Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Category: Art Exhibitions Page 2 of 4

Reviews of Art Exhibitions in NYC and beyond.

Art Review | American Masterworks from the Corcoran 1815-1940 | Two Outdoor Paintings by John Singer Sargent | National Gallery

February 6 – May 3, 2015 | West Building, Main Floor

John Singer Sargent, En Route Pour la Peche (Setting Out to Fish), 1878, detail, o/c, Corcoran Collection

John Singer Sargent, En route pour la peche (Setting out to Fish), 1878, detail, o/c, Corcoran Collection

Outdoors – instead of the more usual indoors — with John Singer Sargent:  En route pour la peche ( Setting out to Fish), and Simplon Pass  —  two of my favorite paintings from the Corcoran Collection.

At a time when wealthy American art collectors placed European art at the pinnacle of artistic achievement – as the Andrew Mellon collection became the core of the National Gallery’s collection of Italian Renaissance art – William Wilson Corcoran saw it differently: his Corcoran Gallery, which opened in 1874, fulfilled his vision of a national collection focused on American art.  He wanted to encourage “American genius.  And genius is everywhere in this prime collection which, through a new agreement, has now been joined, mainly, with the National Gallery of Art.

(For more about this new arrangement, click here.)

The exhibition consists of 31 paintings and two sculptures.  Here I’m going to take up two favorites, paintings by John Singer Sargent outdoors.  Sargent is famous for his elegant and lush paintings of fashionable people – like the gorgeous one of Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherford nearby in this exhibition.  But what a breath of fresh air to join him outside!

And, since En route pour la peche (Setting out to Fish)  was painted in 1878, during the height of Impressionism, and Simplon Pass was painted in 1911, when Cubism was well underway, the two paintings let us watch this him responding to, and resisting, these brilliant and anti-naturalistic European movements. and coming down on the side of nature.

In En route pour la peche ( Setting out to Fish), the sense of the immediacy of the natural world is uncanny.

John Singer Sargent, En Route pour la Peche (Setting Out to Fish). 1878. o/c, Corcoran Collection

John Singer Sargent, En route pour la peche (Setting out to Fish). 1878. o/c, 31 x 48 3/8″ (78.8 x 122.8 cm), Corcoran Collection

John Singer En Route pour la Peche (Setting Out to Fish), 1878, detail, o/c, Corcoran Collection

En Route pour la peche (Setting out to Fish), detail

It’s a painting about delicious interpenetrations, a longed-for oneness.  The breezes and salt air mingle with the fishing family, the sky, the big water and the waterlogged beach are unified, the puddles flirt with the grainy sand, now one to the fore, now the other.  And to the extent possible, the viewer in the gallery is there – another union.  Or the lovely out there is here — or one wishes it was.  I like the variation on shoes – or no shoes – for navigating the water soaked beach.

The sensuous pleasure of the painting, the union of all the elements and the fascination with light show Sargent, in this painting of 1878, thinking about the new Impressionism.   But side-stepping the onslaught of light in Impressionism that dissolves the underpinnings of the material world, he maintains a vivid tactile reality — it’s wet, gritty,  slippery, and the warmth from the sun is just starting to come through.

IMG_0951

John Singer Sargent, Simplon Pass, 1911, o/c, 28 1/4 x 36 7/16″ (71.8 x 92.6 cm), Corcoran Collection

Simplon Pass, detail

Simplon Pass, detail

Sargent’s Simplon Pass of 1911, while it at first appears still is a portrait of energy.  Things tumble — the fallen rocks lie in uneasy balance and they’ll shift again.  The painting is saturated with the tension of opposites: heavy and mobile, static and fluid, matter and light.   The potential energy of the rocks plays off against the kinetic energy of falling water.  And energy blazes in the ranging diagonals of the composition, in the dazzling light, and — a close look shows — in the power driven impasto of the brush strokes ( van Gogh comes to mind).  It’s as if looking at these rocks fills every need.

En route pour la peche and Simplon Pass are both painted in oil on canvas – and what a range of effects Sargent achieves with the “same” medium.  Working for sensuous immediacy and delight, Sargent uses loose  pigment for the moisture laden scene of En route pour la peche, a painting of gentle colors and gentle transitions.  But working for monumental strength and rocky tangibility in the mountain view of Simplon Pass, he lays on his pigment thick and dry.

The constrained color palette and faceted complexity of Simplon Pass show Sargent’s thinking about Cézanne and of Cubism, but avoiding their stylistic displacements and multiple points of view, he stays true to naturalism, as he does in En route pour la peche.   “American genius”:  Corcoran knew just what he meant!

Energy, vitality and optimism are everywhere in this exhibition.  If you come in a little “tourist tired,” you leave refreshed.

The National Gallery in Washington D. C. — our jewel of culture — is free.  The exhibition runs February 6 – May 3, 2015 .  After that, these and other works of art from the Corcoran will be integrated with the body of the National Gallery’s collection.  For more information on the exhibition and the National Gallery, click here.

Art Review | Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered | Metropolitan Museum of Art

Thomas Hart Benton’s murals, America Today, have an immediate impact of color, exuberance, and resonant ideas.  Urban and rural, old ways and new, labor and entertainment, freedom and oppression, rich, poor, and all the way through the middle:  the view is so wide and comprehensive it seems to really encompass, in broad strokes and specifics, the essence of America in a defining view.  At the same time, the murals span in spirit two epochs  — the excesses and abundance of the “Jazz Age” of the 20’s, formative for Benton’s imagination, and the bitter advance of the Great Depression.

City Activities with Subway. Photos are courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

City Activities with Subway. Photos are courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of ArtThe panels were painted in 1930-31 for the Board Room of the New School of Social Research in New York City and ultimately purchased by Equitable Life — AXA.  Here they are, a stunning gift to the Metropolitan Museum from AXA, and installed in their original arrangement in this exhibition.

The ten panels, most of which about seven-and-a-half feet high and nine feet or more wide are painted in egg tempera with an oil glaze, for strong colors, broad modulations and gleaming surfaces.  Aluminum partial frames, complex moldings with alternating curves and right angles, boldly  define vignettes within the panels and add an emphatic strength.

Dancer, 1930, pencil, crayon on paper, 21 1/4 x 14 in (54 x 35.6 cm). Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Dancer, 1930, pencil, crayon on paper, 21 1/4 x 14 in (54 x 35.6 cm). Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

City Activities with Subway (above) thrusts us into “the color and tempo of the Jazz age,” in Benton’s words — night clubs, city streets with preaching evangelists, evangelists, park benches with lovers, the subways, the boxing match.  Among the rich trove of Benton’s drawings in the exhibition that are related to the murals is the Dancer, you can see where she finally arrives in the upper left of City Activities with Subway (above).

