5.12.17 — Any Port in a Storm

“The archangel loved heights.” For Henry Adams, in the glorious opening to Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres in 1905, a trip to Normandy was a journey into the medieval mind. “Standing on the summit of the tower that crowned his church, wings upspread, sword uplifted, the devil crawling beneath, and the cock, symbol of eternal vigilance, perched on his mailed foot, Saint Michael held a place of his own in heaven and on earth.”

For J. M. W. Turner eighty years before, Mont Saint-Michel and its cathedral had descended not quite fully into a coarser and more interesting present. The rocky island off the English Channel glistens like crystal against a cloudy sky, J. M. W. Turner's Cologne: The Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening (Frick Collection, c. 1826)while smugglers in the foreground find themselves trapped by French officers, the low tide, moonlit sand, and artificial light. His port views, at the Frick through May 14, show his fascination with changing skies and a changing Europe.

Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports” builds on views of Dieppe and Cologne harbors in the Frick’s collection, both from the mid-1820s. They have never looked so good. Framing an unfinished painting from the Tate, they glow as never before, and one can see why. J. M. W. Turner first lay down thin color, in the hulking outlines of mists, sails, buildings, and people. Layers of the very same or contrasting colors add translucency and intensity—with a central axis of light between land masses in perspective. The finished paintings top things off with natural highlights and human detail.

One might never have noticed just how much detail. Susan Grace Galassi, Ian Warrell, and Joanna Sheers Seidenstein count roughly two hundred people in Dieppe alone. As curators, they argue for a context in Europe after the Napoleonic wars. Ships stand for a partly decommissioned navy. People stand for the resumption of tourism and commerce, aided by the new technology of an industrial age. For Turner, as by its very definition, a port is a point of arrival and departure.

At the same time, he looks to a heroic past. A facing wall has oils of ancient Rome and Carthage, where a general faced death with his eyelids first torn away, to blind him by the light. So is Turner concerned for myth or reality? Is he out to blind the viewer or to keep up with the news? Surely both at once, just as Turner’s whaling pictures, recently at the Met, treat the sea trade as the scene of an apocalypse—and I have added this to my earlier report on that show as a longer review and my latest upload. It matters that ships or buildings can be front and back lit in a single painting, for greater precision and mystery, and it matters, too, that they are contemporary.

He delights equally in the middle class crowding the evening packet-boat and workers shoveling coal at night under a full moon. He does not shy away from smog, which past viewers have mistaken for fire. And a ready audience shared his delight. A second room adds twenty-six watercolors (along with an oil sketch) to keep up with the demand for his travels. If Turner’s thin underpainting itself approaches watercolor, he executed these not as studies for paintings, but as models for prints. He also filled notebooks with pencil sketches, for architecture rather than cross-hatching. He could attend to light and shadow back in his studio.

The period has a parallel in art after Postmodernism, with its mix of realism, abstraction, and fantasy. It also has a parallel in an age of globalization. In Turner’s hands, the rivers and coastlines of England, France, and Germany become a single theater. (It took Warrell to pin down the Tate’s painting of Brest, with folk costumes in its colors—much like those of women on the sands of Picardy in a painting from the mid-1820s by Richard Parkes Bonington, also on loan at the Frick.) The artist had traveled across the Alps to Italy as well, and early critics complained of southern light in his northern cities.

The Frick subtitles the show “Passage Through Time,” but one can easily overstate the passage. The work sticks mostly to a decade—between the careful distinctions in Turner’s early work and the madness of his late work. Paintings from this period have an overflow of creamy yellow that the fiery display helps overcome. One can overstate, too, his care for recent history or his nostalgia. He sketches fortifications, but with few marks of war, and he eliminates steamships, but little else. His archangel stops just short of the present.

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3.31.17 — Bull in a China Shop

How can a museum welcome contemporary artists if it will not accept five-year-old children? The Frick may not allow children under ten to enter its quiet realm, but it has brought in a living artist as creator and curator of rare porcelain, in Arlene Shechet.

O.K., artists are not quite children, although it sometimes seems that way. Jeff Koons plays the somewhat older child—at the age when he cannot quite give up his fishtank and birthday balloons but has begun to giggle at sex, booze, and money. Arlene Shechet's Big Dragon (photo by Jason Wyche, Frick Collection, 2012)Some critics even mistake that ambivalence for complexity. Still, who knew that the Frick Collection would ever display contemporary art? Now it gives Shechet access to a promised gift and to the portico gallery, through April 2, overlooking its Fifth Avenue garden. In the process, it may even help an artist to finish growing up.

Not that anyone can doubt Shechet’s maturity. Now in her sixties, she has done much to bring ceramics into the mainstream. While art has been assaulting the idea of “that’s not art” for a long time now, going back at least to Marcel Duchamp, she reflects a broad interest in craft, folk art, and of course feminism. Now an entire show can survey contemporary ceramics or tapestry, and Tom Sachs can bring his tea ceremony to the Noguchi Museum. Still, Shechet has celebrated the medium’s impish side, with clotted and clunky surfaces, broken edges, tart colors, and even tarter imagery. She has also brought it close to abstraction, but in clear contrast to the smoothly rounded forms of someone like Ken Price.

