1.20.17 — The Last Mannerist

With his Repentant Magdalene, Guido Cagnacci may have created the last Mannerist painting—and the craziest. Just for starters, where is the repentant Magdalene?

Oh, you can find her easily enough, but nowhere near the painting’s center. And yet you will have trouble turning away from just that, even in a painting wildly off-center. There an avenging angel strides forward, to the left, in an exaggerated contrapposto turn that might mark the ultimate triumph of the Renaissance or a bitter parody. A garment spins away as if carried by his twist. Guido Cagnacci's Repentant Magdalene (Norton Simon Museum, c. 1660–1663)

He is pummeling a devil that nonetheless levitates in front of him with its own splayed limbs and glossy flesh tones. Their axes of rotation, at right angles to one another, tear the painting that much further apart. What exactly are they doing, and is this even an angel? One wing rises so improbably that it could pass for a headdress. Light picks out their struggle between good and evil, but from a window barely up to the task of illumination. And then a whole other source of light tail off to the right, where two servants hasten to leave, with good reason. They also join in their own twist, like two sides of a single body, dark and light.

As for Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who encountered Jesus, she lies prostrate before them all. She also belongs to the Baroque after all, the period after the late Renaissance and Mannerism. Caravaggio helped create that era in the 1590s with his repentant Magdalene, lost in thought, her jewels fallen to the ground. A pool of light stands for a revelation, a greater naturalism, and a new inwardness—much as it would for Jan Vermeer. He also painted Mary finding her true nature, as her sister holds up a mirror. Cagnacci takes elements from both versions, without their newly personal and somber spirit.

His painting at the Frick, from shortly before his death in 1663, continues a series of fruitful exchanges with the Norton Simon in Pasadena. Here the loan of a single painting argues for Cagnacci’s importance, through January 22. You may not have heard of him, but then even his contemporaries had their doubts. He had a reputation for half-length figures, like his Cleopatra slumped in death. A second version adds not legs but half a dozen other bare-breasted women, swarming about her corpse like her inner demons set free. Patrons demanded four full-length figures this time out, and they got six.

So what's NEW!Born in 1601, Cagnacci has every claim on the new century. His soft edges and softer flesh take him beyond Mannerism, thanks to Guercino and Guido Reni. So does the blue sky at right, approaching Nicolas Poussin. His life parallels that of Caravaggio as well. He spent much of it on the run, including several love affairs, and died in Vienna. Still, his wildness and excess seem out of another age.

Mary and Martha, too, point in every direction. Martha gestures to the allegory at left, but Mary fixes her gaze on her sister. So many jewels lie about that she could hardly have worn them all, with one last gold bracelet clutched tightly in her hands. She has also cast off an elaborate dress and slippers—leaving her all but nude even in shame. Nor is Cagnacci altogether on the side of the angels. He creates so luxuriant an interior that you, too, may wish to repent. And then he signs the painting, in one last boast, beneath Martha’s feet.

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

1.18.17 — Spread the Word

The Reformation had a lot going for it. I mean not doctrine, corruption in the Catholic Church, and a budding nationalism—but the pulpit, the Bible, and the printed word. So why not art?

Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation” puts painting at the very center of Luther’s writing and influence, at the Morgan Library through January 22. So, too, at its center is a painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder—and, together with a reunited altarpiece there by Hans Memling, MutualArtit is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload. It displays their friendship as akin to a collaboration.

Martin Luther spoke for himself, published for himself, and translated the Bible into German. He took advantage of a revolution well beyond the Church, in moveable type. And he and Cranach did collaborate, on a book with words by one and illustrations by the other. He was not, though, determinedly high tech. He first nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door in defiance in 1517 (or at least hung them from the door to welcome debate, depending on which historian weighs in), before they became a broadsheet, like a modern newspaper, and a quarto—a smaller format akin to today’s paperbacks. He also wrote hymns and urged schools to teach music.

Painting, then, seems only natural. It had worked on behalf of church and state for as long as either existed, and it would do so again. Images are pliable, too, even at their most dogmatic. Albrecht Dürer, himself a proponent of reform, created an engraving of Saint Jerome in his study in 1514. In the hands of others, that became Luther in his study. In more ways than one, artists were crafting an image.

