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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."



Vishnu in His Cosmic Sleep. Central India (Madhya Pradesh), c. 12th century. Sandstone. 14 9/16 x 27 9/16 in. Private collection, Euurope.
Summertime, and living is easy. Tourists swarm into Manhattan, and big museums try to lure these people, many of whom don’t know (or care) much (if anything) about modern painting & sculpture, into their air-conditioned halls. Many of these people (the Americans, anyway) just want to be able to say they’ve done their "cultural” duty by going to an “art” museum, and can thereafter relax & go to the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Museum of Natural History, fancy restaurants & Cirque de Soleil or some simple-minded Broadway show like “Mary Poppins” or “The Phantom of the Opera,” a show that been running for literally decades. It must be this same sort of person who is keeping “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark” in business, even though it opened (finally) to lousy reviews. True, there are also visitors whose tastes are more elevated, and want to see the American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House, or one of the more demanding plays in town—“War Horse,” for example, which I saw myself and enjoyed. The story is kind of simpleminded, but the big horse puppets are great fun, and, between them & the program notes, the show is a trenchant reminder of the appalling waste and devastation & loss of life (both human & animal) in World War I. To the extent that such more enlightened tourists want to expose themselves, often for the first time, to the Manhattan museums’ permanent collections, I am all for it, even if it’s a bit depressing to find among them so many people (younger as well as older) whose tastes in art are no more "modern" than Van Gogh or Modigliani. At least such people will pause & fill the galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art displaying art from ages past, where for the most part, they are sure to find excellent art.


I wish I could say the same for the Museum of Modern Art, but alas, this is impossible. In the wake of its great abstract expressionist show of last winter, it has re-hung its fourth-floor permanent collection to virtually eliminate any display of abstract expressionism. Of course, Ann Temkin, who is in charge of the permanent collection, made sure that her personal pet, Barnett Newman, is represented by two paintings, one of which (“Vir Heroicus Sublimis,” 1950-51) gets pride of place, facing the entry to the gallery, and with a bench in front of it. Pollock is limited to just one painting, the big “One (Number 31, 1950)”, and it’s shunted off to a side wall (where people can’t sit down in front of it). Otherwise, the gallery is occupied by two postwar (inferior) sculptures by Alberto Giacometti, and a very inferior Francis Bacon. No de Kooning, Rothko, Motherwell, Hofmann, Still, David Smith or Gottlieb. There are two mostly grey & white pictures by Gorky in the entry gallery, along with a lot of rather dingy-looking emigre European dadaists & surrealists, but the gallery formerly given over to Pollock is now entirely occupied by Rauschenberg, Johns, and other examples of ‘50s neo-dada, and the next whole gallery has a huge selection of equally dingy-looking European neo-dada from the 50s, after which we move on to the inevitable pop stars, plus what seems like acres & acres of minimalism & conceptual art. Color (except of the coarsest & most obviously manufactured types) is largely divested from these shows.


To anybody who (like me) knows what glories are now hidden away in storage, such displays are profoundly depressing – though, of course, not surprising when you consider that MoMA’s special exhibitions are now so frequently targeted to the sort of younger person whose benighted college professors teaching postwar American art most likely paid only token attention to abstract expressionism, before moving on to extended treatments of the oh-so iconographically suggestive Rauschenberg & Johns. This sort of museum-goer would rather look at performance art or movies than at any form of timeless art anyway (look at the crowds who pay top dollar for summer blockbusters, rock concerts & football games --- that’s the kind of “culture” that MoMA sees itself as being in competition with nowadays ). To accommodate museum-goers with similar tastes, MoMA has just finished staging “Francis Alys: A Story of Deception” at both its main, 53rd Street building and at PS1, its outpost of contemporary art in Queens (this show closed August 1). Alys was born in Belgium in 1959, and has lived in Mexico City since 1986, so we got status as well as audience appeal: the European cachet & the political correctness of Latin America, all rolled into one. The press release provides full pomonian sanctification, saying that the artist “uses poetic and allegorical methods to explore the social realities of political concepts, including the cyclical nature of change in modernizing societies, the urban landscape, and patterns of economic progress.” Yeah, right.

