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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."



The press release for “Excavations Non-Objective: Paintings by Michael Filan” was a real turnoff, illustrated as it was with reproductions of two of the sloppiest paintings I’ve seen. They looked as though the artist had simply hung his canvases on a wall, and slung paint at them, allowing it to run down all anyhow, in the laziest possible caricature of Jackson Pollock. However, I remembered that in Filan’s last show, he’d combined such downward-running attempts with much better paintings, which had been both hung and laid flat while being created, enabling the artist to stir as well as pour, and thereby achieve far greater control. Encouraged by this memory, I went to see the Filan show in the Treasure Room at The Interchurch Center, at 475 Riverside Drive (through August 31). Here I found about a dozen small-scale Filans done in oil and enamel on paper, the better part of them far superior to either of the paintings on the press release. Colors are bright and not always as imaginative as one might hope. Sometimes there are too many of them, too, and some compositions are lopsided, but the best are really handsome additions to the abstract expressionist tradition Among the best are the three facing the entry, reading from left to right: 1) “Bonnard Inspired,” combining mostly silver, orange and white but with accents of red and blue; 2) “Whimsy”, with swooping, swirling waves of red, purple, white and gold, and 3) “Pink Singe,” with pink, black, gold and silver. Other good ones included “Orange Excavation” and “Chrystal Embers.” I was also kind of fascinated by “Yellow Excavation,” with its field of silver and black, plus overlays of lemon, tangerine and white. There’s really too much going on in this little painting, but it’s nonetheless tantalizing to contemplate.


If ever there was a perennial crowd-pleaser and modernist culture hero, Pablo Picasso is he (or do I mean “him” Or do I mean “it”?). Seeking to capitalize upon his popularity, both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art are mounting exhibitions of his work from their permanent collections. Shows consisting exclusively of work already owned by a museum are the great new way to economize these days --- no transport expenses, no extra insurance charges --- and no need for signs saying “photography not permitted.” A show of Picasso from a museum’s permanent collection further enables the museum to indulge in what seems to be the prime and maybe even sole ambition of big-city museums these days: to boost attendance (as opposed to trying to elevate the communal level of culture and educate the public to appreciate what it doesn’t already like). In my opinion, it’s really no coincidence that both the Met and MoMA, according to Larry Rohter in the New York Times for July 2, announced increased attendance for the fiscal year just ended, with the Met attracting more than 5.2 million visitors, and MoMA more than 3 million. The Met’s single most popular exhibition was its Picasso show, which opened on April 27 and had already attracted more than 380,000 visitors by June 30. (MoMA chose to mention “Monet’s Water Lilies” and its “Tim Burton” show as especially strong performers, with more than 800,000 visitors to each, but of course more people come to see the permanent collection at the Met, and visitors from abroad counted for nearly 40 percent of its attendance. In fact, with so many foreign visitors, the Met was able to boost attendance, for the first time, above what it had been prior to 9/11. But I digress.)


MoMA’s show is “Picasso: Themes and Variations,” organized by MoMA’s Deborah Wye, and including 100 prints from the museum’s holdings of 250 (through August 30). This makes the MoMA show smaller and less ambitious than the Met’s, but its average level of quality is equal if not superior, if only because MoMA has been in the habit, since the 1930s, of purchasing Picassos that it likes, while the Met, with few exceptions, has been content to sit back and let donors give it Picassos. Roughly 70 percent of the MoMA show is of prints purchased by the museum, with the remaining 30 mostly from illustrated books given to it in 1964 by Louis E. Stern, a Manhattan lawyer and collector. By contrast, approximately 85 percent of the 94 paintings and drawings in the Met show were gifts or bequests, and a similar percentage of the prints, most of which appear to have been given in the 1980s by a Manhattan businessman and print dealer named Isadore M. Cohen, either with his wife or through his gallery, Reiss-Cohen Inc.

