WEDNESDAY: THE NEW YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY
As I said before, I didn’t know about the media preview for “WWII & NYC” at The New York Historical Society until Rosenau mentioned it at the Frick on Monday. I’d already scheduled a dentist appointment for Wednesday morning, so I didn’t get to the preview until it was nearly over, but one hardy member of its press office remained behind to give me a press kit, folder containing a press release, printed sheets showing what images were available for reproduction, and a CD containing further information (but no checklist).
Assiduous questioning enabled me to learn that I’d missed a choice of tea or coffee and bagels, plus “remarks” by Kenneth T. Jackson, former president of the Society, chief historian for this project, and author of the charming little booklet published in conjunction with the show. The show itself was curated by Marci Reaven, and runs through May 27, 2013.
SOUVENIRS OF A HEROIC PAST
According to the press release, the show in its totality included more than 300 objects, including artifacts, paintings, maps, models, photographs, posters and other graphic materials, plus film clips, music, radio broadcasts & newly recorded eyewitness accounts of what it was like to live through World War II in New York City. It is installed throughout all the exhibition floors of the Society, but I only saw the area on the ground floor which is focused entirely on the show, and contains a number of interesting things, including an old Philco battery-operated radio emitting moving snippets from Ed Murrow’s broadcasts of London during the blitz, and an equally moving watercolor, tempera & charcoal protrait of FDR.
One display is a strange large metal object, looking vaguely like a small tanker railroad car, that seems to have been part of the original equipment for “The Manhattan Project,” which was research conducted at Columbia University that ultimately led to the creation of the first atom bombs. Accompanying this object is a chilling letter from Albert Einstein to FDR, dated August 2, 1939, telling the president what was going on, advising him that it could lead to the creation of bombs capable of destroying entire cities, and warning him that the Germans were working on the same thing.
These are just the early parts of what is, all in all, a very interesting exhibition, but more of a historical than an esthetic one. The paintings, which are mostly of secondary interest, and the photographs, which are often excellent, together serve to demonstrate what Edward Alden Jewell, the senior critic for the New York Times in the 1940s, regretfully concluded, which was that various attempts by painters to make art out of the war were simply not as effective as the photographs being made at the same time.
Among the interesting historical sidelights in this show is the evidence that right up until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Americans were divided on whether or not they wanted to go to war. A yellowing newspaper, on a shelf under the Philco radio, also makes clear that the Japanese were being very difficult and threatening hostile actions for some time before they actually took them.
This is a show that both children and their grandparents should find interesting, but it’s a historical & not an artistic event, and the fact that the Society spends so much of its time & effort on such exhibitions, and so little on exhibitions of painting & sculpture, explains why it is so rarely on my visiting list.
This policy is too reminiscent of what I heard, years ago, as a slogan for Neo-Marxist scholars: “Style is the bourgeois substitute for history.” The last time I paid any attention to what was going on among the scholars at my alma mater, I found that a very promising scholar of my acquaintance had chosen for her dissertation a topic so historical that in researching it, she almost never even went to the art history library! Talk about the death of art.
GRANDEUR ON THE HUDSON (& ELSEWHERE)
I did utilize my visit to the Historical Society to pay a call on its grand Dexter Hall on the second floor, where are displayed a marvelous selection of the 19th century Hudson River School paintings that are real joy of this institution and not widely enough known. I myself never knew about them until I went to graduate school, and they were one of my favorite discoveries. Now is a good time to see them, as they have only recently returned from a tour of small museums in Fort Worth, Salem MA, Columbia SC, and Bentonville AR, while the museum itself went through renovation.
These paintings, although mostly created by painters from the New York area, and more often than not, exhibited and sold in New York, don’t necessarily limn the joys of the Catskills & Hudson River Valley. Also included are scenes from New England, Italy, Latin America, the Rockies and idealized countrysides born from fantasy alone, but whatever scenes they portray are almost all presented as tranquil, curiously innocent images.
I seem to be hitting the “innocent” button rather often in these last 2 installments of FMD, but to me it is often and maybe always a characteristic that accompanies excellent art. Not that the Hudson River School painters were in a class with Rembrandt. Their talents are far more modest, but they do manage to diffuse a sweetness and graciousness that makes their predominantly Claudian view of nature very likeable.
