2.28.18 — Who Pays for Museums?

The Met has it all—great art, astounding exhibitions, and record attendance. Where museum expansions elsewhere have produced nasty real-estate deals and dubious architecture, the Cloisters, the Met Breuer, and its beloved home on Fifth Avenue have never looked better. Why then is it raising admission for so many?

For all its signs of success, the Met is losing friends and losing money. It has cut staff, fired its last director, and delayed renovation of its twentieth-century wing. And now it will do the unthinkable: Mark Flood's Career Suicide (Zach Feuer, 2014)as of March 1, 2018, “pay what you will” may not apply to you. Those who care about the arts are not happy. They are also pointing fingers—often as not at that former director, Thomas P. Campbell.

For anyone from New York State, “suggested admissions” will still be just that, a suggestion. (Why the entire state, when the Met gets so much of its public funding from the city? Politics and tax deductions are a messy business.) So will students in and around the city. The museum promises not to turn away New Yorkers without an ID, for now, and kids under twelve will still get in free. Anyone else, though, must pay in full.

How did the museum mess up its finances despite soaring revenues? As much as anything, it took on too much when it rented and renovated the Whitney’s former home on Madison Avenue, as the Met Breuer—and I have wrapped this into an earlier critique of museum expansions inspired by Ben Davis as a longer review and my latest upload. It also accepted a huge gift from a trustee and right-wing political funder, David Koch, only to spend it on LED lights and pointless changes to its outdoor fountains. One can make a good case for the Met Breuer as a short-term investment in the display of recent art and the saving of a New York landmark, and gifts often come with strings attached. Then, too, for all Campbell’s strengths as a curator and weakness as a financial manager, the board almost surely chose in favor contemporary art and eye candy, much as Davis says. Maybe Philippe de Montebello, his fabled predecessor, could have stood up to the board, but he also did more than anyone to commercialize the Met—and, with the Lehman wing and European sculpture court, to undertake its most tasteless expansion.

All is not lost, though, and one of the most convincing objections also helps explain why. The problem with high ticket prices is not just whom they exclude. It is also that they discourage museum-going as a way of life, as regular as catching or streaming a movie. It takes long acquaintance (or a good critic) to make art meaningful, not “just looking,” and that can make an adult’s life more meaningful as well. The Met is on the right track, then, in welcoming locals and students. More fully private museums charge at least as much.

Money has to come from somewhere, although less than a sixth comes from admissions, and people on vacation expect to spend money. That has drawbacks, if it makes New York a destination for the rich alone—and if art becomes as touristy as Broadway. Still, a museums can resist the demand for crowd pleasers, and the toxic mix of art and money is not going away any time soon. As an alternative to mandatory prices, some suggest a surcharge for special exhibitions. That would only encourage blockbusters, and exhibitions should be a way of life, too. They attract newcomers to art, make figures like Michelangelo more than a cliché, and introduce lesser artists and aspects of the permanent collection at that.

Still, something has gone terribly wrong, and there has to be another way to ask who pays. For starters, extend “pay what you will” to everyone in the New York area and to artists everywhere—or at the very least to everyone who commutes to work in the city. Second, other museums should not be off the hook. They could start their free evening (currently Fridays after seven at the Morgan Library or the Whitney) sooner or, better still, make an afternoon each week as cheap for locals as the Met. That might hinge on federal and state arts funding, but it should be part of the solution, too. Last, critics can stop fawning and insist that museums tempted by growth stick to their mission.

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

2.23.18 — Shallow Waters

An ode to Southern California swimming pools began in the public toilets of London. For David Hockney, they were dark places indeed, but also the start of a career among the glitterati—and they are the subject of a longer and fuller review, in my latest upload.

It makes sense, even if you know him only for painting California sunlight, blue waters, and luxury homes with views to die for. From the start, he had a knack for effacing the borders between public and private spaces. David Hockney's Pool and Steps, Le Nid du Duc (private collection, 1971)And he took them as the site of both licit and illicit pleasures. A retrospective at The Met follows him for nearly sixty years, as his work grows progressively brighter, more colorful, and more than a step above the underground, through February 25. It shows the knack for high style that has made him as popular as any artist alive. It also shows him navigating treacherously shallow waters, whether in backyard pools, toilets, or his art.

David Hockney made a splash right away, as a student at the Royal College of Art in 1960. He dressed well, painted quickly, and exhibited to acclaim. Yet he started with nothing like pristine waters and wide open spaces. His early paintings border on abstraction, but with text, stains, and broad hint of male bodies. Did he really cruise the toilets of the London underground? I leave that to his biographers, but he had to know men who did, at a time when sex acts could get them all in jail. Besides, even as an artist observing, he could have spotted CUM as a poem on the underground walls and heard whispers of Shame and My Brother Is Only Seventeen—both the titles of paintings.

