Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 5-7 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard-copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

SUMMER IN THE CITY

July 14, 2012

Tags: Heinrich Kuehn, Rineke Dijkstra, Burgoyne Diller, Ann Walsh

Palette in the shape of a pair of turtles. Naqada II (ca. 3650-3300 BC). Provenance: unknown. Graywacke. H. 15.3 cm (6 in.), W. 16 cm (6 5/16 in.), Th. 0.6 cm (1/4 in.). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1910 (10.176.78). Image: (c) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
I’ve been so busy dealing with the Barnes that I haven’t written about summer art fare in Manhattan, so here is a brief attempt to tell you what you might enjoy seeing in the cool, cool, cool of our delightfully air-conditioned art museums, and in a couple of galleries...

AT THE MET

To begin with, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a great place to go in the summer. Not only is it cool but it is relatively uncrowded, as it doesn’t normally stage any new & big blockbuster special exhibitions at this time of the year. Evidently, the museum assumes that the natives are out of town, and the tourists more interested in the permanent collections and the usual fun & games on the roof--this year’s do-it-yourself jungle gym being “Cloud City” by Tomás Saraceno (through November 4, weather permitting). The view from the roof is always breathtaking, and on Friday & Saturday evenings, the crowd is young, local, well-dressed & intent (I suspect) on “meeting people” (as we used to call it back in the Middle Ages—I don’t know what it’s called today, but it seems to be a perennial mating ritual).

The permanent collections, too, are always pleasurable to revisit, especially those you might not normally get to, like the Islamic, Greek, Roman, or Chinese. And the various places to eat are not bad—I prefer the cafeteria myself, as the selection is widest, but there’s a place in the American Wing & also one next to the Petrie Court, with a pleasant view out the back. On Friday & I think also Saturday evenings, there are tables set up on the balcony & classical music—you can order drinks there & maybe more.

What crowds there are inside the museum may be congregating amid the high-style couture of “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” (through August 19) or admiring “Ellsworth Kelly Plant Drawings” (through September 3). However, as it not news to me that abstract painters can draw representationally and as I really prefer to study clothes in stores (where I can try them on), I haven’t gotten around to checking out these shows (who, after all, can keep up with everything at the Met? Its website currently lists 22 special exhibitions, albeit mostly smaller ones).

One of the two special exhibitions that I did get to was “Bellini, Titian, and Lotto: North Italian Paintings from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo” (through September 3). These are 15 visiting Renaissance paintings by Venetians and other north Italian artists from an Italian museum currently undergoing renovation. It’s not a large group, and none of the paintings struck me as masterpieces – but it’s always refreshing to see some unfamiliar faces, and at that unforgettable moment in place & time, even the average painter managed to maintain work at a high level.

The other special exhibition I attended is a real winner, and one I very happily can recommend. (though I don’t know what I did with the notes I took, and must reconstruct this pleasurable experience from memory & press release). The show is “The Dawn of Egyptian Art,” organized by Diana Craig Patch of the Met and only on view through August 5, so you need to hurry if you want to see it. It displays about 180 examples of the earliest works of Egyptian art, created in the Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods, from around 4400 BC to 2649 BC (the end of the second Dynasty). The show includes work from the Met, and from 12 other museums in the US and Europe – painting, sculpture and reliefs.

Most of the “painting,” as best I recall, was glazed images decorating bowls, vases, etc., nor do I recall being particularly impressed by any reliefs, but the many sculptures, especially of animals, were almost all perfectly delightful & stand out vividly in my memory. Broadly speaking, those from the Early Dynastic period (beginning around 3000 BC) begin to take on the characteristics we associate with later Egyptian art, where they were repeated for generations. As a result, while this Early Dynastic work in the show is lovely, it’s also relatively familiar.

The work from the Predynastic period, on the other hand, is truly creative. This must have been a period of experimentation & innovation, mostly taking place before hieroglyphs were introduced (around 3200 BC). The result is that this early work is fresh, surprising, and altogether winning – especially, again, the animals, which mostly range in size from small to minuscule. There are so many different kinds of animals in the show! I list them as they appear in the press release: hippos, crocodiles, turtles, and fish; antelopes, cattle, elephants, baboons, lions and canids (jackals & dogs); ostriches, ducks and falcons; and scorpions & snakes.

