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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."



Should you be in the mood for looking at art over the holiday weekend, here are three shows that I can highly recommend --- or rather, one show and two half-shows.

The one show that I can unqualifiedly recommend is “Jules Olitski & Anthony Caro: Making Art as Naked as Possible, 1964-1978” at Leslie Feely Fine Art (through January 15). Here is a galaxy of gorgeous spray paintings--— small, medium-sized and large---and a handful of almost equally gorgeous sculptures --- of various sizes. The colors are so light and bright, and the overall feeling is so airy, that you can’t help but feel a real lift in your spirits when you see this work.

One of the half-shows that I can also recommend is “Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art(through January 17). This show was organized by the Met and the National Gallery in London. It was conceived and curated by the Met’s Maryan Ainsworth, and will be seen in London in a smaller version, curated by Susan Foister (February 23 through May 30). Gossart (ca. 1478-1532) is billed as “one of the most innovative artists of the Burgundian-Habsburg Netherlands,” who started out as a devout Late Gothic Mannerist, following in the footsteps of Jan Van Eyck, and wound up – after a trip to Italy---as a Renaissance voluptuary who anticipated the baroque luxury of Rubens. Unfortunately, Gossart’s accomplishment is not really equal to the cavernous galleries to which the Met has assigned him, though he’s hardly the first painter who has flunked this course. Previous victims to overexposure in this space have included Childe Hassam, Gilbert Stuart, and even Picasso (or at least Picasso as circumscribed by the requirement that all the works on view be part of the Met’s permanent collection). Indeed, the last painters whom I can recall being fully the equal to this huge space were El Greco and Van Gogh, and Gossart is hardly the equal of either. His early Gothic religious paintings are overly ornate, while his supposedly erotic Renaissance female nudes are too muscular to register to modern eyes as genuinely sensuous (he did better with the male nudes, if only because men are still supposed to be muscular). I would recommend skating rather rapidly through the first eight galleries of this exhibition, but leaving plenty of time to savor the ninth and last gallery, which is all portraits, mostly by Gossart or by painters imitating him. They’re terrific, kissing cousins to Holbein but also marked by a very individual and trenchant yet sympathetic view of their subjects. A wonderful combination of dignity with élan. My favorites would include the “Portrait of a Man” (possibly Philip of Burgundy), with a splendidly dour, puffy face; also Jean Carondelet, as seen in the “Carondelet Diptych,” with a beautifully spiritual yet masculine face; the “Portrait of an Old Couple,” she in a wimple, he with pursed-up lips; and “The Three Children of Christian II of Denmark,” with three adorable, pasty, pudgy, childlike little faces. Merely itemizing these four paintings gives you some idea of Gossart’s range.

The other half-show I can recommend is in the back gallery of “The Spanish Manner: Drawings from Ribera to Goya” at the Frick Collection, organized by Jonathan Brown, of the Institute of Fine Arts, Lisa A. Banner, an independent scholar, and the Frick’s Susan Grace Galassi (through January 9). The front gallery of this exhibition is devoted to 17th & 18th Century drawings by a variety of artists, of whom the most interesting is Jusepe de Ribera, who had a real flair for the whimsical and grotesque, but the back gallery is all Goya. Rejoice! Here are 22 small works on paper from the late 18th to early 19th centuries, almost all done with brush and brown ink, or brush and brown wash, or combos of these techniques, with or without scraping. And they are almost all bloody marvelous. “Three Men Digging” is graceful and light, despite its mundane subject, while the “Nun Frightened by a Ghost” has beautiful contrasts between the heavily limned figure of the nun and the lightly rendered figure of the ghost. All the way around the gallery, one may marvel at how Goya combined satire with sympathy. Although he is looking down at the little people he is depicting, he nonetheless has compassion for their frailties. The wall on the right (as you enter the gallery) is almost all single figures --- a ragged beggar, a shepherd, an old woman with a basket of eggs, a young woman with a book & an “enlightened” (?) expression. But the top prize here goes to “Regozijo (Mirth),” which depicts two floating figures, an elderly man and his wife, dancing to the rhythm of the castanets that the man is wielding as “a symbol of happiness or mirth.” Small wonder that the Frick chose to use this buoyant image in their promotional material. Admittedly, the entrance price to the Frick is $18, which is a lot to pay for 22 small drawings, but between 11 and 1 on Sundays, it’s pay what you wish.
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