The times they are a-changing in the Midwest  (below) where activities of corn production, taking their vertical direction from the corn growing in the fields, are juxtaposed with the dynamic diagonals of the scenes of clearing  the land.  Progress here has — if not as a double edged sword — a ferocious looking  cross cut saw with lance teeth.

Thomas Hart Benton | Midwest

Thomas Hart Benton | Midwest

Being an animal lover, I took a close look at that sow near the bottom edge of the painting:  she’s dark, lean and with a long snout — closer to wild pigs than the flat-faced pigs we have today, and she’s rooting outdoors with her piglets, not in a tight brood crate.  A wonderful drawing Benton did of the pig and piglets in the 1920’s, well before the murals were conceived, is in the exhibition — it’s a fine example of how Benton drew from his earlier experiences and travels in designing America Today.

Thomas Hart Benton | Changing West

Thomas Hart Benton | Changing West

Things seem to be changing more slowly in Deep South (where cotton is still the main crop although rice  is taking hold.  The White man at left is seated working on the machinery, the Black man at right, one of Benton’s several monumental figures of laborers, stands emptying the sack of cotton (suggesting the past and slavery’s end?  An end of cotton?).  The most back-breaking work is relegated to prisoners planting seed, overseen by a man seated with the rifle.

Thomas Hart Benton | Coal

Thomas Hart Benton | Coal

In the mural of City Building, the Black man far left with a drill forms a pendant to the man emptying the bag of cotton:  but he’s a city man,  with suspenders instead of a rope belt, and he’s the one running the
machinery now.

You can see behind the ship an early representation of New York City’s developing skyscraper skyline, before the Chrysler Building and Empire State Building became iconic.

Benton studied the full production of steel at a Bethlehem Steel plan, which

Thomas Hart Benton | Steel

Thomas Hart Benton | Steel

he represents in the panel Steel. At the time, Jackson Pollock was a studio assistant for Benton, and appears as the model for the worker spotlit by the furnace he’s stoking (the museum, with good caution, says  Pollock was “likely” the model — Pollock was on hand, and it looks like the young Pollock).  Although Benton is a representational painter and Pollock paintings are often non-objective, Pollock was inspired by Benton in developing his totally charged surfaces — his all-over-the-painting energy.

Instruments of Power , the largest and most abstract panel, provides a tough fulcrum for the whole series. It recalls the Italian Futurist movement of the early 20th century with its dynamic diagonals that seem almost to  break forward through the surface of the painting and in the optimism it exudes for technology’s promise of liberating human beings from grinding labor. It doesn’t, however, include the Futurist “lines of force” that suggest through repeated contours movement through space.

Thomas Hart Benton | Instruments of Power

Thomas Hart Benton | Instruments of Power

In a thought-provoking contrast, Benton includes in Instruments of Power an empty, receding colonnade on the far lower right, a classical touch amid aggressive modernity.  It’s in the style of Giorgio de Chirico, an Italian artist contemporary with the Futurists — but no one ever made stiller or more inward paintings.  Does the empty arcade, reflective of a lost past, suggest that all-powerful technology may leave human beings out — spiritually as well as out of work? Instruments of Power is the only painting in the series with no human figures.  I think that, through the nostalgic intrusion of the arcade, and the lack of human figures, Benton  probes the negative as well as positive aspects technology holds for human beings.

The murals are otherwise so filled with figures in such a variety of activities  they give an impression of being more comprehensive than they are.  Although they encompass several sections of the United States in Benton’s regionalist style, the paintings don’t take us to the West Coast, the only racial types represented are Whites and Blacks with the exception of one Native American in a bar scene in the mural called Changing West, and there are no very old people nor, with one exception, children.

The exception is the upright and intelligent little boy in the lower right of City Activities with Dance Hall (below), a portrait of Benton’s son on the lap of the artist’s wife, like a contemporary Madonna and Child.  And like the infant Christ (though with his left hand), the child raises his index finger, teaching more than being instructed. A study from life Benton made of his  son with that gesture is in the exhibition.

Thomas Hart Benton | City Activities With Dance Hall

Thomas Hart Benton | City Activities With Dance Hall

Evidently the child and teacher are working on arithmetic since there’s a chalk board behind them, with numbers “6 X 7” — the “answer” being 42, Benton’s age when he completed the murals.  And at the edge of this densely autobiographical corner is the artist’s self-portrait — sleeves rolled up for work, with the seated director of the New School.  In the upper right an acrobat flies through the air with the greatest of ease, a genie of amazing  human achievement.

The murals express the rich variety, sense of abundance, optimism and excess of the 1920’s, a time of Benton’s intellectual, moral and artistic development.  But the years Benton was at work on the murals marks the onset of the Great Depression.  Above the doorway, is a narrow lintel-like mural of Outreaching Hands:  through the contrast of hands, Benton tells the story as he understood it — the poor reaching for bread and coffee, and the plutocrats with top hats and white shirt cuffs grasping money.

Thomas Heart Benton | Outreaching Hands

Thomas Heart Benton | Outreaching Hands

The shiny metal partial frames, that create separate but flowing narrative vignettes, are a brilliant innovation, formally effective and filled with meaning.  They link this 20th-century wall cycle that focuses on ordinary people in their secular existence of work and entertainment with the great tradition of aristocratic and religious wall paintings and altar pieces.  While recalling the great European tradition, they draw a strong contrast with it.  These frames are aluminum, an industrial and “democratic” metal — not rare gold.  They’re open, not confining, just as Benton’s paintings chafe at hierarchy and include all classes of society.  In a novel leap — and way before the time — these frames also look forward to post-modern deconstructions that challenge the status quo in art and culture.

Benton spent six months conceiving and designing the murals and three months painting them — a gauge of the importance of mind in the creation of art. This room of the ten panels is an exhilarating, life affirming treasure.  Beyond the murals, the exhibition includes examples of Benton’s other work, including drawings related to America Today, and works by other artists in and around Benton’s time whose art is related in various ways to his.  This illuminating and exciting exhibition has been organized by curators Alice Pratt Brown and Randall Griffey: it is perfect.

The current exhibition of Benton’s America Today will be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through April 19, 2015.  The museum posts prices for tickets that are suggested, not required — it’s wonderful to support this great institution but pay what you can — and go!

The Metropolitan Museum of Art – The New David H. Koch Plaza, New York, NY

… one of New York’s favorite theaters …

The moment the fountains of the new David H. Koch Plaza at the Metropolitan Museum were first (officially) turned on

The moment the fountains of the new David H. Koch Plaza at the Metropolitan Museum were first (officially) turned on

The fountains that ran along the front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, though they still looked beautiful and continued to toss their refreshing waters, had severe internal problems in the pipes and plumbing.  Museum Trustee David H. Koch expressed willingness to pay for repairs, an offer that morphed into a total re-design of the public spaces, four blocks long, that span the front of the museum, including removing the old fountains and installing new ones.  We were told at the ceremony dedicating the new plaza that Mr. Koch said “Why don’t I pay for everything including the extras?” and he did at a cost of $65 million.
He said at the ceremony he’s pleased that the two-year renovation project came in on time and on budget.   So how does it look?

