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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

BREAKING NEWS! WE INTERRUPT THIS PROGRAM! PAGE ONE HEADLINE!

The Museum of Modern Art has finally found a show that is both drawing mobs and landing it on Page One of the New York Times. Who among our edgy younger curators could ask for anything more? This show demands nothing but prurient curiosity from viewers, plus the willingness to pretend that this is a serious, highbrow presentation instead of a peep show for people who like to say they went to a museum but don’t really like painting or sculpture. Certainly, “appreciating” this exhibition doesn’t require the slightest familiarity with any other kind of art normally found in museums. No sensitivity to color or form is called for, nor any classroom knowledge of the visual arts, traditional or modern. You can go to see this show straight from your Pilates exercises or your shopping spree at Bulgari or your high school driver education class, and get as much out of it as all those worthy art historians eager to tell you about the philosophic implications of this same show. Wow! Page One of the New York Times led to the show being featured – with all its naked ladies --- on the local news at 6 pm for CBS-TV. From there it was just a hop, skip and a jump to being further offered to a slavering nationwide public by David Letterman, who likened MoMA to a porn shop, with a sign showing naked neon girlies.

The exhibition is “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present,” organized by Klaus Biesenbach, billed as “the first large-scale American museum retrospective of groundbreaking performance work,” and including approximately 50 ‘works’ spanning four decades of ‘interventions’ and ‘sound pieces, ‘ video works, installations, photography, solo performances, and collaborative performances (through May 31). Abramović (Yuglosav, b. 1946) is, it seems, “internationally recognized” as a “pioneer” and “key figure” in performance art, and uses her own body as subject, object & medium. (Whatever happened to Claes Oldenburg & Allan Kaprow, the real pioneers in performance who were doing much more amusing work in the late ‘50s & early ‘60s, while Abramović was only a teenager?) What Abramović does, for my money, is act out her own fantasies, and I consider this a branch of theater or the dance, though of course since it’s all taking place in a museum setting, no dance or theater critics have been invited. If they had been, they might be inclined to comment on the emotional vacuity of the pieces, the deadbeat warmed-over existentialism being promulgated here, the lack of plots, the lack of characters, & the lack of talent necessitated among the performers. A number of these “performance pieces” that have been staged by Abramović (with or without a partner) over the years are “recreated” at MoMA by other people, who stand stock still or execute carefully prescribed gestures in the museum, mostly totally nude. Doesn’t that make the simulated sex acted out by fully-clothed performers, that performance piece by Tino Sehgal at the Guggenheim that I reported upon in March, look like “Sunday in the Park with George?”

The gleeful story on Page One of the Times (for April 16, by Claudia La Rocco) told how visitors to the show are (horrors!) feeling up some of the performers. MoMA takes a dim view of this. In “Imponderabilia,” a piece dating back to the 1970s, two nude performers stand stock still facing one another, while visitors are invited to pass between them to get to the rest of the show. Sometimes, these performers are women, sometimes a man and woman, and sometimes, I suppose, both men (they perform in shifts, as nobody could stand that still for so long). It was both women, when I was there, and fortunately, there was a way around them (which I took, not being as slender as the space between them). However, Will Rawls, one of the other performers in this piece, reported to the Times how an older male museum visitor slid his hand onto his own ribs and back, then touched his behind. As this visitor was passing through, he murmured to Rawls, “You feel good, man.’” Rawls reported the incident to a security guard, and later learned that MoMA had revoked the man’s 30-year membership and barred him from the museum. How dorky!

