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.
“Sean Scully: Wall of Light Cubed”; through May 20, Cheim & Read, 547 W. 25th Street.
“The Past is Present” (Hank Willis Thomas, Turiya Magadlela, Brad Kahlhamer)“; through April 22, Jack Shainman, 524 W. 24th Street.
“Robert Therrien”; through May 26, Gagosian, 555 W. 24th Street.
“Erwin Wurm: Ethics demonstrated in geometrical order”; through May 26, Lehman Maupin, 536 W. 22nd Street.
“Kevin Francis Gray”; through April 22, Pace, 537 W. 24th Street.
“Yoshitomo Nara: Thinker”; through April 29, Pace, 510 W. 25th Street.
“Adrian Villar Rojas: The Theater of Disappearance”; through October 29, The Met roof.
*** Does “expert” abstract painting exist? Like, an ideal display of formal dialectics (structure/not-structure; preconception/perception; accident/ rigor, rigidity/fluidity). Within his own visionary constraints (not an oxymoron in his case) and despite inevitable association with the whole constellation of painting through time, Sean Scully’s work recalls really no one—well, maybe the ghost of Braque. A relatively recent foray into sculpture is represented here by two colossal, fat columns of what appear to be stacked, staggered frames or square platforms – visitors cannot see the tower tops. One is monochromatic black, coaxing out the ziggurat factor; the other features his noted greyed-tinged rainbow palette. Each fills up the relatively small rooms in which they are (respectively) installed, so that a first reaction may be, why not in the large main gallery? But, of course, given Scully’s deep, deft formal deliberations throughout his forty-some-year career, the body/space/object scale is surely integral.
*** I loved Robert Therrien’s caringly-burnished, matte-finish Minimalist sculptures and shaped paintings of the 1980s—still resonating beneath several chromed-hued, colossal versions here. Likewise his overblown domestic geometry of the 1990s—as in generic furniture and plates, here metamorphosed into staged sets displayed in trailers, suggesting Surrealist theater and a compulsion to spotting and juxtaposing unlikely like forms.
*** Clumpy, lumpy, something borrowed, something of you—DIY on both sides of the art-making equation for Erwin Wurm. Viewers will find faux-naively sewn or otherwise scrawled instructions in/on deconstructed and reassembled furniture and other hybrid forged/found objects, which encourage explicit interaction with each piece (put it that way). For example, you stick your feet into sawed holes in an old coffee table. Do it. Sublime bricolage (leftovers patched into service as art), with a chaser.
*** Slightly varied, big scary-cute-animé-tinged paintings of a slightly-cybor-girl from Yoshitomo Nara, a progenitor of the Japanese postwar sensibility and phenomena with global sympathizers and appropriators. A group of black-and-white- glazed ceramics vessels decorated cartoon-like with the subject’s adventures and bearing mixed messages about society and love represents something new for Nara, and … dare I say … saleable? (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” J. Seinfeld). They are very cool and accessible. But, I’d rather buy one of the contour drawings that explore his obsessively repeated, enigmatic starlet. And there are colossal, hobbit-strange sculptural sentinels to contend with, as well.
*** Hand-hewn Marble imitating plaster-putty neo-Baroque anatomy studies—mashup Bernini/Messerschmidt/Rodin/Francis Bacon—Kevin Francis Gray offers a compelling antidote to the 3D-printed also Baroque-ish creations of Adrian Villar Rojas currently on the Met Roof (more below).
*** Speaking of which, 3D printing had something to do with Hank Willis Thomas’s sculptures in Shainman’s tri-artist display—making them no less emotion-filled or savvy. That’s especially if you’ve been along on his art journey over the past two decades, from cutting photographic commentaries on sports and advertising to his recent socio-community-network collaborations, like www.forfreedoms.org (currently featured in a small show at MoMA PS1, through September 10). Two wall sculptures here are derived from photographic “points” of interest (Barthes’s punctum) within basketball play-action shots. These hyper-realist, purple-tinged shining arm-to-fingertip-to-basket casts (resin-based) appear both celebratory and haunted by chance and instability.
And a column of b-balls is a great riff on Brancusi; while the theme and multiple-entendres of these, like all his b-ball-based works continue the props to David Hammons. Also included are several of Thomas’s word paintings, which play with semiotics and visual perception while forthright in content.
I came with no background on the other two artists, but left a fan of Turiya Magadlela, who has wrung out translucent colorfield abstractions from stretched panty hose, shouting out feminist performance pioneer Senga Nengudi in the process, and was captivated by Brad Kahlhamer’s wirey “dreamcatcher” American flag.