There’s a lot to like at MoMA, starting with the wispy little performers from the Rose Period “Saltimbanques” series (1905-06, published 1913), and progressing on through the exquisite illustrations to Max Jacob’s “St. Matorel” (1910, published 1911). I’m not much interested in Picasso’s Classical Period from the 1920s, or the rubbery figure paintings from his surrealist period in the 1930s, but some graphics from the 1930s are powerful, for example the voluptuous Minotaurs and their victims/lovers from the “Vollard Suite” (1933, printed 1939). I’m familiar with the “Bull” series of lithographs, with its sequence from representational to semi-abstract (1945-46), but I still like it, showing as it does how Picasso kept on creating sterling graphics even though his paintings were beginning to degenerate into caricature. Another handsome series (also at the Met) shows naturalistic animals that Picasso created to illustrate the “Histoire Naturelle” by the 18th century scientist, George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. Most of them (baboon, ostrich, ram, etc.) come out just fine, but the cat is too muscular for a cat (a cat’s fur covers its muscles better than that).


The Met’s show is “Picasso in The Metropolitan Museum of Art,” organized by the Met’s Gary Tinterow and exhibiting the museum’s complete holdings of the artist’s paintings, drawings, sculptures and ceramics, as well as 200 out of its 400 prints, for a total of 300 works in all (through August 15). Despite its plethora of feeble paintings from the 20s and 30s, and its depressing assemblage of late linoleum cuts, with their clichéd wide staring eyes, I found myself lingering longer here than at the MoMA Picasso show. This is not because I subscribe to the conventional postmodernist wisdom, which holds that bad late Picassos are really good. Rather, I was most taken by the galleries with earlier work. The Blue Period gallery has a number of appealing, mostly smaller pictures, and the Rose Period gallery, a substantial number of larger ones. The cubist gallery, to be sure, is a sad reminder that the Met was asleep during those years when cubist paintings could be acquired for relatively modest sums, and, with few exceptions, hasn’t been able to lure collectors who might make up the difference. Nevertheless, I was interested by those few collectors who had tried to remedy the Met’s deficiencies --- not only with cubist works, but also with earlier ones that have particular reason to shine. Helen Frankenthaler in 1973 gave the Met a delectable little Blue-into-Rose Period drypoint, “La Danse” (1905). Jacques and Natasha Gelman, those colorful Mexicans whose collection came to the Met in 1998, are represented by one of the two Analytic Cubist oils in the show (as well as a dozen, mostly later works). Klaus G. Perls, a longtime Manhattan dealer, is (with his wife) responsible for the other oil in the style of Analytic Cubism, as well as another, slightly earlier cubist oil, and six other works (mostly later).

Two collectors who fascinate me are Scofield Thayer and Alfred Stieglitz. Thayer (1889-1982), a well-to-do Harvard-educated esthete, bought The Dial in 1918 and made of it a shining literary and artistic avant-garde magazine: it published art by Picasso and Matisse, as well as T S. Eliot’s greatest poem, “The Waste Land” (1922). Then, sad to say, Thayer’s mind began to go. He resigned the editorship of The Dial in 1926, lingering on for a half-century in obscurity before dying at the age of 92. Under a will written in the 1920s, he left his art collection to the Met. Thayer wasn’t that adventurous stylistically: of 16 works from his collection that are in this exhibition, only one is even proto-cubist, while the rest are from the Blue, Rose and Classical Periods. The one that’s drawing the most attention is a small Blue Period oil, entitled “Erotic Scene (known as ‘La Douleur’).” It depicts a woman performing oral sex upon the artist (identifiable through his signature striped matelot shirt). The woman is presumably a prostitute, as nice young ladies didn’t do that sort of thing in those days. The 10 works here that are part of the Stieglitz bequest were in fact given by Georgia O’Keeffe, his widow, after his death in 1946. Nevertheless, he was the one who picked them out and displayed them at his gallery, 291, even before the Armory Show, and they document Picasso’s claim to have changed the course of art history the way nothing else at the Met does. One work is from the Blue Period, one from the Rose Period, and eight are from Analytic Cubism and Picasso’s subsequent foray into collage. All are lovely, but the best is the “Standing Female Nude” (1910). This small charcoal drawing is in fact a major work, perfectly beautiful & exquisitely simple, composed almost entirely of short vertical, horizontal & diagonal lines. For my money, it’s the best in show.


