Tag Archives: The Met

worldviews collide in “crossroads” at the met

“Crossroads”; a tripartite ongoing installation (check metmuseum.org for three current gallery locations)

With The M.C. Rockefeller galleries at the Met closed for a major renovation, just a few works from the permanent collection of African, ancient American, and Oceanic art have found temporary homes elsewhere.  A figurative sculpture from Mali by a Dogon artist stands out in one section of the small integrative exhibition, “Crossroads,” subtitled “Power and Piety,” installed at a crossing gallery between areas of, primarily, European Medieval art. The Dogon work is presented in striking juxtaposition with a German carved polychrome “Black Magus” — both are about life-size and probably made within a century of each other on either side of c. 1500 (the European work more securely dated); both assume distinct gestures that suggest animation.

The stylistic variance is stark—one with simplified, tubular anatomy and one with naturalistic detail. One emphasizing biological sex and gender (genitals; beard, puffed chest), one, a covered, ambiguous body–identified, iconographicly (king/male). Renditions of the apocryphal king Balthazar, who met his regal peers from afar at the Bethlehem bedside of the (white) baby Christ, as the Black African magus was just becoming popular in Adoration scenes throughout Europe. So one is an insider and one an outsider vision of an African spiritual “ancestor”? Through this pairing I suddenly saw the European work much more as a votive than the proto-Renaissance foray into realist form that is often emphasized in analyses of European art of the era. Both sculptures tap into ancestor worship common to most mystic traditions. One disregards concepts of “others” with an idealized portrayal of members of its local audience; one subsumes and familiarizes an “other” beyond its real viewers.

The eroded condition of the Dogon work probably is due partly to ritual use outdoors and its periodic moving in and out of storage. Its aesthetic value in its own society depended on its effectiveness in its intended spiritual functions–inextricable from its form. Not at all was preservation in perpetuity prioritized in this time and place for this object type, pace the mimetic magus meant to stand forever in the altar tableau in which he was first displayed. In fact, not much is known about the production, use, or transport of this specific Dogon work.  The brief accompanying text beneath the pair, followed by object labels, is rather vague: “Two wood figures embody similar responses … ” –  similar for/to whom? Don’t get me wrong … I really like this thinking and thought-eliciting exhibition. Its vagaries (almost any object and juxtaposition could be stretched to fit the themes) are also its strengths in potentially rotating the permanent collection in new ways.

Then again, oversimplifications implying close “comparison” can seem to force, in some cases, similarity over differance* —or a differentiation between object/image qualities and the paradoxes of culture-crossing that can illuminate. (*Sorry to dredge up Derrida, but sometimes his neologisms do make sense).

The depiction of the black magus seems individualized (i.e., portrait-like) and flattering in balance and proportion; a representation which, however, turns on the sartorial signification of European (“white”) Christian patrons to whom it was primarily addressed. Perhaps the museum texts could be a bit more probing – or, a provocation to viewers to question how and why and what this pairing might evoke about the past in various contexts–emphasizing the inevitable Western perspective/s in which these … effigies (?) are engulfed.

The veneration of bodily and object relics of earthly turned-to-divine beings is shared across the globe as well as time, addressed here with the juxtaposition of a French carved wood (with polychrome traces), stiff and frontal Virgin and Child (c. 1200), and a small-scale, intricately-worked Tibetan brass sculpture in the form of a stupa (c. 1500) or early Buddhist temple.  The Christian work has a hidden compartment, an element prevalent in many medieval free-standing images of Christian saints, partially differentiating them from full-on “idols” (challenged in the juxtaposition discussed above, as mentioned, in terms of the Christian work). In fact, this element is rarely emphasized in assessments of medieval sculpture for focus on developments in sculptural figuration. The Virgin Mary is “the church”– building, vessel, in Catholic theology. Inversely, the architectural stupa invokes the incarnate as well as spirit of the Buddha (along with some of his enlightened “helpers”).   

