4.20.18 — Forever and a Day

“For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.”

Had Saint Augustine lived a few more centuries, he still might not have had an answer, but he could have consulted some remarkable calendars. Unlike our own, they did not change from year to year since, as Augustine pointed out, “for God there is no time.” They present only a fixed column of days and annotations. Yet they had to be intricate and exacting enough to allow one to calculate the changing date of Easter—and, with each passing month, the changing hours of prayer. Master of Catherine of Cleves's Mouth of Hell (Morgan Library, c. 1440)With their saint’s days, signs of the zodiac, and illustrations of seasonal labor, they could embody the paradox that so perplexed him, of eternity and human experience. They also open a show about just that, “Now and Forever: The Art of Medieval Time” at the Morgan Library through April 29.

The Morgan embodies the paradox in the show’s structure. After the calendars come breviaries and books of hours, to take one from the days of the year to the hours of the day, and then scenes of history. Yet history has to encompass not so much the reign of kings as the reign of heaven. It has to begin with a “time before time,” in order to show the creation, and it has to end with a time after time, in order to show the last judgment. In between comes the fall of Troy, perhaps because the Rome claimed an ancestry in Troy’s survivors, as in Virgil’s Aeneid, and the Roman empire still marked the limits of the known world. The church did, after all, conduct its business in Latin.

The show also marks the Middle Ages as a time between times. It falls between the calendar reforms of Julius Caesar and Pope Gregory, whose Gregorian calendar of 1582 did not quite catch on in parts of Europe until the nineteenth century. Clocks existed as early as 1300, but the Morgan includes just one, in an illustration. Temperance balances it on her head, since she, too, must outlast change. The curator, Roger Wieck, ends with something almost as intricate, the only surviving astrolabe from the era. Its worn wooden disk is difficult to read today, but it had to track multiple scales of time.

While the paradox of time suggests a division between heavenly and earthly realms, their inhabitants would not have seen it that way. Myth and history ran together, just like labor and prayer. Saul appears as a lesson in kingship, for Boccaccio around 1480, much as in the Morgan’s own Crusader Bible—and never mind Saul’s madness. Another vivid illustration connects the realms directly. A saint’s vision becomes a ray piercing three tiers of heaven, from the saint to her god. (Remember that earlier times thought of ordinary vision as emanating from the observer rather than as light reflected off objects and into the eye.)

Despite its title, the show runs well into the Renaissance. (The San Zeno astrolabe dates to around 1455 in Verona.) It can thus encompass yet another time scale, that of art history. The Berthold Sacramentary, from Germany around 1215, uses gilding to accentuate its thick lines and clashing colors. By the show’s end, the glory of Troy has taken on the courtly gestures of the late Middle Ages, much as in a past show of the Morgan’s Book of the Hunt. So what's NEW!The first calendar insets for labor give way to full scenes of earthly toil and pleasures for the Da Costa Hours by Simon Bening from roughly 1510.

A medieval world of ritual, toil, and a last judgment may sound dismal, but the illustrators and their readers seem to be having no end of fun. Devils dragging souls to hell in the Hours of Claude Molé, from around 1500, are sure having fun, and the beast and dragon in the Burckhardt-Wildt Apocalypse from the 1290s are no less entertaining. The fires of purgatory rise up from a triumphal arch. Regulars to the Morgan will know the fiery pleasures of the gates of hell in the Hours of Catherine of Cleves from around 1440 as well. Even the hard work of harvest time looks downright relaxing, more than a hundred years before Pieter Bruegel.

Except for the astrolabe, the museum relies almost entirely on its collection. It also supplies detailed explanations for its instruments, so that anyone with enough patience and temperance can play the game. (The apostles turn up in a calendar, because who can resist the coincidence of twelve of them for twelve months?) Augustine might still be in a state of wonderment, but his best guess sounds refreshingly mundane: “yet I say with confidence that . . . if nothing passed away, there would not be past time; and if nothing were coming, there would not be future time; and if nothing were, there would not be present time.” Preserve your memories, pursue your future, and take your time.

4.18.18 — Scattered Bodies

“God is already famous,” said Paul Bocuse, “but that doesn’t stop the preacher from ringing the church bells every morning.” The late French chef was not above promoting his vast influence, no more than the deity—to judge by a color sketch by Peter Paul Rubens of a village sermon.