My favorite is Thomas Cole, and the hall’s centerpiece is his five-painting series, “The Course of Empire,” (ca. 1834-1836), showing the four stages of civilization, from “The Savage State” through “The Pastoral or Arcadian,” coming to a towering climax in “Consummation,” then torn apart by wars in “Destruction,” and finally reverting to ruins in “Desolation.” Corny, yes, but gloriously so.
I also am fond of the Courbet-like close-up nature studies by Asher B. Durand, the distant vistas especially by John Kensett, “Mammoth Cave, Kentucky” by the Frenchman, R. F. Gignoux, and the genre scene by William Sidney Mount, but the many other artists represented here include the bombastic later Hudson River School painters Frederic E.Church and Albert Bierstadt (who satisfied the public appetite for theatricality long before Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman).
THURSDAY: THE GUGGENHEIM
The best breakfast, and far and away the biggest & best show of the week was at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. This is a full-dress (and full-ramp) exhibition of 118 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper from 1904 to 1971, entitled “Picasso Black and White” (through January 23; then “a major part” of the exhibition will be at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, February 24 through May 27, 2013).
Not only does this excursion into the many uses of a limited palette by the 20th century’s most influential artist show him off to (in many ways) his best advantage, but it has been organized by the Guggenheim’s gifted curator of 20th century art, Carmen Giménez, whose wide-ranging experience, both in the US and in Spain, has included organizing at least a half-dozen other exhibitions of Picasso and overseeing the creation of the charming little Picasso museum in Malaga (the artist’s birthplace).
Giménez was assisted for this show by Karole Vail, associate curator at the Guggenheim, and she was joined by four other speakers for the “remarks” at the beginning of the media preview. All were very fashionably & appropriately clad in black, white, and/or gray. The lavish breakfast included coffee, decaf coffee and fancy French teabags (my label read, “thé et tisane menthe poivrée”); also large croissants, small croissants, chocolate croissants, and mini-muffins in many flavors (I had a bran one with raisins, and a corn one with a raspberry on top). Even the press kits were state-of-the-art, with the check list, wall texts, & other info stored on ultra-portable little flash drives.
I blush to admit that my attention wandered throughout most of the remarks; while they were going on, I occupied myself by looking around at the good-sized crowd assembled. I estimated about 100 chairs set up on the floor of the rotunda; most were occupied and I also saw a sprinkling of people standing around at the back (including, of course, all the folk from the museum itself). A goodly number of the assembled media were younger people—more than at the Frick, fewer than at MoMA—and dress was similarly more formal than at MoMA, but less so than the Frick.
BACKGROUND OF A CURATOR
Even while Giménez was speaking, I got more interested in her accent than in what she was saying, because, although her name was clearly Spanish, her accent was definitely French. Checking this out afterward on google, I found that she had an interesting childhood. Although her parents were Spanish, they had fled to Morocco because they opposed Generalissimo Franco, who had overthrown the Spanish Republic in the 1930s and established a dictatorship in its place (when he died in 1975, a constitutional monarchy was established and this is what governs Spain at present).
This background explains why the future curator was born in Casablanca, and lived there until she was 17—and, as all Humphrey Bogart fans know, Casablanca during this period was part of a French colony, where in addition to Arabic or Berber, people spoke French instead of Spanish.
Indeed, in an interview with the Brooklyn Rail, Giménez was quoted saying, “I am Spanish but I am very French in my mind, and I have a vision of Spain sometimes through the French….” All of which can hardly be a disadvantage for a curator—to have two such very rich artistic heritages in one’s background, instead of just one.
Anyway, the show itself is a rewarding experience, though most of the goodies and the surprises lie in what for most museum goers will seem its latter part. As always at the Guggenheim, I started with the tail end first, at the top of the ramp, and worked my way down. Again (as with the John Chamberlain show), I found that the late work at the top was the most surprising & admirable.
The topmost work in the exhibition is an oil painting on canvas called “The Kiss” (1969). It is rather comical: a monster man, opening his big staring eyes very wide, pushes his monster mouth up against the mouth of a reclining monster woman, with her big staring eyes-- but so well done! And, as it is in black, white & gray, we are spared the gross, oily colors of the version of this subject included in the museum-sized 1980 MoMA retrospective that was the starting point of my understanding of Picasso.
Even better, I liked the nearby oil of “Woman Playing with a Small Cat” (1964), which is more whimsical than broadly comic, with the lady’s head seen more in profile and the little kitty flying through the air. “These paintings are so well chosen,” I said to myself, and found myself repeating this mantra most of the way down the ramp, through those later periods in Picasso’s career that included the 1950s, 1940s, 1930s and 1920s.