View from steps looking north before the fountains were turned on

View from steps looking north before the fountains were turned on

The main features of the new design are two large fountains in square granite basins that flank the steps north and south.  Being square rather than long, and reaching closer to Fifth Avenue than the old fountains, these new ones bring the sparkling play of water and its delicious sounds closer those on the steps and to passers-by, more readily enjoyed. That’s really nice!  On either side of

After the fountains were turned on

After the fountains were turned on

the fountains are newly planted shade trees — more than there were before — with café tables and chairs interspersed.  The Plaza is unified its entire length and depth by paving of grey toned granite.

It’s good to have this important city open space healthily maintained.

High view looking south.

High view looking south.

A consideration of old and new, though, makes it clear that there have been some significant losses.  The old fountains were long and narrow, stretching on either side of the steps a good part of the length of the museum’s façade, and thus they invited movement along the full length of public space, while the depth of the new square fountains obstructs the continuity of the spaces on either side of the steps.

Also, the high arching play of the water in the old fountains reflected and

Square within a square. Circle within a square.

Square within a square. Circle within a square.

echoed the series of high arched openings of the museum’s facade behind them.  The square-within-a-square and circle-within-a-square geometry of the new fountains is a fascinating exploration of classicism, and links them with the steps in an interesting way, while engaging less with the architecture of the building.

And — depending how you feel about park-like settings — before the renovation, shade trees and park benches set on cobblestones created a continuation of Central Park that lies behind the museum.  The new plaza is sheathed in gray-toned granite, with café tables and chairs instead of park benches and pebbly cobbles, weakening the sense of the continuity with Central Park.  Before the park embraced the museum, now it sits behind it.

All in all, the new design is more centralized than the earlier one, with the casual seating areas — café tables and chairs — somewhat marginalized by those deep fountains.

During the dedication ceremony for the new plaza, Thomas Campbell, the

Night view fountain

Night view fountain

Museum’s Director and CEO said some wonderful words about what he called “one of New York’s favorite theaters — the steps of the Met.”   The steps draw an exhilarating mix of museum goers and people and performance watchers from all over the city and all over the world, sunning, eating, singing, enjoying music, mime, break dancing, juggling — virtuoso performances of all kinds … well, if you don’t know, make a visit!

And as for the plaza, it will take a little doing but — like a river — people will find their way, filtering through the full length of the four city blocks, and make this public space their own.

View of plaza looking North from 81st Street. Photos 4-7 courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

View of plaza looking North from 81st Street. Photos 4-7 courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Art Review | Boxer at Rest, Greek bronze sculpture of the Hellenistic period, late 4th-2nd century B.C., loan exhibit | Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, June 1 – July 15, 2013

… humanity …

Boxer at Rest, Greek bronze sculpture

This is a rare opportunity to see one of the finest and most compelling works of art ever made. The bronze Boxer*  is somewhat over life-size but so immediate it’s hard to think it’s not a “real” man — and a man of total experience:  exhausted but powerful, brutalized but handsome, dazed by what’s hit him but alert for whatever’s coming his way.  Ready.

Made in the Hellenistic period, when a love of realism made a powerful advance on earlier Classical idealism, the boxer is astonishingly realistic. Seated and near to exhaustion from a match, and bleeding from wounds all over his body, he still has the energy to turn his head.  What attracts his attention?  Is he hearing applause? Listening to his trainer’s advice? Or is he getting a look at his next opponent?  Still wearing his boxing gloves, he’s gathering his force for his next match (these ran back-to-back).  His arms are relaxed but his toes are tense:  his struggles continue.

Read away that dark patina, developed over time through oxidation, and see him as he was originally, when the bronze was polished to the color of an athlete’s tanned and oiled gleaming skin.

To further “color” the statue realistically, the sculptor inlaid the rosy lips and nipples with copper:  copper inlays also “paint” the rivulets of blood that run from his many wounds, and the cuts on the ungloved knuckles that landed the punches.  Under the swollen eye, the sculptor inlaid a bronze alloy, darker in color than the rest of the sculpture, to depict a large bruise — one of the most remarkable, and touching, uses of inlay in ancient art.

The boxer’s eyes were never meant to be empty and blank as they appear in the photograph.  Originally the sculptor inlaid the eyes using materials that made them look natural.  Those inlays are now lost but to help visualize them the museum is exhibiting near the boxer inlaid eyes disembodied from some other sculpture (not otherwise known) in which the whites are marble, the irises quartz and the pupils obsidian, and the Boxer’s sculptor would have used these or other materials for a similar effect.  Catch your breath — the boxer has individually formed bronze eyelashes that once surrounded those life-like eyes.  Who was the great Greek sculptor who made this work?  It’s unknown.

“Look at the blood running from the wound on his cheek!” visitors say, circling the statue.  “Look — he has cauliflower ears!”  The realism of form and detail are fascinating and the technique is surpassingly brilliant.  But that’s not in itself what makes the sculpture so compelling.  What a man indeed — the history of struggles written all over his body and his determination to fight on express a man’s story, and that of human existence.  He is one man, caught in specific moment, and he is all men through time.  This is a sculpture of existential truth.

The Boxer was discovered buried in the Quirinal Hill in Rome in 1885.  Was it made by a Greek sculptor in Rome or was it brought there by ship as many sculptures were?  Did it represent a particular boxer?  The answers are unknown.  What is clear is that it was highly valued, perhaps even venerated, since it was buried purposefully in antiquity, perhaps, like many valuables, for preservation from anticipated invasions.   So many great bronze sculptures from antiquity were melted down for the valuable metal that only a handful survive today.  Thanks to those who buried this one and preserved it.

*Boxer at Rest.  Greek, Hellenistsic period, late 4th-2nd century B.C., bronze inlaid with copper, H. 128 cm.  Museuo Nazionale Romano – Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, inv. 1055.  Photograph courtesy of Soprintendenza speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma.

Art Review | The Civil War and American Art | Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, May 27 – September 2, 2013

… the storm of war …

This outstanding exhibition moves ones thoughts between intimate experience and vast philosophical and artistic vision, all combining to give a vivid sense of the Civil War at home and on the front.

Gifford | A Coming Storm

Gifford | A Coming Storm

A stunning aspects of the exhibit is the insistence with which, again and again, artists looked to the landscape to express thoughts and emotions, as if humans had a cosmic partner in nature.  In the years leading up to the war, paintings of storms and phenomenal portents and storms abound, such as Frederic Edwin Church’s dramatic Meteor of 1860, and Sanford Robinson Gifford’s A Coming Storm, expressing the sense of war’s prodigious imminence.