Other pairings in this section include colossi (some in fragment form) from Egypt, Rome, and Meso-America that obviously conjoin godly and earthly omnipotence. 

The two other clusters are somewhat more narrow and subdued, but interesting, namely Spanish interaction with the Americas and the Far East; and Greco-Near Eastern overlaps in “mythical beast” types. Collectively, again, the overall curatorial concept points to potential for creative, ongoing gallery re-arrangements of the permanent collection, on the heels of relevant ideological shifts in postwar museology broadly.

Goya and nft’s: tragedy and Farce (each in more ways than one)

Obligatory comment on the “nonfungible token” (NFT) craze;

Goya’s Graphic Imagination; at The Met, through May 2, 2021.

Everyone interested in any way in “contemporary art” must comment on the development and encroachment of NFTs — virtual-only stuff stored in cyberspace in that makes Photoshop-minded and delivered imagery seem archaic –into the elite art world.  In some ways, art collecting always been that way–i.e., about chancing a “find” that would accrue in cultural as well as financial value in some sort of tandem. There’s been admiration, in retrospect, for collectors and dealers who made and jumped waves, individually and as part of art world cabals, variously near- and far-sighted; in short, part of what reifies art, artists, and artistic directions in history. Almost too obvious to be said, media and materials as well as what may be, in many cases, mementos of a particular moment in historical time (aka artificial [human-made] things) evolve.   There is evidence that elite members of a number of very ancient peoples sponsored the creation of symbolic and/or documentary “tokens” (art; artifacts), perhaps musing far into the future. 

It has been a tenet of many art dealers working with living artists across at least two centuries: don’t buy art only as investment–barely such a thing as sure-fire in the early days; make sure you like it as art or you may ultimately be very disappointed in more ways than one. Somewhere c. 1990 (formulating gradually under Reaganomics) that changed and so now we’re here with the crypto-currency crowd buying up code.   Who is shocked?

There is only so far I want to go with this after so much more explicit blabber, better and worse; honestly, I am not that interested. The idea that novelty per se in any form seems to have a kind of instinctual appeal and titillation for many, itself provokes mild curiosity. Specifically, I do believe the recent rise of this one particular $million sale of an NFT by the artist Beeple this week marks a pending final death knell for a postwar art world that survived the first decades of the new millennium (for better and worse).   Late boomers (me) have remained tethered to a mixed sensual and psychic interaction with art by any means (i.e., art in person, wherever, however – even if its in a booth or isolated place on a screen yet presented as the surround of the art). Traipsing through the galleries and museums of NYC for all sorts of reasons and non-reason and in many different hats and contexts–that was a norm and a boon and a privilege in New York for the art-leaning (in myriad directions). Whatever the exclusionary, financial-and-other scandal-laden networks of elite New York art dealers and galleries for several centuries now, the fact remains that their respective office spaces (as it were) have been largely open to anyone to peruse art for free. For many of us art-loving plebes the galleries were en route every day or a frequent small detour, if not a full-blown scene. That “norm” has drastically changed now in more ways than one. Veritably all art and general interest journals and newspapers cover physical art through online interaction.  Covid-19 of course is tied up in the kind of synchronistic event that is the Beeple sale. Certainly the gallery sphere appears to be headed to a wholly virtual reorganization very quickly. Likewise, some museums, spurred by the pandemic to be sure, are nearly saturated, even in online presentations, with digital bells and whistles.  So this blog was started at the the tail end of that era and the crest of addiction to “art on Instagram” that everyone acquired in isolation. We’ll see what happens.

For the moment, I reacted to the hype with an antidote–the sensitive, Gothicizing works on paper of Goya at The Met.  Goya is a good go-to when the going gets bad. His often cryptic, sometimes oddly breezy iconography of fear and suffering, especially that humans directly provoke in each other, are visceral at intimate scale, close-up, IRL. I find myself taking, or looking for, “sides” with Goya–not so much politically drawn as emotional and spiritual, in terms of reactions to his miniature mis-en-scenes–here fluid ink-washed drawings are included with his signature scratchy etchings. Images from some of his most renowned series,such as the intricately brutal Disasters of War, still shock–thank goodness. Also included are a few studies of more mainstream period subjects to remind of the stature, training, and assorted patronage of the “enlightened” artist; but the disturbing ones remain most compelling and communicate a soul-searching creative, as well as a unique artistic hand.