And it worked, for all eyes turn in rapture to the pulpit at upper right, where a fat and less than charismatic preacher looks about as marginal as his position on paper. Meanwhile an aisle draws the eye into depth, past two restless dogs, to where a lone face looks away. MutualArtAlthough clean shaven, it might be Rubens himself, questioning for once his own orthodoxy and fervor. His skepticism adds an additional double note to “Power and Grace,” Flemish Baroque drawings at the Morgan Library.

The Morgan borrows that sketch from the Met, but the rest draws almost entirely on its collection, through April 29. Rubens commands the center, between facing walls for Anthony van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens to either side, as makes sense for the master’s greatest pupil and an artist some twenty years younger than both. van Dyck appears as the consummate observer, ever attentive to surfaces—and I have added this to an earlier report on van Dyck as a longer review and my latest upload. The highlights on a dead Christ all but dematerialize him, even as the light itself seems to weigh him down. A rare landscape bears the date on which van Dyck saw the hill town, its distance marked by crossing branches in the foreground. He takes note of the observer, too, lending the greatest weight to a witness at the mystic marriage of Saint Catherine, in darker ink and wash at the drawing’s center.

Jordaens has harsher colors and stiffer figures. Religious and genre scenes alike fall between sentiment and caricature. A mother shows her tenderness even as she and her daughter raise anxious eyes toward the unknown. The artist lends his own features to a peasant stuffing his face with only modest encouragement from a satyr. The woman in an allegory of vanity seems to have every right to scorn the men bringing her a skull. Jesus commands attention in Christ Among the Doctors, but three tiers of figures and the architecture afford him a worthy niche.

The show takes its title from Rubens himself, as he articulated his aims. He studies the leg muscles of, no doubt, a corpse, but he allows them the power and dignity to stand erect. A third leg gives Rubens another chance to get it right, Anthony van Dyck's Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine (Morgan Library, c. 1618–1620)but also another chance for his subject to bear weight. Angels blowing trumpets flex their arms and legs, too, not to mention their lips and cheeks. Yet they seem no less graceful and lithe, as they fit neatly into niches to either side of a broad arch. They would have served as models for carvings in an Antwerp cathedral.

Daniel in the lion’s den is even more impressive without the lions. A study isolates a young male model and brings him forward, seemingly within reach. One knee breaks the picture plane, while Daniel raises his clasped hands in front of his neck. Darker or doubled strokes of black chalk accentuate their irregular outlines and musculature. Lighter and longer strokes define wisps of hair for his head thrown back in prayer. His stability adds to the sense of motion and strength to prayer.

Many more Rubens drawings came to the Met in 2005. One could see him working his way out of Mannerism, so that studies like these could become more active and less cluttered. Rubens hardly needs the touches of white chalk to bring them fully into three dimensions. The trumpeting angels could be calling the corpse to life, much like the trumpets “at the round earth’s imagined corners” in a sonnet by a near contemporary in England, John Donne: “arise, arise / From death, you numberless infinities of souls, and / To your scattered bodies go.” Go, that is, with power and grace.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

4.16.18 — The Not So Great Outdoors

Late in life, Milton Resnick could finally confront his demons. In 1986, nearing seventy, he began to work small while mixing his own paints—two solutions to an outsize need for control and a shortage of recognition and cash.

It might have come as a disappointment or a relief, after so many big paintings as the scene of equally titanic struggles. For nearly twenty years, they had approached monochrome or sheer black, but with thick brushwork that refuses any restriction to surfaces and uniformity. In a heated argument back in 1961, Ad Reinhardt had warned him against “work that’s too available, too loose, too open, too poetic.” Resnick might have been taking that advice to heart or arguing back.

Milton Resnick's Dying for Love (Miguel Abreu gallery, 1989)Besides working small, he was also indulging in color. Maybe color was at the heart of his work all along, even when it added up to mud. Now, though, he allowed different colors to appear side by side. They also opened the door to imagery. Work from the early nineties has bits of still-life now and then, but mostly figures in a landscape. Whatever are they doing there?

A stickler for “pure painting” would have had to ask. So do over fifty works on paper, as “Apparitions, Reapparitions” at Miguel Abreu through April 25. Everything about them is as murky as Resnick’s earlier impasto. The figures appear as sharp flesh tones and color against mostly green and an earthy red, but this is not the great outdoors. They may be male or female, resting or fighting, naked or clothed. By his death in 2004, he had added another motif, roughly an X, as if crossing them all out.

