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POLITICS MEETS ESTHETICS: “PROOF” AT THE BROOKLYN MUSEUM

October 31, 2017

Tags: Goya, Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Longo

Robert Longo (American, born 1953). Untitled (Bullet Hole in Window, January 7, 2015), 2015—16. Charcoal on mounted paper, 76 x 143 in. (193 x 363.2 cm). © Robert Longo, Ståhl Collection Norrköping, Sweden. (Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac; London, Paris, Salzburg).
Am I the only person who has OD’d on politics this season? Even if you are one, too, occasionally politics and esthetics harmonize, as is (largely if not entirely) the case at The Brooklyn Museum this fall, where the show is “Proof: Francisco Goya, Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Longo” (through January 7).

As I was saying, I have had politics up the yin-yang this season. It had already been infesting the art world for quite some time before last November, but ever since that fateful Tuesday when, thanks to the vagaries of our electoral system, we quite legally put a minority President in the White House, neither liberals nor conservatives can stop yap-yapping about him & situations that his election has engendered.

It has become practically impossible to avoid all this yadda-yadda, whenever and wherever you are, even when dining out with friends or seeking the peace and quiet of a museum.

My own politics are more liberal than conservative, but both schools are guilty of overkill—like, if it’s a social occasion, can’t we just forget about politics for the moment & discuss the weather or the latest & most escapist movies or everybody’s health, for a change? And if it’s an art exhibition, can’t we pay at least as much attention to what the work on display actually looks like, as opposed to what it’s supposed to be saying?

Anyway, the co-organizer, co-star (and prime beneficiary) of “Proof” is Robert Longo, the American artist who was born in Brooklyn in 1953, studied in Texas and at Buffalo State College, then became famous back in the ‘80s along with other photographically-oriented artists like Cindy Sherman & Richard Prince as members of what has belatedly become known as “The Pictures Generation.”

True, this show was originally conceived by and is co-curated by Kate Fowle, the British-born chief curator of the gung-ho Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow (where apparently they are also all into politics in art, as long as it’s not contemporary Russian politics).

But it is Longo’s voice which rings loudest on this side of the Atlantic – if only because his visual style is so very big and bold and yes, well, so very aggressive, composed as it is (on this occasion, at least) of very large, very simple, and very black-and-white photorealistic images – all with political messages, as explained on the labels.

But to stand back for a moment, and a) read the more general literature accompanying the exhibition, and b) discuss the two other artists who are more or less shoehorned into it, presumably to give it breadth and depth.

According to the wall text at the beginning of “Proof,” the show combines the work of “three artists across two continents and four centuries, offering insight into the creative energy and artistic innovation with which they reimagined the complex social, cultural, and political issues of their times,” and who, to be more specific, “consciously reflect on the profound repercussions of revolution, war, and civil unrest.”

The other two are Francisco Goya (1746-1828), the great Spanish painter and printmaker, and Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948), the master Soviet moviemaker.

But in terms of amounts of space devoted to these three artists, Eisenstein gets one spacious eight-sided gallery occupying between 15 and 20 percent of the show’s square footage, and Goya gets one somewhat narrower rectangular space, occupying maybe another 15 to 20 percent.

A small gallery at the end of the display space exhibits work materials and other memorabilia relating (sigh!) to process, as employed by all three artists. It occupies maybe 5 percent of the total space—which leaves between 55 and 65 percent of the total space as space devoted to Longo’s work.

EISENSTEIN

Of the three, Eisenstein suffers most from this treatment. On seven sides of his display space are projected images from the seven most successful movies of his career.

Among them are the world-famous “Battleship Potemkin” (1925), which deals with an uprising of sailors during the rebellion of 1905, and “October” (1927-28), also known as “Ten Days That Shook the World.”

“October” deals with the October Revolution of 1917, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power from the Alexander Kerensky government (whose founders seven months earlier had replaced the Czar).

Eisenstein pioneered with the art of montage, and these two films in particular certainly deal with revolution and war (if from the standpoint of interested parties; for all their magnificence, these were state-sponsored movies and essentially exercises in propaganda).