***Villar Rojas went nuts with the 3D printing in his Met roof installation. Dicing digital images into intuitive new forms and sending them off to the object fabricator is an increasingly popular art process/technique, to be sure–not to be written off as mere fad or novelty. Yet, in the age of digitized reproduction, as well earlier methods–art gains and loses (to clumsily invoke W. Benjamin). The resultant, scattered tableau is “spectacular” (in the sense of G. Debord) and inevitable (back to Benjamin); but, what is the criteria for artistic/aesthetic engagement, differentiation, and quality with this new screen media-to-object trend? So Villar Rojas has incarnated part nightmarish, part goofball hybrid figures, developed from from scans of works of art from the Met’s collection, redistributed, montaged, and melded with fleshed out human bodies, gathered at a kind of haunted feast. It’s fun in a puzzle way and gains as one may recognize snippets and fragments. There is follow-up thought on the glut of objects in museums and their often arbitrary taxonomies of forms, functions, and status.
Seurat’s Circus Sideshow, The Met (main building), through May 29.
A subtle masterpiece of modernism, Seurat’s Circus Side Show (Parade de cirque, 1887-88) serves remarkably well as both (1) specific object of aesthetic investigation and (2) 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 (his) 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 distance that not only set off depicted bursts of gaslight, but bring attention to the subject matter (2):
The visual history of carnevale and its diverse heritors is vast, from ancient times to the commedia del’arte to Barnum & Bailey’s (and every circus, 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 (earlier 19th century) 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 (1): 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 (more) 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.
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, with prostitution, in the form of the undergarment-clad “daughter,” foregrounded as a mundane means of survival. While clearly constructed and imaginary, the figurative emphasis and very real anxieties of the desperate, wounded populus presented here led to Beckmann’s critical association with the Neue Sachleichkeit (New Objectivity) movement; he also shares with that early cohort (e.g., George Grosz and Otto Dix) stylistic tendencies towards thematically apropos but broadly modernist anatomical distortion and fragmented 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 (the cliché fits:) a 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.
*aka The Metropolitan Museum of Art (google “new Met logo”):
“The Power of Prints: The Legacy of William M. Ivins and A. Hyatt Mayor”; through May 22.
Print shows per se are most often geared towards specialists/special interests within the niche. This one, though, stands out as an engaging, star-studded chronological survey, from early modern image printing to the turn of the 20th century, through choice examples from the Met collection. (Ivins and Mayor have been the leading curators in establishing the range and caliber of the Met’s cache.)
In one of my favorite exhibition spaces at the museum for its manageable scale and tripartite symmetry (second floor off the corridor to 19th c. European painting and sculpture), the central portion features a large-scale vitrine in which (mainly) early illustrated books, strategically propped open, are displayed. Both incunabula (early printed material, largely from Gutenberg-renowned German territory) and full-fledged Renaissance publications are well represented, collectively exemplifying progressive mis-en-page ingenuity and letterform and illustration diversity–mainly wood cuts for the images, some with hand flourishes. Note, among the various then modern studies on classical arts and the natural science studies an early edition of Vesalius’s “anatomy,” and Durer’s “Four Measurements” treatise, in which his ubiquitous image of a draftsman peering through a gridded frame at a nude female subject first appeared. Durer also stands out on the walls; it’s a forgotten treat to view his engravings closely–known ubiquitously through all manner of reproduction for centuries. Big-name Italians, like Mantegna, will also be noted while perusing the abundant Renaissance array.
The flanking galleries give an orderly overview of 17th, 18th century, and 19th century developments. Etching mastery is illuminated (literally) by the inclusion of several states of a Rembrandt Crucifixion. Selections from Goya’s “Disasters of War” bring to mind (among many other things) the impact of the increasing distribution of images that facilitated print culture in the first place. That concept, in an aesthetic vein, is at issue in the reproductive transformation of paintings into prints, sometimes done or directed by the painter but often by other art or publishing entrepreneurs, increasingly prevalent through the period covered. Chemical experimentation is prominent in a washy, sepia-toned interior by Whistler and color works by Cassatt. Daumier’s sketchy lithographs usher in the journalistic potential of that medium, while its artistic potential culminates in nouveau color posters by Toulouse-Lautrec and others here. Overall: a feast of technique, form, and iconography, which also conveys the populus-conscious, metaphoric matrix of printmaking.
Snapshot reactions/recommendations on contemporary and occasionally other art recently on view around town. See you in the galleries, Jody B. Cutler-Bittner (art historian/educator). Search artists, galleries, museums, key words below, and "enter".