A wall text at PS1 explained that the title of the show was inspired by “the fundamental human desire to chase the unattainable and ever-escaping – a concept at the core of Alys’s practice and illustrated by Samuel Beckett’s words, ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’.” Actually, the author who sprang to my mind with the title of this show was not Beckett but Hans Christian Andersen, whose classic “story of deception” is usually titled “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I say this because the level of proficiency in most of the films struck me as on a par with the clips that I see on the TV news emailed in by amateurs who just happened to have their iPods or iPads (or whatever other toys are used to take pictures) handy when some catastrophe occurred. Maybe Alys is really proficient, but has deliberately adapted a faux-naif style. If so, you couldn't prove it by me. The plots of most of his movies were of the same pseudo-existentialist, plot-less nature that so commonly characterizes videos by unknowns that I happen across in Chelsea (on those rare occasions when I can’t avoid it). The only one by Alys at PS 1 that had a plot worth mentioning was “El Gringo.” This seemed to be a film made by somebody carrying a camera & walking through a deserted & arid village landscape when he (or she) was approached by increasing numbers of barking dogs and eventually savaged by them (the camera came to a stop with a close-up view of rocks and pebbles, suggesting that its operator had been brought down to earth by the dogs & was no longer in the land of the living). As I say, this had a plot, but it’s both adolescent & nasty. Another video had a group of fully-dressed & armed Coldstream Guards marching through deserted streets together, the “action” consisting of the fact that at the beginning there are only a few of them, then there are more of them, and then there are few of them again. Whatever profundity there is in this escapes me.

Other rooms at PS1 were each occupied by a single tiny statue, crudely executed, and quite undeserving of the amounts of space accorded. They reminded me of how small abstract/minimalist paintings used to be exhibited in SoHo galleries back in the ‘90s, with vast areas of empty walls around them. “Pretentious” was the word for them that sprang to mind in the 90s – and sprang again at PS 1. The same may be said for the small, crude paintings of people displayed at various points around the Alys show, again surrounded by undeserved amounts of space. True, the show at PS1 was pretty much deserted when I visited it. Most of the crowds seemed to be watching the other movie show on display, entitled “Ryan Trecartin: Any Ever.” Its popularity is perhaps not surprising, since it features all sorts of chairs and lounges to sit down on when watching (through September 3). No doubt all these opportunities to lounge while visiting a museum are welcomed by a generation raised since the advent of large-scale strollers, and probably spared the necessity of walking anywhere at all until they were four or five. Admittedly, when I moved on to 53rd Street, to view the other half of the Alys show, I found the movies there quite crowded (even though people had to stand). But one movie repeated the same gimmick employed with the Coldstream Guard movie, except that instead of Coldstream Guards, it was sheep walking in an oval configuration. Another feature of the installation at 53rd Street was long, narrow vitrines displaying pieces of paper with notes & diagrams & so forth on them, along with assorted bad photos & other trivia associated with the making of each movie. My mother had a couple of terms that seem appropriate for those displays: “rat scraps” and “skulch.”


Uptown, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one can still find a splendid selection of abstract expressionist art. Following upon a whole gallery of Still, there are three wonderful paintings by Pollock, including the majestic “Autumn Rhythm”(1950), with a bench in front of it, the early “Pasiphae”(1943) and “Number 28, 1950.” This last is another lovely poured painting from the great collection of Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman, who also donated the memorable Motherwell, “Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 35”(1954-59), the classic de Kooning “Attic” (1949), and a beautiful Morris Louis “unfurled” from 1960. From Thomas B. Hess, the longtime editor of Art News and later curator of contemporary art at the Met, as well as his family, come two earlier and excellent paintings by de Kooning. From various other sources (including the Met’s own Hearn Fund), come marvelously lively & colorful paintings by Gorky, Hofmann and Rothko (3 Rothkos in all), as well as fine pieces by David Smith, Richard Pousette-Dart and Barnett Newman. All these works were on view when I passed through recently, though accompanied by a few lesser lights, like Conrad Marca-Relli. After that, the galleries degenerated into neo-dada like Rauschenberg & Johns and the inevitable Warhol & Lichtenstein. Still, at least this was a balanced display.