Church | Our Banner in the Sky

Church | Our Banner in the Sky

An unforgettable expression of the cosmic projection of human emotion is Church’s Our Banner in the Sky of 1861.  This thrilling visual leap of imagination is fueled by grief of two war “firsts”: the lowering of the Union flag at Fort Sumter when the Confederates captured the Fort in April 1861, the initiating war event, soon followed by the death of Church’s friend, Theodore Winthrop, the first Union officer war victim.  And this great painting itself was recognized as the first “war picture.”  The streaming colors of clouds at sunset and the star-studded sky form an alternate image of the American flag, tattered but still waving in the winds of liberty, the defeat of surrender redeemed by resilience and prediction of ultimate victory.

Chapman | Flag of Sumter

Chapman | Flag of Sumter

In turn, the Confederate painter Conrad Wise Chapman painted the tattered but resilient Confederate flag in The Flag of Sumter, Oct 20 1863. At this point, the fort and in particular its flag that carried a huge symbolic burden for both sides, were under relentless  bombardment by the Union Navy.  Each morning, the Confederates looked to the successful raising of their banner yet one more day for renewal and inspiration.   In the painting, the flag is guarded in proud isolation against the sky, the joining of its white field with the clouds lifting its image into the spiritual domain.

Gifford | Camp Seventh Regiment

Gifford | Camp Seventh Regiment

News of the Union’s victory at Gettysburg has just reached the beleaguered army in Sanford Robinson Gifford’s painting of  Camp of the Seventh Regiment, near Frederick, Maryland, July 1863.  The bright, warm sun breaks through the storm clouds at this moment, conveying the flush of optimism stirred by the news, nature pitching in to convey human experience and magnify its importance.  What a moment!  And yet, among the great Civil War photographs on view in this exhibit is Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s iconic view, A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, July 1863.   How do human beings make sense of and integrate such stark emotional dissonance?

Homer | Cotton Pickers

Homer | Cotton Pickers

Many of the paintings show scenes of life in the South before, during and after the Civil War – not cosmic but specific, narrative and detailed such as Winslow Homer’s  The Cotton Pickers (above).  These are rich in observation of human character, ambiguous and tragic social situations and of information.  In Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South of 1859, the backyard of the slave quarters abounds with life among slaves of a great range of skin tones from dark to white:  meanwhile, a sly — and noticeably white — cat slips into an upstairs window.

In Homer’s post-war painting, A Visit from the Old Mistress  (1876), a white woman, needing some work done, pays a visit to  a group of her former female slaves — only now she has to negotiate with them for their wage.  She’s reluctant, realistic, and resentful;  the leader of the former slaves, muscular arms crossing her chest, looks to be driving a tough-minded bargain, and remembering.

Johnson | Ride For Liberty

Johnson | Ride For Liberty

Among the paintings touching on the Abolitionist movement, Thomas Moran’s Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia, 1862 shows hunting dogs hot on the heels of a fleeing slave family.  Moran painted this for an abolitionist English patron, referring evidently to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s abolitionist poem of 1855, “The Slave in Dismal Swamp.”   The family in Eastman Johnson’s A Ride for Liberty–the Fugitives Slaves, March 2, 1862 have a better chance of making it.

The exhibition concludes with a symphonic crescendo of some of the greatest American paintings:  Frederic Edwin Church’s Cotopaxi, The Icebergs, and Rainy Season in the Tropics, and Albert Bierstadt’s Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, 1865.  These, and a telling and remarkable “before and after” — John Frederick Kensett’s two paintings of the “same” scene of Rocks of Paradise, Newport, the first of 1859 and the second of 1868, in their way tell the story of the Civil War over time, marking changes of attitudes from its inception to its aftermath.

Not only the works of art but the thinking and organizing ideas are of the highest caliber. Don’t miss The Civil War and American Art. 

Homer | Home Sweet Home

Homer | Home Sweet Home

Photographs from top:

  1. Sanford Robinson Gifford, A Coming Storm, 1863, retouched and redated in 1880, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art:  Gift of the McNeil Americana Collection
  2. Frederic Edwin Church, Our Banner in the Sky, 1861, oil on paper, Collection of Fred Keeler
  3. Conrad Wise Chapman, The Flag of Sumter, Oct 20 1863, 1863-64, oil on board, The Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia
  4. Sanford Robinson Gifford, Camp of the Seventh Regiment, near Frederick, Maryland, July, 1863, 1864; 5.  Winslow Homer, The Cotton Pickers, 1876, oil on canvas, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Acquisition made possible through Museum Trustees
  5. Winslow Homer, The Cotton Pickers, 1876, oil on canvas, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Acquisition made possible through Museum Trustees
  6. Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty-The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862, 1862, oil on board, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, The Paul Mellon Collection
  7. Winslow Homer, Home Sweet Home, c, 1863, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons Permanent Fund.

Photos courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Art Review | Photography and the American Civil War | Metropolitan Museum of Art, April 2 – September 2, 2013

This exhibition is very interesting and also somewhat disappointing.

Inevitably, among the over 200 photographs relating to a vast defining event, the American Civil War, some are powerful in the way one would expect — photos of battlefields, of prisoners, of the injured and dead, and of the destruction the war wrought on all sides.   In sheer numbers, however, the weight of the exhibition is skewed toward studio portraits,

Captain Charles A. and Sergeant John M. Hawkins

Captain Charles A. and Sergeant John M. Hawkins (full caption below)

small tintypes and cartes de visite, as well as formally made medical photographs of ghastly war injuries.   So many “indoor” photos take away from the sense of the huge scale of events and the truth of a war fought for overarching issues by hordes of men on famous fields of battle.

Many kinds of intimate scenes of the daily lives and experiences of Confederate and Union soldiers are sparsely represented or not at all. There are none representing the draft riots in NYC which turned murderous (for a recent play about these, Banished Children of Eve.  Also, there seems to be an avoidance of some of the most dramatically powerful Civil War Photos in favor of lesser known ones, even if by well known photographers. It’s admirable to use an exhibition to extend viewer’s knowledge, but what may seem “iconic images” to Civil War buffs or photography experts are unfamiliar to a host of 2013 museum goers;  many of the greatest photographs aren’t on this exhibition’s walls which — combined with sense of too many formal portraits — make the exhibition less compelling than it might have been.

