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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."



“To see the world through rose-colored glasses” doesn’t necessarily have to do with spectrums or palettes. Rather, it suggests a desire to look upon the bright side, and 3 current shows typify this outlook, in different ways.

At Peg Alston Fine Arts, we have “Oliver Johnson: Jazz Series, Paintings & Drawings” (through June 30). I noticed Johnson’s work a year ago, when he was included in a group show at this gallery; now it’s a pleasure to see a whole show by him. His theme here is the famous musicians who have made jazz into America’s first truly multicultural society: his subjects in include African-Americans like Miles Davis and Ray Charles, Caucasians like Frank Sinatra and Gerry Mulligan, even an Asian-American, Grace Kelly (born Grace Chung). They are seen here in moderately-sized oil paintings and smaller portrait drawings executed in a lovingly verist technique --- mostly based on photographs, but without the superficial quality of so much hyperrealism. Possibly because Johnson isn’t trying to be avant-garde, but rather emulate the Old Masters, his style is mellower. Among the paintings, I particularly liked “Blowing Horn,” in which a ghostly Davis contemplates a young trumpeter, leaning against the base of a street lamp at 52nd Street and Sixth Avenue, also “Armstrong Still Life,” with Satchmo’s trumpet laid atop its open case, a mute in the foreground, a photo of himself and a statuette of a little angel blowing a horn. Among the portrait drawings, I went for those depicting Billie Holiday and Willie (The Lion) Smith. Peg Alston is open only by appointment; call (212) 663-8333.


I don’t know why, but many compactly-built, dark and especially middle-aged Mediterranean men seem to have a thing for young, statuesque and Nordic-type blonde women. Pablo Picasso was neither the first nor the last male of this type to follow the pattern, but as he was Picasso, the fruits of the union were rich. At the age of 45, he picked up Marie-Thérèse Walter, the daughter of a single mother and a Swedish father, when she was still only 17, on the street outside of a Parisian department store. The year was 1927, and the liaison was to last, in one form or another, for most of the rest of Picasso’s life. They actually lived together for only a month or so in 1936, but at other times, he housed her in various convenient domiciles, visited her regularly, and supported her financially, along with their daughter Maya, born in 1935. Picasso was perfectly capable of maintaining multiple relationships with women, so the affair with Walter co-existed during its early years with the artist’s marriage to his first wife, Olga Kokhlova. After Walter became pregnant with Maya, Olga moved out on Picasso, and divorce was considered, but what with one thing or another, it never took place, so the two lived apart but remained technically married until her death in 1955.

Even, however, after Olga’s place in Picasso’s Iife had been taken by Dora Maar, his next mistress, he continued to see Walter. In fact, upon at least one occasion he brought the two women together, and seems to have enjoyed watching them fight over him (women who love geniuses sometimes put up with a lot). Picasso was still in touch with Walter throughout his years with Françoise Gilot, his next mistress, but the relationship was apparently terminated by Jacqueline Roque, the artist’s last mistress and second wife. As Pierre Daix, author of a fine 1-volume biography of Picasso, remarks, Picasso found with Roque “the calm he had lacked since Marie-Thérèse, this time linked to the intellectual companionship he had enjoyed with Dora and Françoise.” Alas, the serenity conveyed by Walter must have been only the appearance she presented to Picasso, as she hanged herself in 1977, four years after his death. Some (male) authors say that she took her own life because she couldn’t endure life without him, but any psychologist can tell you there must have been more to it than that.

One big difference between Picasso’s liaison with Walter and that of all his other women was that the relationship was kept a closely-guarded secret from all but his closest friends. Still, it inspired a substantial body of work, now presented by Gagosian at its 21st Street gallery in Chelsea with “Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L’amour fou” (through June 25). The show was curated by John Richardson, best known of Picasso’s biographers in the U.S., together with Walter’s granddaughter, Diana Widmaier Picasso, who is currently preparing a catalogue raisonné of Picasso’s sculpture. On view are about 80 paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture, mostly loaned from private collectors, but with some U.S. museums represented, plus Tate Modern in London (no French or other Continental museums).The show also has some illuminating photographs of Walter, which show her to have been a strapping, athletically-inclined wench even when she was still young. It is also fascinating to see how accurate some of Picasso’s semi-abstract images of her are in this show—most notably, the 30-inch tall plaster head of her done in 1931 that appears at first glance to be all huge, rounded forms and grotesque distortion. Looking more closely, one can see that Walters’ Grecian profile is perfectly captured, as is the way she wore her blonde hair, with the central top locks pulled back toward the back of her head in a high-rise pony tail.

Because this show is devoted to the relationship between Walter & Picasso, it doesn’t even attempt to display the full range of work created by Picasso during the period between 1927 and 1940. Protean artist that he was, he adopted different styles for each of the women figuring majorly in his life. Paintings inspired by Olga present long, skinny, twisted and putty-like figures of women with monstrous faces (at least, after his relationship with her had soured). Paintings of women inspired by Dora Maar present spiky, angular figures (especially in his “Weeping Women” series). But the touchingly youthful and voluptuous body of Marie-Thérèse prompted the artist to depict innocent young girls, long-lashed women seated or reading, and -- most tellingly --- beautiful female bodies posed, waking or sleeping, with bountiful, softly-rounded outlines: “curvilinear cubism,” it is sometimes called. The most famous example of this style, MoMA’s “ Girl Before a Mirror” (1932) is not included in this show, but there are so many other lovely paintings that it is hardly missed. What is most lovely about them is that the artist genuinely seems to like his subject. It’s not Picasso the misogynist, but Picasso in an affectionate mood. For me, the two-dimensional work that says most about the relationship is the large “Nue Endormie” (1932), a lightly-sketched charcoal drawing on canvas to the right of the entrance to the show (and the first image I saw, due to my deplorable habit of going around galleries counterclockwise instead of clockwise, the way I’m supposed to). It’s not a radical drawing, any more than the rest of the show is all that radical, but it’s graceful and bucolic and – how can I say it best? Happy.


Over at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, we have “Louis I. Kahn: Building a View” (through July 1). This exhibition presents about 60 mostly small watercolors, drawings, pastels and oils by the famous architect (1901-1974), culled from his years of traveling in the U.S. and Europe from the 1920s to the early 1960s. Starting (as is my wont) on the right-hand wall of the gallery, I came first to studies of Renaissance Italian architecture & Roman and Egyptian ruins done in the 50s, when Kahn was architect-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome. Often abbreviated and with altered outlines, they had a “modern” look about them that I couldn’t quite place. Passing to the next wall, I encountered landscape studies, ranging from Austria to Woodstock NY, and including especially aerial views of rolling hilltops. Their sinuous outlines reminded me of Art Nouveau, and enabled me to place that same feeling in the work I’d seen on the first wall. It also made me think of Art Nouveau itself as rather sentimental. The third wall is hung mainly with studies of New England towns, in particular Rockport, Maine, but they aren’t a bit like Stuart Davis ’s Rockport. I was reminded more of Childe Hassam. Then came the last wall, and ZOWIE! I was transported to heaven by three large, marvelously detailed and powerful drawings in pencil and black crayon. One shows a Colonial church, and is dated 1920-28, the second shows Caesar’s Tower, Warwick Castle, England, and is dated 1928, and the third shows a Tudor house in London and is also dated 1928. The last two, particularly magnificent, were completed four years after Kahn had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, where he had been schooled in a rigorous Beaux-Arts tradition. No false emotion here, just a ruthless passion for reality. Would to God that everybody with such schooling could put it to such great use.
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