12.15.17 — A Fondness for Copycats

Robert Lehman had a fondness for copycats. He made them the strength of his drawing collection, now in the Met—and I have added this to an earlier report on French drawing at the Morgan Library as a longer review and my latest upload.

In part, Lehman had little choice. What do you think was on the market when the banker sought out drawings from as early as the Renaissance, building on his father’s collection, if not “workshop of” names you are more likely to know? Yet he also liked them for something only a student then could have—the sheer polish of work with an eye to others already finished. One thinks of sketches as an artist’s first thoughts, but they are also a discipline. Leonardo da Vinci's A Bear Walking (Metropolitan Museum, c. 1482–1485)Pinpricks along the outlines could mark their transfer to a painting, or they could stem from dependency on another drawing, one that the master had made available as a model. Such demanding media as metalpoint could indicate an independent drawing for connoisseurs or just more of a test.

Even the unknown artists in a selection of sixty drawings had to be fast learners. They could pull off a sense of mass and motion after Lorenzo Monaco around 1420—or the detail in a head by Domenico Ghirlandaio after 1495 that might almost be someone you know. Lehman, though, preferred fast learners when he came to the big names, too, all the way (as the show’s title has it, through January 7) from “Leonardo to Matisse.” Rembrandt did not copy The Last Supper, which he never traveled to see, but he did copy a print after Leonardo. His red chalk unites the apostles in a rapid-fire line of gestures and emotions, with Jesus framed not by a window, but rather by a tapestry with folds that add to the action. When the spontaneous and incomplete finally turns up, with a mountain pass by Fra Bartolomeo around 1500, it comes as a shock.

Leonardo da Vinci was a famously fast learner—with a contribution to The Baptism of Christ, around 1475, so unified and alive that his teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio, was said to have given up painting after seeing it. Here he turns to nature for a bear walking. A light tracing behind the bear’s rear legs suggests a stop-action motion study, while an additional paw with claws only accentuates the sketchy vitality of the rest. Albrecht Dürer was another prodigy, long before his many brilliant prints and sometimes stiff mature paintings. The raised hand in a self-portrait from 1493 presses thumb and two fingers together as not just virtuoso anatomy, but also the assertion that an artist’s grip matters. A pillow in front of him boasts of his grasp of solid form and ephemeral shadows.

Dürer continues on the back with six more pillow studies. The Met speaks of the texture of everyday objects, but they look barely textured and anything but mundane. Think instead of a twenty-something punching the pillow again and again to alter its geometry, with a satisfying bam each time. Vincent van Gogh, in contrast, was a slow learner, but an early landscape looks self-assured. Others would have found fault with the wispy figures and the perspective that broadens unnaturally in the foreground. Yet the lone man sweeping leaves and the broadening create a sense of mystery along with a sense of home, and the trees and their shadows to either side measure it out with precision.

So what's NEW!Lehman preferred an old-fashioned finish when one least expects it. Henri Matisse has not yet flattened the nude in 1923, and Camille Corot had not yet abandoned the crisp house fronts and still crisper light of his visit to Rome in 1825. Naturally the collector gravitates to Martin Schongauer, the accomplished late Renaissance printmaker, and naturally he takes Pierre-Auguste Renoir, with a robust and colorful young woman, as his sole Impressionist. Naturally, too, he likes a model posing for Georges Seurat, the warped Neoclassicism of young Spartans by Edgar Degas, and the three-chalk technique of Jean Antoine Watteau. Still, he found room for a study by Antonio Pollaiuolo for a preposterous equestrian monument, in which a petty dictator would have crushed the nude victim that supports him—and with a dreamer by Jean Honoré Fragonard casting not her reflection in a mirror but her shadow. He also allows J. A. D. Ingres last-minute corrections in white, as if the sitter had cut himself shaving.

Lehman’s collecting got him on the Met’s board by 1960 and a whole wing to himself in 1975. With luck, a museum will never again make that the terms of a gift, especially when the wing impedes on Central Park. Even now, drawings from no particular place or time can illuminate only so much, and luck is running out when it comes to museum expansions at the expense of budgets and the public. Shoveling Chairs, from the circle of Rogier van der Weyden in the Northern Renaissance, refers to a proverbial expression for a peasant revolution. Still, it forms a tidy arch, and the shovelers look ahead a century to the coarser types of Pieter Bruegel. Money talks, even if revolution is in the air.

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

11.24.17 — Robert Campin’s Uncanny Leap

Brace yourself. With Thanksgiving, New York can get pretty crowded with visitors. So how about a break for an excursion to what is at once one of the city’s finest tourist attractions and an escape? I report on my last visit, just this past summer.