Fluff and Flowers: Summer at The Met

At The Met (main building), through July 29, 2018:

Visitors to Versailles 1682 – 1789 


Public Parks, Private Gardens – Paris to Provence

Complementary seasonal shows at The Met, beginning with an artistic tour of 18th-century Versailles:   An excellent mixed-media installation on the sensory experience of visitors to the  extravagant complex developed by the Bourbons.  Do the audio guide, which is not just speechifying, but includes dramatized period anecdotes and recreated probable ambient sounds (nature, music).  An integrated arrangement of carriages, couture, furniture, personal objects, wallpaper, and landscape, architectural, and portrait prints and paintings gives a great overview of varied continental styles of the era, as well as precisely who visited and how—sometimes in costume ruses aimed at avoiding scrutiny for those rich and famous rulers and diplomats who came mainly to party.   Other than to specialized cognoscenti, few artist names will stand out.  Mostly, as you will see, late French Baroque was the result of an ongoing collaborative design machine of similarly well-trained, interchangeable  artists and craftsmen in the shadow of Louis XIV’s maestro, Charles Le Brun,  along with porcelain and tapestry factories.

An abundance of images and objects here are self-referential–related to the ongoing design enrichment of the grounds and palace, including panoramas documenting operatic-scale pomp and ceremony, and amusing zoomorphic, allegorical garden sculptures.  One charming and telling naturalistic painting to note depicts laborers clearing brush, by Hubert Robert, who also stands out with a proto-Impressionist scene of fireworks at night.

Moving into 1800, gardening petered down to the bourgeoisie as a civic and personal craze, as Public Parks, Private Gardens delineates, also through a multi-media presentation that includes botanical illustrations, photographs, diagrams, popular prints, glassware, ceramics, and period gardening accoutrements, as well as painting.  Not unexpectedly, Impressionism reigns. It’s hard to believe that such lovely flowery fluff was once considered art-radical.  Repros inevitably dull the continued fresh-air ambiance and semblance of synaesthetics in the fragrant foliage depicted in work by the original practitioners gathered here, along with bold heritors like Van Gogh and (finally here) Matisse.

Mary Cassatt, Lilacs in a Window (1880-83); in the Public Parks/Private Gardens exhibition, summer 2018 (image from The Met’s Collection database)

Topographic Painting, Worlds Apart: Thomas Cole; Tarsila do Amaral

Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings; through May 13 at The Met (Fifth Avenue building).

Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil; through June 3 at the Museum of Modern Art.

The organization of and examples in The Met’s Thomas Cole exhibition effectively create a transporting experience for viewers that follows the artist’s journeys between England, the United States, and Italy in the early 19th century.  Cole (1801-1848) was the product of an era in which continental aesthetics and art history were becoming consciously intertwined with artistic goals specific to the painting medium, especially; close imitation of both nature and the idealized form of “the ancients” was di rigueur.  Cole breathed air into the former—that is, within meticulously detailed and composed, glazed and polished landscape scenes and scenarios.  Whether portraying a precise locale or synthesizing and staffing various settings into monumental narratives and allegories, his pictures convey credibly atmospheric, weather-y conditions.  This propulsion he shared with peers like Turner and Constable, who are included, among others, for comparative contexts, not least to convey a splurge of individualistic technical flourish apparent beyond overlaps in nascent Romantic sensibilities associated with outliers from The Academy.