If MoMA had only read the knowing review of the show by Holland Cotter (in the Times for March 12), they would have learned that in “Rhythm 0” (1974), Abramović actually invited audience participation. According to Cotter, she placed 72 objects – including a candle, a rose, a scalpel, some pins, and a gun – on a table, and invited audience members to apply them to her body in whatever way they wanted as she stood, unresisting, for six hours. “Most of the responses were benign,” Cotter wrote, “but some were not. Fights broke out between people who wanted either to assault or to protect her. She may have had fear about the direction the ordeal might take, but the important thing for her was that the audience was part of the performance. She fed off its energy, a dynamic she still depends on and solicits.” Cotter judged the show a failure, to the extent that it didn’t prove that performance art, an ephemeral medium, can be preserved in a museum setting, but he still managed to get nearly half the first page of the Friday Fine Arts & Leisure section devoted to his story, plus a three-quarter page carry, for a total of about 1600 words. One wonders how much more space he might have commanded, had he judged the show a success.

This show didn’t send me into ecstasies. It was too noisy & cluttered, with all the videos sounding off and jumping around on their screens. The still photography, what I saw of it, was undistinguished. The display of the artist’s memorabilia, including school books and childhood photos, reminded me of a similar display at the Met’s show of Diane Arbus some years ago, but that display didn’t pretend to be anything but memorabilia, whereas I gathered that this display was supposed to be part of the Art. Not being a theater or dance critic, I can’t comment on the performance pieces in the videos or in person as performance, except to say that in addition to seeming rather exhibitionistic, they sometimes struck me as overly devoted to S & M – especially the number with a nude female standing high up on the wall, impaled upon what look like a circus performer’s tiny bicycle seat, and rotating her arms up and down. Still, both exhibitionism and, to an even greater extent, S & M, are in the longstanding tradition of dada, which thrives upon unpleasantness and “shock.” The nude people standing around also reminded me of the striptease houses in London’s Soho district in the 1960s, where the ladies were allowed to appear in the buff as long as they didn’t move, but were offered only as tableaux. The occasional performance piece at MoMA featuring stationary but clothed performers reminded me of the 19th century charades in “Jane Eyre,” where a curtained space was opened to reveal the gentlefolk dressed up in elaborate costumes and then posing immobile until the curtains were drawn on them. As for the pièce de résistance, which consisted of Abramović herself, sitting at a table for six hours at a stretch and staring fixedly at whoever might be fool enough to want to occupy the seat opposite her, that struck me as about as interesting as the 1963 Andy Warhol movie which consisted of 5 hours and 20 minutes of somebody sleeping. Andy was at least upfront about his ambition: he considered boring people an esthetic end in itself. I don’t know if Abramović is that outspoken about her esthetic goal, but if she too wants to bore people with this little number, she sure succeeded with me.

A PERFORMANCE I CAN RECOMMEND: “RED”


As I say, I’m not a theater critic by profession. Theater for me is avocation, not vocation. And I’m easily irked by plays about art that trade on popular misconceptions about it (“Art,” which was a big hit in Manhattan a few years back, really turned me off). However, speaking purely as an amateur theater-goer, I very much enjoyed “Red,” a new play by John Logan at the Golden Theatre on West 45th Street (through June 27). It stars Alfred Molina, a marvelous actor, as Mark Rothko and has Eddie Redmayne as the only other character, Rothko’s browbeaten young studio assistant. I held off from seeing this show for a long time, the review in the NY Times leading me to suspect that I’d be subjected to Rothko as windbag spouting highbrow clichés --- I’d heard Clement Greenberg refer to Rothko’s conversation as “banal.” But then I learned that, although most seats are for sale at $116, the last two rows in the mezzanine are priced at only $25 – a bargain that even I couldn’t resist.

The play wasn’t pretentious or cynical, as I’d feared. Aside from several minutes devoted to a pedestrian interpretation (by the studio assistant) of Nietzsche on tragedy, and a few references (by both characters) to sons killing fathers, in line with Freud’s Oedipus theory, the dialogue was a lot more like what I would expect to hear in the studio of a brilliant but underappreciated abstract painter (if perhaps a rather peculiar one). The plot (such as it is) revolves around the big commission that Rothko was given in 1958 to paint pictures for the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan, and his decision in 1959 to return the money and keep the paintings, after he’d seen what silly people were patronizing the restaurant. This is complemented by Rothko’s anguished response to the first big pop art exhibition at Sidney Janis. The Janis show didn’t actually take place until 1962, but interweaving the two events, while historically inaccurate, gives Logan the opportunity to contrast the stock postmodernist apologia for pop as a revolt by youth against age with a truer insight that pop was really for people who couldn’t appreciate what Rothko was up to --- as symbolized by the studio assistant, who simply can’t see that red is more than one color, but instead a range of hues.