He also demonstrated his conservative instincts, even on the cutting edge or the edge of the law. A man does the cha-cha against heavy, acrid colors that Americans like Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning were learning to leave behind. The first scrawls and splashes owe something to Jackson Pollock, but through the eyes of more cautious English painters in Pollock’s wake. Yet they anticipate street art, too, from Jean-Michel Basquiat on, and Hockney has a Pop Art sensibility as well when he converts penises into tubes of Colgate. Like the men dancing or managing to suck one another’s toothpaste, he is having fun. This may be dangerous territory, but never once painful or grim.

Hockney will be like that for decades to come, only more so. Born in Yorkshire in 1937, he could stand for the reticence and realism of much British art. He could also stand for the bright lights and shallow pleasures of LA art, starting with his first visit in 1963. He has complained about art’s abandonment of tradition since Andy Warhol, much like Robert Hughes. Yet he has sketched Warhol’s portrait, and he comes as close as humanly possible to the Andy Warhol of the Hollywood Hills. Not even Warhol’s entourage could have matched the crowds at the Met’s press preview.

He has been an overtly and courageously gay artist, almost as long as Robert Rauschenberg until his death in 2008. Yet Hockney hardly agonizes over it or anything else, and he is thoroughly at home among patrons straight and gay. His double portraits from around 1970 often become triple or quadruple portraits—like a young couple with a cat or collectors with their totem and Henry Moore. They sit tensely and stiffly apart, like figures out of Francis Bacon or Balthus, but they are living flamboyantly and well. The artist also places himself squarely among them. When Henry Geldzahler, already a fabled curator at the Met, uses his portrait to contemplate works by Jan Vermeer, Piero della Francesca, Vincent van Gogh, and (I think) Pierre Bonnard, Hockney is laying claim to their company as well.

He is a perpetual experimenter, but always within carefully chosen limits. He moves easily between his coastal studio in England and the la-la land of “movie studios and beautiful, semi-naked pictures.” He never breaks the façade of either one and never once breaks a sweat. He quotes influences from William Hogarth to Paul Cézanne while hardly stopping to take them in. He projects the comforting pleasures of both participant and voyeur. Yet his late work brings Henri Matisse more fully and deliriously into the twenty-first century.

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

2.9.18 — Present at the Creation

Sometimes even the divine has to struggle with the creation. The Met names a mammoth survey of Michelangelo drawings after his fame within his lifetime, as (only a little quaintly and preposterously) Il Divino. Yet “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer” shows an artist who could never rest, through February 12, not even on the seventh day. In his writings, he valued ease but also difficulty—and grace but also terror. Who can say at any moment which will win out?

Michelangelo's The Dream (Il Sogno) (photo by the Frick Collection, Courtauld Gallery, c. 1533)The Met takes him from a precocious twelve-year-old, or so it hopes, through the young man determined to outdo the very best of the Renaissance. It finds him struggling on sheet after sheet with projects that he could not bring to completion. It sees him struggling, too, as an older man to earn the affection of others. It ends with drawings as models in the hands of other artists, to extend his legacy to their work. It throws in a few paintings and sculptures, mostly by others, as well. With studies for such monuments of art history as the Sistine Chapel, it allows one to be present at the creation—and this is a huge story, so I invite you to read a longer review in my latest upload.

On his own in Florence, a city of art just as today, Michelangelo went back to the very origins of the Renaissance. He copied a monumental figure by Giotto, with cross-hatching in small strokes of the pen to create mass, light, and shadow. He copied the Expulsion from Paradise, by Masaccio, with red chalk that accentuates by its very smudges the pain in Adam’s or Eve’s face. He could not resist firming up their legs and butt muscles as well. A possible but by no means certain first sculpture in marble, a young archer, adapts an early Renaissance bronze while stripping it of decoration and refinement.

His early success in sculpture brought him to Rome, where he grew so close to the pope that Julius assigned him to design his tomb. Julius also overcame Michelangelo’s hesitancy to take on painting the Sistine ceiling, while allowing the artist a far more ambitious scheme that either had anticipated. Later Michelangelo played a role in the design of Rome’s greatest churches and public squares. He lived to influence not just the High Renaissance, through a close follower in Sebastiano del Piombo, but the late Renaissance as well. He offered a cartoon, or full-scale drawing for transfer, to Jacopo da Pontormo, and the twisted and tormented bodies of his Last Judgment could well stand as Mannerism’s greatest achievement. He died at a time of changing morals, to the point that another follower, Daniele da Volterra, took charge of covering up the painting’s nudity.

His breadth appears, too, in his media. The Met’s description of him as “draftsman and designer” plays on the Italian designo, which means more than just drawing. One might think of drawing as a matter of line, but Michelangelo thought of himself as a sculptor, and he created a corresponding sensibility on paper. The early cross-hatching loosens up, and firm outlines vanish entirely—and he brought the same sensibility to painting and architecture, both public and private. He also found a language for his art and his longings in poetry, which often shares a sheet with his drawing. Not even Leonardo da Vinci was such a Renaissance man.