Themes broached in Cole’s oeuvre turn on colonial savage versus civilized significations and sublimes, and prescient ecological concerns in tandem with the accelerating Industrial Revolution; but, above all, the cyclical drama of nature, in full light of the encroaching Anthropocene, climactic in his renowned, metaphoric, Course of the Empire series, which is highlighted in a make-shift niche that allows easy cross-referencing between the stages of civilization depicted.

Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973) also created parallel worlds in paint that are nonetheless locally grounded in desert and jungle topographies of her homeland.  At the Modern, viewers are plopped into marshmallow-mound landscapes punctuated by stylized flora and fauna, bright suns, and sometimes bulbous humanoid bodies.  Stand-outs depict un-nameable creatures scuttling along flat bubbles and bands color, encroached upon by out-sized indeterminate foliage and melting cacti.  Part European-modern—Post-Impressionist, Surrealist, abstractionist—and part indigenous, in form, symbolism, and inspirations.  Put another way, Gauguin, Matisse, Tanguy, and Magical Realism milled to morphic and coloristic essences while conveying a real connection to earthy surrounds.

Perceptual Delirium at Met Breuer

Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason, The Met Breuer, though January 14, 2018.

This theme could be twisted to include  just about anything – on the other hand, that’s just it – “twisted” – denotative and connotative —which provides fluid links between the gathered works; and literally provides one of four sectional themes that overlap. By extension, the arbitrary and  relative nature of conventionalized signifiers like numerals and the terminology of reason (logic; rationality).   Everything from dangling wiry grids and other “anxious” Minimalist sculpture by Eva Hesse and Yayoi Kusama (among others); to faux- mystical art-mathematicians like Alfred Jenson and Hanne Darboven; to jittery,  often (not only) feminist videos by Carolee Schneeman and Dara Birnbaum, a requisite early Bruce Nauman body-part examination; to pre-Neo-Geo, entoptic (it fits) drawings and paintings that joggle the optic nerve, especially some South Americans, several seen in big abstraction  shows in NY over the past two seasons—yes, a folded aluminum sculpture by Lygia Paper; and, on another note, her idiosyncratic Brazilian colleague, Helio Oiticica, just off his Whitney retrospective.  Serialist-Minimalists, with their self-perpetuating, spreading compositions (the eternal return of the same, to pull Nietzsche out of context) are juxtaposed here with the raw painterly limbs of Philip Guston, meaty slabs of matter by Paul Thek; and  the nutty painted  people-eaters of Jim Nutt and Peter Saul.  Big hits and misses but overall, well illuminates some shaded aesthetic corners of late 20th century art.  Overall, the show seems to suggest that not only the personal but the perceptual is political—at least by the time it is processed by our sensory and  intellectual consciousness.

Step Right Up: Looking into Seurat’s “Sideshow”

Seurat’s Circus Sideshow, The Met (Fifth Ave.), through May 29.

A subtle masterpiece of modernism, Seurat’s Circus Side Show (Parade de cirque, 1887-88) serves remarkably well as both a specific object of aesthetic investigation and a matrix for an examination of related social themes and worldviews as reflected in broader visual cultural of the era and an array of antecedents.  Compelling all the way on both terrains.

The painting depicts a foreshortened, repousée crowd before a barker and a band of musicians on platforms at the entrance to a cirque; ostensibly a “realistic” scene; i.e., a popular public entertainment of the time in Paris.  However, its shadowy figures are simplified in a harmoniously geometricized composition and  flattened through Seurat’s all-over brush-tip paint application, aka pointillism or divisionism.  Foremost,his technique appears, in retrospect, a scientific, methodical (rational; progressive) way out of Impressionism and its creed of naturalistic aims as a comprehensive artistic end.  Attentive to new optical theories, this non-analogic approach Seurat developed might equally be called pixelation–in one definition (pixel), “the smallest element of an image that can be processed.”  Other associations and off-shoots of the term also apply, not least, their shared link to both anonymity and animation.  Circus breaches certain paradoxes and dualities of 19th-century modernity: on the one hand, socialistic, idealistic, and stoic; on the other alienating and tending towards prescribed uniformity.  Thus, Marxist precepts are mashed up with formal ingenuity in the dotty DNA of this proto-digital presentation, also hypnotic in its squintingly-obsessive craft.  The palette is oddly somber in comparison to Seurat’s other paintings, with dabs of darkened complimentary hues melding to olive and mauve passages at a distance that not only set off depicted bursts of gaslight, but bring attention to the subject matter.

