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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."



Installation View of "Wilfredo Lam:  The Imagination at Work," 510 West 25th Street, November 9 - December 21, 2021, Photography  Courtesy of Pace Gallery.   At right:  "Les Oiseaux Voilés,"


I'm awfully late with this, but I do want to get a plug in for "Wilfredo Lam: The Imagination at Work," currently offered under the joint auspices of Pace and Gary Nader at Pace's headquarters, 510 West 25th Street in Chelsea (through December 21).  Even if the color schemes of many of the works on view tend heavily toward tans or grisaille, at their pointy-headed best they offer an eerily pleasant change of pace from the brightly and often garishly colored world outside. 


The show is evidently offered as a sidebar to the huge "Surrealism beyond Borders" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.   Certainly it would appear to match that show's parameters: Lam (1902 -1982) was born and raised in Cuba, and spent much and maybe most of his later years – even after World War II -- outside of  Paris, either in Europe or the Americas.


Still, from a purely stylistic point of view, the actual paintings upon which his reputation depends were all created under the impress of André Breton, Picasso of the 1930s, and sundry other mostly surrealist artists and poets.  


Because if you read Lam's official website you will find copious references to all the Parisian artists whom he met either in the late '30s in Paris, or on the way to the Americas, after the Nazis had invaded Paris, or even in New York in the immediate postwar years – even though he does seem to have spent most of the war itself in Cuba or nearby Haiti.


Of course, one is not supposed to say such a thing these days – especially not with a painter who represents an ethnic group currently considered "underprivileged" in Manhattan.  Instead, one is supposed to talk about all the non-Parisian aspects of the work – like Santeria and/or Voodoo and/or references to politics in the Caribbean.


I'm not denying that these may be factors in the work as well -- and certainly the gallery offers plenty of useful information about them. I'm just saying that the way these curious paintings and works on paper are put together positively screams late-stage Parisian surrealism – and that's what I like about them. 


More than any of the other artists mentioned at Lam's website I am reminded of the paintings of a fellow Latino, Roberto Matta Echaurren, a Chilean who in the 1930s also went to Paris. That's a compliment because Matta was a very strong painter too.


And so what is the show like?  For one thing, it's very tastefully installed, with wonderful dark blue paint on the walls that sets off the grays and the browns in the paintings themselves like little jewels. For me, the best part is the opening gallery, with seven paintings done between 1944 and 1945.   The big one, "Hermès Trismégiste" shows a somewhat cubist standing figure (presumably from Santeria). It is very impressive, but I liked some of the small ones better.


"Le miel noir" for example, could be a tabletop still life, but in it one can see spiky forms and pointy heads, suggesting nothing one would actually want to eat (despite the title) – somewhat cartoonish, but compelling.


Best is "Les Oiseaux Voilés," which seems to be about three birds, standing erect, and with cubist force lines radiating out from their pointy heads—spiky and fascinating. It is preceded in this show only by two very Picassoid paintings from the late 1930s or earlier 40s—as though it was the first flowering of the mature Wilfredo.

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