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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."

 

GLORIES OF THE MET

Abd-al-Samad. Two Fighting Camels. Mughal Court at Fatehpur Sikri or Lahore. Ca. 1590. Opaque watercolor and ink on paper. 7 3/8 x 8 1/16 inches (18.8 x 20.5 cm). Private Collection
At the moment, The Metropolitan Museum of Art is glorying in the more sedate forms of postmodernism. No fun & games, no fashion shows, but rather a marked concentration on non-Western art—which can be great art, I don’t deny that, but it’s also frightfully politically correct, the sort of art that draws even younger people to the museum. Earlier this fall, I reported upon its Chinese show, “The Art of Dissent,” from a collection in Hong Kong, as well as its newsiest entry in the Western division, “Infinite Jest,” but in addition it is currently exhibiting “Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Leaders” (through January 29); “Storytelling in Japanese Art” (through May 6); and “Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100-1900" (through January 8); as well as showcasing its newly reinstalled permanent collection of “Art of the Arab Lands.” Besides “Infinite Jest,” which is from its permanent collection, the other major exhibition of Western art at the moment seems to be “Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O’Keeffe” (through January 2), and it, too, is from the museum’s permanent collection. Passing along Fifth Avenue, I have on more than one occasion in the past few months noted that of the five major banners advertising different exhibitions on the museum’s facade, only one was promoting a show of Western art.

I thought of this while reading the reviews of a book published this autumn by Niall Ferguson, entitled “Civilization: The West and the Rest.” Ferguson is a defender of Western civilization, but he sees it as increasingly threatened–from within as well as without, and more specifically by the way its masterpieces of the past are neglected in schools & universities. The review of this book by Donald Kagan in the Sunday NY Times Book review for November 27 concluded by quoting Ferguson saying that greatest dangers facing us are probably not “the rise of China, Islam or CO-2 emissions,” but “our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors.” Doesn’t this also say something about the attitude of pomonians toward Western contemporary art (and more specifically the tradition of dada, which has become pretty much what’s imitated around the globe)? Doesn’t it suggest that pomonians themselves don’t have too much faith in it—much faith, in other words, in the very kinds of art that they themselves chose to focus on, and that have gotten big shows this fall: Maurizio Cattelan, Sherrie Levine, Carsten Höller, and all the others of this ilk (not excluding Alexander McQueen, whose moments of glory came this past summer)?

Of course, I may be over- dramatizing this situation somewhat, to prove my point. Every December, after all, the museum bedecks a monster Christmas tree with angels and gilded ribbon, while placing at its base several hundred precious little 18th century Neapolitan creche figures. What could be more central to Western civilization than this celebration of the birth of Christ? In 2011, this tree looks just as gorgeous as ever. And this Christmas, in addition to the tree, that off-balance between East and West is being somewhat redressed by what promises to be a truly handsome loan exhibition, “The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini,” which opened on December 21st and which I hope to discuss some time in the next weeks. All I can say, though, at the moment, is that I’m feeling it’s high time that the Met spent a little money on a show that promises to warm the cockles not only of that ever-so-popular 18-to-49 year-old demographic but also to old fogeys like me.

“WONDER OF THE AGE”

I don’t mean to denigrate “Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100-1900" (through January 8). It’s a truly beautiful show, and, although buttressed by formidable scholarship, it’s also a triumph of style over what pomonians like to think of as substance. In other words, we have here a major loan exhibition devoted to connoisseurship as opposed to the sort of sociology one has come to expect (and regret). Previous exhibitions of Indian painting may have focused upon regional styles or dynastic periods, with an emphasis on subject matter and narrative content. This show, co-curated by Dr. Jorrit Britschgi of the Museum Rietberg Zurich and John Guy of the Met, features some 200 works selected according to the identifiable hands and named artists who are beginning to emerge from the mists of history, thanks to recent scholarship. The show is co-organized by the Museum Rietberg, appeared there before it came to New York, and one of three scholars who oversaw the project is Dr. Eberhard Fischer, former director of the Museum Rietberg (the others being Prof. Milo Beach, former director of the Freer & Sackler Galleries in Washington, and B. N. Goswamy, professor emeritus of art history at the Panjab University, Chandigarh).

If I belabor this exhibition’s scholarly credentials, it’s because I want my readers to realize that the study of the evolution of style and the application of connoisseurship can be just as demanding as is the sort of art history that uses the art it discusses as illustration for the politics that it really wants to discuss. The profusion of enticing little images, colored with rich, jewel-like hues, in this show is mind-boggling, and I’m afraid that’s my only complaint. Most of these paintings are relatively small and full of tiny details. They require an appalling amount of concentration to appreciate (nor are the magnifying glasses thoughtfully supplied by the museum too much help).

