is often woolly and vague when it wants to be fleshy or architectural.

Mr. Marden and Mr. Scully deserve our attention, in part for the modest pleasures their work affords, but more so as signposts of our jumbled culture. They are modernists pointing not to new possibilities, but to pictorial platitudes that go down too easily to inspire great art.

History is the audience these two painters play to, and in the end, it’s their straitjacket. Tradition develops and mutates, often when artists least expect it. Henri Matisse, a painter both men admire, knew that tradition reveals its continuities and truths only when ruthlessly called into question. Mr. Marden and Mr. Scully are too cozy and too polite in their expertise to stretch that far. Sometimes culture wants something a bit rude—as do the rest of us.

© 2006 Mario Naves

Originally published in the December 10, 2006 edition of The New York Observer.

Edvard Munch at The Museum of Modern Art

Here’s an ironclad guarantee: Visitors to Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul, an overview of paintings, drawings and prints by the Norwegian artist at the Museum of Modern Art, will snap to attention upon entering the second gallery of the exhibition.

The canvases that greet the viewer there—Despair (1892), Angst (1894) and Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892)—won’t necessarily be identifiable as individual pictures, though the latter two should be familiar to Munch aficionados. Rather it is their cumulative impact that rings a bell. Piece the paintings together—an undulating blood-red sky here, a gaunt figure there and a careening rush of space—and you essentially have The Scream (1893), Munch’s signature masterwork and one of the most widely recognized images in the world.

Is there anyone who hasn’t come across this painting reproduced in one form or another? Surely somewhere there’s an art-history graduate student busy cataloging all the ways this stark vision of psychological terror has been co-opted. A purveyor of novelty items offers a life-size, inflatable version of Munch’s grimacing everyman—perfect for Halloween! A political button from 1992 asks the question “President Quayle?” with The Scream printed as a backdrop. The list goes on. The picture has become as enduring (if inadvertent) a popular symbol as the Pillsbury Doughboy or Andy Warhol’s Marilyn. Commercial culture, ever omnivorous, makes for strange bedfellows.

A measure of the painting’s hold on the imagination can be seen in its dramatic theft from Oslo’s Munch Museum in 2004. It has yet to be found (another version was stolen, then recovered, a decade earlier). Munch painted four variations altogether. The definitive one resides in the National Gallery in Oslo, an institution that is presumably unwilling to let it travel. Cultural patrimony is to be safeguarded, particularly if it involves a nation’s most significant painter.

In a recent news report, MoMA director Glenn Lowry pooh-poohed the absence of The Scream from their current exhibition, insisting that the curators never considered it indispensable. New Yorkers visiting The Modern Life of the Soul must settle for two lithographs of The Scream, one augmented with watercolor, along with the aforementioned rebus-like re-creation from three disparate canvases.

All the same, the icon’s failure to appear does prove that Munch was no one-hit wonder. The Scream, however singular in terms of its reach, is just one part of the flow of anxiety that surges through the oeuvre. The Sick Child (1896), the hellishly erotic Madonna (1894-95), The Dance of Life (1899-1900), Vampire(1893), Red Virginia Creeper (1900) and, if you believe the curators at MoMA,Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed (1940-42)—each painting encapsulates the artist’s preoccupations with physical vulnerability, sexual avarice, emotional alienation and the futility of faith.

Munch’s work can seem prophetic. A line can be drawn from his nightmarish narcissism to Expressionist art, certainly, but also to a century preoccupied with Freudian theory and to contemporary figures like Matthew Barney and (I insist) Oprah Winfrey. Munch’s art helped to usher in a culture wherein an unapologetic celebration of self, however unsavory or amoral, is considered a societal good or, at least, a societal necessity. In this view of things, coherently realized artistic statements are hopelessly antiquated and beside the point. Self-expression is paramount, catharsis the goal. Letting it all hang out is Munch’s legacy.

Kynaston McShine, the exhibition’s curator, demurs. He argues for the universality of Munch’s art. “Through his own will and force,” Mr. McShine writes, “the narrative of Munch’s life and work somehow transforms his personal experiences into a far-reaching examination of … ‘the modern life of the soul.’” (The phrase is the artist’s own.) Yet how modern was Munch as a painter? He was knowledgeable about contemporary developments in art—Munch’s Impressionist pictures, though minor, aren’t unsophisticated. The later paintings, with their choppy, impatient brushwork, betray more than a passing acquaintance with the art of Paul Cézanne and the Fauves.

Yet the best work, dating largely from the 1890’s, draws its strength not from Munch’s sophistication, but from his remove from the radical artistic changes that came to be known as modernism. Isolation can limit an artist’s ability to channel tradition; it can make the work seem small or rootless. In Munch’s case, though, isolation was a boon—it compelled him to bring forth a world defined by its own cloistered logic. The resulting stylistic quirks are indelible and true.

The land is morphing and liquid, the rhythms slow and agitated. Flesh is membranous and taut, as if it could barely contain the contents of the body. Shadows are rendered concrete. Color is reduced to a dour blur. Paint is slurred, wispy. The individuality of figures is subsumed by mood or symbolic portent. Metabolism (1899), with its cadaverous Adam and Eve, posits a world immune to good works. Fertility (1898) is a curse on spring, The Kiss (1892) a eulogy for love. The wonder of the paintings is not how effectively they embody dread, but how blithely they avoid looking ridiculous. Visionary excess, not pictorial skill, counts for a lot in them.

Munch’s paintings of the 20th century—and it is somewhat surprising to realize that he lived to 1944—form a disappointing coda to a decade that witnessed paintings as evocative as The Storm (1893) and Mystery of the Beach (1892). Indeed, modernism ruined Munch. The final galleries at MoMA overflow with the work of a 19th-century sensibility that couldn’t fully grasp the radical artistic transformations taking place around him. The results were a flurry of fractured surface effects and painterly affectations that fatally detract from the dark, unbounded poetry of Munch’s imagery.

The decline in pictorial authority is particularly telling in the part of the exhibition devoted to self-portraiture. Here the canvas isn’t a means for exploring the depths of character, but a mirror for preening. However spooked or existential he may appear, Munch the artist trumps Munch the human being. Display, not insight, is the chief attribute of these paintings.

You need only compare works like Self-Portrait in Bergen (1916) or Self-Portrait by the Window (c.1940) to almost any self-portrait by Max Beckmann or, especially, Pierre Bonnard to sense the emotional fraudulence and self-serving nature of Munch’s efforts in this vein. It is one thing to give body to ugly, confessional emotions. It is quite another to advertise them. Therein lies the distinction between Munch’s art of the 1890’s and the hasty pictures that followed in its long, all but negligible wake.

© 2006 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 12, 2006 edition of The New York Observer.