Resnick, the gallery notes, had his studio just across the street on the Lower East Side, and it is hard to keep his biography out of the picture. Born in 1917 in what was then, for a few more weeks, the Russian empire (but now the Ukraine), he escaped Bolshevism, anti-Semitism, and civil war with his family in 1922. He was at the core of Abstract Expressionist New York and exhibited with his older peers. I caught Resnick in 2001 at the gallery that also represented Lee Krasner—and he is still on the roster of a leading Chelsea gallery, Cheim & Read, with paintings from the early 1980s on board showing only recently, through March 31. Yet he had on again, off again solo shows and had to live down the label “second-generation Abstract Expressionist.” One can read entire books on the movement without catching his name.

He may have found in the 1970s a way to reconcile Minimalism and gesture. Yet he still came off as out of fashion or out of touch. He was plainly expressive, but as clotted as cream. Could the late work offer a fresh point of entry? It maintains his competing brushwork, but more clearly. It also adds, in the angels or demons, a metaphor for his difficulty.

The landscapes can be sunlit or fiery, if not exactly welcoming. Figures stick to the foreground, set horizontally, refusing a greater depth. In one, a naked man and woman stand off to the side, as if uncertain where to go. If this is Eden, they might be glad to leave it behind. The show has earlier two works, closer to the entrance. They look all the more ambitious once one knows that Resnick put them, too, behind him.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

4.13.18 — A Detour to the Promised Land

The twelve tribes of Israel had a serious detour on the way to the promised land, wandering in the wilderness. For Francisco de Zurbarán, so did their ancestors on the way to the New World.

His paintings of Jacob and his sons never did cross the Atlantic, and all but one ended up instead in the far north of England. United at the Frick Collection, through April 22, they line an entire room, much as in the Long Dining Room at Auckland Castle in County Durham. Francisco de Zurbarán's Gad (Auckland Castle, c. 1440–1445)For all their ambition, they make an awkward introduction to the Spanish painter. Yet they tell a colorful story about not just the patriarchs, but also the uses of painting then and now.

Zurbarán was the leading artist in Seville and the greatest artist of the Spanish Baroque after Diego Velázquez—and I have added this to an earlier report on a contemporary, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, as a longer review and my latest upload. Zurbarán could almost match the dignity, austerity, and naturalism of Velázquez portraits, and those same qualities bring a sense of presence and mystery to still-life and standing saints. Still, the thriving seaport and cultural center took a hit from the economy and the plague, and he had to look elsewhere. He knew just where, too, given Seville’s role in trade with the Americas. Just last year, the Met found a thriving art in Mexico later in the century, with Cristóbal de Villalpando. For now, though, Zurbarán could hope that South America would take its lead from Spain.

He could also adapt his art to changing audiences. The series, the Frick suggests, could have served as effigies in civic and religious processions. It could also please those who identified the native peoples with the “lost tribes of Israel.” (For those who follow such things, ten of twelve broke away in the Book of Kings, dividing the kingdom, only to be swallowed up in the Assyrian invasion.) It could, that is, had it ever reached its destination. Painted in the early 1640s, it dropped off the map until it turned up for sale in London more than seventy years later.

To this day, no one knows why. Was Zurbarán, new to emerging markets, just working on spec without a customer? Did a buyer back off or, more fancifully, pirates hijack the paintings at sea? Twenty-four virgin saints did make it to a monastery in Peru in 1647—and another fifteen to Buenos Aires two years later. And how did Auckland Castle win the bidding for only twelve of thirteen? Had it run out of money by the time it got to the youngest son, Benjamin?

What, too, did Zurbarán paint? For the Baroque, Jacob and his twelve sons prefigured a New Testament god and his twelve apostles, but these figures fall far short of religious rapture. They come most alive in their costumes and their company. Benjamin keeps a wolf on a chain like a pet, and Issachar leans toward his donkey as if greeting the closest of friends. Still, their colorful clothing and down-to-earth gestures look back to a far less mature artist, the painter of Saint Casilda ten years earlier—and to his workshop. The landscapes set low in the picture frame, the faces have only a token psychology, and their attributes serve more as identifiers than as characterization.