Michelangelo’s breadth challenges a museum to keep up. The Met responds with more than two hundred objects, including more than one hundred thirty drawings by him alone. It also places a replica of the Sistine ceiling in a light box overhead, somewhat later than it and related drawings would fall chronologically. At a quarter scale, it is more than impressive enough, and it further drives home the artist’s unity of site and art. The full-scale reproductions of individual panels this past summer, each on its own stand at the PATH station Oculus, had to leave one wondering if they could ever come together as a narrative, a program, or a work of art. Here they gain in power from the painted ribs that separate them and that ripple across the whole.

He fills a sheet only to turn it sideways, upside-down, or on its reverse to make room for more. He blocks out a figure with separate studies of anatomy, clothing, and architectural setting. He also makes it impossible to know which came first. Does that make his process fundamentally additive, or does he have it all in his head to start? Either way, his unity packs a surprise, and so do his drawings. You may need to come with a little of the story that the Met leaves out, or you may delight in leaping over the gaps.

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

1.15.18 — The Gates to Modernity

Auguste Rodin is the great artist that you pass on the way somewhere else. His sculpture punctuates the south corridor at the Met, on the way to the Impressionists to one side and Modernism straight ahead.

You pass Rodin on the way to Modernism just in looking at that. He opened the way to an art not of appearances, but of unstable masses and unsettling feelings. Yet he loved Gothic cathedrals, moral fables, and half-remembered myths, with the sheer theater that modern critics as late as the 1960s took as a term of abuse. Now “Rodin at the Met,” a modest show on the centennial of his death, brings still more of his work out of storage, but as an invitation to linger, extended through February 4.

Auguste Rodin's Balzac (Museum of Modern Art, 1897)Born in 1840 (the same year as Claude Monet), Rodin shocked contemporaries with the naturalism of his early work, like the carefully modeled male nude of The Age of Bronze, and his head of Honoré de Balzac takes care for the novelist’s wrinkled brow and pug nose. Yet a local man sat for the portrait, and the nude awakens onto an age. Rodin wrote that “character is the intense truth of any natural spectacle, beautiful or ugly.” Yet his characters are types, and for him beauty or ugliness is fate. His nudes come in two varieties, young and old—and an old courtesan is just one more emblem of sin and despair in a monumental sculpture, The Gates of Hell. Titles identify others as merely The Tempest and, most famously, The Thinker.

Much of his modernity consists in the collision between frankness and inarticulate depths. The thinker is very much the artist, but his art is about not reason, but fragmentation and feeling. His monument to Balzac nearly hides the man in the physical presence of his cloak. His carvings put their subject on an equal footing with their heavily beaten pedestal. The Hand of God, holding inchoate human life, identifies godhood with artistry. Yet it also comports with an art that enlarged hands and feet as an expression of inner pain or physical entrapment.

Rodin evolves from classicism and polished portraiture to the calm of a bather. In between lie the twisted, deformed, and sexually charged major works. Yet he looked to Michelangelo as a model for the agonies of Adam and Eve after the fall, and anyway he defies simple dating. Often he modeled a work in the 1870s, in terra cotta or marble, only to add multiple bronze casts as much as thirty years later. That multiplicity, too, is part of his modernity. Rosalind E. Krauss took it for a critique of the “originality of the avant-garde.”

Here, too, Rodin is always a work in progress—including progress toward the museum known as the Met. It commissioned casts from him in 1910 and gave him its first gallery for a living artist. He donated more works to the Met soon after. He had already influenced modern art in New York. Edward Steichen photographed Balzac at all hours of the night and convinced Alfred Stieglitz to give Rodin drawings a show. And then there is his corridor in the Met today.

In truth that corridor is always an embarrassment. It showcases academic art before a first glimpse of something else. For the occasion, the paintings hew more closely to Rodin’s influences and friends. They include the allegories of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Gustave Moreau—whom Rodin did not like but who marks a similar transition from Symbolism to Modernism. A nude by Pierre-Auguste Renoir accompanies one by Rodin, and the Seine for Claude Monet accompanies his bather. Together, they make the older art more relevant, but also leave Rodin more firmly in transition from the past.

No one is more of an embarrassment than Jules Bastien-Lepage. Yet sure enough his Joan of Arc has the raised hands of Rodin’s agonized creations, and her flatness points to Rodin’s frontality, even in sculpture fully in the round. Her patriotism also parallels Rodin’s colossal Burghers of Calais (the tale of men who gave their lives to lift an English siege) in the European sculpture court a floor below—a bit of tawdry postmodern architecture on the way from the south wing to the Met’s center. It, too, is on the way somewhere else. Still, try to stay long enough to watch passing detail spill out into myth. As Rodin boasted, “Even the most insignificant head is the dwelling-place of life.”

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

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.

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.

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