It’s amazing how these ancient artists managed to capture the salient characteristics of each beastie with very few cuts (if a carving) or very little shaping (if modeled in clay). And how elegant they are! While most (as I recall) are freestanding objects, some animals are also incorporated most amusingly into pots, vessels, or – in a few cases -- palettes (used not for painters’ pigments, but for mixing cosmetics).

AT THE NEUE GALERIE

Another pleasant way of passing an air-conditioned hour or two is “Heinrich Kuehn and His American Circle: Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen,” at the Neue Galerie (through August 27). Organized by Dr. Monika Faber, an independent scholar, this show of more than 100 photographs, three-quarters of them by Kuehn, occupies the third (top) floor of the museum (with a 150th anniversary show devoted to Gustav Klimt on the second floor, though as I feel somewhat übergeKlimt at the moment, I didn’t pause there on my way up & can only report that as I passed through it seemed very well attended).

Kuehn (1866-1944) was born to a wealthy family in Germany, but eventually settled in Vienna to pursue a career in the 1890s in photography, then still a relatively new form of expression often dismissed as merely a mechanical form of picture-making and not really a fine art form. Kuehn, and two of his fellow members in the Vienna Camera Club, Hans Watzek and Hans Henneberg, sought to elevate this standing, and to do so, became leaders in a style of photography called “Pictorialism.”

“Pictorialist” photographs attempted to rival painting by adopting many of its conventions, in subject matter, composition and the soft, blurry style practiced by so many late impressionist painters of that era. Kuehn especially developed many highly sophisticated photographic techniques to mimic this approach, and was obsessively concerned with staging his subject matter. This approach was most effective with landscapes, and accordingly the best part of this show is the west gallery, with its many remarkably appealing landscapes, artfully tinted and often surprisingly large. Most of these are by Kuehn but a few are also by Watzek & Henneberg.

Kuehn & Stieglitz got together in the early years of the 20th century. Initially, Steiglitz was apparently pretty impressed with Kuehn– to the point of giving him a show at his own New York gallery, 291, in 1906. Stieglitz also seems to have influenced Kuehn into including more people in his paintings, but what worked for Stieglitz didn’t work so well for Kuehn, at least in my opinion: the north gallery of the exhibition, with Kuehn’s later work of figure studies & still lifes, isn't nearly as memorable.

As for the photographs & other material relating to Stieglitz & also Steichen (in the hallway & the south gallery), it's good but overly familiar. The east gallery has an educational short film showing Kuehn’s experiments with a kind of color film called “autochrome” (the actual photographs in autochrome being themselves too fragile to exhibit).

Some reviewers of this show tried to enhance its appeal by likening Kuehn’s compulsion to carefully stage-manage his subjects & then rework his compositions to the carefully stage-managed & reworked photographs of postmodernists like Andreas Gursky & Cindy Sherman, but Kuehn’s approach doesn’t have anything like the didacticism of those two. Whatever became of him in his old age (and I understand he wound up as a National Socialist), in his youth he was simply in search of beauty. And, though Pictorialism may have been dismissed by Stieglitz and his fellow “moderns” in the 1920s as old-fashioned & sentimental, for a few brief years, at least, Kuehn managed to employ it to realize his ideal.

AT THE GUGGENHEIM

There are two shows at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum that, being behind schedule & feeling overworked, I was contemplating recommending sight unseen. Their titles made them sound attractive but in the end I dragged myself over to Fifth Avenue & 88th Street, in order to eyeball them myself. I’m not sorry I did, because otherwise I might have been giving my readers a bum steer.

The big show (in the ramp) is “Art of Another Kind: International Abstraction and the Guggenheim, 1949-1960” (through September 12). Organized by Tracy Bashkoff, a curator at the Guggenheim, and Megan Fontanella, an assistant curator at the Guggenheim, this show consists of more than 100 works (mostly paintings) from the museum’s permanent collection, “in the decade before the Guggenheim’s iconic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building opened in 1959,” according to the press release. It sounded like a great idea -- a whole museum-full of abstract paintings, from a period when painting in general wasn't sneered at, and abstract expressionism in particular was the reigning style.