In other words, the combination of the two events works from a dramatic point of view, and that’s what matters: the emotional truth of the play, not the historical accuracy, and I found it a very moving experience. That said, I must admit that I wasn’t too happy with the simulated paintings by Rothko on view, but then the imitation Pollocks and Picassos, in movies about these artists, left me cold, too. I suppose these imitations have to be as bad as they are in order to escape claims that they’re trying to fool you into thinking they’re the genuine article – and, to judge from images on the web, the fake Rothkos at the Golden Theatre, with vertical rectangles instead of horizontal ones, seem closer to the Four Seasons paintings than they are to Rothko’s earlier, better-known (and more successful) formats.

AT THE GALLERIES


Five smaller exhibitions seem to me worth discussing. The first is at Amsterdam Whitney in Chelsea, where Irene Neal is the star of a group show that also includes 12 other artists, abstract and representational, but none in the least distinguished (through April 27). Six pieces by Neal are included, three quite large and three quite small. All employ her brightly-colored, signature swirling acrylics set upon free-form shapes (some of her newer pieces, I understand, are backed with Lexan). Actually, the bigger pieces are better than the smaller ones: the colors are clearer and more appealing. I especially liked the big vertical most prominently displayed. It’s called “Tiger Leaping Gorge,” and measures 54” high by 33” wide. The light-dark contrasts are more vivid and better-managed here, while the form is more compact, better organized, and more dynamic (while I couldn’t make out either a tiger or a gorge, I did get a leaping feeling and a sense of kinship with Chinese scroll painting). Reds, whites and greens predominate (especially the rich display of white), with smaller areas of brown and purple. The iridescent shimmer overlaying the whole is particularly attractive.

A nifty little exhibition is “Willard Boepple: Monoprints and Sculpture,” in the little parlor at the right as you enter the Century Club on West 43rd Street (through May 6). There is only one sculpture, “Burnley,” a charming rust-colored wood piece from the artist’s “loom” series that he exhibited at Lori Bookstein in 2008. Newer and more varied are seven etchings and fourteen monoprints, most dated 2009 or 2010. All appear reductionist at first sight, but when studied reveal additional richness. The artist plays with rectangular shapes, and areas delineated by the gentle curve of a compass. The etchings are smaller, all but one maybe a foot square, and all black and white. Especially nice are the three with white lines on black paper, done in 2010. My favorite was “W-7,” though I also found “RTB” bewitching. The mostly larger monoprints are more ornate, with rectangular or partially curved areas of color superimposed upon each other, and a range of colors (though limited within each picture): sometimes maroon with red and white, sometimes puce, gray and black, and elsewhere red, green OR maroon on black. Best among the monoprints are the four smallest ones, presenting a delectable little series of rectangles, superimposed fan-like upon each other, with maroon, gray and baby blue on a clean white field (only one has a curved shape within it). Particularly appealing is “15.01.09 K,” the brightest of the four.

“Installations” have been in style for as long as I’ve been writing this column. Normally, it means three-dimensional objects (often manufactured), intruding upon gallery (or museum) space. Fran Kornfeld called her exhibition “an environmental installation of handmade paper,” or, to use its formal title, “Passage,” at the 210 Gallery in Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn (closed April 18). To me it was more like a group of murals. Many smaller handmade paper pieces, brilliantly colored and composed of many still smaller, curling forms, were laid flat against the walls, ceiling, or the front of the reception desk. They looked more like grouped paintings of flower forms than the usual obtrusive guck of more conventional “installations.” But Kornfeld wants to create something beautiful, not offensive, and this ambition places her latest show squarely in the tradition of frescoes going back through the centuries. The show included four groups of paper pieces. For me, “Blue Grotto” was the standout, composed as it was of predominantly blue shapes. The other three pieces incorporated more variegated colors, but the blue-dominated shapes in “Blue Grotto” worked best.

