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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."




Isn't staging any major exhibitions in its principal special exhibitions areas at the moment. This makes for a pleasantly uncrowded museum. Readers who still enjoy contemplating the permanent collection and/or lunching with a friend in its spacious cafeteria can also take pleasure in two smaller shows ---one from the early 20th century, one from a lot earlier than that. The early 20th century one is “Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand,” featuring 115 photographs, all from the Met’s collection, but not all always on view. Organized by Malcolm Daniel with the assistance of Russell Lord, the show is accompanied by a 180-page catalogue with 135 illustrations, including many in full color (through April 10).

Photography buffs who have been around for a while may not find much news. They are doubtless familiar with all of Stieglitz’s gruff but forthright & magnificently crystal-clear output, including the early views of snowbound Manhattan, the cloud studies, and the famous series immortalizing the photographer’s wife, Georgia O’Keeffe. Museum-goers who recall the exhaustive Steichen retrospective at the Whitney in 2000-2001 will likewise find in this show only a more modest selection, primarily of misty, impressionist-style work done prior to World War I, when Steichen’s studies of Rodin and the Flatiron Building were most emphatically dedicated to the “pictorialist” vision. Strand is the least familiar of the three, but his ultra-lean abstract studies of bowls, fruit & so on, to say nothing of his trenchant street photographs, have been featured even in undergraduate art history courses on early 20th century American art—at least the last time I attended such a course, which was longer ago than I care to admit.

The freshest part of this exhibition is perhaps also the most commonplace: Strand’s “humanist” studies of Mexico, done in the 1930s, are warmly documentary, but at the same time less distinctively Strand. Still, the rest of the show is classy stuff, too, and quality is always worth looking at again, if only to remind yourself of the standards it’s setting. Moreover, art history professors these days don’t necessarily cover the same territory that they used to, being all too eager to win the sweepstakes for hottest & most up to the minute. Steve Cannon, the presiding deity at “a gathering of the tribes,” told me not long ago that the younger people he was talking to were finding the big “Abstract Expressionist New York” show at MoMA a real eye-opener, insisting that they hadn’t been taught anything about this in college. I checked this out with a Yale professor whom I know, and he assured me that indeed, it was entirely possible for a college student, even an art history major, to get through college without learning much of anything about abstract expressionism. Not only the kids, it seems, but even their elders, would so much rather focus on art since 1960(and I don’t mean color-field painting, I mean pop & neo-dada & op & all the rest of the giddy nonsense that I too used to consider so cool).


The Roman sculpture court at the Met will take you backwards to 300 A.D. with its temporary installation of “The Roman Mosaic from Lod, Israel,” (on view through April 3). The rest of that gallery is also very relaxing, with the sun streaming through its big southern-exposure windows and the fountain tinkling so very quietly. The mosaic, discovered in 1996 while widening the road between Jerusalem & Tel Aviv, was originally created in the ancient Roman town of Lydda (the modern town of Lod). As it is very large (50’ long, 27’ wide), it probably belonged to the house of an affluent Roman and decorated the floor of a large reception area or audience hall. It contains no human figures, so it’s impossible to tell whether the original owner was pagan, Christian or Jew. Instead, the mosaic is populated entirely by animals, birds & fish (as well as two merchant ships). Maybe that is why it is so wonderfully timeless: animals wear better than human beings, as they don’t have costumes or hairdos or makeup that might date them. Even the ships look as though they might have come from a modern-day historical enactment. Everything is divided up into larger and smaller registers, individual beasties or groups of beasties set off from each other by decorative borders & section divisions. The colors are particularly lovely, though limited in range: browns, grays, yellows, and whites, no bright reds, blues or greens, but many different shades of each color used. Taken as a whole, the mosaic represents a major accomplishment. It’s nice to imagine the workmen of 1700 years ago looking at it, and saying proudly, “We done good.”


Roberta Smith in the NY Times for February 11 placed her seal of approval upon “Frankenthaler: East and Beyond” at Knoedler (through March 11). That lets me off the hook, since lots of people now know about this show, and will beat feet to see it. And they will enjoy themselves, if indeed they are capable of pure enjoyment in an art gallery: this show is meant for looking at, as opposed to discussing in high-intellectual Artspeak. As always with Frankenthaler, the feeling lies too deep for words.

If you want paintings, they are arrayed on the main or street-level floor of the gallery. If you want prints, go down to the lower level, and if you want small, individual works on paper, go up to the second floor. Not all the works on view are of equal caliber, but a number are excellent. I guess I had the best time on the main floor, though there are some wonderful prints downstairs and at least two little gems on paper upstairs. Maybe it’s just because I like painting better.

The theme is Frankenthaler’s relationship to Asia, but although John Yau in his catalogue does his best to establish a connection, he succeeds only partially, in the part of his essay where he describes the artist’s immersion, and mastery of, Japanese woodblock technique. This is ironic, since he also tries to discredit the Greenbergian idea that art is all about art and that style and technique are what distinguish a picture, as opposed to the imagery or what it’s “about.”

For the paintings, Yau winds up having to rely upon titles with Asian allusions such as “Yangtze” or “Yin Yang,” and my understanding is that Frankenthaler’s titles have always been the after the fact. I don’t think I’ve ever discussed this with her in so many words, but the impression I’ve had is that she’s never started out to paint this or that, a specific subject. Rather, her approach has been to start out far more intuitively, maybe with an idea about a shape or a color that she wants to explore. In the process of the making the painting, she puts this & that together, and then finally, when it’s all done, she looks at it and says to herself, “What does this remind me of?”

So, some (though not all) of the works on view have Asian-sounding titles, but that doesn’t mean they’re more Asian than anything else. As with every work that Frankenthaler has made, these pictures represent a synthesis of Asian with Western, ancient with modern, personal with universal and classical with radical. I’m sure everybody who sees this show will have their own favorites, but for me the greatest genius lies in “New York Bamboo” (1957), in the gallery facing the street. A dramatic grisaille, it is daringly half-bare, with its delicate, lacy image dominating the other half. Reminds me of “Toward a New Climate,” a painting of the same year that I saw many years ago, and that has the same spare use of shapes & extreme coloristic limitation (orange and white instead of gray and white). Also memorable in this show are the haiku-like “Cloister” (1969) and the savage brown-and-orange combinations of “Tantric” (1977).

Among the woodcuts, I liked best the simplest and earliest, “East and Beyond” (1973), but also the much later, richly-varied “Tales of Genji IV” (1998). Among the small oils on paper, I was enraptured by “Three Red Balls” (1962), and also responded strongly to the untitled Chinese-y looking three little squares, also from 1962. Finally, there is a very elaborate free-standing screen, with scroll-like painting in the panels and sculptural furbelows around the edges, nearly 7 feet tall and 8 feet wide, a curious mix between Asian, Art-Nouveau, color-field & maybe surrealism. I found it overly gaudy the first time I saw it, but after contemplating it a bit, it began to grow on me. The front (red-based) screen is better than the back (blue-green) one, though.

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