Still, there’s a lot to see, absorb, and think about.  Speaking of cartes de visites — those small photos made in multiples that could be given to friends and others — one of the most powerful works in the show is that of

Sojourner Truth, "I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance"

Sojourner Truth, “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance” (full caption below)

Sojourner Truth, the name she took for herself, who, escaping from slavery in 1826, became an active abolitionist as well as advocate for prisoners’ and women’s rights (for her astonishing autobiography click here).   In a switch of powerful irony, she — who had at 9 years been sold in a slave auction — sold a photograph of herself to raise money to aid freedmen; hence her caption, “I sell the Shadow to Support the Substance.”

Abraham Lincoln Medal

Abraham Lincoln Medal (full caption below)

Today’s political campaign buttons don’t have portraits because we have plenty of opportunity to know what candidates look like.  When Abraham Lincoln ran for President, people were less bombarded with images so face recognition was part of the game, as seen in this 1860 presidential campaign medal with Abraham Lincoln’s portrait — before he grew his beard.

Field Where General Reynolds Fell

Field Where General Reynolds Fell (full caption below)

Photography was brand new at the start of the Civil War — its conventional beginning date is 1848 — and yet there were approximately 1,000 photographers on hand to capture all aspects — yes, more than here represented — of the War.   750,000 men died in the course of it — 20% of those who fought and about 2.5% of the total population —  and photographers, such as Timothy O’Sullivan, photographed the dead on the battlefield, with no attempt to censor images that might “disturb” the populace as happened for a time during the war in Iraq;  on the contrary, photographer Matthew Brady, for whom O’Sullivan worked, was celebrated for an exhibition in 1862 in New York for bringing home war’s reality.

Private Parmenter Under Anesthesia

Private Parmenter Under Anesthesia (full caption below)

Many survivors came home maimed, and the exhibition has a remarkable number of medical photographs taken by Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou and included in his private medical teaching album.

Union Private

Union Private (full caption below)

The tintypes, though both overabundant and at the same time somewhat lost in an exhibition of Photography and the American Civil War, are fascinating and would merit a small exhibit of their own where one could absorb each of them without distraction.  Many are staged:  soldiers, newly enlisted and off to war, would have their photos taken in uniform and with weapons (often photographers’ prop).  They’re idealized — all look handsome and on the ready, drawing their swords, etc., and they convey all the virtues of courage, intelligence and ethical strength, as in the portraits of Charles and John Hawkins.   Here and there among them one catches a more intimate glimpse into personality, as in the portrait of a Union private; looking in to his expressive eyes, one wonders how he fared.

Ruins of Gallego Flour Mills

Ruins of Gallego Flour Mills (full caption below)

The exhibition succeeds in making the point that it is important to look beyond the famous photographer Matthew Brady to appreciate the many other talented photographers with names less known or anonymous active in photographing the Civil War.  As an exhibition, Photography and the American Civil War is neither comprehensive nor unified by a particular focus, and its decisions seem somewhat idiosyncratic — but it’s history, our history, and well worth seeing.

“Photography and the American Civil War” runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art” through September 2.

*Photo captions(from top):

  1. Unknown artist, Captain Charles A. and Sergeant John M. Hawkins, Company E, “Tom Cobb Infantry,” Thirty-eighth Regiment, Georgia Volunteer Infantry, 1861-62.  Quarter-plate ambrotype with applied color, David Wynn Vaughan Collection.  Photo:  Jack Melton.
  2. Unknown artist, Sojourner Truth,” I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance,” 1864.  Albumen silver print (carte de visite) from glass negative, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts, 2013, Image:  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
  3. Unknown Artist, after an 1860 carte de visite by Mathew B. Brady, Presidential Campaign Medal with Portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin, 1860.  Tintypes in stamped brass medallion, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, The Overbrook Foundation Gift, 2012.  Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
  4. Timothy O’Sullivan, Alexander Gardner, printer, Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg, July 1863.
    Reed Brockway Bontecou, Union Private John Parmenter, Company G, Sixty-seventh Pennsylvania Volunteers, June 21, 1865.  Albumen silver print from glass negative, carte de visite, Collection Stanley B. Burns, M.D.  Image:  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
  5. Unknown Artist, Union Private, 11th New York Infantry (also known as the 1st Fire Zouaves), May-June 1861.  One-sixth plate ambrotype, Michael J. McAfree Collection.  Image:  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
  6. Alexander Gardner, Ruins of Gallego Flour Mills, Richmond, 1865. Albumen silver prints from glass negatives, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1933.  Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

Good News! Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC will be open 7 days a week starting July 1, 2013

Good News!

Metropolitan Museum of Art to Open 7 Days a Week
Starting July 1

Will Open Mondays throughout Year for First Time in 42 Years

As of July 1, 2013, The Metropolitan Museum of Art will open to the public 7 days a week. This new schedule will go into effect at both the Museum’s main building on Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street in Manhattan and at The Cloisters museum and gardens, its branch museum for medieval art and architecture in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan.

Also as of July 1, the Museum’s opening time each morning will change to 10:00 a.m. (from 9:30 a.m.). Otherwise the hours at both locations will remain the same. The new daily schedule as of July 1 in the main building will therefore be:
Friday and Saturday 10:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m.
Sunday–Thursday 10:00 a.m.–5:30 p.m.

And the new schedule at The Cloisters museum and gardens will be:
March–October: Open 7 days, 10:00 a.m.–5:15 p.m.
November–February: Open 7 days, 10:00 a.m.–4:45 p.m.

Both locations will be closed January 1, Thanksgiving Day, and December 25, and the main building will also be closed on the first Monday in May.

The Metropolitan Museum has been closed on Mondays since 1971, with the exception in recent years of the Holiday Mondays program—in which the Museum has been open on a few holidays each year that fall on Mondays. The final Holiday Mondays to be observed before the new 7-day schedule goes into effect on July 1 will be March 25 and April 1 (during Spring Break), and May 27 (Memorial Day).

Full details on admission, group tours, and visitor amenities—including dining, shopping, and parking—are available at www.metmuseum.org/visit 212-535-7710.  Also visit the museum’s web site for current information and hours, since these changes will not take place until July.

About The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the world’s largest and finest museums, with collections of nearly two million works of art spanning more than 5,000 years of world culture, from prehistory to the present and from every part of the globe. The Metropolitan Museum’s main building, located at the edge of Central Park along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and The Cloisters museum and gardens, its branch museum for medieval art and architecture in northern Manhattan, welcomed 6.28 million visitors last year. For additional information about the Museum, please visit www.metmuseum.org.

Art Review | Matisse: In Search of True Painting | Metropolitan Museum of Art, December 4 2012 – March 17, 2013

… translations …

Although this large exhibit covers most of Matisse’s painting career, it has a specific focus: to bring together examples of the many pairs, trios and series of copies and reinterpretations of notably similar subject matter and composition, such as Le Luxe I  and Le Luxe II, above.  Usually (when the order of their creation is known) Matisse’s versions move from greater realism and detail to abstraction.