There was a nice, if not great, show of “David Smith” at Gagosian in Chelsea earlier this winter (closed April 10). Five good-sized to large sculptures were included, all done 1962 -- 1964. It’s always a pleasure to contemplate the work of America’s greatest sculptor, even if these works weren’t among his masterpieces. Still, the show was far more satisfying than the larger & more uneven show of Smith that Gagosian staged in 2004. The centerpiece of this show was an somewhat unlikely “Cubi” (specifically “Cubi II”). I say “unlikely” because its tall burnished stainless steel stalk was bisected surprisingly far down by its diamond-shaped cube. To its right stood “Primo Piano III,” a large horizontal flat piece with a big circular element from a series that occupied Smith only briefly. This was the first all-white Smith I’d seen, and I wondered, when I saw it, whether it was really meant to remain white or whether the white had originally only been primer. Certainly, the paint was laid on heavily, and in truly pristine condition (for nearly 50 years of standing outdoors). The white worked all right, but if it was going to be painted, I would have liked something closer to nature. “Gondola II,” to the left of the Cubi, was a large, flattish sculpture painted more appropriately: partly black and partly cream. I found it dignified but a tad bland. The two best (and least large) pieces were in the back gallery. “Voltri XVII” was unpainted (through maybe varnished) steel: free-standing verticals with four small shelves intersecting them, very strong. Best was “VB XVII,” again unpainted steel, a sharp narrow column with two small narrow wheels with lots of spokes on a platform midway up for accent. Lots of wicked humor here: Smith knew better than to take himself as seriously as Marina Abramović does.

Also in Chelsea, Ameringer McEnery Yohe staged a two-part “abstract expressionist” show. One part was called, “Hans Hofmann: Sketching Along the Road,” and the other, “Hans Hofmann, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock: Neighbors in a Great Experiment.” Both were supposed to close April 17, but when I dropped by on April 15, I found the latter show already down, as two of the three paintings around which the show was built had been sold. I’m sorry I missed the show, as it had included a Pollock discovered since the Pollock catalogue raisonné was published, a smallish “Greetings” work on paper discovered by Tina Dickey in the Hofmann Archives while she was still working on the Hofmann catalogue raisonné. I was also sorry to miss Krasner’s “Volcanic,” as it was painted in the early 1950s, and my recollection of the Krasner retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum some years ago is that she was painting better in the early ‘50s than she was in the 1960s, even though her work from that later period is better known. The 26 Hofmann drawings (all India ink on paper, and all 8½” x 11”) dated from the early 1930s to the early 1940s. While undeniably lively, they were at most semi-abstract, and at least semi-representational --- views of countryside and seaside as seen from Hofmann’s automobile, and not infrequently with the car’s steering wheel front and center. The first five, done ca. 1932, were of the West Coast, where Hofmann taught at Berkeley and the Chinouard School of Art in Los Angeles, after he first came to America. The remaining 21, dating from ca. 1939 or ca. 1941, were done on Cape Cod, most likely near Provincetown, where the artist in 1935 had founded his own summer school. The 1932 drawings were the best, with lighter, finer & more exuberant lines, plus trees with triangular foliage that looked to me like Mediterranean cypresses, and led me to believe at first that they’d been done in southern France. I guess what was really coming through to me with all those fine lines and white spaces was the heat of the Southern sun. Isn’t it wonderful how a gifted drawing can convey a climate?