The Cloisters may be New York’s least-touristed major attraction. Perched high on a hill in upper Manhattan, surrounded by a quiet park and views of the Palisades in New Jersey, this museum hold the Unicorn Tapestries—and the most important Renaissance painting in America. Tourists do move in by now on a summer Sunday like the one I chose, and yet it is largely unknown even to many New Yorkers. Campin's Mérode Altarpiece (Metropolitan Museum of Art at the Cloisters, c. 1426)I had my first visit in nearly a decade some years ago, and I have kept returning ever since.

Like far too many tourist traps, it is a historical re-creation, but oh what a creation. The Metropolitan Museum reconstructed its several cloisters from genuine fragments, with gardens now in bloom and a fine Romanesque chapel. Many of the paintings will interest mostly specialists, but not Robert Campin’s Annunciation. This triptych, painted in 1426 or so, reached the Metropolitan only within this past century, through the American dealer Rosenberg & Stiebel.

In a sense, Robert Campin is himself a historical re-creation, a hugely successful artist with no well-documented surviving work. Even now, art students learn the controversial origins of the Northern Renaissance, in manuscripts and half-documented panel painters. Yet art historians also came to attribute a number of paintings to a single artist, whom they called the Master of Flémalle. This painter’s style has much in common with another great artist and Campin’s almost certain pupil, Rogier van der Weyden. Put these paradoxes and parallels together, and one has a breakthrough.

Any innovation, however shattering, is incremental. I can even imagine Giotto reshuffling old elements to create the drama of consistent space in Italy. Some scholars, most forcefully Lorne Campbell in 1974, leave all but a handful of paintings to Campin’s workshop. For them, the Annunciation is a lesser innovation among many. But in the Mérode Altarpiece, as it is known after a previous owner, I come face to face with one man creating a new art all at once, almost out of nothing.

Every so often, I use a post to return to something that I wrote some time ago, usually about art of the past and New York’s best. It also gives me the opportunity to revise something in hindsight. This past summer allowed me my latest return to the Cloisters and just such an opportunity, so do take a look and maybe visit yourself before the park looks further and further away in the winter cold. I use it to discuss what went into that new art and what makes Mérode Altarpiece both meaningful and still strange. I also revisit a longstanding quarrel over just who painted it. As you will see in the longer review, the Met has demoted it to Campin’s workshop or even the workshop of those who emerged from his workshop, and I disagree.

There it all is, a domestic interior overlooking a busy street in taut perspective. The new oil medium builds, detail by detail, these gleaming surfaces and multiply reflecting shadows. Now Joseph, as a dignified man intent on his craft, has a part to play in sacred history, other than as a joke and a cuckold. Not even an influential illuminated manuscript before Campin, by the Limbourg brothers, went so far. Soon after, one sees the carpenter at work alongside the Holy Family in a prominent Book of Hours.

Campin is exploring an age’s new-found relationship between humanity and the supernatural, long before popular culture banked on art to salvage precisely that suspicious aura. That has something to do with the painting’s confusing perspective—and the uncanny leap from the donors beside an open door at left to the closed rooms a floor above. When I was still in college studying physics, a blackboard sketch summed up pretty well a student’s pitiful understanding. The joke showed each step of a proof, except for a long arrow near the end. “And then a miracle occurs.” For Campin, a road through this world leads the pilgrim to another world, in front of temporal experience, but it takes a leap.

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

10.10.17 — The Baroque in Mexico

Who would have thought to rank Puebla alongside the great cathedral cities of Europe? Yet Cristóbal de Villalpando left his mark there as, says The Met, “Mexican Painter of the Baroque.” Permit me an extra post this week to keep the theme from last time of art history and extremely tall installations.

The Mexican city was barely fifty years old when Villalpando completed The Transfiguration in 1683, and the bishopric had moved there just thirty years before. Even now, it hardly comes to mind after Mexico City, not far to the northwest. (Wikipedia does credit it with exquisite tiling and mole poblano, so count me in its debt.) Look to a history of painting in the Americas, and you are likely to begin in Philadelphia or Boston on the eve of revolution. Demand to look back further, and you may learn about ancient civilizations. The Met, though, asks for more.

Maybe rank the Met’s Lehman wing up there, too. Now it, too, resembles a cathedral. At twenty-eight feet in height, the painting spans two levels and presents a stunning view right from the entrance. (For the record, The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel is half again as tall. But then Michelangelo did have at his disposal the Vatican. It makes a difference.)