In this he’s like van Gogh who called these kinds of versions of his own work “translations,” and I think that’s a profound term;  it sees “realism” and “abstraction” as different artistic languages connected by a bridge.   Since a key theme of the modern movement was a development toward greater and greater abstraction, it’s not surprising that Matisse’s versions show his fascination with exactly that:  the relationship between “realism” and “abstraction”.

Young Sailor is a good example.  It was painted from life, in a small town in southwestern France, with a teenager as a model.  In striking contrast, Young Sailor II  was painted not from life but from the earlier painting —Young Sailor I :  it’s a “translation”.   In creating Young Sailor II, Matisse also was thinking about van Gogh’s L’Arlesienne, which he loved and had tried unsuccessfully to buy for himself some time earlier.  One sees in Matisse’s Young Sailor II  an overall pink background like in one of van Gogh’s version of L’Arlesienne , and also van Gogh-like tense lines, “simplifications” and “deformations”, as artists called the new abstractions.

Here comes a value judgment: van Gogh’s painting of L’Arlesienne  — a photo of it is on hand in the exhibit — has much more psychological and emotional depth than Matisse’s — it’s a portrait.  Matisse’s sitter is more incidental to the painting.

The exhibition is arranged chronologically so that, although that’s not its main purpose, one can follow major periods, influences and the locales in which he worked through most of Matisse’s career.  In Still Life with Purro I, for instance, we seem him absorbing ideas from Cezanne, such as modeling form through color, and multiple points of view, while in Still Life with Purro II we see him drawing more from the pointillist application of color of Paul Signac.

In the four paintings of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris (two shown here) from similar views that span the years from 1900 to 1914, we see the artist conjugating the “same” subject from representation to abstraction.   How different from Monet, who also paint series of cathedrals but for a different reason — to capture differing effects of light.

Matisse’s self-aware interest in the development and process of his own art led him to commission photographic records of the development of several paintings.  The exhibit includes a large series of photographs — a real treasure — one illustrated here, chronicling the development of the painting that finally emerges as The Large Blue Dress; an added fillip is the inclusion of the actual skirt of the dress sewn and worn by the model.

Matisse is a lavish, sensuous artist, his true subject above all is Joie de Vivre, the title of one of his paintings (not on exhibit here).  On the deepest level, his claim to fame, in my view, rests with his determination to paint something so elusive as “joy of life” — almost as elusive as, say, the light that Monet yearned to capture on canvas — talk about an impossible task!  Or the psychic bridge of inner emotional experience connecting human beings that van Gogh strained to construct.  By definition, mine anyhow, the great artists try to do what can’t be done and then — as far as is humanly possible — do it!

Not all of his many series are included, of course, but the gathering of so many pertinent examples has been done with fine curatorial intelligence and is highly illuminating. As others have noted, in Matisse joie de vivre can be tamed to merely decorative.  But many of the paintings are gorgeous.  And to see paintings that were certainly linked in the artist’s mind brought together, physically set next to each other, is truly a unique opportunity.  It’s hard to imagine it will ever happen again.

And making those comparisons for yourself as you go along … the game of “Look how he changed it!” is sheer fun.

Photo captions

  1. Le Luxe I, 1907, oil on canvas, 82 11/16×54 5/16 in (210×138 cm) Centre Pompidou, Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris, Purchase, 1945
  2.  Le Luxe II, 1907-8, distemper on canvas, 82 1/2×54 3/4 in (209.5×138 cm), Statens Museum fur Kunst, Copenhagen, J. Rump Collection
  3. Young Sailor I, 1906, oil on canvas, 39 1/4×32 in (99.7×81.3 cm), Collection of Sheldon H. Solow
  4. Young Sailor II, 1906, oil on canvas, 39 7/8×32 5/8 in (101.3×82.9 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection (1999.363.41)
  5. Still Life with Purro I, 1904, oil on canvas, 23 1/4×28 1/2 in (59×72.4 cm), Private collection
  6. Still Life with Purro II, 1904-5, oil on canvas, 11×14 in (27.9×35.6 cm), Private collection
  7.  Notre-Dame, ca. 1900, oil on canvas, 18 1/8×14 3/4 in (50×65 cm), Tate: Purchased 1949
  8. Notre-Dame, 1914, oil on canvas. 58×37 1/8 in (147.3×94.3 cm), The Museum of Modern Art, NY, acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest and the Henry Ittleson, A. Conger Goodyear, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Sinclair Funds, and Anna Erickson Levene Bequests given in memory of her husband, Dr. Phoebus Aaron Theodor Levene, 1975
  9. The Large Blue Dress, 1937, oil on canvas, 36 1/2×29 in (92.7×73.7 cm), Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. John Wintersteen
Massacre at Dinant. 1918, oil on canvas, 49 1/2×83 in (125.7×210.8 cm) Greenville County Museum of Art, Gift of Minor M. Shaw, Buck A. Mickel and Charles C. Mickel, and the Arthur and Holly Magill Fund

Art Review | George Bellows | Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 15, 2012 – February 18, 2013

Stag at Sharkey’s, 1909, oil on canvas, 36 1/4×48 1/4 in (92×122.6 cm), The Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Collections, c. The Cleveland Museum of Art

Stag at Sharkey’s, 1909, oil on canvas, 36 1/4×48 1/4 in (92×122.6 cm), The Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Collections, c. The Cleveland Museum of Art

As I began to walk through the George Bellows exhibition, I felt this is the greatest American painter ever!  That’s how powerful the early paintings are.  In front of those large and powerful canvases such as Stag at Sharkey’s, it took awhile to even start thinking of his powerful competition among American painters … including Thomas Eakins who had a great influence on him.

Forty-Two Kids, oil on canvas, 42×60 1/4 in (106×153 cm) , Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, Museum Purchase, William A. Clark Fund. Photo Mark Gulezian

Forty-Two Kids, oil on canvas, 42×60 1/4 in (106×153 cm) , Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, Museum Purchase, William A. Clark Fund. Photo Mark Gulezian

In Forty-Two Kids, he paints slum kids swimming and sunning in and around the East River, depicted with all their skinny, adolescent awkwardness, but seen with a kind of Rembrandesque sense of beauty and dignity in the un-ideal.

Bellows came to NYC from Columbus, Ohio, and fast became associated the painter and teacher Robert Henri and, first The Eight and then the Ashcan School of the early 20th Century — young American realists who believed in painting contemporary American life, especially urban life, ash cans and all. He was and is the best. Using a free brushstroke, derived from the impressionists, he depicts city scenes, parks, slums, waterways, and the inhabitants.

His heavy impasto, often to the point of painting in relief, and the passion he brings to each stroke of the brush reminds one of van Gogh, though he doesn’t share van Gogh’s focus on complementary colors, and uses color naturalistically and, especially in his portraits, often with a Rembrandt-like depth of tone and focused lighting.