But did Luther want one? Plenty of reformers did not, in response to what they saw as Catholic idol worship and the Bible’s forbidden graven images. They had their public burnings of books and art, not to mention of people. Luther, though, saw an opportunity—zum Ansehen, zum Zeugnis, zum Gedächtnis, zum Zeichen (“for recognition, for witness, for commemoration, for a sign”). Lucas Cranach the Elder's Venus and Cupid (National Gallery, London, 1530s)He also saw a friend in Cranach, ten years older and painter to the electors of Saxony. Luther acted as godfather to Cranach’s son, and at Luther’s wedding Cranach gave away the bride.

The show’s literal center, a six-sided chamber, homes in on the painter. Courtly and decorative, he could give myths a playful, sexual twist—or close in to make eye contact with Jesus. Influenced by Dürer and the Danube school of the Northern Renaissance, he could also set his scenes against preposterously tall blue mountains and a touch of Italian light. His portraits run to jagged outlines for jaws and cheeks, set against plain backgrounds, with a gentler modeling to add warmth, flesh tones, and a third dimension. They include at least two paired portraits of Luther and his wife. If Cranach’s output looks uneven at best, he also had one of the largest workshops in Europe, ideal for getting the word out.

He does not make a huge fuss about it, even when he stays on message. That eye contact, in a painting of Jesus together with Mary, carries Protestantism’s pledge of salvation through faith, without an intermediary in the pope’s legions. Adam and Eve serve a new elevation of marriage, now as a matter for church approval rather than private vows. Earlier, in 1520, a portrait of the young Luther as Augustinian monk was one of several, for Luther’s several roles as teacher and reformer. Mostly, though, Cranach just carries on with his gentle tease. The Reformation may even have let loose his sensual side, as part of a greater individualism.

All that adds up to insights, but also to lost opportunities. The curator, John T. McQuillen, could have shown all of Luther’s early roles, as the equivalent of a contemporary graphic novel. A painting of Luther and Cranach together, from the 1550s, does not appear at all. They stand at the base of the cross, beside John the Baptist, with blood from Jesus spurting right onto their heads. In the end, this is Luther’s show, but as word and image—much like the Morgan’s recent show of photographs as “Sight Reading.” Long before text art, an image could spread the word.

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

1.17.17 — A Different Inaugural Address

For those who think the arts should shut down in protest on Friday, as if arts were not the ultimate assertion of the free expression we need, tough.

But for those who called instead not just for artists to work and museums not just to stay open, but to go free, the Whitney will be “pay what you will” for the day. Love that institution. Hope others follow suit.

Update: the New Museum has made the day “pay what you will,” too, although two floors are closed for installation. The Drawing Center, with three fine new shows, is free.

1.16.17 — MoMA’s Thrift Store

Kai Althoff would like to make a statement, if only he had more to say. MoMA gives him every opportunity, turning over one of its largest exhibition spaces to his work, with Althoff himself as curator.

Art lies everywhere, through January 22, seemingly at random, much of it piled together or still under wraps. Partitions have fallen away, in favor of whatever divisions might emerge from the artist’s tables, easels, and pallets. A coarse wood floor, painted white but well scuffed even before public access, covers the usual one, as if to protect him from himself. Consider it a wise idea.

The two hundred objects look as casually assembled as they are arranged. Figurines have the clumsy air of a child’s modeling clay. Paintings approach Paul Gauguin on Quaaludes, German Expressionism without the sharp edges, or simply amateur night. A rug remains half curled up and a balloon heart stuck in an air vent. Antique dolls lie apart from their beds. Discarded furniture, used fabrics, and an entire model city in black fill the awkward spaces in between.

Is it a yard sale, a thrift store, a warehouse, or a studio? Is it a retrospective or an installation? For Althoff, they amount to much the same thing. MoMA’s Laura Hoptman turns over the press release to an actual artist’s statement, but its rambling paragraphs boil down to little more than this: “I cannot choose, but I must.” The show’s title, “and then leave me to the common swifts” (repeated in German) seems to catch him in mid-thought, but a thought that never quite makes sense.