Two new shows at the Morgan Library & Museum are worth seeing (if you can ignore three large, inferior sculptures by Mark di Suvero in the lobby). The smaller exhibition, housed in the boutique Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery, is “Defining Beauty: Albrecht Dürer at the Morgan” (through September 12) It displays eight drawings by the German Renaissance master, plus three engravings, plus a copy of his treatise, “Four Books on Human Proportion” (published posthumously in 1532, 1534). All are from the Morgan’s permanent collection, and ncluded among the engravings are two of the artist’s most famous, “Adam and Eve” (1504) and “Melancholia.” (1514). In college, I had a job as a night school secretary in Columbia’s School of Painting and Sculpture. They had a book of Dürer works on paper that I remember fondly, but my taste has evolved over the decades: though I remain impressed by Dürer’s brilliance as a draftsman, not all his standards of “beauty” are still mine. In “Adam and Eve,” Adam still looks great, but Eve now looks too muscular to be truly beautiful. Most of the little animals in the print (mouse, elk, goat, etc.) are finely rendered, but Dürer, like Picasso, couldn’t do the cat, which is again ropier & more muscular than any real feline. What’s lovely, though, is the preliminary drawing for “Adam and Eve,” with the two humans in brown ink, on a simple brown field, minus the landscape elements & livestock. Even Eve looks good in that.

The big show, though, and the one I really came to see, is “Romantic Gardens: Nature, Art, and Landscape Design,” Organized by the Morgan’s John Bidwell, and incorporating approximately 90 manuscripts, rare books, drawings and other works of visual art on paper, primarily but not exclusively from the Morgan’s own holdings (through August 29). The theme is how Romantic artists, writers and landscape designers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries looked at nature, and how they used it in books, pictures and actual parklands to further their appreciation of it as a source of freedom, pleasure, moral instruction and inspiration. The work is spread out through the two large galleries of the Morgan’s main floor. On the east side are the ideological introduction to the subject, and its realization by the English. On the west side are French, German and American variants on the theme. Many vitrines are used to house precious books and manuscripts, and skied along the walls are color photographs of leafy green examples of 18th & 19th century landscape arrangements that have survived into the 21st. On the walls and partitions (for the most part) are the images that I, being more attuned to looking at art in museums than I am to reading it, was particularly interested in.

A show at the Morgan is always challenging, because there are so many little pieces of art to look at (as opposed to a smaller number of larger pieces). After a while I found myself strolling through this show as I might through a green, leafy glade, with trees all around to admire. I am right up there with Joyce Kilmer in believing that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree, and I love looking at trees in the countryside or even parks. Knowing that trees lower the temperature of a city street, I couldn’t have asked for a better antidote to the 90-degree heat wave we’d been having in the city. I didn’t spend much time reading labels and books, but I did see attractive works of visual art. I’d list in particular 1) the colorful view of William of Orange’s palace and its ornate precincts at Het Loo, by Laurens Scherm, 2) a procession scene by Francis Danby, showing spooky crowds of people & elephants with howdahs traveling through a staggeringly rocky, mountainous terrain, 3) a hilarious satire on nature-loving by Thomas Rowlandson, 4) an early pencil drawing of a gently-rolling English landscape near Petworth by Constable, 5) a startlingly humanoid study of tall, narrow cypresses near the Villa d’Este at Tivoli in Italy, by Samuel Palmer, 6) a little park scene by Fragonard, and 7) a turbulent vista of jagged Alps and roiling brown & white water by Turner. All these are in Morgan Stanley East.