Paddy Flannigan, Winter 1908, oil on canvas, 30 1/4 inx25 in (76.8×63.5cm), Erving and Joyce Wolf

Paddy Flannigan, Winter 1908, oil on canvas, 30 1/4 inx25 in (76.8×63.5cm), Erving and Joyce Wolf

The exhibition includes several portraits of “unimportant people” like Paddy Flanigan, with the concentration, enlaring composition and focused lighting that had once been applied only to portraits of the wealthy and high born. How wonderful! … though I doubt it paved a smoother path for these poor kids.   One of my favorite paintings in the exhibition is the portrait of the child who brought Bellows his laundry every week, Little Girl in White (Queenie Burnette) of 1907, her own crisply laundered white dress fanned in fresh folds like a spray of lilies.

Generally he’s a great painter of the color “white” in which he finds extraordinary richness and variety.   I love his scenes of  snow in and around the city. One of the engaging and illuminating features of this exhibition is the placing next to Bellows’ paintings and photographs of similar subject matter:  his paintings of the vast excavations – with snow — for Pennsylvania Station with photographs of the excavations, a photo of a sea painting by Winslow Homer’s next to Bellows painting of a similarly viewed crashing wave.

Blue Snow, The Battery, 1910, oil on canvas, 34×44 in (86.4×111.8cm), Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Museum Purchase Huwald Fund

Blue Snow, The Battery, 1910, oil on canvas, 34×44 in (86.4×111.8cm), Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Museum Purchase Huwald Fund

In time, his painting became less forceful, though his subject matter expanded to include brutal victimizations of war and racism. In The Massacre of Dinant, he painted an atrocity committed by the Germans in their invasion of Belgium during World War I.

Massacre at Dinant. 1918, oil on canvas, 49 1/2×83 in (125.7×210.8 cm) Greenville County Museum of Art, Gift of Minor M. Shaw, Buck A. Mickel and Charles C. Mickel, and the Arthur and Holly Magill Fund

Massacre at Dinant. 1918, oil on canvas, 49 1/2×83 in (125.7×210.8 cm) Greenville County Museum of Art, Gift of Minor M. Shaw, Buck A. Mickel and Charles C. Mickel, and the Arthur and Holly Magill Fund

The painting shows a great deal of thought, not only about the massacre but about other artists.  Life in this painting is vertical, death is horizontal.  The the frieze-like arrangement of the standing figures, with their heads on one level, and the horizontal proportions of the canvas, hark back to Courbet’s Burial at Ornans , while the dramatically foreshortened renderings of the dead figures reach to the Renaissance and Mantegna’s Dead Christ, and later, Manet’s painting of the Pieta:  Thus Bellows conveys that the deaths of these “ordinary” men carry the spiritual weight of the death of Christ.

Elsewhere in this exhibition, we see Bellows cloak other victims of brutality in spiritualized martyrdom:  in The Law Is Too Slow (1923),  light and posture link the death of a lynched Black to that of Christ on the Cross.  One thinks of — and feels — Goya’s title — One Cannot Look — for an etching in his series The Disasters of War, depicting  unspeakable cruelty.  Bellows’ paintings and lithographs of the atrocities of war do look back to the Disasters of War, though they lack the horrific sense of inevitability in Goya’s works.

Tennis at Newport, 1920, oil on canvas, 43×54 in (109.2×137.2 cm) James W. and Frances McGlothlin

Tennis at Newport, 1920, oil on canvas, 43×54 in (109.2×137.2 cm) James W. and Frances McGlothlin

In Bellows’ later works, faces — generally not his strong point in paintings with many figures bland and masklike, even cartoon-like, as in Tennis at  Newport. Figures lose their elastic dynamism. One of the strongest of the late paintings depicts the Dempsey – Firpo boxing match.  Though it shows Dempsey in full fall (based on a photo of the event), compared with the shocking immediacy ofShag at Starkey’s (at the top of this page), Dempsey and Firpo looks staged.  The virtuoso drawing and slick finish of Dempsey and Firpo come at the cost of loss of the passion in the brushstroke that appears to be essential for Bellows’ full artistic expression.

Dempsey and Firpo, 1924, oil on canvas, 51x63 1/4 in (129.5x160.7 cm) Whitney Museum of American Art, Purchase, with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.  Photo Sheldon C. Collins.

Dempsey and Firpo, 1924, oil on canvas, 51×63 1/4 in (129.5×160.7 cm) Whitney Museum of American Art, Purchase, with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.  Photo Sheldon C. Collins.

The artist becomes tamed in his later works.  He seems to have become too focused on trying out for himself what other artists did.  Of course he always learned from others, as all artists do, but there’s a needed balance.  His greatest works draw direct inspiration from the world he saw around him:  he soaked it up, made it his own and painted it.  In the later works he shifted his balance too heavily toward — so to say — letting other artists, past and current, into his studio and look over his shoulder.

He died at the age of 42 from complications of a ruptured appendix, having led a full though tragically short life and having painted some of the greatest works produced by an American artist. This beautifully organized and fully representative exhibition gives you the chance to see, enjoy and marvel at them.

Curators are Charles Brock and Franklin Kelly of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and H. Barbara Weinberg and Lisa M. Messinger of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  A catalog, audio tour and educational programs are available.

Art Review | Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years | Metropolitan Museum of Art

Andy Warhol | Big Campbells Soup Can

… a popular artist …

This is a fascinating exhibit, stimulating for its irony, humor, kaleidoscopic glimpses at American culture in the last 50 years, and interrelationships between artists with Warhol the creative, generating the fulcrum. The overall impression is busy and dazzling. The 150 works, about a third of them by Warhol himself, hold surprise, even for those familiar with “Pop Art” and its variety of spin-offs.  Some of the surprises are owed to the intelligence and imagination with which the curators juxtapose Warhol’s paintings, sculptures and films with those of other artists, forming insightful connections.  (Full information on photos at bottom of page.*)

The exhibition is divided into five thematic sections: “Daily News: From Banality to Disaster,” “Portraiture: Celebrity and Power,” “Queer Studies: Camouflage and Shifting Identities,” “Consuming Images: Appropriation, Abstraction, and Seriality,” and “No Boundaries, Business, Collaboration, and Spectacle.”

Among his early works, his homey, cartoon-like Icebox of 1961 is personally interpreted

Andy Warhol | Icebox

through the hand of the artist working with a brush, like traditional works of art, but it already shows Warhol’s artistic interest in ordinary, kitchen-oriented, objects, a tradition with roots in the earliest Dada works, like Duchamp’s found object, the Bottle DryerLooking forward rather than backward to focus on  Warhol’s influences on others, the importance of Dada, a truly groundbreaking movement in the 20th Century, was missed in this exhibition.  (I’m wondering, are we to be concerned that the food in the icebox will spoil with the door held open so long?)