At least, it sounded good until after I'd seen the show, and looked a little more carefully at the time frame in its title. The first date given is 1949, which suggests that the 1940s would be included, but actually most of the 40s aren't, so not included are the original breakthrough for Pollock, all of Gorky, and most of the best period for de Kooning). Likewise, the closing date of 1960 suggests the 1960s will be included, with the full flowering of post-painterly abstraction, but actually the last painting in the sequence (at the very top of the ramp) is a hard-edged black-and-mustard colored number by the Japanese painter Tadeo Yamaguchi dated 1958, and looking more like the late 30s than the early 60s.

The dates of the show correspond most nearly to the period when James Johnson Sweeney was director of the museum, and of course he was -- and remains ---a popular figure (after all, he was the first writer to go into print for Pollock, even if the writing in question was a catalogue essay for Peggy Guggenheim and not, strictly speaking, independent criticism). Also remaining is the sad fact that neither he nor the Guggenheim in general have ever been all that interested in American art as opposed to "international" and especially Continental art, not even when the American was clearly superior & the Continental clearly inferior.

I know this of old, but dislike the situation so much that I tend to forget it--and in this show, the superiority of the Americans is pretty well obscured by the fact that most of the great, first-generation abstract expressionists are represented by inferior examples of their work, and, to the extent that Americans are included, many of them are less distinguished, second-generation abstract expressionists like Jack Tworkov, Conrad Marca-Relli & Kenzo Okada (the last-named, a native of Japan, being billed at the Guggenheim as representing an Asian viewpoint, but in fact having moved to the US in 1950 and becoming a US citizen in 1960).

Clement Greenberg might have said that Sweeney didn't have much of an eye; I, attempting to be open-minded & tactful, can say for sure only that Sweeney's taste seems to have been very different from mine.

At any rate, as I see it, "Art of Another Kind" gives us circle upon circle of depressingly second-rate abstraction, largely & maybe even mostly European, with the predominant colors black, white, brown, messy, muddy or murky. Among the relatively few exceptions to this color scheme (or lack of color scheme) are the machine-tooled colors of Yves Klein & Ellsworth Kelly), and the brighter but still impure and messy colors of the CoBrA group--of which the large, mostly blue-and-white painting by Pierre Alechinsky is a relatively high-quality example .

There is one excellent (& warmly colorful) Hofmann (“The Gate,” 1959-60), one exquisite small poured Pollock (“Untitled (Green Silver),” ca. 1949, given in 2004 by Sylvia & Joseph Slifka), and one or two better-than-average paintings by Pierre Soulages (albeit all brown, black & white – I didn’t note down their names & dates as I was still hoping there would be better work to come, lower down on the ramp). The Dubuffet contributions also looked better than average (though again scrofulous & dark).

There is also an adequate – though late & not great—Baziotes (“Dusk,” 1958) and some attractive sculpture by Ibram Lassaw, (most notably, “Corax,” 1953), but most of the rest makes even the moderately well done paintings of Canadian ex-pat Jean Paul Riopelle and “Cock,” the moderately well done sculpture by the Transylvanian-born Étienne Hajdú look like masterpieces by comparison.

The Gottlieb painting is a joke, neither of the two Rothkos are outstanding, the Still is only moderately appealing, the Reinhardt is a bilious, early yellow painting, with no resemblance to his best-known (and better) black paintings, the de Kooning is a disorganized, garishly-colored "Composition" (1955), and, although (as mentioned) there is a small, exquisite 1949 Pollock on view, the Pollock that the museum acquired in 1954, and that it features in its recorded tour is the larger, messier, murkier & overwrought "Ocean Greyness" (1953)--which, as you may guess, isn't my favorite Pollock.

Unless I overlooked them, there's no Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell or David Smith. Also no Kenneth Noland (though his earliest mature paintings date from 1958), no Morris Louis (though his earliest mature paintings date from 1954), and no Helen Frankenthaler (though the 1950s were arguably her finest decade).

I don’t know whether these omissions reflect the failure of the museum to acquire any such works (though they’ve had decades to do so), or whether they own such works, but chose not to display them in this show. Ascribing motives to people is always a risky venture, nor does it really matter, since I only need to review shows in such a manner that a reader can decide whether or not to go & see them.

