We'll Always Have Paris

John Haber
in New York City

Chaim Soutine, Ad Reinhardt, and Piet Mondrian

Remember Paris? Art had style back then, and Europe had memories. Ah, those were the days, before the ugly Americans took over.

Before World War II, before the New York School, art had the School of Paris. Of course, the term school goes back to the days when artists aspired to enter the academy. While it has come to mean a style or a movement—especially in Modernism, when movements mattered—Paris and New York still have a way of offering one another a stern lecture. Soutine's Page Boy at Maxim's (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, c. 1925)

Before Willem de Kooning displayed a woman's crotch, Chaim Soutine painted female faces like pudenda. In turn, once one knows de Kooning, who acknowledged his debt to Soutine, early modern art looks a lot more fun. Before Ad Reinhardt or Josef Albers paid their homage to the square, Piet Mondrian made it a building block as diverse as a Lego set. In turn, Reinhardt could teach Mondrian how to relax and enjoy color.

Three shows make prewar art lovely again—at the risk of making postwar art routine. First the Jewish Museum treats Soutine as a textbook modernist. Six months later, Mondrian and Reinhardt share the wall. Each show is eager to accept an older artist's currency, at the risk of missing what he once brought to the table.

Now everybody—

New Yorkers just love to remember Paris. Marc Chagall and Amedeo Modigliani remain especial crowd-pleasers. Depressingly, it may help that Chaim Soutine lived in exile, worked in poverty, and died hiding from the Nazis. At least two Jews get to become the nice guys of Modernism. Make that three, counting a concurrent gallery show of Man Ray.

Modern art often sounds like one movement after another, like politics, too, in a turbulent century. The Blue Rider, De Stijl, the Vienna Secession—each carried the intensity of a mission. By comparison, the School of Paris offers a kindly schoolmaster. Artists like Soutine come as a beautiful respite, before Jackson Pollock shook things up. They offer one brief moment for decoration, contemplation, and storytelling. The textbooks say so—or at least they used to say so.

The textbook history has shifted course more than once, starting as early as the 1960s. From Irving Sandler's The Triumph of American Painting to Robert Hughes, history tells of how American art changed everything, and critics still obsess over how. Postmodernism sometimes makes it public enemy number one. When the Whitney proclaims an American century, watch out.

To exist at all, Postmodernism has to respond to Modernism: it must exaggerate its break from the modernist juggernaut. Call it the Postmodern paradox, and it can mean forgetting how many fits and starts art has had along the way. It can mean assimilating pretty much everything to postwar American painting. It can mean mistaking what once looked merely provincial for a juggernaut.

One knows art is in trouble when it claims to speak for everyone. Think of Disney taking over the Broadway theater. And Modernism is up against it these days. Abstract art has become the establishment, when it is not forgotten, revived, parodied, or dispersed. Now, after years of relative neglect, Soutine has been reclaimed for the establishment. He has been claimed for America.

That is what critics have said, and it is the line of his retrospective at the Jewish Museum. Soutine's brash colors and faith in portraiture, one reads, anticipate Willem de Kooning and his late serenity. His swirling, palpable paint lead to "all-over painting." Clement Greenberg said the same thing about Soutine the last time American art was in trouble.

Conservatism and preservation

Simon Schama's New Yorker review makes Soutine even more contemporary. Fascinated by Rembrandt, Schama recalls, the painter hung a side of beef in his garret till it collected flies (and I hate to ask what else). In work after work, animals hang suspended by a nasty hook, as if art not only put death on display but went in for the kill.

When the cops showed up, they helpfully showed Soutine how to inject dead animals with formaldehyde (or whatever preservers used back then). Schama wants to preserve something, too—a painter's provocation. Damien Hirst's cows or Andres Serrano turds have nothing on his bitter, provocative realism.

Schama's proposal works the other way, too: it makes postwar art old-fashioned despite itself. Something similar happened this past winter, when PaceWildenstein juxtaposed Mondrian and Reinhardt. It placed the American among the Old Masters, the proverbially dead white guys that Greenberg reverently called the OM.

In tales like these, Modernism has become a frightening monolith. In order to revitalize the School of Paris, the New York School has to become a branch of the same academy. Like science, the story goes, art marches on, only no one seems to be enjoying the parade, and no one has time now to lounge on the sidelines. Or do they? Maybe they need time to recover modern art's history and diversity.

When I hear too familiar a story, I demand more time, and I can hardly help hearing a story like that now. The last time abstraction staked a claim, it assimilated Africa. Even from the hands of Postmodernism, the same gesture now sounds oddly imperialist.

Critics today are finally looking beyond the story, but not exactly to defend either school. A new history of Modernism, Since 1900, asks what the subtext, the conservatism of abstract painting, misses in art of the past. This Soutine retrospective fails to capture the moment before the formaldehyde set in. Maybe the next time Modernism and the present face off in the New York summer heat, the present will be a lot more pungent.

The clothed and the dead

One of Soutine's first paintings is a still life, fish on a plate. The wall label spoke of the image's plainness, but shadows on the fish shimmer with color before its bright, flat tones. Behind them a glass flares strangely until I could swear it had morphed into a skull. But now I too am writing in contemporary terms. To return to expressionism, the glass has undergone a metamorphosis, like Kafka's Gregor Samsa, and who can say what art will resemble when it awakes?