How long it will last, of course, is a moot point, since the Met, like every museum in town, has to deal with the New York Times yapping at its heels to move on up and become more “contemporary.” This is perhaps the most irritating aspect of the paper’s frequently irritating art coverage, the way it behaves as though any museum with a real commitment to historical art must needs be yanked into the present. The attitude surfaced most recently in the Times’s coverage of the Frick Collection’s appointment of Ian Wardropper to become its new director, in a story by Kate Taylor and Carol Vogel, published on May 20. Wardropper has been chairman of the Met’s department of (historical) European sculpture and decorative arts, so the paper’s sneering way of announcing his new appointment was to say it was “a safe choice for a museum steeped in the past, and whose trustees tend to resist change.” Please, darling Frick, don’t change a hair for me, not if you care for me. I like museums “steeped in the past,” and God knows we have too many of the other kind. The Frick is a must-see for any visitor to Manhattan – I myself recommend it at least as often as I recommend the Met, and far more often than I recommend MoMA.

It’s bad enough that the Met devotes as much time, money & energy as it does to the ephemera of the present (though I suppose, given how popular these shows can be, they’re inevitable). This summer, a major part of the Met’s special exhibitions galleries has been turned over to a) a resoundingly banal exhibition of the minimalist drawings of Richard Serra and b) the haute camp clothing designs of “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.” This latter show has been a succès fou. How could it miss, with a designer who committed suicide, a dress design (by his successor) for the royal wedding of Kate Middleton, and many other clothing styles as overdone as they are weird? This is the perfect show for people who don’t know the difference between art and fashion anyway, and who’d really rather be shopping in Bloomie’s than attending a museum. I strolled through the exhibition shortly after it opened & word hadn’t yet gotten out about it. It’s very theatrical, with spotlights in darkened passageways & music, but I couldn’t have gotten near the place more recently, as it seems to have become The Show to See this season. The lines to attend it, the last time I visited the museum, stretched all the way back from its entrance (beyond the impressionist paintings galleries) to the elevators (on the east side of the building), then made a right angle and continued on through the Near East antiquities past the Assyrians & practically to the Great Hall. And this, though it was a weekday & the Met has recently raised its “suggested” entrance fee from $20 to $25! The show’s closing date has been extended to August 7, and the museum will be open late not only on Fridays and Saturdays, but also Thursday and Sunday of the final week of the exhibition (till midnight over the final weekend). To members, the museum is also open one hour earlier every day except Monday from July 22 to August 7, and on Mondays when the museum is ordinarily closed, special viewings from 9:30 am to 2:30 pm are available at $50 a pop.

According to a July 21 press release from the Museum, the show has so far been seen by more than 500,000 viewers (which puts it on target to exceed “Vermeer & the School of Delft,” “Van Gogh” and “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years,” Jackie being the first clothing show that the Met staged upstairs, in 2001. Before then, clothes displayed were kept where they belonged, in the Costume Institute in the basement, but the Met could hardly have reaped such a shower of gold in its basement. The same press release announced that 5,680,000 people had visited the Met (including The Cloisters) during the fiscal year than ended on June 30. This was the highest number recorded in 40 years. Other recent blockbuster shows that the press release mentioned were last summer’s so-so exhibition of “Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” (703,256 visitors) and its exercise in jungle gyms, “Doug + Mike Starn on the Roof: Big Bambu”(631,064 visitors) The Times promptly picked up and printed this information.


