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. So what's NEW!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. (Charles 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.

5.26.17 — Neither Poetry nor Place

Late in life, Walker Evans returned to Hale County, Alabama, but the sharecroppers had gone. So, after all, had the Great Depression, decades ago at that, and so had the professional camera that captured its most stubborn survivors.

This time Evans brought an emblem of a different kind of transience, that of consumer culture—a Polaroid camera. The results even look disposable, and they show temporary housing with no trace of the lives within. In the past, he had also collected penny photos and but now he saw no need to defer to studio professionals of any sort. postcards, MutualArtTo pile on the ironies, the medium to which he turned is obsolete in today’s stubbornly digital age as well.

The Poetics of Place,” through May 28, has precious little poetry and almost as little sense of place. The Met samples recent photos from its collection—and, together with an earlier report on a history of photography drawn from MoMA’s collection, it is the subject of a longer review and my latest upload.

Even when Carrie Mae Weems travels to Mali and An-My Lê to Vietnam, like Evans in search of origins, their destination seems out of reach. For Weems it reduces to a mud dwelling in soft focus and for Lê to the far side of a dense riverbank, and both could just as well be left over from prehistory or the day before. And even when Wolfgang Staehle sticks to the specificity of a single day along the Hudson, his slideshow of eight thousand images seems oddly detached. In place of the Hudson River School and the American sublime, he has the banality of real time. He also has an artery along which nothing and no one seems to move.

The show it takes its theme from the 1970s. Minimalism and earthworks had discovered repetition, waste, and entropy, as with coal mines for Bernd and Hilla Becher or Robert Smithson. Photographers still traveled America, like Robert Adams or Dan Graham, but to find trailer parks and the cheap housing of Staten Island and New Jersey. Darren Almond's Fullmoon@Virgin River (Matthew Marks, 2012)They linger on railroad crossings, like Laura Burns and Lother Baumgarten. They track the damage due to industrialization and natural disasters, like California after a flash flood for Joel Sternfeld. Strong colors for William Eggleston only bring out the awkwardness.

The Met describes its subjects as landscapes and built environments, leaving open where one ends and the other begins. It notes the role of the New Topographics, in Adams and Lewis Baltz. It invokes, too, the slippery border between amateur and art photography, as with “slow snapshots” for Jean-Marc Bustamante. You may not have known Donald Judd as a photographer. Yet he traveled south of the border to document ancient ruins. They would do his Minimalism proud. They also have eerie affinities with Mexico City sidewalks that, for Damián Ortega, look like tombs.

The show can feel like a throwaway. Most of its fewer than thirty artists have only a work apiece. Some, too, have the unexpected, like Judd. Sally Mann appears not for family portraits but for Virginia in the mists. Jan Groover, known for still lifes in gleaming color, also photographed the “semantics of the highway.” Suffice it to say that cars go in irreconcilable directions.

They are not above beauty, like Darren Almond, with his fifteen-minute moon.” They are also not above remembering, like James Welling, who sees the present through film noir, or Matthew Brandt, who prints the ruins of Madison Square Garden with his darkroom medium its own dust. They may even try to locate a sense of place, like a coffee plantation for Jan Henle—although it looks more like the surface of Mars. Sarah Anne Johnson follows the Arctic Circle, where she photographs herself at her tripod. You may wonder if someone else is behind the camera. You may wonder, too, if she will ever break closer to the pole.

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

5.17.17 — Realism in Excess

Was Jean Honoré Fragonard a realist? He may seem the worst conceivable candidate for that honor. Last time I looked at Baroque landscape drawings at the Met, so allow me to turn back to the previous show in that very same space for a catch-up post. I drafted it back then but then let it slide way too long, with apologies.

A student of François Boucher, Fragonard pushed his teacher’s Rococo fantasies to their limits and beyond. He takes to the moral fables of Jean-Baptiste Greuze and the Enlightenment, only to leave them without a moral. Jean Honore Fragonard's Interior of a Park (Morgan Library/Thaw Collection, c. 1765)On his Island of Love, one can strain to tell the human beings from cherubs, and neither feels the pull of the earth. His nearly two hundred drawings after Orlando Furioso, the epic poem, live in a dream world between an uncertain ground and a restive sky—and scholars still strain to identify the scenes at hand.

Yet even the sternest realist can admire his drawings at the Met, through January 8. He studies the fall of light on the density of acanthus leaves and later a chestnut tree, and he executes copies after Jacob van Ruysdael, the Dutch landscape artist. In his twenties, on a trip to Rome, he captures the stairs and waterfalls of parks recognizable as tourist attractions to this day. Over time, he compiles a compendium of country life, from a fisherman at his nets to a communal bread oven. In the city, he is equally attentive to a young Neapolitan woman, children at play, a deacon in profile lost in his book, and a sultan. Recording a trip down the Rhine with friends, he depicts them all as seasick and exhausted.