FOR THOSE PASSIONATE ABOUT ARCHITECTURE


Having been enraptured by the big show devoted to Frank Lloyd Wright at the Guggenheim, I could hardly wait to get to “Palladio and His Legacy: A Transatlantic Journey” at the Morgan Library & Museum (through August 1). But, although I still think that anybody who cares about architecture would enjoy this show, it’s a considerably drier affair than the Wright exhibition. I have no wish to underestimate the grandeur of the achievement of Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), whose clean, elegant late Renaissance interpretations of the architecture of classical antiquity set the precedent for dozens and maybe hundreds and even thousands of buildings erected all over Europe and the Americas since. The occasion for this exhibition is the loan of 31 rarely-seen drawings by Palladio from the collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects Trust. These have been complimented by books (by Palladio, Vitruvius, and later craftsmen modeling themselves on Palladio), bas-reliefs after some of Palladio’s designs (conceived by Guido Beltramini and Mauro Zocchetta, then modeled by Ivan Simonato) and last, but not least, an impressive series of models of the actual buildings designed by Palladio and his architectural descendants, and executed by Timothy Richards. The show was curated by Irena Murray, Charles Hind and Calder Loth, with additional scientific and historical advice provided by Dr. Beltramini.

So far, so good. If you like looking at plans & elevations, you will have a ball at this show. But what differentiates it from the Wright is that the Palladio drawings are almost entirely of plans and elevations, plus occasional close-ups of architectural & sculptural elements. There are no renderings of what the finished Palladian buildings might actually have looked like in situ, comparable to the dozens of magnificent architectural renderings by Wright No doubt the models at the Morgan are intended to compensate for this shortcoming, and particularly the ones recreating Palladio’s many villas in the Veneto are lovely, if sometimes hard to tell apart. But I found myself wondering a bit at the extent of Palladio’s influence, and how long it lasted. I can certainly see how 17th and early 18th century buildings were inspired by him, but by the time one gets to Thomas Jefferson, I find myself wondering whether Monticello and the University of Virginia and the State Capitol in Richmond really deserve to be called “Palladian.” My art history books, in dealing with this period, talk about going back beyond the Renaissance to original Greek and Roman sources and creating the neo-classic --- not only for the beauty of its forms, but for its significance: paying homage to the first (Athenian) democracy and the first (Roman) republic. As for the 20th century buildings included in this exhibition, such as the New York Stock Exchange (1903), U.S. Supreme Court (completed 1935) and National Gallery (1936-41), this isn’t even the neo-classic any longer, but instead the Beaux-Arts school of architecture, where the tired repetition of once-vibrant forms becomes a way of resisting the modern and clinging desperately to hidebound tradition. Jefferson ‘s buildings have real bite to them, real conviction, but the New York Stock Exchange looks florid and overdone, while the Supreme Court and National Gallery look rather soft and flaccid.

DIX AT DIE NEUE GALERIE


When in 2007 I reviewed “Glitter and Doom,” the Met’s striking exhibition of Weimar-era portraits, I commented on how cynical Otto Dix (1891-1969) appeared to have been. I was comparing his gallery-full of portraits of hard-bitten art-world professionals with the succeeding gallery of gentler portraits of friends by the artistically superior Max Beckmann. But Dix’s cynicism doesn’t appear quite so offensive when his paintings and graphic works are viewed by themselves, as more than 100 of them are in his solo exhibition at the Neue Galerie (through August 30; thereafter, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, from September 20 through January 2, 2011). As organized by Dr. Olaf Peters, of the Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg, this exhibition still presents many of these portraits by themselves in the largest gallery on the third floor. Here one may find a veritable lexicon of Weimar-era writers, entertainers, lawyers, art dealers and such, all limned in Dix’s version of “Die Neue Sachlichkeit” (The New Objectivity). With their cute, doll-like appearance, and academic little attributes, they also reveal that this supposedly radical style of Berlin in the 1920s was little more than a reversion to the semi-primitive. This may, however, make the show especially welcome to today’s contemporary art world, where so popular is the pseudo-primitive that Roberta Smith, of the New York Times, recently devoted a Sunday “think-piece” to hymning the joys of such artists as evidence of the persistence of painting.

