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 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.

7.7.17 — Enough Guilt

Just weeks before his death, with his fate very much on his mind, Caravaggio painted the death of a saint. Do not, though, expect special pleading on his behalf. With “Caravaggio’s Last Two Paintings,” at the Met through July 9, there is more than enough guilt to go around. Caravaggio's Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Naples, 1610)

With Michelangelo Merisi, or Caravaggio, there is always enough guilt to go around—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review in my latest upload. Maybe you know him from his early work, when he did more than anyone to invent the Baroque, along with just a handful of other artists. The wildness and excess of the late Renaissance become a greater dynamism—focused on fewer bodies, cleaner narratives, a greater command of light and space, a deeper insight into the mind, and a direct address to the viewer. They changed how anyone looked at painting, as much as the early Renaissance or modern art. They changed, too, how people saw themselves, as secular beings now personally involved in the action. This art can make anyone feel guilty as well.

Already in the 1590s, his actors stop just short of pleading guilty. The Card Sharps initiates a whole genre, with a scene of taking in the innocent. And a boy with a basket of fruit or Bacchus holding out a glass of wine shifts the subject of temptation to the viewer. That temptation also happens to include sexual beings as well as what they hold. Even at his most sunlit and lyrical, with Rest on the Flight to Egypt, Caravaggio foregrounds an angel’s exposed leg, caressed by light. One can turn to a far darker late work, of John the Baptist with his smile long gone and his majestic robe still more revealing, and wonder how far the guilt has struck home.

One can never know for sure the cause of his death, although he did come down with a malignant fever—and maybe his pursuers finally caught up with him. One can never know, too, the order of his late work. Documents attest to commissions, but with ample room for guesswork. When a show claims his last two paintings, then, watch out for hype and careerism. And the Met has a history of both, although they come with the territory for a museum these days, in search of another blockbuster. The paintings hang in a room otherwise unchanged, to assert their influence.

Caravaggio's Denial of Saint Peter (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1610)For all that they demand close attention, all the more so since both came to light in just the last decades. Caravaggio’s last work, many agree, does indeed show the death of a saint—The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, on loan from a private collection in Naples. The Met places it next to The Denial of Saint Peter from its own holdings. Other candidates for near to last work include a version of Saint John and David with the head of Goliath, both in the Borghese in Rome. The head, bearing Goliath’s horror and pain at the moment of death, is the image of Caravaggio himself. There is still enough guilt to go around.

Maybe you vaguely remember the legend of Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins. (Talk about Mannerism and excess.) When she refused the advances of a pagan king, he slew them all. Even Ludovico Carracci, another reformer on the way to the Baroque, paints quite a scene. Instead, Caravaggio pares the killers back to a single soldier and the king, who shoots her himself at point blank. They are so close that the arrow has gone right through her except for its tail feathers. The martyrdom of a saint has become little more than a grisly murder.

I may still relish most the early drama, piercing the darkness. The late style matches a greater moral and emotional puzzle all the same. Peter comes off sympathetic at his very worst moment, his costume the fullest in the painting and his expression the frankest. Caravaggio comes off not half badly either as a spectator of Saint Ursula. He is struggling to look, like accessories to a lynching, but then so was I. And then, in the hands of David, he is dead.

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

5.29.17 — Sunday in the Circus

The painter known for a Sunday in the park spent much of his all too brief career out of the sun. “Seurat’s Circus Sideshow” centers on a painting by Georges Seurat, at the Met through (last chance!) May 29. It finds him haunting the fairgrounds and music halls of working-class Paris at night—and haunted by the actors and their audience.

If you come humming Sunday in the Park with George, be prepared to change your tune. If you come expecting a romantic interest named Dot, you will find neither puns nor a romance to explain the painting away. If you seek people assembling together and airing their lives, you will find only people in shadow, talking among themselves. Georges Seurat's Parade de Cirque (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1887–1888)If you seek the newly triumphant middle class letting its hair down at the beach, you will find instead an unsettling mix of classes unable to separate spectacle from the theater of modern life. If you seek Impressionist colors, you will find the eerie purples and greens of a fairground at night. If you come looking for Seurat, you may find a history only incidentally his at all.

It belongs after all to a changing Paris, and it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload. What starts as the story of a painting becomes a story of the circus and its changing place in society at the turn of the century. What stood at first for a tawdry spectacle became a serious business, with a routine all its own. And what served Seurat as a place to hone his art became the site of an emerging avant-garde. In no time, the spectacle looks tawdrier than ever. Now, though, art’s sympathy is with the artifice—and with life on the edge.

A sideshow sounds like a distraction from the main event, but the French, la parade, sounds more like a public display. For Georges Seurat, it could be both. Parade de Cirque depicts the Corvi circus, which ran each year at the Gingerbread Fair, before Easter. It had its clowns, tightrope walkers, strong men, fat ladies, and a wheel of fortune. Stereotypical black faces added to the entertainment and embarrassment. Just setting things up and knocking them down were quite a spectacle.

Seurat, though, centers his painting on a solitary trombone player, at one end of a line of musicians and rising above them. He relegates the ringmaster, Ferdinand Corvi, to the right—locked in rigid profile between the verticals of box-office windows, a poster, and his own old-fashioned coattails. Rows of artificial lights command the scene from above, the topmost spreading like flames. They have a counterpoint in the points of light and color in Seurat’s Pointillism or Divisionism. Spectators, seen from the rear, appear in near silhouette across the bottom. They become a kind of orchestra pit themselves, and the artist must have stood among them, even as the painting engages the actual musicians head on.

The painting appeared in the very first show at MoMA, and the Met acquired it as a bequest in 1960. Smaller exhibitions have focused similarly on a work from the collection, like recent shows of Jan van Eyck and a portrait of Benjamin Franklin. And this, too, starts as a look at a single work in context—of Seurat’s few major paintings, the only one in a New York museum. Preliminary drawings stand across from circus posters and contemporary illustrations. The museum declines to borrow La Grande Jatte from Chicago. This is no walk in the park.

Still, the Met has no end of resources, including a circus orchestra’s worth of period instruments. (Adolphe Sax himself designed the saxophone.) It also quickly broadens its focus. Seurat paints free entertainment set outside the circus tent, and his painting serves in its own way as a teaser. The exhibition fills the Robert Lehman wing (which projects into Central Park). It extends to more of his work on paper, contemporaries, followers, and more.

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

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