You may not find a puzzle worth teasing out. Some themes do emerge, though, just as the show’s scale attests to bold aspirations—and just as its execution attests to futility. Paintings and photographs show friends hanging out for a lifetime or just for the day. The tormented dolls hint at an unhappy childhood, and the show claims to span much of Althoff’s fifty years, although most of it dates from just a few years around the turn of this century. Perhaps he became a celebrity artist only to run out of ideas. Perhaps he had few ideas all along.

Critics have read a great deal into his work. They have seen inventive installations and a haunting sadness. They have seen memories of Hasidic culture or a bridge between New York and his native Cologne, where he splits his time. Maybe, but one can read practically anything into all this and still lack for meaning. Althoff emerged in the infuriating wave of overblown installations, with some of the biggest. A collaboration with Nick Z., the street artist, only confirmed their macho and their glibness. He later brought his depictions of claustrophobia and high society to the 2012 Whitney Biennial.

Althoff’s collecting may recall the legendary 1978 show of “bad painting” at the New Museum, curated by Marcia Tucker. Yet Tucker was aiming another blow against late Modernism, and those days are past. He may recall the provocation of “thrift store art” from Jim Shaw, but Shaw hung anonymous paintings on gallery and museum walls. Althoff has little interest in breaking the boundaries between insider and outsider art, and he has little space for anyone but himself. It will take others to make a statement beyond the artist as brand name. It will take others, too, to stop trashing the gallery and to start poring over the trash.

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

1.13.17 — Slipping Away

There you are again, your face pressed ever so close, even as your body slips away. There you are, the image more than a little off-kilter, like everything about you. There you are, too, floating in a boundless sky or sea.

You are inviting me in there with you, while laughing at us both for how hard you are to resist. You have a caustic side as well, for all the temptations—with who knows what lurking in the background. Is that why they call new media the cutting edge? Pipilotti Rist's Pour Your Body Out (Museum of Modern Art, 2008)

For a while, Pipilotti Rist was everywhere—and not just within her seductive videos. She had quite a run of them at that, culminating in “Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters),” which took over MoMA’s atrium in 2008. They seem not to need a beginning or ending, much like her slow-motion stroll in heels along a city street, smashing car windows with an iron rod disguised as a flower along the way. And in truth nothing much has changed since then, with little if anything from recent years, so let me also direct you to my earlier review of half a dozen appearances. The New Museum, through January 15, simply picks up where she left off floating and dancing. The work is much the same as ever, only bigger, from an artist who always thinks big.

A lot bigger. She has the run of all three floors for big exhibitions, plus the lobby, where a machine blows extra large soap bubbles. And her feel-good retrospective approaches a prolonged bubble bath—or a single installation. As “Pixel Forest,” it dares one to locate the work, to put it in chronological order, or to know where any of it begins and ends, apart from which come with soft carpeting and still softer beanbag chairs. Even the earliest videos, restricted to a single channel and a monitor, are immersive. Acting as curators, Massimiliano Gioni, Margo Norton, and Helga Christoffersen place them in soundproofed shells for viewers to insert their head.

Yet even that picks up where she left off. To the extent that Rist’s career has a trajectory, it is all about getting bigger. She gained recognition in 1986, already up close and askew, reciting “I’m not the girl who misses much”—appropriating the Beatles, from “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” for herself. Things grew slower, like her urban walk from 1997, and larger, like the twin corner projections of Sip My Ocean from 1996 or all those cubic meters. Videos soar across landscapes that recall her native Switzerland. They also add furniture to make yourself at ease along the way.

They add, too, a miniature sound studio on video and an entire model city, in person. A chandelier of underwear defies the debate over boxers or briefs, but then she is inviting you to laugh, too. Curtains of lights switch from bubbles of white in the darkness to oceans of red and green. One must pass through curtains of plastic strips, and so must a projection. The equation of the viewer with the projection adds to its temptations. The Whitney does not include Rist in its concurrent show of “Immersive Cinema,” but it could.