One can almost look Jesus in his glory directly in the eye—or look down to see the scene’s unexpected pairing with Moses in the wilderness. One can walk downstairs to look further at the Israelites, as the brazen serpent spares them harm from a swarm of real snakes. One can contrast the brightness of one scene with the murkier mix in the other. One can contrast the shallow space of the heavens with the indeterminate and crowded space below, the golden wash with the more fluid handling of color, or the rapture with the terror. One can also step back upstairs for ten more paintings, all but one on loan from Mexico. They offer as much of a retrospective as Villalpando is likely to get, through October 15.

The drama may well be better in New York at that. The Mexican cathedral lacks an upper gallery, and the painter (like Michelangelo) intended views of a god and human trauma from below. He also planned the painting around its site. There it stands not as an altarpiece, but on a side wall—where windows above the altar illuminate its heavens, while candles barely penetrate the darkness. If that makes Villalpando a master of architecture and space, like Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Italy, he was also a creature of doctrine and of habit. He turns again and again to a shallow burst of yellow and a crowd.

As a Catholic and by disposition, he loved rapture. He also was indeed a Mexican painter, although with little regard for native peoples or culture. He was born in Mexico City, of presumably a Spanish family. One cannot say for sure when, but he was still in his early thirties when he undertook so large a painting. The Met can identify a likely teacher versed in the Baroque, but he knew Europeans like Peter Paul Rubens only from prints. Still, he internalized the art of Spain and its empire.

One can see Spanish and Flemish painting in the poorly defined spaces and often harsh colors. One can see, too, the persistence of Mannerism in his occasional choice of oil on copper. He must also have known The Transfiguration (also in the Vatican) by Raphael, the first to add a lower scene. The terror of snakes picks up Raphael’s child possessed by a demon from the Gospels, but moves the scene to the Old Testament. The artist signed his works Villalpando inventor, but he must surely have bowed to the inventions of Puebla’s bishop—just as Michelangelo must have had a theological advisor for all his boasts. Maybe they liked that Moses appears in the vision above, too—holding a staff with a serpent that stands for medicine even today.

Villalpando often returns to the contrast between the old order and the new. He paints a cross growing out of the Tree of Life—and then he pairs it with the Annunciation. He also sure loves those crowds. Even the Annunciation comes with tiered stadium seating for its cast of thousands of angels, and even Adam and Eve have plenty of company in paradise, if only other versions of themselves. Villalpando combines multiple events in a single painting, with god’s repeated attempts to nurture and instruct the first couple. (Spoiler alert: it does not end well.)

He is resolutely upbeat, and the positive emotions run wild. Israelites at the foot of the brazen serpent appear less in fear than in ecstatic worship. As curators, Ronda Kasl, NYU’s Jonathan Brown, and Clara Bargellini of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma in Mexico describe the Virgin Mary beneath her holy name as a painting of sound itself. When Villalpando depicts the holy family, he cannot settle for a manger with Joseph half asleep. He makes Jesus an unnaturally mature boy, while Joseph becomes a vigorous young man very much like a traditional Jesus. Amid the triumph of doctrine and deliverance, Villalpando’s Baroque can still privilege humanity.

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

8.8.17 — A Banquet of Antiquities

The roof garden of the Met is set for a feast, but do not expect to dig right in. Oh, drinks and light snacks are still for sale, for those long summer evenings with views of the park. Banquet tables are there as well, with enviable place settings. Still, everything has the same ghostly white, from overturned goblets to mismatched knives. Coins lie strewn across one table, like mints or crackers—but with a sleeping child in place of dessert or a dip. Other tables bear restless, dead, or sleeping bodies.

from Adrián Villar Rojas's The Theater of Disappearance (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017)Besides, this is art, with clear directions not to touch, much less to dine. Pierre Huyghe changed little in 2015, beyond a few floor tiles, while Roxy Paine filled the roof with a forest after a storm some years before. This year’s summer sculpture offers a treacherous compromise, as “The Theater of Disappearance,” through October 29. Adrián Villar Rojas leaves room to wander, while undermining hopes of where to sit. His checkerboard flooring rises up to form two short benches, but also a barrier on the way to the bar. He sets standing sculpture in black, like guards distracted by stories of their own.

Already at age thirty-seven, Villar Rojas has a habit of raising obstacles. He set a concrete box on the High Line in 2015, as The Evolution of God, and he directed a dark restaging of MoMA PS1 in 2013, as The Innocence of Animals. He has animals and gods here, too, all of them from the Met’s collections. He selected nearly a hundred objects, in conversation with the museum’s curators, for a theater of repeat appearances. He then combined scans of the antiquities with scans of live people to produce his seventeen sculptures. He also took charge of the tiling and planting, with twisted vines that fit right in with the twisted bodies and twisted narratives.