Still, he covers them at a fever’s pace, and little is as it seems. He cares more for contrasts of light and dark than for plant species, and his trees belong to an enchanted forest, from the Italian poetry of Torquato Tasso. He prefers the artifice of parks to city streets, and anyway he had come to Rome to study at the Académie de France. Scenes of country life mix casually with stock figures from the stage and memories of Italy. A model sat for that sultan, and Fragonard may well have fashioned the sultan’s costume out of thin air. In drawing himself in the ship’s hold, he stands at a distance impossible in a self-portrait, like the audience for a play.

So what was realism, and who is to say what is real or imagined? For Fragonard, born in 1732, life blends effortlessly into theater. At the very birth of the Rococo, Jean Antoine Watteau moved between the art of music and a war zone, in search of moments of relief from human weakness. Fragonard prefers the human comedy. A child takes to his pet dog for a riding lesson, lovers fail dismally to hide in a closet, and an “indiscreet bull” butts into a shepherd’s amorous pursuits. If anything, the French Revolution had him looking for a recourse further still from the hard facts of life, right up to his death in 1806. No wonder he turned to the chivalry and romance of Orlando Furioso in the 1780s.

The Met is throwing the word naturalism around all too easily these days, as in its show of a Baroque painter, Valentin de Boulogne. It also returns to Fragonard barely a decade after his drawings at the Morgan Library and restoration of his period room at the Frick. Still, “Drawing Triumphant” supplies a thorough survey of the artist from New York collections alone. It follows him through two trips to Italy and back, the second at age forty-one. The curator, Perrin Stein, also includes prints, many as learning aids. Charmingly, his student responds with a portrait of the “genius” of Benjamin Franklin, just when the Met also exhibits Franklin’s years in France on behalf of an emerging nation and the American Revolution.

Fragonard was hardly a revolutionary, although he sent his son to study with Jacques-Louis David. He was, though, a quick study and an even quicker draftsman. Red chalk and washes give his dream visions the immediacy of daily life. A magistrate takes shape from the folds in his robe and lovers from a wood’s edge under a stormy sky. Diogenes, the ancient philosopher, and a peasant seem to draw on the very same model. An artist at work in a trellised garden could be his ultimate fantasy—or a stand-in for Fragonard himself.

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

5.15.17 — Falling into Landscape

Hercules Segers may have died by falling down stairs. No one can say for sure, but Samuel van Hoogstraten reported it, and it makes sense. Segers had a habit of narrowing his vision to what lay right before his eyes—and then ignoring it in his fixation on the inscrutable, the imagined, and the detail.

He bought some serious property along a canal in Amsterdam to observe the housetops just outside his window. And then he added what he pleased to his prints, for no amount of detail or atmosphere would suffice. At times you could mistake the etched, scratched, and acid-ridden plate for the print itself. Hercules Segers's Woodland Path (private collection, c, 1618–1620)

To be sure, Hoogstraten is no authority. Born around 1589, Segers died, with or without stairs, while the writer was still a child, and most today place his death at the far extreme of Hoogstraten’s guesses, in the late 1630s. Then again, the younger man had every reason to know what he was talking about. As a theorist and historian, he helped record the golden age of Dutch painting—and, as also a painter, he worked in the circle of Rembrandt, who valued Segers enough to own several of his prints and one of his even rarer paintings. Now the Met displays “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers,” with generous assistance from the Rijksmuseum, through May 21. It may not make him a household name, but it hints at a missing link between Dutch artists and the preceding century or even this one.

Whenever he died, he had a career of less than thirty years, starting in Harlem around 1610 and ending in the Hague. He had already all but fallen out of sight. Hoogstraten reports that people used his work to wrap food, since they had no clue what to make of it either. (Segers may have purchased that house in Amsterdam with his wife’s money.) He was among the first to turn to still life, including a pile of white books and an even plainer skull—much like an intimation of mortality by Pieter Claesz from around the same time, but without the shivers. Segers showed little interest in light or morals.

He also had a less than full eye on nature. He did study moss and branches hanging from trees. Almost anything, though, can look like lost in a weave akin to coral or the nightmares of Max Ernst in the twentieth century, even the side of a rearing horse or the trunk of a tree. Line alone matters, the denser and more capricious the better—line alone, that is, except for texture and color. Segers often printed on colored cotton, before adding colored washes. He then altered the plate, the fabric, the dye, or the washes again before printing once, twice, or half a dozen times more.