Bobby Baker, a very nice editor with whom I worked on Time, once said that our magazine au fond had only two kinds of stories. One was "ah, the wonder!" and the other was "oh, the pity!" Recently, the Times has shown that it, too, can follow this policy -- specifically with reference to the Met, and even more specifically on the issue of its emphasis on the contemporary. A classic (and most unexpected) example of "Oh, the pity!" appeared in the paper on Sunday, July 31. In the lead article in the Arts & Leisure section, Holland Cotter (of all people) criticized the Met for its decision to display only its collection of modern and contemporary art in the Marcel Breuer building of the Whitney Museum of American Art on Madison Avenue (which it will lease from the Whitney when that museum moves to its new building in the Meatpacking District in 2015). “…history is what’s becoming inaccessible,” Cotter wrote. “And history…is the fundamental reason that museums like the Met exist. That being so, what we don’t need from the Met, because we get it from so many other sources, is a preponderance of Now. We don’t need, in the Breuer building, four floors of the same sort of contemporary art that we see everywhere else in town, just so the Met can say that it has it, that it’s up to market speed.” I couldn’t agree more, though I’m less enthusiastic about Cotter’s suggestions about should be done instead, like combining contemporary with historical in the same exhibitions (as a show curated by Kara Walker recently did), and/or combining fine and applied arts in the same exhibition (as is commonly done with Asian and African shows, at the Met and elsewhere, and which works only when the applied arts have the soul to compete qualitatively with the paintings and sculpture).

Anyway, Cotter’s bold stand in favor of “history” was contradicted in the same issue by the lead article in the paper’s Sunday Styles section, a huge one by Eric Wilson on “McQueen’s Final Showstopper.” This was definitely an "ah, the wonder!" kind of story. In Wilson’s desire to show that the McQueen show at the Met was really heavy stuff, he quoted a sociology professor from Texas A & M admiring the show’s “depth,” “art,” and “detail.” Still, Wilson devoted more (and more) space to McQueen’s colorful life and times, and his influence on clothing designs, plus gee-whiz statistics on how much income this show meant for the Met. Items listed included $10 million raised through the museum’s annual Costume Institute gala, the sales of 55,000 exhibition catalogues (at $45) in the museum alone, and a nearly doubled number of new members (to 17,500) who joined In order to skip the lines to the show. Plus, of course, the increased take at the box office from folks presumably coughing up $25 apiece so they could see McQueen.


My own two most recent trips to the Met were occasioned by the desire to see “Pastel Portraits: Images of 18th-Century Europe”(through August 14), and “Mother India: The Goddess in Indian Painting” (through November 27). The former, a loan exhibition featuring about 40 pastels from many museums and private collections, was organized by Katharine Baetjer and Marjorie Shelley (both on the Met’s staff). It is very attractive, demonstrating a wide range of approaches and a variety of personalities portrayed. Pastels are a fragile medium; for this reason, they are rarely exhibited, although they were very popular from the early-18th through the early 19th centuries. Predominantly this show is of French artists, who range from the somewhat fruity and overly-elaborate contributions of Charles Antoine Coypel and Jean Baptiste Perronneau (whose subjects wear the 18th-century equivalents to McQueen) to the exquisite simplicity and sincerity of Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun and Maurice Quentin de La Tour (modernists before their time). La Tour, having been both the best & most famous pastelist, is seen in this show by six stellar examples of his art–three completed portraits and three preliminary sketches that are almost better than the finished portraits. Still, the art of pastel portraiture wasn’t confined to France. John Singleton Copley displays two stalwart portraits made before he emigrated from the Colonies to England, and the Venetian Rosalba Carriera is best represented by an impressive study of “Gustavus Hamilton (1710-46), Second Viscount Boyne, in Masquerade Costume.” Also notable are the contributions of the Swiss Jean Étienne Liotard and the Irish Hugh Douglas Hamilton. The English, too, make distinguished appearances, especially with the works of John Russell and Joseph Wright of Derby. My only complaint about this show is that it doesn’t include any of the famous self-portraits by that quintessential French still life and genre painter, Jean Siméon Chardin, though his magisterial “Head of an Old Man” is a welcome substitute.