I would have liked to see at least parts of them (especially since I missed the chance to see “Battleship Potemkin” when it was being projected at the Jewish Museum as part of their recent show of Soviet-era photography, and also around 7 am last week when TCM was projecting it as part of a Russian Revolution series).

Alas, I didn’t have the time or patience to see any of these movies in Brooklyn in their entirety. They are being projected at 1 percent of their normal speed, without sound or subtitles, “so that the viewer can see clearly how [Eisenstein] composed each frame.”

Frankly, I doubt that Eisenstein composed each frame individually, and even if he did, not every frame of every movie is of equal esthetic interest – though a number of them were decidedly striking, during the few minutes I was able to hang around.

The problem is that 1 percent of normal speed means that “October,” for example, would take 10,500 minutes or 180 hours to see it all. Moreover, since the museum turns off the projectors while it’s closed, they are turned on only 37 hours a week.

This means that it would take me nearly five weeks to see the whole movie – or more than twice as long as it took Lenin to dump Kerensky!

GOYA

The display of Goya’s work is similarly truncated, with only 40-odd etchings, from four of the artist’s most famous series: “The Caprices (Los Caprichos),” published in 1799; “The Disasters of War (Los Desastres de la Guerra),” executed between 1810 and 1820, but not published until 1863, thirty-five years after the artist’s death; “The Art of Bullfighting (La Tauromaquia),” published in 1816; and “The Proverbs (Los Proverbios),” executed between 1815 and 1823, but again not published until 1864.

However, in this case the artist benefits from not being shown in his entirety. The number of separate etchings in those four series alone comes to more than 200. If they were all on display, most of the viewing public, I’m willing to bet, would more find it terribly wearing to look at all of them.

These etchings are all small and detailed and in black-and-white – all of which means that each and every one demands (and rewards) close and detailed examination.

How wearing this can be was amply demonstrated for me at two otherwise splendid exhibitions featuring these same prints in recent years -- the great Goya show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2014 and the equally-grand exhibition of Romantic art at the Yale University Art Gallery in 2015.

Both of these shows exhibited quantities of these Goya etchings -- too many to take them all in. By contrast, the number of Goyas on view at the Brooklyn Museum is just large enough to whet one’s appetite for them, and leave one wanting to see more of them instead making one feel stuffed to the gills.

There are so many gems in this group that I can’t begin to list them all. But I will say that only “The Disasters of War” deals directly with “the profound repercussions of revolution, war, and civil unrest.”

The bullfighting sequence deals with bullfighting, as you might expect, and by all accounts the artist appears to have admired and been fascinated, not outraged, by this most characteristically Spanish sport (no matter how completely its allure escapes most non-Latinos).

“The Caprices” and “The Proverbs” are even less easily pigeonholed into political commentaries. No doubt heavy-handed postmodernist art historians have already read abstruse commentaries into at least some of these images on whatever governmental rules were in effect or officials were in power at the moment when they were made.

I prefer to look at these images for myself, to read only the cryptic & frequently mystifying titles that the artist gave them, and to try to figure out for myself what may or may not be going on.

I rejoice in Goya’s curious (but so often moving) little people, enacting their comic, ribald, violent or tragic scenes, and his quaint little animals and fantastic animal/human amalgams.

To the extent that I read them as anything beyond what they are, I read them as often wickedly funny commentaries not on politics but on the far more profound subject of the human condition, as it existed in Spain in Goya’s day and as we still have it with us – even war.

For me, these etchings transcend the moment they were made. Though undoubtedly they were timely originally, they have also become timeless—the way only great art can be. And ultimately only because of the way they look.

It’s clear to me, and a tiny bit saddening (as well as admiring), to see how Goya’s choice of imagery sharpens as he ages, from cheerful humor in “The Caprices” to a more profound but often sardonic bitterness in “The Proverbs,” but this is the way he was, and not only because of the political unrest in Spain during his lifetime.

