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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."



Franz Marc (1880–1916), The Yellow Cow, 1911. Oil on canvas. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection.



"Mac and Mark" is the sacrilegious way I refer to two excellent painters associated with German Expressionism, Franz Marc (1880-1916) and August Macke (1887-1914). Together with Wassily Kandinsky, Gabrielle Münter, and other German and émigré artists based in & around Munich, these two Germans formed the group that exhibited in 1911 and 1912 under the name of Der Blaue Reiter, and published Der Blaue Reiter Almanac in 1912.  Both Marc and Macke – good friends with each other -- were killed in action during World War I, so to commemorate these promising careers cut short by forces beyond their control, the Neue Galerie is staging a highly colorful and engaging show, "Franz Marc and August Macke: 1909-1914"  (through January 21).


The show fits absolutely perfectly into the three principal galleries on the third floor of this boutique museum. 


The first gallery is on the east side of the building – on the right as you get off the elevator: it houses early work of Marc and Macke: naturalistic subjects drawn from established genres and mostly done between 1908 and 1910. 


Both painters were working in a late Impressionist/Post- Impressionist style – nothing revolutionary, I suspect, for that time and place but well done and very nice.


Marc – the elder – employed paler colors and was already very fond of animal subjects.  Macke was closer to Cézanne in his still lifes, figure studies and landscapes.


The second gallery -- long and narrow and on the north side of the building -- is for me the highlight of this show. 


It is devoted to Der Blaue Reiter, with small samples of work by Kandinsky and Paul Klee as well as an exciting collection of paintings done between 1910 and 1912 by Marc and Macke. 


Although the "time lines" of these two artists (posted in the hallway) mention occasional visits to Paris by both, the timing of these visits doesn't help much in establishing when and where the two fell under the spell of Matisse and his fellow fauves.


Most likely, it happened through the influence of intermediaries (especially Kandinsky), but for whatever reason, the clear, pure colors and the radically simplified outlines of the paintings by Macke and Marc in this gallery summon up vivid associations with how the famous gallery in the 1905 Salon d'Automne must have looked, when it was where the movement received its name.


Plus there is also a mysteriously whimsical or fantasy element that can only come from its being so quintessentially German.


The third gallery, on the west wide of the building, moves on to the last years of Marc and Macke, and is dominated by their interest in cubism, futurism, and what I might call (for lack of a better term) color abstraction. 


Mostly, these paintings attempt to combine figuration with force lines and multiple images, and they don't come off that well – though I believe I've seen examples of such work (especially by Marc) elsewhere that were more successful. 


After all, no loan exhibition can include all the paintings that any artist ever made.  There are always the holdouts -- works too rare or precious for the museum that owns them to be willing to lend them.


I will say that at the end of this gallery's sequence, Macke comes up with two small, bright and totally abstract paintings – geometric but still painterly, and perfect of their kind. 


For the most part, though, the best work is the Matissean still lifes, landscapes, figure studies and animal compositions of the Blaue Reiter period, with Marc's airily charging "Yellow Cow" as the supreme example.

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