What renders more tolerable the nastiness of Dix’s celebrity portraits of the later 1920s in the Neue Galerie setting is the opening gallery of the exhibition, on the second floor. Here, in a dimly-lit space, are presented 55 works on paper, including two ink drawings that are truly horrible. One is dated 1922 & shows a wounded World War I veteran, with a gruesomely disfigured side of his face; the other is dated 1923 & shows a prostitute and another vet, the vet again with a disfigured face, the whore a raddled, bitter old crone with what looks like syphilis scabs on her face. On the three other walls of this gallery hang 50 etchings from five portfolios published by Karl Nierendorf in 1924 and entitled “Der Krieg” (War). The etchings depict the nightmares of the battlefronts of 1914-1918, which the artist had witnessed after he volunteered to serve in the trenches, and wound up commanding a machine-gun squad for more than three years. The titles of these images are uniformly disquieting (“Buried Alive,” “Gas Victims,” “Horse Cadaver,” etc.); the images themselves are only occasionally revolting, since the figures are again small & toy-like, with the influence of Goya’s “Disasters of War” manifest. Still, the concept as a whole is devastating, and explains the anger and disillusionment of Dix’s portraits and other subjects from the later 1920s. Somehow when you know just what hell the artist must have gone through while he was still in his 20s, it becomes easier to accept his Weltanschauung. And his portraits of veiled war widows, forced to resort to prostitution in order to support themselves, are as poignant here as they were at the Met

At any rate, it becomes easier to accept Dix’s view of life in the 1920s. His view of life after the rise of Hitler in the 1930s is more problematic. The wall text argues that he incorporated allegory into his work as a veiled protest against the Nazis, but the “Saint Christopher IV” (1939) in this exhibition is high camp, 19th century academic painting – in other words, just what the Nazis loved. Dix stayed in Germany all through World War II, and sold some of his work to official institutions. In 1945, he was drafted and served in the Germany army (though soon captured by the French). Sometimes cynicism can be carried too far.

BRIT VISITORS AT THE FRICK


The Frick Collection is currently playing host to nine 17th and 18th century paintings on loan from Dulwich Picture Gallery in London (through May 30). The exhibition, co-organized by Colin B. Bailey, of the Frick, and Xavier F. Salomon, at Dulwich, is displayed in the Frick’s Oval Room and Garden Court, and forms a pleasant diversion from, but also a complement, to the Frick’s permanent collection. Featured are “Girl in a Window” (1645), by Rembrandt; “Samson and Delilah” (ca. 1619-20), by Sir Anthony Van Dyck; “Elizabeth and Mary Linley – The Linley Sisters” (1771-72), by Thomas Gainsborough; “Nymphs by a Fountain” (ca. 1650), by Sir Peter Lely; “Old Walton Bridge” (1754), by Canaletto; “Woman Playing a Clavichord” (ca. 1665), by Gerrit Dou; “Les plaisirs du bal” (ca. 1717), by Watteau; “Flower Girl” (ca. 1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo; and “Nurture of Jupiter”, by Poussin (ca. 1636-37). Dulwich, which is located south of the Thames, is England’s oldest public picture gallery, having opened its doors in 1817. The nucleus of the collection is a group of paintings assembled, mostly between 1790 and 1795, by a French art dealer, Noël Desenfans, and his Swiss associate, Sir Francis Bourgeois, for King Stanislaus Augustus of Poland, a progressive monarch who wanted to found a national museum but was forced to abdicate in 1795, when Russia, Prussia and Austria partitioned his country out of existence.