Maybe you caught “Unfinished” at the opening of the Met Breuer or “The Unfinished Print” at the Frick some years before, but you do not know the half of it. No one knows how many Segers finished of at most two hundred surviving prints. Even his adding color is no sure sign of satisfaction. Nor can one know what he saw. He helped usher in views of mountains and waterfalls after the Alps and ruins after the castles of Rome. Yet he set his most exotic features against a backdrop of home.

Dating is difficult, too. The driest and most detailed surfaces come early, and travel may indeed have opened his eyes. Increasingly, he begins with outlines before adding more. Increasingly, too, versions grow more independent. Instead of merely a change from pink or yellow to blue and gray washes, they can become as distinct as night and day. Reversals, cropping, staining a plate with sugar and acid, and counterproofs, meaning prints taken from cloth or paper and not the plate, all come into play.

They also help explain his appeal to Rembrandt. The curator, Nadine M. Orenstein, looks for his influence in prints of Biblical subjects, but Segers also etched a solid oak and a row of trees, before the more famous artist’s Three Trees. His scratchy technique approaches drypoint, a medium that Rembrandt liked, too. He anticipates Rembrandt’s habit of altering a plate before cutting into it again as well. Just as interesting, Segers borrows from Pieter Bruegel and an earlier German printmaker, Hans Baldung Grien. Could that explain how art got from Mannerism to the age of Rembrandt?

It helps in revisiting the show’s premise as well. The Met sees a fantasist while others were “toiling away at realism,” but were they—and was that all Segers had going, too? Dutch landscape painters like Jacob van Ruisdael and Aelbert Cuyp seek a grandeur beyond the moment, while Jan Vermeer makes every interior a vision. Earlier Mannerists were even more unmoored from reality, and museums have since applied “The Visionary Landscape” to the sublimity of the Hudson River School in nineteenth-century America as well. Segers takes not vision but line and color as his subject, in some of the first art beyond realism and myth alike. At his most adventurous, Surrealism might not be too strong a word.

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

2.20.17 — Exile on Central Park West

Max Beckmann has finally made it to the Met. It only took him a lifetime.

Beckmann was sixty-six when he set off to cross Central Park exactly that many years ago, only to die of a heart attack along the way. He had lived here all of two years, even counting a summer away in Oakland, where he taught at Mills College. Even then, apparently, he could not support himself entirely through his art. Max Beckmann's Family Picture (Museum of Modern Art, 1920)Yet the museum considers it the end of the German artist’s many years of exile. He had an apartment on the Upper West Side, another job at the Brooklyn Museum’s art school, and a favorite haunt or two in lavish hotel bars. He had found, he wrote, his long lamented prewar Berlin “multiplied a hundredfold.”

It takes chutzpah to imagine him at home anywhere, much less New York. The dozen paintings from those months rarely picture the city, and they have landed pretty much anywhere but here. Yet they and that dark December day in 1950 supply the excuse for “Max Beckmann in New York,” through February 20—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review, in my latest upload. Without them, it would amount to a small survey drawn from local collections, with their share of gaps and no other local connection. They do, though, show an artist always in society and yet always in exile. They show him, too, as a mythmaker and realist, with himself at the center of reality and the myth.

Sure enough, Beckmann was crossing town to see his very own image, in an exhibition of contemporary American art. If that subject and year make you think of other exiles in New York, such as Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, just then breaking through to Abstract Expressionist New York, forget it. He commands the scene in a white tie, reddish orange shirt, and even more startling blue jacket. Its loose fit and the hand slipped casually into his right pants pocket only emphasize his ease and presence. As so often, a slashing black picks out the folds, and the acid colors extend to green, for a foreground table or chair. As so often, too, a more subdued and sparely painted background frames him but cannot trap him. Highlights bring out his roving eyes and high forehead.

The portrait faces the entrance wall, in a room of self-portraits. They surround visitors on every side, almost always with those cool skin tones, restless eyes, and a cigarette. The curator, Sabine Rewald, sees in them a vulnerable, even introspective character. She calls him fragile compared to the bulk of his blue jacket. Do not believe it for a minute, not even when he holds an outsize horn to his ear like a hearing aid for a virtuoso. He is both taking you in and putting on a show.

He is Richard III for a modern-day drawing room. As a child in a 1949 triptych, Beginning, he even wears a paper crown. The crown transfers to a Viking at the center of another triptych and probably his most famous work, Departure from 1933, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. The Vikings are at sea, between scenes of unspeakable torture, while a drummer marches past to commemorate their fate. Are they in exile or relentless invaders, tormented or tormentors, in a mythic past or a frightening historical present? The question applies to everyone and everything he sees.