Becoming deaf can’t have helped his outlook, any more than any of his other personal problems – though these factors, too, are essentially only background to his endeavors. They may explain his choice of subjects (in his paintings as well as his etchings) but they are irrelevant to his mastery of those subjects, and the resonance he gave to them.

If I had my choice of these etchings to illustrate this review, the one I’d pick comes from “The Caprices” and shows a great big donkey, clothed, head turned toward the viewer and sitting upright like a human on his tail.

He has been perusing the large book on a stand in front of him, and one gathers that it contains family portraits. All of them must look just like him, for Goya’s caption reads, “And so was his grandfather (Asta su abuelo).”

And how true it is – that idiots are all too often the offspring of idiot families….Unfortunately, the Brooklyn Museum's communications department can’t supply me with such an image, so I shall have to do my duty and reproduce a Robert Longo instead.

LONGO

Like Eisenstein, Robert Longo works with montage – or, to use a term more appropriate to paintings, collage. Still, his large, finished black-and-white charcoal pictures are most definitely not collages in the usual sense. Rather, they are the fruit of a very complex and sophisticated process that involves combining photographic images into working drawings which in turn inspire panoramic “paintings.”

They may look like huge black-and-white photographs but (as I get it) they may or may not depict things actually seen.

Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. At least seven-and-a-half of the 23 black-and-white images, all done in charcoal on mounted paper, are very dramatic and effective. They usually deal with grand themes from current events (though as a rule you have to read the label to get the “message” of each picture).

They are all quite large. The smallest of these seven-and-a-half most striking images, the “Untitled (American Bald Eagle)” (2017), measures roughly 6’ x 7’. The largest, a triptych entitled “Untitled (Raft at Sea)” (2017), measures roughly 12’ x 23’.

Smaller images that rather pretentiously attempt to improve upon other paintings (by, for example, Géricault, Titian or Joan Mitchell) become musty and fuzzy and don’t come off.

The weakest pictures are those that are too busy or too vacant. Those that try to simulate abstraction (usually by making the images soft focus instead of sharp) are weakest of all.

Another pitfall that Longo doesn’t altogether escape is the attempt every so often to convey too much “information,” with a lot of fussy little details. He needs to work on developing a balance (anyway if he wants to impress a formalist like me).

That said, I was really very impressed with the appearance of these seven-and- a-half works. They include “Untitled (Black Pussy Hat in Women’s March)” (2017) – (though I would have preferred a less indelicate way to describe that hat).

Also on my list is “Untitled (Destroyed Head of Lamassu, Nineveh)” (2017), with its dramatic diagonal downward thrust, and “Untitled, Medusa (Banyan Tree, Homage to J. Mitchell and J. Pollock)” (2014), though this image of a huge old tree with many horizontal branches owes more to the Barbizon School than to any 20th century artist.

What is the half picture I admired? It was the left-hand panel of what is supposed to be a pair of pendants entitled “Untitled (Obama Leaving)” (2017). This left-hand panel shows our last President walking across a dark field and accompanied by several other men, maybe Secret Service? Maybe Cabinet members? Who knows – and who cares? The mystery is what makes the picture.

The right-hand pendant is simply pitch black. The message is supposed to be about the void left with Obama absent, but in visual terms, Ad Reinhardt has long ago done the authoritative version of the all-black panel, and I don’t need to see it again.

What I liked best of all – and what reproduces best – is the triptych entitled “Untitled (Bullet Hole in Window, January 7, 2015”) (2015-2016). With its central hole as a savage star, it’s a powerful image of destruction that is also strangely beautiful.

According to the label, this image is derived from the shooting through a window and killing twelve members of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, in 2015.

The people responsible for this savage attack are described in the label as terrorists, but from what I’ve heard, they may only have been passionately religious Muslims, outraged at the magazine for sneering at their religion’s ban on portraying Mohamed.

Whatever the truth of the matter, this debate will sooner or later become yesterday’s newspapers – while the image itself may well live on.