The dialogue extends from the artist and curators to the visitor. It just happens to lack subtitles. Turning the corner from the entrance, you might mistake additional wall text for a list of source material, but nope: it is the bar menu. It would take a smarter critic than I to name much more. The museum goes too far in calling this a critique of collecting practices, but it is still a feast for historians.

That feast belies a genuine melancholy—for much of the art began in commemoration of the dead. An Arthurian hero from the face of a tomb has a second sword as a pillow and a young man by his side, lending him a maternal side and an uneasy new life. A man stares at an empty plate in search of his image or a meal. A kneeling soldier could be constructing a statue of lovers or separating them. A man with African figurines on his shoulders, a body in his backpack, and the bent head of a homeless person stands guard over the southern end of the terrace, where the checkerboard gives way to metallic flooring. Judging by the Met’s photo of Villar Rojas, the figure’s pose and hoodie match the artist’s.

One can tire quickly of art’s bad boys, like Maurizio Cattelan or Paul McCarthy. One can tire, too, of the drive to anoint the next superstar with a 3D printer and the cutes. A figure with hunting horns for a hat and wild animals for shoulder pads may sound cringe inducing at that. Credit Villar Rojas, though, with a creative dialogue. A woman sleeps beside an alert cat, while a sleeping boy holds a horse’s head like a scene out of The Godfather. Meanwhile the visitor stares at the work of seven continents—and a living Argentine.

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

7.24.17 — A Matter of Style

Irving Penn was not just a fashion photographer. The Met insists on it, by opening and closing an abundant survey of his work with still life, like the remains of a meal. It catches a man lighting a woman’s cigarette, a girl drinking, and a woman resting her chin on the bridge of a man’s nose. Yet there, too, Penn takes pains to compose the apparent artlessness—and I have added this to an earlier report on his photography as a longer review and my latest upload.

The show celebrates the centennial of his birth and a massive gift from the Irving Penn Foundation, filled out with work from the Met’s existing collection, through July 30. It includes the peoples of the Andes, Africa, and the South Pacific along with celebrities. Irving Penn's The Bath (A) (Dancers Workshop of San Francisco) (Irving Penn Foundation/Pace gallery, 1967)It includes workers in London, Paris, and New York—along with cigarette butts that they might well have thrown away. It includes storefronts that are anything but this year’s model. It includes nudes in contortions that preclude dressing for a ball. Still, they are all posing, and together with the photographer they are all putting on a show.

To be sure, Penn did not just work for Alexander Liberman at Vogue. He bought his first Rolleiflex Twin-Lens Reflex camera in 1938, while a young assistant to Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar, and the Met sets a later purchase out front. He continued working in advertising while at Vogue, and he would probably have made much the same choices even if they were not to appear in print. The headless and legless nudes did not go over all that well at first, the cigarettes even less so. A show last year called them his personal work, and their grainy prints foretell the dark totems and darker cavities in sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. Yet they, too, pose upright for the camera, and still later cigarette packages and flowers look like modern dancers.

The curators, Maria Morris Hambourg and Jeff L. Rosenheim, speak of “face and figure, attitude and demeanor, adornment and artifact.” Even early street photography sticks to surfaces, with shop signs and shadows. Still life may come with titles like Theatre Accident and Salad Ingredients, but anyone at the scene of the accident or the kitchen has vanished for good. Portraits from the 1950s warmed up his sitters with coffee, to present them “honestly,” but Richard Burton seated at a table, his arms commandingly in front, will never let his hair down. That “personal work” already included Pablo Picasso dressed as a matador, only even more stylish.

The photographer has much in common with Picasso at that. He, too, changed subjects and styles again and again—and he, too, kept returning to both, like an aging Picasso to his lovers. Penn sets his “existential portraits” from the late 1940s in a corner, for the physical presence of a confined dancer, like Jerome Robbins, or the emotional presence of a confined artist, like Marcel Duchamp. And then he repeats the device for sitter after sitter. Like any a commercial photographer, he is packaging fashion as sex and high style. Yet he is also stylizing sex as high fashion.