A wide range of types of work are here. First come black and white versions of works better known in color, like “The Women of Algiers (after Delacroix)” (1955) and “The Acrobat” (1930). Second are black-and-white works already well known, like “The Charnel House” (1944-45) and “The Kitchen” (1948), to say nothing of the sheet metal cutouts of “Sylvette” (1954) and the delicious “Woman with Outstretched Arms” (1961). Third are many works that, for all I know, may exist only in black-and-white versions, and/or have never before been seen because they come from private collections.
Many are drawings, many of them magnificent. My understanding is that Picasso kept back many of his works in black and white, not selling them because they were a more intimate side of his endeavor; therefore, they still belong to his heirs, and have never or rarely been exhibited (38 of the works on view are having their first US presentation).
On the other hand, quite a few of the most exquisite pieces – especially among the drawings & sculpture-- come from those moments in the early 1930s when Picasso was involved with Marie-Thérèse Walter, and this affair was thoroughly documented with the excellent show at Gagosian last year. I don’t know whether or not I saw the wispily-drawn, almost elfin oil and charcoal on canvas entitled “Head of a Woman: Right Profile (Marie-Thérèse)” (1934) at Gagosian, but it struck me (or perhaps struck me anew)..
Furthermore, though I may never have seen the particular --and very likeable – works from the artist’s Classical period in the late teens & early 1920s that are in this show, I continue to feel that this period was one when Picasso wasn’t pushing himself, but resting & recuperating from the tremendous exertions of having created the radically new and unforgettable work of Analytic Cubism, and (to a lesser extent) collage.
In fact, the only part of this show that disappointed me was precisely those periods when Picasso’s ability to create his most beautiful works in shades of gray (and black and brown) was at its peak – specifically, Analytic Cubism. But I saw only three paintings from this period in the show, and no drawings or any great surprises.
The young guard on that part of the ramp was even bored by “Accordionist” (1911), because, although it’s a masterpiece, it belongs to the Guggenheim, and he’s seen it hundreds of times. He wanted me to look instead at “Bottle and Wine Glass” (1912 or 1913), the only collage in the show, because he thought its use of sand was so inventive, but this is not the best collage that Picasso ever made.
Also absent are any of the marvelous little sculptures from Picasso’s collage period, such as the mostly white & silver “Glass of Absinthe” or the miraculous little all-black “Guitar.”
I saw even less from the Blue & Rose periods, only one token painting from each (and the representative from the Blue Period is “Woman Ironing” (1904), which again the Guggenheim owns). Only one tiny sculpture is here to represent the first constructivist sculptures that Picasso created in the late 1920s and early 30s with Julio González. Since these are all-black sculptures, I don’t see why a few more of them couldn’t have been included—surely, there would be more justification for including an all-black sculpture than for including the several bronze sculptures that are on view.
I would also like to have seen at least a few graphics, since these were media in which Picasso knew the finished work would be in black and white, and since with this work he managed to maintain into his later years what I’d consider higher standards (though others might call it merely a more modernist orientation).
Initially, when I attempted to evaluate this show, I thought of its taste as inclining more to postmodernism than modernism, with only token representation of what put Picasso on the map in the first place, and much more of the kind of less radical work that has become more popular in the past 20 years or so. Then, when I thought about it later, I remembered that even in 1939, still the heyday of modernism, Jewell of the New York Times couldn’t relate to Analytic Cubism either, when he reviewed the big Picasso retrospective at MoMA.
Nor, for that matter, could a formidable scholar like Robert Goldwater (reviewing the same show for Art in America). In fact, neither observer could appreciate Picasso’s greatness as a whole. About the only reviewer who did was an artist, George L. K Morris, writing for Partisan Review, and indeed it was mostly artists who responded to Picasso’s original cubism, too—taking inspiration from it, whether we are talking Vladimir Tatlin from Russia, Max Weber from the US, the Vorticists from London or the Futurists from Italy.
Still, even if “Picasso Black and White” focuses on the kind of Picasso’s art that has historically been most admired by critics and the general public (as opposed to the kind of Picasso’s art that was most admired by fellow artists, and as a result, had the most effect upon subsequent art history) it’s so well done that it contains more than enough top-notch material to make it worth seeing.