Fashions change over the centuries, and vary from country to country. Some of the paintings here have worn better than others -- for me, at least. Van Dyck and Lely were imported from the Low Countries by the British, and have always been more popular in England than in the U.S. I found their contributions to this collection – both “history paintings” -- overly ripe. Murillo is best known for his soulful Madonnas; his “Flower Girl” isn’t as sappy as those, but the painting is still not outstanding. The Rembrandt is much lovelier, a very sweet & sincere painting, but not the artist at his most ambitious. The Dou is charming, but looks like a quaint version of a Vermeer. The Canaletto is a lot better, a fascinating study of a wooden bridge renowned for its technical advancement (its central span was the longest in Europe when it was completed). The Poussin is also splendid, with the infant Jupiter suckled by a goat, and surrounded by nymphs and shepherds; it’s a fine example of the classical landscapes by this master dealt with at length by the Met year before last. I loved the Watteau, with its clusters of couples dancing or flirting, intermingled with servants, children, pets and musicians. Everything so delicately, so exquisitely done – such lightness, such grace! But the Frick chose wisely in selecting the Gainsborough for its publicity image. This tall, elegant study of two young ladies, both musically gifted, is set in a sylvan glade with the shimmering brushwork of the background greenery echoing the shimmering brushwork on the adolescent girls’ gowns. The creamy skins, the sparkling eyes, everything is just right here. This is Gainsborough in peak form.

A MANY-SPLENDORED ERA
THROUGH THE LENS OF A MASTER


An engrossing cavalcade of humanity is “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century” at the Museum of Modern Art (through June 28; then at the Art Institute of Chicago, July 24 through October 3; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, October 30 through January 30, 2011; and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, February 19 through May 15, 2011). As organized by Peter Galassi, MoMA’s chief photography curator, this show of the prolific French photojournalist presents 300 photographs taken between 1929 and 1989, plus vitrines displaying “photo-essays” by Cartier-Bresson published in Life, Look, Paris Match, Der Stern, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Schweitzer Illustrierte Zeitung, and other magazines. The extensive & highly readable catalogue essay, by Galassi, includes a comprehensive biography that reveals the photographer to have been something of a Renaissance man. Born in 1908 to wealthy haut-bourgeois parents in one of their chateaus, his name was already famous in France, for Cartier-Bresson thread, a staple in every French housewife’s sewing basket, was the foundation of the family fortune. Henri grew up in Paris’s fashionable 8th Arrondissement, near the Parc Monceau (depicted by Monet, among others) and was sent to the Lycée Condorcet (where Proust, Paul Valery and Jean Cocteau also studied). Completely bilingual (thanks to English governesses), he read incessantly, everybody from Racine to Joyce, Nietzsche, Freud and Dostoevsky, but his first ambition was to become a painter. Having flunked his exams to enter the university, he enrolled in the studio of André Lhôte, an academic cubist, spent 1928-29 visiting a cousin in Cambridge, England, and endured French military service from 1929-30. Hanging out in Montparnasse, he had already discovered the versatility of the hand-held camera, and begun to assemble the formidable array of friends and contacts who would lead him in many fruitful directions: surrealists, from Louis Aragon and Max Ernst to Dalí, but also Americans like Harry and Caresse Crosby, Julien Levy (the dealer who would champion Cartier-Bresson’s photographs in New York City), and Monroe Wheeler of MoMA (who would give him his first retrospective at MoMA in 1947).

The opening gallery of the current exhibition is devoted to Cartier-Bresson’s surrealist experiments with photography in the 1930s. While for the most part distinctive and imaginative, these forays of a young man (still in his early 20s) also reveal traces of indebtedness to predecessors like Atget, Man Ray, and, for that matter, French impressionism. On April 9, 2010, shortly after this show had opened, I attended a colloquium at the graduate art history school of Columbia University, in honor of Theodore Reff, a retiring professor under whom both Galassi and I studied. Galassi was one of the speakers, and discussed in particular a photograph in the current exhibition taken in 1938, depicting picnickers above a body of water. His point, as best I understood it, was that some observers had equated this image to impressionist paintings of vacationing bourgeois, but in reality the picture depicted workers at a Communist Party resort (Cartier-Bresson --- like most Frenchmen – took a more tolerant view of Communism than did most Americans of that era; in fact, he was working full time for Ce Soir, a Communist newspaper, when this picture was taken). While I appreciated learning where the photograph had originally appeared, and its political context, I’d suggest (in line with my ideas on multireferential imagery) that the choice of subject and angle of observation also reflect a familiarity with impressionist paintings of topics like La Grenouillière by Renoir and Monet that Cartier-Bresson might have known. After all, photography wasn’t invented in a vacuum, but in a cultural milieu steeped in the conventions of painting, which would have been familiar to any young man interested in art.