The visual history of circuses and diverse heritors is vast, from ancient times to the commedia del’arte to Barnum & Bailey’s (and every freak “spectacle” and foire in between); and long associated with marginalized lifestyles and social outcasts that many artists have been very sensitive to for obvious reasons.  Despite its extreme stylization, Seurat’s painting bears more than a trace of this iconographic continuum, while also projecting ambivalence in its several veins.  The exhibition includes immediate precedents, including two small, jaunty oils by Daumier and a number of his better-known graphics that place stock clown types into political satires (several especially relevant right now that you won’t fail to recognize); along with bright litho posters hawking real events, troupes, and venues.  And then a small but brilliant selection of contemporaneous paintings by others that reflect the complex take on the public human intersection captured in the Seurat, in front-of-the-house and behind-the-scenes circus settings.

Back to Seurat’s individual take: the minimalist chiaroscuro (to mix a few more metaphors) for which Seurat is known through copious charcoal drawings are ample here, and in this context, perhaps a bit ghostly.  Also, the Met’s oil study for Seurat’s masterpiece, La Grande Jatte (1884; Chicago Art Institute), of course; and a jewel-like polished study for the secondarily applauded (in his own short life-time) Poseuses (1888; Barnes Collection), from a very lucky private collector.

“We Mourn Our Loss”: Kerry James Marshall Retrospective Right On Time

At The Met Breuer, through January 29, 2017:

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry 

The morning after the election debacle brought immediately to mind a painting in this timely (for the artist, the art world, and American society at large) Marshall retrospective.  On a huge, gold-fringed canvas tarpaulin, a glitter-winged, but gravity-bound women, very black as are virtually all of Marshall’s figures, fusses with a flower arrangement in a pristine, spacious living room.  One wall is adorned with a banner featuring medallions of MLK, JFK, and RFK above the slogan, “we mourn our loss”–itself echoing a cloud of fading photo-screened portraits hovering at the top of the composition above a carefully glitter-scripted caption, “in memory of.”  With a silvery-grisaille companion piece hung nearby, in which memories of the 1960s infiltrate a domestic interior veiled by shiny beaded curtains that can read also as bars and grounded with the inscription, “what a time what a time,”  Marshall’s layered iconography and mix-and-match painting techniques provoked in this viewer a palpable nostalgia for the immediate post-Civil Rights decade or so possibly approaching the intensity of Marshall’s own that inspired them.

Marshall’s entire 30-some-year oeuvre has been related in content to the subdued but rich private and pubic, social and emotional summaries encompassed by these two mentioned works–first recognized definitively in a breakthrough series based on urban-periphery “garden apartment” housing projects erected through the 1960s and 1970s, here exhibited in full (about a half dozen unstretched canvases from the mid-1990s).  In these vaguely Norman Rockwell-ian scenario blow-ups, bicycles, dogs and school kids abound.  Adults are scarce.  When they do appear, they are sartorially suggestive–Afrocentric or literally white-collar.  Sporadically dripped passages staining below and over the figurative aids in evoking clouded memories.  The aesthetics and messages overall vacillate between tentative and idyllic, challenging, disappointing, and ultimately loving, through the eyes of a knowing artist from early on destined to stay the course.  Especially gripping (perhaps as I had looked at it closely years before, now encountered in a political context that lent nearly to tears) is a scene of three youths performing a solemn and private patriotic ceremony in a patch of yard, which bears the slogans, “Happy July 4th,” “Bang,” and “We are one.”