The west gallery has more about literature, with vitrines and wall texts presenting Rousseau, Goethe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Among the works of visual art are small scenes by Caspar David Friedrich and Frederick E. Church, but easily the most dramatic & exciting work in the entire show is the huge, detailed pen-and-ink drawing made by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux as their winning entry into the contest for designing Central Park, in 1858. Spread out there on the wall are the graceful, natural shapes that would become the shapes of the park itself: softly curving roadways, irregularly shaped bodies of water, dozens & even hundreds of little trees and rocks, a flower garden, skating pond, reservoirs, parade ground, etc. Also extremely interesting are the “presentation boards” made by Olmsted & Vaux, with the “present outlines” of the area documented by photographs attributed to Matthew Brady and contrasted with “effect proposed” as seen in oil sketches by Vaux. These stark, magnificent grey & white photographs, showing blasted heath and open farmland, are a far cry from all the bleeding-heart stories we get about the houses that had to be torn down to make way for Central Park.

Much is made in “Romantic Gardens” of the “picturesque,” a concept of landscape developed by an Englishman, William Gilpin, in a book he published about his travels along the river Wye. There’s a copy of it in the show, but I didn’t see a copy of the much more famous (and parent) volume by Edmund Burke, on the sublime and the beautiful. As I understand it, Gilpin was trying to find a happy medium between the sublime and the beautiful, with the result that the picturesque is neither flesh nor fowl nor good red herring. I have always felt that Turner epitomizes the sublime, and Constable, the beautiful (maybe that’s why I like Constable better). The labels in this show give credit to Turner for the sublime, as have many other exhibitions. Constable isn’t generally conceded to epitomize the beautiful, but the label on his little (& early) landscape here is pregnant with meaning. It quotes him saying that “I have too much preferred the picturesque to the beautiful,” thereby suggesting that in his later work, he would deliberately reject the picturesque and strive instead for the beautiful.


As far as I’m concerned, nobody needs to think up any pretexts for staging yet another Matisse exhibition. The more there are, the happier I’ll be, but museum curators have to think up fresh rationales for every show, in order to raise the necessary funds, and to lure in all those supposedly cool younger museum-goers who don’t have any real appreciation of the grand tradition of modernism, being inundated as they are in the sea of postmodernist substitutes for it (about as nourishing as hay in place of spinach, but don’t let me get started on that). In the country of Pomonia, we are currently (and have been for some time previously) elevating the act or “process” of making art over the finished result (in this respect, paying homage to Saint Marcel, whose acts or processes of making his Readymades into “art” far surpassed the interest or quality (if that’s the word I want) of the Readymades themselves). So the emphasis in “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917,” on view at the Museum of Modern Art (through October 11) is on the sweating and straining that the master did in making his paintings and sculpture, his nearly endless re-thinking and re-painting, his agonizing and experimenting, as opposed to his so often triumphant results. We have, in other words, Matisse the uncertain, Matisse the tentative, Matisse the neurotic and worried thinker—a postmodernist Matisse, in other words, personifying the emphasis on process, as opposed to result, and the negative as opposed to the positive (negativity being the leitmotif of postmodernism, whether we’re talking Duchamp’s denial of cubism, or the reactions of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, et al. against abstract expressionism.).

Moreover, just as Pomonians prefer late, bad Picassos to Analytic Cubism, so too they get nervous when entirely surrounded by Matisse’s many masterpieces – or so one might be tempted to feel after viewing the current show, with nearly 110 works (paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints) made by the artist between his return from Morocco in 1913 and his departure for Nice in 1917 (as well as during the five years preceding of 1907-1912). This is not to say to that there are any really bad works in this exhibition, as curated by Stephanie D’Alessandro, of the Art Institute of Chicago, and John Elderfield, emeritus at MoMA (the show played Chicago before it came to New York). I don’t think Matisse ever drew or painted a really bad picture in his life, but as I worked my way through the seven galleries occupied by this show, I found considerable unevenness. Three of the galleries are absolutely socko; the others are often very good, but not all the works in them are of equal quality or interest.