The artist has gone back to Pablo Picasso's vanitas images. And like Picasso before Cubism or Giorgio Morandi after, Soutine's modern art is interestingly backward, rooted in old, purportedly timeless themes. A vanitas looks past the human fondness for surfaces but knows they define painting. Unlike art from de Kooning through Minimalism, but like many another expressionist, Soutine has a problem with this world but loves it above his art.

An early landscape presages what happens as Soutine's brushwork becomes looser. For Cézanne the branches of a tree penetrate the building behind them, like cracks in the facade. Here they hover delicately in front, adding touches of warmth and color. For Soutine, expressionism is a soothing release.

His portraits, too, remind me at first of Austrian Expressionism, but the tart flesh tones add color and life to faces. His individuals seem devoid of anxiety or quirks. Rich and poor, society women and village idiots alike, their elongated faces have the same elegant reserve.

Forget de Kooning: Soutine's background never encroaches on the sitters. It never breaks them apart, never threatens a rude pun on their private parts. It swirls in intense red or blue, like a rich fabric enveloping them in its dignity.

Even Soutine's dead animals look back. Like the woman bathing in another of his works, they mean it when they echo compositions by Rembrandt and others. They hold onto an art of the museums, even after Dada first challenged a museum's premise.

Eruptions

To make the best case it can for Soutine as Abstract Expressionist, the exhibition has a late room of wilder compositions. The landscapes tumble, and the brushstrokes definitely have something in common with Pollock's. As one gets close, one almost enters them, and the image dissolves.

Yet the landscapes never lose their integrity. The buildings flow easily without collapsing. Their volcanic eruption, as fluid and private as thought, refuses to blow Surrealism up to poster size. Unlike Pollock's autumn landscape, it never knew Thomas Hart Benton and his heroic nudes.

Unlike postwar art, Soutine does not make a grid perceptible, and the underlying canvas has no chance to shine through. In fact, the show breaks chronology badly to pretend otherwise. The last room throws one back into the 1920s.

Soutine's art makes me long for an old-world interior covered in the same colorful fabric as his women. His lush materials recall Victorian homes and the sitting rooms of old Paris. Like Proust's interiors, his are claustrophobic but filled with memories. With World War II this world, especially for Jews, was to vanish for good.

It is a luxurious art, from an artist who, like his Europe, never had the chance to remember it. One should not spoil his perhaps meager pleasures by wrenching him into the present, just as one ought not to miss out on how art changed after his death. Greenberg called Soutine conservative—a "victim of the museums." I might say he refused to play victim.

As in those landscapes, Soutine's world has no firm foundations left, not even an abstract artist's faith in paint. It simply nurses an artist's skill and his sad, admiring perception of nature. A decade later, art invoked another kind of volcano. It cast doubt on the nature of painting and of conscious memories. Naturally Greenberg criticized de Kooning's turn to nudes as overly ambitious, too.

Adult theater and child's play

Ad Reinhardt liked to deliver ultimatums to painting, and he did not approve of what he saw out there. "He couldn't stand wiggly brushstrokes," a friend reported. He had no patience with such impurities as realism and sentiment, giving his friendship with Thomas Merton's religious rigor a dual edge. He had finally got painting right, and he expected it to stop there. Enough is enough.

Still, Reinhardt's disdain for the future went hand in hand with his admiration for the past. "A museum," he wrote, "is a treasure house and a tomb, not a countinghouse or an amusement center." As a big retrospective showed not so long ago, Piet Mondrian counts as one such treasure. Reinhardt admired the purity of his abstraction, the lack of allegory, and the spiritual dimension. One can forget that Jan Vermeer challenged one to see even allegory with an almost modern eye.

By pairing the two, PaceWildenstein offered a welcome chance to see two terrific artists, some great paintings, and a new look at Reinhardt's evolution. I now imagine it as a progressive understanding of Mondrian's own. Both men start with busy designs, a complex balance of small, free-floating rectangles. And more and more, both reach toward the frame, reduce the number of forms, and establish a grid.

However, their fascinating show distorts both painters. It asks one to see Mondrian entirely through the younger man's eyes. Along the way, it almost loses Mondrian's sense of play and Reinhardt's amazement. If Cy Twombly made abstract paintings like blackboards, Reinhardt is like the college professor of one's dreams, discovering his own thoughts in the middle of a forbidding lecture. The problem starts with the hanging, which establishes an evolution in parallel. One forgets that works next to each other mostly date from decades apart.

Ad Reinhardt picks up where Mondrian quit metaphorically, too. Like Mark Rothko, he discards composition for symmetry, blacks and primary colors for close, dark tones. He abandons Mondrian's flatness for an epic discovery, a floating, shallow depth without illusion. He attains the depth of saturated oil itself. In the process, Reinhardt, like his greater peers in the 1950s, discovers the difference between size and scale. I think of his work as larger than Mondrian's, closer to the viewer, and slower to reveal itself, like slow dancing compared to Mondrian's playfulness or, as Melissa Gordon discovered in Mondrian, the urgency of the headlines.

Turning my back on Mondrian stops the music, as in a game. To look again is to resume play, to encounter again the dizzying variations of early Modernism. Turning my back on Reinhardt means waiting for my perceptions to deepen. It also risks being startled off my feet. I turn once more to look, and that shade of black I had mistaken for monochrome suddenly leaps off the canvas. As Harold Rosenberg wrote, "His black squares and crosses reek of an asceticism that is almost theatrical."

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Chaim Soutine's retrospective ran through August 16, 1998, at New York's Jewish Museum. Ad Reinhardt and Piet Mondrian were paired at PaceWildenstein through January 1998.

 

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