The show runs neither thematically nor chronologically—a far cry from the 2003 Beckmann retrospective at MoMA (the occasion for me of a deeper look at his work), for all its quality. Is everything just a carnival all along? Faced with the grim spectacle, I often wish that Beckmann could get over his exile. Stop exaggerating, I want to scream, and just calm down. Maybe, though, he already has. He can always put on a blue jacket, formal wear, or a sailor suit and invite you to his studio, so long as you do not expect a welcome.

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

1.11.17 — The Saint with a Mustache

Who knew that John the Baptist had a pencil mustache? Still in his early twenties, with rakish brown hair and the chiseled body of a young man ready to play, Valentin de Boulogne was painting himself.

Not even the saint’s traditional red robe altogether covers his earthy brown cloak, not to mention his muscular deltoids and half naked torso. As John, he eyes the viewer while pointing to something beyond the picture frame. Valentin de Boulogne's Samson (Cleveland Museum of Art, 1631)John always does, as the prophet of a messiah to come. Is the artist, too, gambling on the future? Together with a report on Fragonard drawings just down the hall (and sorry for the late start this morning), it is the subject of a longer review and my latest upload.

For the Met, Valentin was himself that future—and the prophet of a greater realism. His later Allegory of Rome was “the most extreme statement of naturalism” before Gustave Courbet more than two hundred years later. Of course, for a young French painter, arriving in Rome by 1610 or so, the messiah had already come and gone. Some twenty years older, Caravaggio had fled south, amid accusations of murder, after pioneering the Baroque. And where Caravaggio had painted directly from models, rather than from preliminary sketches, for Valentin the model was his most memorable subject, just like his mustachioed presence in place of a legend. The curators, Keith Christiansen and Annick Lemoine, call his retrospective “Beyond Caravaggio.”

With forty-five of his sixty surviving paintings, through January 16, it seeks to reclaim him for a major artist. It begins with other followers of Caravaggio in Rome, including Jusepe de Ribera, a Spaniard who added coarser colors and textures. Ribera, though, departed for Naples, leaving opportunities behind. Valentin found ample commissions and patronage in a powerful cardinal, Francesco Barberini. He also found a pageant of contemporary life, including musicians and gamblers. Even when he painted scenes from the Bible, he sought an array of men, women, and children within a single canvas, as a living theater.

Caravaggio still looms large. Subject after subject comes from him, including those concerts and cardsharps, but also Abraham saved from sacrificing Isaac, Judith slaying Holofernes, and Saint Matthew with an angel’s hand in his book. A later version of John approaches Caravaggio all the more closely, with an exposed thigh. Apparently the older man’s lifestyle also had its appeal. Born in 1591 just east of Paris, Valentin died at age forty-one after a hard night’s drinking. He must have taken his images of all the five senses personally.

Caravaggio may well loom too large by half, and so may Artemisia Gentileschi or another Frenchman in Rome, Nicolas Poussin. Their miraculous sunlight and darkness have become an indistinct space of muddy shadows. Their psychological intensity has become a routine theater. When Caravaggio gives a man bearing grapes recognizable features, the invitation takes on a disturbing eroticism. When his cardsharps vie to see who can outsmart the other, they match wits with the viewer as well. Valentin’s figures, however crowded, seem apart from one another, like a catalog of gestures and expressions.

Those gestures include an arm outstretched to the left, which recurs in painting after painting as a token of decisive action. At times Valentin seems to care more about dice in midair or well-worn playing cards than about any of them. He also seems hardly to care where his figures land. They may tumble off the bottom edge or parade above a fictive carved relief as if floating above. The show opens with a photo of Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, with bodies flying everywhere. Its disorder reflects a revolutionary painter’s last struggles with Mannerism—and his successors may have taken that struggle to heart, at the expense of missing the future.

It sounds preposterous anyway to single out an allegory of Italy for its naturalism, quite apart from the Met’s penchant for self-congratulation. What are all those aging nudes and cupids doing, and why has Valentin buried his triumphant figure somehow floating above in so much clothing? At his best, the sheer flurry of hands across a canvas can stand in for a deeper insight. So does the edge of a knife on its way to flaying a man alive. So, too, at times does what may seem like Valentin’s greatest weakness—his actors lost in a dream, even as the angels and allegories descend. In one last self-portrait, as Samson, he has already slain Goliath and can take stock of the consequences, and so at last can you.

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