This time, though she is not playing the bull in a china shop. Rather, she began by entering the Royal Meissen manufactory near Dresden from 2012 to 2013, in order to study and to practice its techniques. She took up its painted and gilded hard paste from plaster molds, as well as its place in a sideboard or at the table. The manufactory’s founding, in 1710, followed quickly upon the European discovery how to produce white porcelain, imported earlier from China. Back in New York she serves as curator, for roughly a hundred examples from the Henry H. Arnhold collection, pretty much all from before 1745. Are you surprised that she includes herself as well?

Are you also suspicious? Shechet is entering a precious enclave. It comes at a time when museums are giving too much space to payback to donors, by exhibiting their collections. It also comes with pressure, as Ben Davis points out, to flatter the interest of their donors in contemporary art—by museum expansions to display it. The Morgan Library has already asserted its stake in living artists, with Andy Warhol and Lucas Samaras. Is the Frick, then, just showing off?

Probably, but it is also speaking across centuries. The portico gallery alone marks the museum’s gentle expansion, in place of plans to build out into the garden itself. Shechet makes use of the garden, too, siting three pieces cast from eighteenth-century molds out of doors, where they play a good game of hide and seek. She brings out the playfulness in the dignified originals, while they in turn bring out her restraint. One becomes aware of older images of dragons overrunning their place at the center or border of a dish. Her dishes look much the same, although her dragons and insects loom dangerously larger.

She also has a playful installation. Works appear in groups high on the walls, as well as in cabinets and on tables—in accord with both contemporary installations and an older era’s rococo excess. Cards to locate items, rather than wall labels, challenge one to guess which belong to her. (Maybe that justifies the show’s title, “Porcelain, No Simple Matter.”) If you spot a figure with a jester’s motley for a face, a nightcap on its head, or legs sticking out as “two right feet,” you can bet on her. If the whole thing seems a little precious, Pierre Gouthière in gilding downstairs, it does justice to two problematic centuries at once, and no bull.

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2.15.17 — Gilding the Laurel

Pierre Gouthière played a role in the foundation of the Louvre. It was not the role he wanted.

In late 1797, the French Ministry of Finance ordered the sale of two alabaster vases “of mediocre quality” to help fund the museum. That description may not ring true today for gilded mounts that Gouthière had fashioned some twenty years before. The Frick goes so far as to claim that they “capture . . . blossoming laurel . . . as if cast from nature.” Yet the master gilder had seen his patrons dead, his finances in ruins, and his art a thing of the past.

It takes a leap into the past even to describe his art as nature. His subjects included the fantasy or exoticism of nymphs, dromedaries, African heads, and ambiguous gender along with leaves, snakes, door knobs, and ram’s heads. They grow so intricate as to all but dissolve into a weave of gold. Gouthière may have been gilding laurel, but he was surely also gilding the lily. He met standards of realism that Revolutionary France had begun to set side, in favor of Neoclassicism. A show of him as “Virtuoso Gilder at the French Court” brings that style to life through February 19.

It offers a welcome lesson or two, even for someone like me with little love of excess. The Frick has always held furniture and the decorative arts, although one might walk right past them on the way to paintings. A commission here once shared a room with the museum’s holdings of Jean Honoré Fragonard. As its first sampling of a living artist, it has invited Arlene Shechet into its portico gallery, to curate Rococo porcelain and her own. Now, though, it installs the gilding downstairs, in rooms more often dedicated to prints and drawings. It shows the gilder at work and on the make.

That first lesson comes with effective use of new media, from a museum that has often leapt ahead of others with its Web site. A video explains Gouthière’s craft, and a touch screen allows one to flip through the results. They introduce vocabulary like firedogs (or the public face of andirons), thyrsi (or the staff of ivy and pine that Bacchus carried), and dégraissage (or paring back, from an artist with no penchant for restraint). He had a hand every step of the way, from the creation of a wax mold for bronze to gilding and burnishing. For him, chasing meant cutting into metal with tool after tool—not just to shape it, but also for a wealth of detail. That intricacy only increases over the course of his career.

Gouthière did work from designs by architects and classical models, because he played well by the game. Born in 1732, he quickly took over a patron’s workshop and married the man’s widow. He went around the merchant who had secured him work from the future king of Poland, put down the silversmith with whom he had partnered, and became gilder to the king of France in his mid-thirties. Where the court divided between supporters of Marie Antoinette, such as Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, and the king’s mistress, Gouthière succeeded with them both. Yet key patrons died soon after the revolution, stiffing him, and he hardly worked again until his death, bankrupt, in 1817.

He shows no sign of fatigue. The curator, Charlotte Vignon, opts for neither chronology nor theme. Like Gouthière, she pretty much piles it on. One can spot clearer masses early, but in time Greek porphyry, green marble, and Chinese porcelain must compete with fine leaves and chains. A dromedary’s hair rises like flames, as if from Gouthière’s sconces, incense burners, and firedogs. “Form follows function” is a distant dream away.

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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. Guido Cagnacci's Repentant Magdalene (Norton Simon Museum, c. 1660–1663)A garment spins away as if carried by his twist.

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.

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.

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