The other show at the Guggenheim that I thought might be worth recommending is one that I can, in fact, recommend – at least, if you can warm to another show of photography. This is “Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective” (through October 3). An exhibition including 70 large-scale full-color photographs plus 5 videos, it was curated by Jennifer Blessing of the Guggenheim & Sandra S. Phillips, of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (where it has already been seen, earlier this year). I wish it could have been better installed -- spread over four different levels in the Guggenheim's annex, I found it difficult to get a coherent picture of it, let alone a chronological one.

Dijkstra, a Dutch photographer born in 1959, is best known for her “Beach Portraits” (1992-2002), but as this exhibition shows, she has made a lot of other types of photographs, too. The common theme, however, is still beautiful & modish young people, ranging from children to very young adults, and often (though not always) clad in bathing suits, underwear, or (very occasionally) nothing at all.

These people are very seductive; most are standing and facing the camera (very carefully posed). In the beach portraits, they are seen standing & full-length, but other pictures also show them seated and/or at three-quarter length, waist length or bust length (just like portraits in the 18th century, where painters charged their subjects upon the basis of how much of their bodies showed). Several reviewers have made much of the psychological subtlety of these photographs, and maybe they do have that quality, but for me, it is simply pleasant to look at well-composed images showing pretty people, none of whom seem to betray any emotion whatsoever.

In their very softness & prettiness, there may be something subtly decadent about these people, but isn’t that also the appeal of late 19th century fin de siècle paintings, like those of the second-generation Pre-Raphaelites or Gustave Moreau? Another thought: this show is a pedophile’s delight. Humbert Humbert, literature's most famous pedophile, would especially have enjoyed all its Lolitas. And, of course, those many visitors to the Guggenheim in the Lolita age bracket should find the show especially enjoyable, too.

AND, IN THE GALLERIES

Summer is a time for group shows, and here are two I saw & enjoyed.

The first is "Summer Edition: A Group Show of Editioned Works," at Lori Bookstein Fine Art (through August 3). Predominantly "edition" turns out to mean prints, but there are also a few photographs and sculpture. Lots of big names here: Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Jennifer Bartlett, Richard Tuttle, and Alex Katz. Among the well-known names I liked best: Romare Bearden, Paul Resika, and Willard Boepple. Among the lesser-known names that I liked, as well or better than some of the celebrities: Ann Walsh, Lauren Bakoian, and Brian Sargent. Walsh's vertical vinyl pillar of fire, "Quick," stands at the entry to the gallery like a guardsman at the entrance to Buckingham Palace...

The second is "Modern and Contemporary Paintings" at Spanierman Modern (through August 18). Actually, this big show -- of nearly 60 works, mostly paintings -- occupies the space not only of Spanierman Modern but also most of that of Spanierman itself. Predominantly, the work on view is abstract, but there's a range between painterly & hard-edge, and most of the work is more colorful than what you'll see at the Guggenheim. Dan Christensen is the biggest attraction in the show, with 6 paintings 0n display. Most effective are the three on a single wall, facing the picture window: "Bedja" (1980), "Calypso Blues" (1992), and "Shona" (1980). I've seen "Barrier" (1983) by Friedel Dzubas before, but I like it every time I see it. Frank Bowling is shown to good advantage with three canvases, all from the 1970s. Best I liked "Untitled (Spring)" (1978), a smaller & splotchier but somehow very exuberant work.

The finest Stanley Boxer is "Blobschatten" (1994), a restrained but still sparkling grey, white & beige composition covered with a fine grid of lines & a happy row across the top of glister. Carol Hunt (b. 1942) is represented by "Easter Morning" (2011), an interesting, not-bad stain painting in subdued yellows, reds, greens & black. Illuminating is a large George Segal semi-abstract oil & charcoal on canvas dating from 1959, and depicting 3 smeary female nudes -- subject matter he'd get back to, decades later, after having established himself as the master plasterer.

Also sort of interesting is "Miami" (1966), by Betty Parsons, an acrylic on canvas with an abstract design that resembles a Native American blanket. Frank Wimberley distinguishes himself with "White Dialogue" (2011), an all-white composition done with thick broad strokes over blue (?) underpainting. But the star of the exhibition is a golden oldie. This is "Construction" (1938) by Burgoyne Diller, a small wall piece composed of shiny painted wood strips, a square and a rectangle in yellow, black, red, blue and a creative cream. Most of the work by Diller that I've seen is a little too overly indebted to Mondrian, but in this small piece, he has managed to be more of his own man.