They follow Jacob’s prophecy for his sons in Genesis. Is Reuben, the eldest son, “unstable as water”? Fine, so have him lean on a pole. Is Judah a “lion’s whelp”? Absolutely, and he comes with a lion, a decidedly cute one at that. They also follow late Renaissance engravings rather than strive for originality, perhaps because the artist never expected his customary clients to see them.

They are intriguing all the same. They fill the room with life-size figures that one can almost approach face to face. They also fill the room with color, and scholars relate their peasant stripes and regal brocades to the fabric industry in Seville. Zurbarán probably painted two background landscapes as models, leaving much else to assistants, but he had to relish the range of ages, stances, and moods, from Simeon in his anger to Gad the wary warrior. The colorful story continues with their reception in England, the Frick argues, when an Old Testament prophecy could accord with growing demands for rights for Jews. Their reception in New York brings the story up to date.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

4.11.18 — How Good Are They?

Just how good are they? With so many claims for major rediscoveries, some quite valid, it may seem defensive to wonder. Still, the question keeps nagging at me every time I delight in a discovery myself.

I hate to ask for another reason as well: I favor criticism that illuminates rather than judges. I want to give others the grounds to decide for themselves. I have to admit, though, that I am as subject to the excitement of discovery as anyone else—and as subject to doubts. At least two shows have had my moods swinging wildly. Maybe that is because they concern a favorite subject, postwar abstraction.

Raymond Hendler's RH 12.88 (Berry Campbell, 1988)While artists hoping for success fear a bias toward the tried and true, they live in a time of upheaval. Museums are looking beyond white male Americans, while galleries are rediscovering older artists, even as they tout the new. Often as not, too, these trends come together. They do with renewed attention to South American women in the twentieth century, from Tarsila do Amaral to Lygia Pape. At least one Chelsea gallery, though, prefers New York’s hidden history. Take its last two shows, John Opper and Raymond Hendler at Berry Campbell.

Both started early, just past the peak of Abstract Expressionism, and both took time to settle down. Opper seemed at last to have absorbed his friends and influences, and his show covered just a few years around 1970, through March 10. He began to distill his gestures down to strong verticals. Oil soaks into the canvas and depends on that for its sense of stasis. The lozenges play the role of rectangles for Mark Rothko and share his early yellows and reds, before Rothko’s turn almost to black. As the edges soften, the shapes swell outward and become more luminous.

Where Opper was settling down, Hendler was shaking things up. His show covers fifty years, up to his death in 1998. The early painting, though, comes almost as an afterthought, with good reason. A few small works in the back room, through April 14, look dark and clotted. He actually grew more gestural in the 1970s, just when art was moving the other way thanks to Minimalism. Yet he, too, was boiling his gestures down—only to thick black squiggles and a few blasts of cartoon color against mostly white. Where Opper moved toward color-field painting, Hendler skipped right past it on the way to finding his signature.

He did so literally at that. He signed and dated his paintings as an equal part of the work. The month and year look as bold as the more abstract squiggles. Where Philip Guston abandoned Abstract Expressionism for a comic-strip flair akin to Pop Art, Hendler found a way to merge the two. If Opper had me both loving and hating that I had seen what he did before, Hendler has me smiling at something long overdue. It also connects him to more contemporary work, from text art and dated panels to graffiti.

And then the doubts keep creeping back. Neither artist gets over the arbitrary placement of gesture and color, and no one can be the next Rothko or Guston. Maybe the first trend, toward gender and multiculturalism, stems from politics and the second, for older artists, from markets looking for something big. And we know how crass markets are—and how easily manipulated. Is that altogether bad, despite postmodern critiques of cultural dominance? Maybe it is a good thing that I am having trouble judging.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

4.9.18 — Parroting Modernism

On ne truquera plus les objets d’art: the work of art can no longer be faked. With Postmodernism, the thought had become something of a cliché, to be dismissed as quickly as possible. How, though, did it read at the very birth of Modernism, in 1914?

Juan Gris must have been delighted to stumble on just that headline in the morning news, alongside warnings of imminent financial collapse. He must also have taken it as a challenge. He had experience in fakery, whether the older art of illusion—or, with Cubism, the art of undoing illusion with its mind games and found materials. With Man at a Café, that page from a newspaper became one of those materials. Joseph Cornell's Homage to Juan Gris (VAGA/Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1953–1954)It became material, too, for Joseph Cornell, and the Met brings their trickery together as “Birds of a Feather.” And I bring this together with a report on how Martí Cormand revisits the postmodern moment in the work of Sherrie Levine after Walker Evans, as a longer review and my latest upload.