“Mother India: The Goddess in Indian Painting,” organized by John Guy and Kurt Behrendt (both Met staffers) turns out to be a nice, minor show, with about 30 works from the Met’s collection. There are no loans, and most of the art on view (despite the title of the show) is sculpture, almost invariably small in scale (to the extent that there is art on the walls, it’s almost all black-and-white drawings, not multicolored paintings). Also, the show’s parameters are vague, as indicated by the accompanying literature: these are all mother goddesses, but from which if indeed any organized religion is left unclear.


For museum-goers who want a far more generous (and specific) helping of Indian art, I highly recommend “Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior” at the Brooklyn Museum (through October 2). Organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, where it was on view earlier this year, “Vishnu” was curated by Joan Cummins, curator of Asian art at the Brooklyn Museum. It includes more than 170 objects, of which only 16 come from the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection. Almost everything is stunningly beautiful, intricate forms executed with the loving & time-consuming craftsmanship that seems to have gone out of style in Chelsea — or diverted to more mundane ends. As the Brooklyn Museum’s press release indicates, Hinduism, as generally practiced, reveres three principal deities (although all can take different forms). The original god is Brahma the Creator, the next is Vishnu the Preserver, and finally comes Shiva the Destroyer. Vishnu is responsible for preserving balance in the universe. He is the embodiment of mercy and compassion, who descends to save the world and/or lesser gods from demons and other threats. His consort is Lakshmi, goddess of beauty and fortune. The two are often portrayed lovingly entwined. In other works, Vishnu appears with four arms, each holding a different attribute (lotus, conch, mace and wheel). Sometimes he is shown riding upon his eagle mount, Garuda. In addition to his own self, he appears in many other personifications, some of which (known as avatars) are animal or human. Among his animal avatars are a tortoise, fish, boar and lion; among his human forms, the heroes Krishna and Rama.

The sculpture in this show ranges from very small to pretty large, and is made from divers media, including granite, schist, sandstone, terra cotta and bronze. From first to last, it is characterized by the subtle voluptuousness that is the particular glory of Indian art. The mostly smallish paintings on the walls gleam and glisten with jewel-like color, and tell tall tales of gods and mortals with enchanting detail. It is in such paintings that one is most likely to find Vishnu & Lakshmi posed affectionately, though this is hardly the paintings’ only subject, and though the pair appears in sculpture as well. The work on view in Brooklyn was created not only in what is now India, but also in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and covers a range of 1,600 years, from a sweet little 9-in. tall sandstone “Vishnu,” carved in the 4th Century C.E. and worn to an elegantly generalized shape, to a 20th century mask used in village celebrations, and best described as outsider art. Not least tantalizing is “Vishnu in his Cosmic Sleep,” from the 12th century. It’s two feet long, portrays the god reclining, has Lakshmi sitting at his feet, and many other little figures surrounding him–an iconographer’s dream, but also a supple & complex composition for a formalist to admire.

This show has a lot packed into it, and the subject matter will be unfamiliar to most Manhattan viewers– as would also be the case, were natives of India without a Western education to be exposed to the subject matter found, say, in The Cloisters of Manhattan or the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. For this reason, I’d recommend giving yourselves plenty of time to wander through the show, and the adoption of a resolutely formal point of point of view, which will enable you to enjoy the visual majesty of the work without worrying about what’s depicted. Holland Cotter’s advice, in the NY Times, was to go to the end of the show first, and come back later through the middle. This has to be taken with a grain of salt, for the last galleries in the show are devoted to recent and less rewarding art, and I don’t think this is quite what he meant. It seems to me that he was only suggesting that viewers skip the second gallery, which is devoted to the animal avatars & go right to the third, which houses the human avatars, but I don’t think this will solve everybody’s problems. The best solution, for my money, is to take the first three galleries slow & easy, and maybe skip altogether the stairwell & the last gallery (beyond the stairwell). Most important: DON’T be dissuaded by the fact that this show is in Brooklyn, because the museum is really very easy to get to by subway. The Eastern Parkway station is right at the entrance to the museum, and the 2 and 3 subways stop there, so it’s practically door to door if you’re coming from the West Side of Manhattan. It’s almost as easy from the East Side, since the 4 and 5 take you to Nevins Street, where you can change to the 2 or 3 right across the platform.

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