Marshall’s stylistic signatures of very dark skin color and deliberate, stoic poses can recall traditional African votive scultpure–ameliorated with the Western realist figurative tradition in which he is deeply ensconced.  Canonical art history seeps into his naturalism one way or another throughout, variously referenced and appropriated.  This is most obvious in an intermittent, loose series of artist-at-work pictures, capped by a bubbling, stocked and staffed  studio extravaganza to rival Courbet’s ubiquitous proto-modern prototype (The Painter’s Studio . . . , 1855).   A tour de force is a bustling hair salon scene emanating shades of Ernie Barnes and Barkley Hendricks as well as Rockwell, Archibald Motley, and maybe a hint of Kehinde Wiley, not to mention a shout out to Chris Ofili directly in a reproduced poster of his art hung in the salon–all crowned with a sarcastic riff on the Renaissance novelty of anamorphosis–as you scan across the picture plane, an abstract blob in the foreground becomes a disembodied blond Barbie-head.

Then there are the ethereally-hued and musically-ornamented pictures of black love–family; romantic; in myriad settings, which stop short of both sentimentally and irony to convey a rare authenticity (for lack of better term).  Add light-box-presented comics that Marshall has developed over the past decade surrounding a character called “Mastr.”  Final bonus: none of the artists I’ve mentioned, but many more, are included in a gallery of “favorites” across time and place from The Met’s collection selected by Marshall.

Great paintings change through time, carrying their pasts with them.  Many works in this show fit that delineation.   All Americans and many others should be moved by them for many reasons–not least as a collective demonstration of the continuing powerful potential of depicting forms we recognize as direct reflections of life, i.e., figurative painting.

Works described (google):

Souvenir I, 1997 (MoCA, Chicago)

Memento #5, 2003 (Nelson-Atkins)

Untitled (Studio), 2014 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

School of Beauty, 2012 (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Bang, 1994 (Progressive Corp.)

Determined, Debonaire Max Beckmann at The Met

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, through February 20, 2017:

Max Beckmann in New York

As per exhibition title, fourteen paintings from the final years of the artist’s life, spent in New York, are featured; however, fleshed out with several dozen earlier works (from New York collections) in what amounts to a bang-up, crisply edited retrospective.  Among them is one of the great modernist allegorical compositions, the between-the-wars large triptych, Departure (1932-35; MoMA), as powerful and ultimately enigmatic as ever, installed as a focal point on the back wall of the symmetrically partitioned, airy Gallery 199 (just off the main Greek corridor).  Visible at a distance from the entrance, one perspective catches Departure in a peripheral glimpse with the modestly-scaled, preceding Family Picture (1923), a more claustrophobic and seemingly explicit take on deteriorating conditions in the Wiemar Republic,  the undergarment-clad “daughter” figure representing prostitution as a degrading, mundane means of survival.  While clearly constructed and imaginary, the figurative emphasis and very real anxieties of the desperate, wounded population presented here led to Beckmann’s critical association with the Neue Sachleichkeit (New Objectivity) movement; he also shares with that early cohort (including George Grosz and Otto Dix among others) stylistic tendencies towards thematically apropos anatomical distortion and fragmented with Cubist underpinning.  Juxtaposed with Family Picture, Departure suggests an explosive, exorcistic resolution.

More brusquely, if not brutally rendered, the pimped daughter of Family Picture reappears as a sacrificial victim in Departure among others with similar fates, flanking a central vessel that carries a regal family group across a vast sea (presumably) beyond the encroaching panic and mass exile in Germany that directly uprooted Beckmann.  (He worked on Departure intermittently through exile to Holland and, finally, the U.S.)   A more iconographically tame but gorgeous, stained-glass-evoking follow-up is the Met’s own triptych, Beginning (1949)–a mini-retrospective in itself that includes his cadre of marginalized muses, à la Courbet’s “real allegory,” The Painter’s Studio (1855)–intensified alongside Departure to effectively deliver a kind of triumph.