There is, for example, a generous display of small prints showing the heads of artists, wives and daughters of men who’d been drafted in World War I, and friends otherwise affected by the conflict. A wall text explains that the artist’s hometown in northeastern France was behind enemy lines from the early days of the war, and his brother and hundreds of other male citizens had been deported to a prison camp in Germany. Thus he felt the conflict deeply, and, with the proceeds from selling his prints, was able to send weekly shipments of food and other necessities to the prison camp. This is all very touching, and I hate to sound like a Grinch, but the images themselves aren’t that gripping or distinctive. Rather, they water down the impact of the show as a show. Do we really need as many of them as we are given? Then again, maybe these little prints aren’t supposed to serve any esthetic purpose, maybe they’re just there to “humanize” Matisse, and to inject a political note into the proceedings. Postmodernists love to inject politics or “history” into esthetic discussions, and I can sometimes see the point to this. For example, the prevailing blue tonalities in one of the three best galleries in this exhibition may conceivably reflect the blue mood that the war caused in the artist, but when “history” is used to justify the introduction of lesser work into a discussion, that’s when I have a problem with it, and it is used this way in the gallery with that plethora of very similar small prints.

The three great galleries are the first, the middle one (with all its blue-toned pictures), and the last, representing before, during, and the conclusion of this terribly important phase of Matisse’s career, the phase when he was experimenting with adapting Picasso’s cubism and the increasing abstraction of still-younger artists into his own artistic vocabulary. Make no mistake: this direction was bold and daring, and the results, often richly rewarding. The best works in the sequence are rigorously moving, whether we’re talking sculpture like the last three versions of “The Back” (1911-13, 1913-16, and ca.1931) or paintings that range from the brilliantly off-centered “View of Notre Dame” (1914) and the grey tones of “The Piano Lesson” (1916) to the monumental and almost endlessly exploratory “Bathers by a River.”

Matisse worked on this great painting from 1909 to 1917. It bears the brunt of the curatorial emphasis on process, with manipulated photographs in a wall text early in the show, to illustrate what the picture looked like originally, and a whole digital presentation in the catalogue room at the end, using all the latest technological toys to plumb the artist’s secrets, and see how he proceeded. Carol Vogel, the art news reporter for the New York Times, has already picked up on this with a front-page article in the Arts & Leisure section of Sunday, July 11. But if you’re a Luddite like me, you can simply skip the technology, and enjoy what Matisse meant you to enjoy, that moment when he finally said of this picture, “it’s done.”

You will have good company, too. In 1957, Clement Greenberg recalled how this painting had helped to shape the abstract expressionists’ idea of the big picture when it hung in the lobby of the Valentine Gallery on Fifty-Seventh Street (before the Art Institute of Chicago acquired it). He himself, he said, had seen it often enough there to feel able to copy it “by heart.” I must have seen this painting in Chicago, but here in New York, it’s a whole new experience. I hadn’t remembered how big it is (8’7” x 12’10”), or how fascinatingly complex. Nor had I remembered how big and masterful “The Piano Lesson” is. This is a painting I’ve seen dozens of times, hanging in the permanent collection of MoMA, yet here I was, seeing it with new eyes. Isn’t that the purpose of any Old Master exhibition, to enable us to see the work afresh? And, if “Matisse: Radical Invention” succeeds in doing this, isn’t that the mark of a damn good show? I don’t think any of my regular readers needs to be told to go and see this exhibition. They already know how great Matisse can be, but just in case this review has attracted the attention of somebody new to my quips and quiddities, truly, let me tell you, this is one presentation not to be missed.….. (© Copyright 2010 by Piri Halasz)
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