At a certain point, I panicked, realizing I was never going to be able to give all of these 200 wonderful little pieces --- full of prancing big-bottomed horses & exotic birds & demure, almond-eyed goddesses & good-looking princely lovers, princes & gods, all against richly patterned landscapes or palaces --- the attention and appreciation they deserve. My eyes at a certain point began to glaze over at this profusion of wealth, and they only paused to respond to the really unexpected images--such as the two fighting camels by Abd-al-Samad, a master of the 16th century Mughal courts. Otherwise, it was mostly too diffuse for me to take in. I wish that somehow the show could have been more focused on a specific period, or that the number of artists could have been reduced and more examples of each been displayed. That might have given me more of a feeling that I was learning something more about what I was seeing. But such a show might be impossible to mount, just at present. Meanwhile, don’t let my own limited capacities dissuade you from going to enjoy this show. In fact, go back two or three times, if you want to get the most out of it--that's what one friend of mine has done, so enraptured is she by the colors.

“STIEGLITZ & HIS ARTISTS”

“Stieglitz and His Artists,” organized by Lisa Mintz Messinger, is about the same size as “Wonder of the Age,” with some 200 works as well. I found it, however, easier to navigate. Many works are larger than most of the Indian paintings, so no magnifying glasses are necessary; also because, being Western art, it is all much more familiar (unlike “Wonder of the Age,” I never had the uncomfortable feeling of being out of my depth). Maybe it was all a little too familiar, if only because ten years ago, I saw “Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His Galleries” at the National Gallery in Washington. It covered much the same territory as the current exhibition — the artists associated with master photographer, publisher & art dealer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). The National Gallery’s show was a major loan exhibition, intended to showcase the finest work associated with Stieglitz. The Met’s exhibition has a more intimate focus.

After Stieglitz died, his widow, Georgia O’Keeffe, divided up the vast number of art works acquired over his decades of running art galleries, and gave them to museums and archives in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, Nashville and New Haven. The Met got the lion’s share, more than 400 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints, and this exhibition showcases that giant gift. The average level of quality is not as high in the Met’s show as it was in the Washington show, but the Met’s show tells us more about Stieglitz’s personal enthusiasms, including some that have not stood the test of time as well as others. The stars, of course, are well-represented, at least as they appeared in Stieglitz’s galleries. There are, for example, fine drawings and even small paintings by Matisse and Picasso, but nothing large, as such works had to be small and light enough to be transported across the Atlantic by people without much gallery experience.

Other early European moderns on view, with small to medium-sized examples of their work, include Kandinsky, Severini, Brancusi, and Picabia. Picabia is represented by 2 impressive cubist abstractions from the teens, his famous collage of Stieglitz as a camera, and several high-camp representational paintings from the 20s. The high-camp Picabias are typical of what I mean by works that Stieglitz may have loved at the time but are really only of interest today to dedicated pomonians, eager to sniff out what might be called “bad art.” And what are we to make of a gallery near the beginning of the show containing “naughty” lithographs showing ladies of the evening & show biz performers in various stages of dress & undress by Toulouse-Lautrec? The wall text says that in his early days, Stieglitz delighted in shocking the public with such “controversial” work, but by comparison with anything you can see on the “erotic” TV cable channel you can most likely access with your channel changer, this is pretty tame stuff. Style is ageless; subject matter dates.

The show exhibits larger paintings, collages and prints by American artists discovered by Stieglitz: not only O’Keeffe, but also Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth and John Marin. The gallery with paintings by Hartley has earlier and later works, centering around the passionate “Portrait of a German Officer” (1914), maybe the best of that series that Stieglitz exhibited at his “291" gallery in 1916. The gallery devoted to Dove displays a lively assemblage, “Portrait of Ralph Dusenberry” (1924), plus many of the artist’s landscape-inspired abstracts. Demuth is represented by his most celebrated picture,”I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold” (1928), plus many delicious watercolor studies of flowers and landscape, urban and rural. The display of Marin takes us from his youth, learning his trade in London and Paris in the early years of the century, on through his exciting cubist-related Manhattan skylines from the teens and 20s, then follows him up to Maine, with his seascape watercolors. In fact, there are so many Marins – two galleries of them--that Holland Cotter, in the NY Times, complained. Then again, Cotter’s weak spot may be mainstream modernism—he’s a lot more impressive instructing amateurs like myself about non-Western art. The last gallery belongs to O’Keeffe. It runs from her earliest, most daring abstractions on through the flower and landscape studies that summon up associations with body parts, such as “Black Iris” (1926).

All these Americans are textbook heroes, so well known that we no longer really see them any more. But what are we to make of the lesser lights that Stieglitz also championed, like the caricaturist Marius de Zayas (1880-1961)? A gallery is dedicated de Zayas’s caricatures & only a few of them are still of interest, if only because the subjects of most are not known to us any more. And what about the gallery mostly devoted to Abraham Walkowitz (1878-1965)? His little pictures of women dancing are pretty but not radical stylistically. I saw a few of them in Manhattan galleries, back in the ‘60s, but not since. The brightly-colored 8-panel crayon-and-pastel semi-abstract entitled “Symphony in Creation in Eight Movements” (ca. 1914-1916) is the most vibrant piece in this gallery. It reminded me of the Synchromists, Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, so I wasn’t terribly surprised to see a Macdonald-Wright handing right next it. But you know, I think that the Walkowitz and de Zayas galleries could have been shrunk down to one gallery for both, and I’d have shrunk everything else by maybe a quarter. Absorbing as this show is, for those of us familiar with the period, it may be a little too leisurely & extensive to hold the attention of novices.

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