Some of the surrealist photographs from the 30s also indicate a typically youthful (and traditionally avant-garde) desire to shock – pictures of dogs doing It, a heterosexual human couple doing It in the water, and several studies of what I take to be lesbians. But, after enduring nearly three years of forced labor as a Nazi prisoner-of-war, Cartier-Bresson sobered up, and began the Herculean task of chronicling the modern world, as it emerged from the horrors of war and the mists of history. He had already begun to travel – spending five or six of the prewar years visiting Africa, Europe, Mexico and finally New York --- but after World War II, his journeys expanded into pilgrimages over every continent except Antarctica. In literally thousands of photographs, he chronicled the upheavals, transformations, remembrances of times past & and progress (or the lack of it) in China, India, the Soviet Union, the United States and Indonesia (as well as France & other countries). He also – almost incidentally -- staked out a claim to being one of the twentieth-century’s stellar portrait photographers.

I could try to describe Cartier-Bresson’s many travels and photographic campaigns in detail, but if I did, this review would go on forever, and I’d much rather have my readers go to see the show, and enjoy the many images for themselves. Cartier-Bresson could handle landscapes (1950 rice paddies in Sumatra, snow-topped houses in Germany in 1956 – this last image strongly evocative of Bruegel’s “Hunters in the Snow”). The photographer could produce memorable still lifes (the pristine sheets of an unmade bed, with a magazine folded atop it, taken in Paris in 1962). He could capture single figures in telling poses (an altar boy swinging a censer at a 1953 funeral in Madrid, poignant symbol of the priest-ridden society of Franco’s dictatorship, or a wealthy racehorse owner in Dublin in 1952), but he was at his best, it seems to me, in his crowd scenes, whether they showed dowdy Texas matrons at a 1960 Nixon-Lodge campaign rally, students demonstrating during the heroic uprising in Paris in 1968, Chinese lined up in a sardine-pack mob to try and get their money out of a Shanghai bank before the Communists invaded the city in 1949, and dozens of other trenchant images.

Above all, it seems to me, Cartier-Bresson was a story-teller. Many of his pictures are beautiful in their own right (one titled “Easter Sunday, Harlem, 1947” depicting a gorgeous young African-American woman in an equally gorgeous hat, springs especially to mind). But more of these pictures make the viewer ask, just what’s going on here? Why isn’t there more caption material? Usually the labels on the walls say enough, but not always. For this reason, one welcomes the vitrines, though the caption material in the magazines on view isn’t always adequate or even accurate, and the photographs chosen are not necessarily the best. In common with most photographers who worked for mass-audience magazines, Cartier-Bresson was frequently irked at the captions written by editors – particularly since he was in the habit of supplying copious caption material himself. The viewer today can at least be grateful that such editors cared enough about what the world really looked like to underwrite his journeys. However many of the best pictures were never published in such publications, the expense of taking them was covered. A huge body of the photographer’s work has been preserved in the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris, established in 2002, two years before his death at the age of 95. The current exhibition includes 220 prints loaned by this Foundation.

TWO OUT-OF-TOWN SHOWS WORTH A MENTION: In San Francisco, John Bergruen is showing “Helen Frankenthaler: Paintings 1961-1973” (through May 22)… . In Toronto, Susan Roth and Darryl Hughto, billed as “Neo-Fauves,” are at Corkin (through April 26).

© Copyright 2010 by Piri Halasz
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