Cornell must have taken the headline as a challenge, too, but also the painter and the painting. He encountered it at a legendary midtown gallery, Sidney Janis, in the fall of 1953, and his admiration for Gris only deepened after a MoMA retrospective in 1958. Together, they spurred twenty-one assemblages—all but three, like so much of Cornell’s work, in the form of a modest wood box. Now the Met rounds up twelve of them from public and private collections, through April 15. Behind their glass fronts, the café has become an aviary and the man its prized cockatoo. The work itself has become a transcontinental journey, and the morning news has faded into night.

The show marks the promised gift of the painting. Where Cornell pays tribute to Gris, the Met pays tribute to the donor, Leonard A. Lauder with the first of several “dossier exhibitions,” each based on a work from his collection. And where the Met has catered to donors far too often at the expense of its finances, with museum expansions and the Koch fountains out front, Lauder may have earned it. He displayed his collection as a compact introduction to Cubism in 2015. The museum has already put on admirable “focus exhibitions” from its collection, in its galleries for European painting, but here its ambitions grow at that. Twelve of eighteen is not bad, especially when the location of at least one of the rest is unknown.

It can also boast of the painting, which threatens to outshine Cornell. Truquer can mean to take advantage in the sense of stacking the deck, and Gris knew, too, how art can stack the deck in its favor. Here a fairly large painting allows him to take advantage several times over. Where Pablo Picasso introduced fake wood grain with the carpenter’s trick of a comb, Gris adds competing grains on two scales of fineness. He also adds multiple shapes and shadows, with paint itself as collage—to the point that one can hardly locate the man. There is his hand holding the paper, but is that his hat, his hair, his face, or his absence behind it? Is that silhouette on the wall his shadow or a waiter?

The Met can boast, too, of connecting Cornell to Cubism. He can come across as the belated heir of Kurt Schwitters and Surrealism in America—or as a folk artist and outsider obsessive enough to have turned out so much in this one series alone. Where others in 1953 celebrated the triumph of American painting at the Cedar Tavern, he at age fifty was on Utopia Parkway in working-class Queens. Yet he was sophisticated enough to have kept up with shows like those of Gris, and he knew Marcel Duchamp at first hand. His taste in art books appears in a display case, including one on Gris and a classic survey of Cubism. He browsed Manhattan bookstores for the texts and illustrations in his assemblage, and he was capable of puns in French.

He can pun on his own role as an artist with the great white-breasted cockatoo. The bird never appears in Gris, but Cornell can parrot him nonetheless. He borrows the painting’s palette of faded newsprint, blue, orange, and yellow. In place of newspapers, he often has book pages in French or in one instance Spanish, in homage to the Spanish painter who worked in Paris—both within the box and on the back, along with the artist’s signature. An ad for Apollinaris mineral water stands in for Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet and defender of Cubism, and the logo of Hôtel d’Etoile, or Star Hotel, for Cornell’s absent hero and star. Silhouettes and shadows multiply as well.

Their variation alone sets works apart. One box stands nearly empty but for the bird on a shelf and its outline in black paper seemingly fallen to the floor. Its toys, like a ball or chain rolling along a metal track, imply a birdcage. Still, whether a thick wood cutout or a clipping from a nineteenth-century naturalist, it stands triumphant over all. The names of European hotels proliferate, too, as if to deny the bird’s or the artist’s confinement. Cornell never crossed the Atlantic, but art could take him anywhere.

If he meets Gris on his journeys, it will be somewhere between day and night. Where Picasso’s Cubism leans to neutral tones and Georges Braque to warmer ones, Gris captures the raking light of a café at night. The man nurses a foamy beer even as he reads Le Matin, or “morning.” For Cornell, that paper has become Le Soir, or “evening,” when Hôtel d’Etoile can rest literally beneath the stars. Yet Gris can also juxtapose sky blue with a more regal shade, while Cornell can paste pictures of the daytime sky, with the bird’s crest echoing in the shape of clouds. Perhaps he took the headline to mean that one can no longer fool works of art, but he took that as a challenge, too.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

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