Andy Warhol | Green Coca-Cola Bottles

In little time Warhol moved to emotionally distanced representations, notably the iconic Campbell’s soup can, 1962 (top of page*), which is painted though with a constrained cool, and then to the more mechanically multiple silkscreen such as the stacked Coca-Cola bottles, launching Pop Art.

And, speaking of Coca-Cola … at first sight, Ai Weiwei’s Neolithic Vase with Coca-Cola Logo of 2010 made me smile — but, second thought, is this really something we want done to a hand made ceramic vase that has come down through the millennia, 5000–3000 BC ?  (What a beautiful jar.)  Well, new art often seems destructive, even as it builds — no wonder we call it “cutting edge.”

Ai Weiwei | Neolithic Vase with Coca Cola

Or, by applying the logo to the ancient work, is Weiwei saying — with Warhol — that wherever and whenever there have been humans, there has been commerce?

That commerce is the essence of the human?

Or that humans dirty their nest?

Or … that Coca-Cola being everywhere, it even made it to the Neolithic?

Warhol’s amalgamation of art and commerce, and the spin-offs by others, spawns a string of thoughts.

Andy Warhol | Red Jackie

Warhol’s portraits of celebrities like Jackie Kennedy have drawn attention like magnets.  Does Warhol do something “value added” in making these silk-screened multiples with color variations?   Is he merely exploiting or is he making art?  For me, the most thought-provoking aspect of the celebrity portraits is that Warhol wouldn’t think that question mattered. But should we think these questions matter? For me, his celebrity portraits are unacted upon, and void of the mind of the artist, and so ultimately boring.

Jeff Koons | Michael Jackson and Bubbles

Jeff Koons’ fantasy-ridden Michael Jackson and Bubbles is spectacular, but cruel.  It’s made of porcelain, lavish and physically fragile like Jackson himself.  Life size and detailed, shiny and gilded, it smacks of costly  production.  The white, smooth surface reflects Jackson’s whitening of his skin, and pretty feminizing.   Jackson’s glamour, conspicuous consumption, and childishness. are all there.  You feel the mind of the artist at work in every detail of this arresting piece, as well as its tremendous technical virtuosity — reason enough to see the exhibition — not that there aren’t plenty of others.  But, spectacular as it is, the lack of human sympathy in this portrait, that coldly asks the question, “who’s the monkey?” disturbs me.

For all the brain cells that gets pricked, aroused and tickled by Warhol and others, one work is deeply moving: Richard Avedon’s photo portrait of Truman Capote (no photo available, unfortunately).  The finesse of the printing, the tonal subtlety that embraces the bulge in Capote’s forehead that visualizes his intelligence, the sense of knowing another human being turns ones thoughts to Rembrandt, not to Warhol.

Robert Gober | Untitled | 1990

The exhibition argues for Warhols’ liberating role with regard to sex and gender in art in the section “Queer Studies: Camouflage and Shifting Identities.”  Again, looking back, to the Italian Renaissance, for example, one can find examples equal in daring, and  the absence of that historical perspective is limiting.  Some of the images are rather profound expressions of searching self-knowledge, such as Warhol’s self portrait, his likeness almost lost in camouflage.  Others, such as Robert Gober’s Untitled can bring a sort of smile.

Cindy Sherman | Untitled

In Cindy Sherman ‘s photographic portrait of herself as Marilyn Monroe in her Norma Jean guise, the tension in the contrast between the appropriated image and Sherman’s modification packs an immediate ironic and amusing punch.  The exhibition might have reminded us that artists have always borrowed (or as Delacroix put it, “stolen”) from other artists and images, but the earlier artists generally sought inspiration and instruction in great works of art.  In contrast, the modern to contemporary artists, removing the appropriated images from their contexts, and modifying them, eat away at the overt meaning of the known or recognizable images, illuminating new meanings and critiques.

Again, this didn’t begin with Warhol:  adding a mustache, like a grafitti’d subway ad, to a photographic image of the Mona Lisa, Duchamp deconstructed the iconic image in his L.H.O.O.Q. , and did some powerful gender bending, well before Warhol’s multiple silk-screens of the Mona Lisa .

Talk about irony, for the dynamic medium of video, Warhol chose to record the most undynamic subjects — people, ordinary or not, at their most banal and monotonous, as you can see for yourself in the exhibition.  Irony is the sharpest shovel for digging deep into understanding, and a savior of sanity! But even irony, alone, is not worth more than one look.

The exhibition ends with a large room wall papered in Warhol’s repetitive cows, and above wafting plastic clouds, blown gently by the electric fan.  Regard Warhol, because you can’t disregard him.  See the exhibition — you’ll have a good time.

Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through December 31, 2012.

The exhibition is organized by Mark Rosenthal as guest curator, with Marla Prather, Curator, Ian Alteveer, Assistant Curator, and Rebecca Lowery, Research Assistant, in the museum’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art.

P.S.  The education and outreach aspects of the exhibition are sponsored by none other than … Campbell’s Soup!

Photographs, in order:

  1. Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987) Big Campbell’s Soup Can 19¢(Beef Noodle) 1962, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 72×54 1/2 in. (182.9 x 138.4 cm), The Menil Collection, Houston, ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.|Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  2. Andy Warhol, Icebox 1961, oil, ink, and graphite on canvas, 67 x 53 1/8 in. (170.2 x 134.9 cm), The Menil Collection, Houston, © 2012 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.| Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  3. Andy Warhol, Green Coca-Cola Bottles, 1962, silkscreen, acrylic, and graphite on canvas, 82 3/8 x 57 in. (209.2 x 144.8 cm), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.|Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  4. Ai Weiwei (Chinese, born 1957), Neolithic Vase with Coca-Cola Logo, 2010, paint on Neolithic vase (5000-3000 BC), 9 3/4 x 9 3/4 x 9 3/4 in. (24.8 x 24.8 x 24.8 cm), Mary Boone, New York, Courtesy:  Mary Boone Gallery, New York
  5. Andy Warhol, Red Jackie, 1964, acrylic and silkscreen on canvas, 40 x 40 in. (101.6 x 101.6 cm), The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.|Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  6. Jeff Koons (American, 1955), Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988, Porcelain, 42 x 70 1/2 in. (106.7 x 179.1 x 82.6 cm), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, © Jeff Koons
  7. Robert Gober (American, born 1954), Untitled 1990, Beeswax, wood, oil paint, human hair, 18 7/8 x 14 3/4 x 7 1/2 in., Collection of Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehman, Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery
  8. Cindy Sherman (American, born 1954), Untitled, 1982, chromogenic print, ed. 43 of 125, 15 7/16 x 7 1/8 in. (39.2 x 18.1 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

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