A new work even provides beds. By the time I made it upstairs, people were already stretched out. Had they spent the night there, or were they only mannequins—or dead? Nope, but neon signs in script shout Help Me and Hurt Me from opposite ends of the floor. Is Rist more soothing, more childish, or more threatening than ever? Maybe only a little, on all three counts, but your own body will not so easily slip away.

Read more here—and in that past feature-length article on this site.

1.11.17 — The Saint with a Mustache

Who knew that John the Baptist had a pencil mustache? Still in his early twenties, with rakish brown hair and the chiseled body of a young man ready to play, Valentin de Boulogne was painting himself.

Not even the saint’s traditional red robe altogether covers his earthy brown cloak, not to mention his muscular deltoids and half naked torso. As John, he eyes the viewer while pointing to something beyond the picture frame. Valentin de Boulogne's Samson (Cleveland Museum of Art, 1631)John always does, as the prophet of a messiah to come. Is the artist, too, gambling on the future? Together with a report on Fragonard drawings just down the hall (and sorry for the late start this morning), it is the subject of a longer review and my latest upload.

For the Met, Valentin was himself that future—and the prophet of a greater realism. His later Allegory of Rome was “the most extreme statement of naturalism” before Gustave Courbet more than two hundred years later. Of course, for a young French painter, arriving in Rome by 1610 or so, the messiah had already come and gone. Some twenty years older, Caravaggio had fled south, amid accusations of murder, after pioneering the Baroque. And where Caravaggio had painted directly from models, rather than from preliminary sketches, for Valentin the model was his most memorable subject, just like his mustachioed presence in place of a legend. The curators, Keith Christiansen and Annick Lemoine, call his retrospective “Beyond Caravaggio.”

With forty-five of his sixty surviving paintings, through January 16, it seeks to reclaim him for a major artist. It begins with other followers of Caravaggio in Rome, including Jusepe de Ribera, a Spaniard who added coarser colors and textures. Ribera, though, departed for Naples, leaving opportunities behind. Valentin found ample commissions and patronage in a powerful cardinal, Francesco Barberini. He also found a pageant of contemporary life, including musicians and gamblers. Even when he painted scenes from the Bible, he sought an array of men, women, and children within a single canvas, as a living theater.

Caravaggio still looms large. Subject after subject comes from him, including those concerts and cardsharps, but also Abraham saved from sacrificing Isaac, Judith slaying Holofernes, and Saint Matthew with an angel’s hand in his book. A later version of John approaches Caravaggio all the more closely, with an exposed thigh. Apparently the older man’s lifestyle also had its appeal. Born in 1591 just east of Paris, Valentin died at age forty-one after a hard night’s drinking. He must have taken his images of all the five senses personally.

Caravaggio may well loom too large by half, and so may Artemisia Gentileschi or another Frenchman in Rome, Nicolas Poussin. Their miraculous sunlight and darkness have become an indistinct space of muddy shadows. Their psychological intensity has become a routine theater. When Caravaggio gives a man bearing grapes recognizable features, the invitation takes on a disturbing eroticism. When his cardsharps vie to see who can outsmart the other, they match wits with the viewer as well. Valentin’s figures, however crowded, seem apart from one another, like a catalog of gestures and expressions.

Those gestures include an arm outstretched to the left, which recurs in painting after painting as a token of decisive action. At times Valentin seems to care more about dice in midair or well-worn playing cards than about any of them. He also seems hardly to care where his figures land. They may tumble off the bottom edge or parade above a fictive carved relief as if floating above. The show opens with a photo of Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, with bodies flying everywhere. Its disorder reflects a revolutionary painter’s last struggles with Mannerism—and his successors may have taken that struggle to heart, at the expense of missing the future.

It sounds preposterous anyway to single out an allegory of Italy for its naturalism, quite apart from the Met’s penchant for self-congratulation. What are all those aging nudes and cupids doing, and why has Valentin buried his triumphant figure somehow floating above in so much clothing? At his best, the sheer flurry of hands across a canvas can stand in for a deeper insight. So does the edge of a knife on its way to flaying a man alive. So, too, at times does what may seem like Valentin’s greatest weakness—his actors lost in a dream, even as the angels and allegories descend. In one last self-portrait, as Samson, he has already slain Goliath and can take stock of the consequences, and so at last can you.

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

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