The nudes make that stylization obvious, with their reference to the Paleolithic Venus of Willendorf. Readers found their sexuality as disturbing in a fashion magazine as their fallen breasts. Yet his travels, too, were a matter of style. A butcher or a knife grander carries off his costume and the tools of his trade very much like a model with hers. The people of Peru, New Guinea, or Dahomey flaunt their native dress and adornment. Editors at Vogue delighted in their concern for clothes, makeup, jewelry, and theater, just as in the West.

Amazingly, Penn packed all that into just a few years around 1950, although he continued working almost to his death in 2009. (He joined Vogue in 1943.) He preferred his studio to the street, even with those workers, and he took a soiled stage curtain with him as a backdrop. Its shades of gray enrich the prints, setting off the contrasts of dark and light, suits and gloves, or lipstick and flesh. He favored black and white, although the magazine more often ran his work in color, just as he favored platinum palladium prints for their tonal richness and glamour. Even among writers and artists, he preferred sitters with a sense of style—like Salvador Dalí, Tom Wolfe, or Saul Steinberg with his nose sticking out of a paper mask.

Was he bringing fashion to the detritus of ordinary life or subverting fashion all along? The Met puts him firmly in the commercial mainstream, while arguing for the diversity of his achievement. Yet it raises questions, too, only starting the heavy gloss of his fashion shoots. Is Penn alive to native cultures—or indulging in primitivism and cultural appropriation on behalf of a very western industry? What would I think if his rag and bone man in London then were a homeless person in New York now? And what if he is right, and nothing lies behind the curtain, not even a magician or (for William Butler Yeats) “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”?

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

7.10.17 — The Farthest North

In 1848, in his mid-forties, Peder Balke traveled to what was thought to be the northernmost point in Europe. He did not have far to go.

The son of landless peasants, he had fallen in love with the land. The North Cape was only the latest in his meanderings through Norway in search of his art. Even when he made it as far as Dresden in 1835, he studied with a countryman who had settled there, Johan Christian Dahl. When the Met calls him a “painter of northern light,” through (oops, my apologies) July 9, he could only approve. Peder Balke's North Cape by Moonlight (Private collection, Oslo, 1848)

He did not have far to go as an artist either. He had also met a far greater exponent of Northern Romanticism, in Caspar David Friedrich, and drenched himself in its tenets. He keeps returning to moonlight and cold grays—as well as to sky, rocks, and coastlines. On an earlier trip to Stockholm, his rare cityscape pushes the skyline into the distance, with steeples as bare as masts against a stormy sea. Moonlight only hardens the crests of the waves. “Human beings,” he wrote, “the children of nature, take a secondary role.”

With the North Cape, Balke settled at last on his formula. A broad arc of clouds tops an otherwise empty sky, with the moon at its center, like the savior in a painting from Baroque Italy. The broken rhythms of a rocky shore define the scale—much as, a few years later, nearly abstract waves will define the horizon. The painting’s most prominent feature, a sheer cliff, could pass for arctic ice. A small boat makes its way into the distance, with a man standing above its crew like Washington crossing the Delaware. Wherever the painter now goes, mountains or even a waterfall will appear to be rising, and the boat will be making its way.

People, then, have a role after all, even an active role, but nowhere near so much as in his predecessors. He does not treat ports as the site of boundless activity, like J. M. W. Turner. He does not transform the sky, again like Turner, into an apocalypse—or, like John Constable, into a singular record of changing weather. When the Met turns from him to Dahl, the scene seems to plunge all at once into depth, color, and vegetation. For Balke, only a near absence of human transformation approaches the sublime. As he also wrote, he is interested not in what the mind brings to nature, but in the “impression made on the eye and mind.”

That concern for the impression may explain his increasing turn inward. Unlike Dahl, he did not paint on the spot but rather in his studio in Oslo, where he settled in the 1850s. Maybe he preferred the filters artifice and memory, or maybe he just could not bear company. He gave up painting for others altogether in 1879, leaving him all but forgotten at his death eight years later. By the 1850s he already works small, in oil on paper mounted on panel, and by the end he works smaller still. With just seventeen paintings of his, this is also a small exhibition.

Maybe the Met never can decide whether to mount a retrospective. It uses its room for “focus exhibitions” of just one or paintings in context, like Turner’s whaling pictures or an altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, but here it aspires to more. Still, the show does not run chronologically, and it intersperses work by Dahl even before a concluding section for contemporaries. It does, though, conform well to that inward turn—and, in the process, a final break from passivity. In its last and smallest panels, paint thins out and color vanishes entirely, almost like ink or a photographic negative. The spare points of black serve for clouds, trees, the northern lights, or a foretaste of abstraction. Balke has reached his extreme point and discovered ghosts.

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

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