In Beginning, the dark-suited, all business artist at the easel reprises the spirit and sartorial flourish of several earlier self-portraits–an extraordinary selection which opens this exhibition.  (Several project a fashionable hauteur seen Andy Warhol’s photo-based self-portraits).  Collectively, they project a deep sense of purpose as an artist, as do several lesser known paintings included that dwell in the provocative carnivalesque (more ways than one) terrain of the triptychs.  Beckmann continued to temper a simmering expressionism with strong contours and geometric-tinged gravity, and remained tethered to the physical world, even as his recurring subject matter of outsider performers and denizens of the demimonde often bring a surrealistic sensibility into the mix.

Broadly, the exhibition experience conveys a sense of the term, “painter’s painter,” which implies both reveling in the medium for its own sake and mining art historical conventions of painting in the process of building a personalized oeuvre of its own time; and offers compelling insights into a determined artist who appears, through his deliberate brushwork as well as self-portraits, to have foreseen his ultimate position in that continuum from early on.

Frenchman makes Good among Ex-Pat Caravaggisti in Rome . . .

At The Met (Fifth Avenue;  through January 16, 2017):

Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio

The Eternal City was art central in the early 17th century, and the patronage of art rainmaker, Cardinal Barberini, which Valentin enjoyed, conferred art status.

Riding on Caravaggio’s tidal wave  blend of gritty realism–i.e., painterly humanism–and stagecraft, Valentin (born c. 1591, Parisian outskirts in the district of Seine-et-Marne, rather than his geographic namesake; died 1623, Rome) continued to push in both directions.  Saints and sinners interact and interchange in mainly elaborate and roiling, but sometimes deeply contemplative, biblical “portraits” and narratives, especially featuring Old Testament and Christian martyr-related violence–popular Counter-Reformation visual rhetoric; along with slyly symbolic gatherings in the mean streets of period Rome.

Valentin exploited Caravaggio’s overall dark ambiance–aka tenebroso–and his dramatic chiaroscuro to the hilt.  In fact, the subtlety associated with C’s veritable revolution of form and iconography has given way in Valentin not only to bolder lighting but more imperfect figures with disarmingly foreshortened limbs organized in complex groupings.  Most fun are the dozen or so bubbly genre cafe concert and gaming (cards, dice) scenes, an obvious specialty.   In their winking dual nature as allegorical puzzles (e.g., The Prodigal Son; the Ages of Man; the Senses) and credible glimpses into the urban subculture of the day, Valentin was perhaps somewhat influenced by his Dutch associates in the wide caravaggisti band.  Often set in taverne and staffed with then common types–“orientializing” fortune-teller, wily cardsharp, laughing prostitute, gruff soldier–they offer a feast of sartorial and still-life detail;  the installation includes some weapons and a few other objects from the collection to compare with the painted representations.  Note also, scattered throughout, the fuzzy lambs and occasional other seemingly observed, symbolically-infused fauna.

Most compelling, this oeuvre offers a dialectic of absorption and theatricality (to simplify Michael Fried’s aesthetic construction, c. 1981).  That is, Valentin (again, picking up where C left off) seems to play with both the physical and emotional position of viewers.  We look in, as voyeurs, on a distanced world in which others are wholly engaged, while that world also elides, via strongly compressed repoussoir (cropped foreground figure/s) nearly into our viewing space to forge pictorial empathy with the collective “beholder.”

Baroque painting in general has a haunting kind of appeal, in its moody mimesis, in the digital age, perhaps akin to its originally intended effects in context.  It’s still difficult for many to imagine that Denials of Peter, Judith and Holoferneses and flayed Bartholomews (et al.) were ubiquitous and their respective artists barely differentiated–analogous to, say, international, non-objective abstraction in the postwar era to most but connoisseurs.  Yet, the particular mix of mystery and clear-eyed fleshy scenarios by which visitors are bombarded in these works are nonetheless arresting and spectacular.

Sleeper and Dreams at The Met

At The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Dream States: Contemporary Photographs and Video, through October 30, 2016.

Divine Pleasures: Painting from India’s Rajput Courts – The Kronos Collection, through December 4, 2016.


No, not the same show . . . . although there are sleepers (literally) featured in Dream States–including a tilted, blanketed woman in bed in a large color photo by Paul Graham (turns out, his wife; 2011).  Distributed as a main press image for the show, it gains momentum juxtaposed with his images of a pristine Irish landscape under a frozen rainbow, and a funky bling resale shop, NYC – something about relative, stream-of-consciousness, pots of gold (2012-2014).

As a whole, the show is a bit uneven and vague, especially in light of the uptick in similarly small but provocative contemporary photo shows in this space in recent seasons, likewise, culling (mainly) from Met-owned material.  But individual works by a mix of well-known and lesser known current international practitioners, and some early 20th century progenitors, are engaging.   Of the latter, Brassai’s bird’s eye close-up of a vagrant asleep in a alley (1935, Marseille) is penetratingly raw, even for this urban-underbelly straight-shooter; fast-forward to Peter Hujar’s cramped, derelict pass-out scene (1976), hung nearby.  Also in this section, a very modest print of a sleeping couple in a car muddled by window reflections  (1966), by neo-Beat documentarian, Danny Lyon, perhaps partly in light of his newfound art world caché at the Whitney [link]).

I guess ghosts are dreams–e.g., a strikingly large-scale silver gelatin “photogram” by Adam Fuss from his My Ghost series (1999); where the Surrealist method of picture-making with photographic papers and chemicals but not cameras here suggests the added medium of smoke.  And Jim Shaw’s 3-D hallucination of a cottage set in a  photo-collage backdrop of an underwater yard (1997) recalls Max Ernst’s seminal Surrealist assemblage, Two Children Are threatened by a Nightingale (1924, MoMA).


The sleeper is the Indian painting show — not as sensational or extensive as last summer’s Indian block-buster, Diamonds of the Deccan, but still an impressive gathering, this time focused on production at indigenous Hindu Rajput courts, rather than those of the hegemonic Mughal (and other subsumed Islamic regimes in India) most acclaimed for the elite miniature tradition.  There was  substantial stylistic and technical overlap between the both tastes of the patrons and techniques and goals of the artists, as well as great regional diversity within each, in the era covered here, c. 16th to early 19th century.   For example, requisite hierarchic compositions glorifying royals in jewel-accessorized sartorial splendor, surrounded by intricately patterned textiles and filigreed architecture. The most obvious difference in Hindu patronage, of course, is the resultant abundance of supernatural figures and narratives vis-a-vis the Hindu pantheon.

For those with specialty interests, there is geographic, dynastic, and  and chronological info and organization; and a sense of fluid and shifting aesthetic ideas across those contexts.  For all, it is indeed a progressively compelling pleasure to follow the exploits of these colorful changeling, sometimes inter-species, deities and the wackily-imagined demons with whom they do battle on behalf of humankind–rendered with refined linear definition, opaque, matte color swaths studded with surface description–sometimes in silver and gold.

The later work yields greater naturalism (partly reflecting the encroaching West) in the landscape elements and the zoomorphs– notably, deer, lions, and cobras–which intrude on those, along with the eccentric anthropomorphs, of the spirit world.   Several 18th-century scenes of Krishna frolicking with the gopas (cow herders)–including a game of hide and seek in one–on vertically stacked, emerald lawns dotted with probably specific, identifiable botanicals, and moonlit divine rendezvouses, are deeply charming.

The scale of the show and individual works is just right for this relatively low-ceilinged trio of galleries at the end of the print corridor just before the 19th century European hall/second floor.  Though somewhat out of place and included, ostensibly, as part of the promised gift that generated the show: an 11th-century stone rendition of the chubby elephant-man-god Ganesh in a hip-shot pose, set in a constructed altar, which further animates a celestial-centered display of omnipotent creators and destroyers, and rulers who claimed special access and similar status.