Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Week at the Met

By Charles Kessler
Rendering of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new front plaza as envisioned by the Philadelphia design firm OLIN
Holiday visitors to New York will do well to just spend all their art-viewing time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition to sixteen small exhibitions (not a typo!), here’s what's on view now:
  • Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years (until December 31st). I wrote about this show here.
  • Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens (until January 27, 2013).  Some of the most inventive and elaborate 18th Century furniture you’ll ever see — and this was the age of great furniture.
  • Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop (until January 27, 2013). The exhibition traces the history of manipulated photography from the beginning of photography in the 1840s through the early 1990s, when photoshop and other kinds of digital manipulation took over.
  • George Bellows (until February 18, 2013). I saw it at the National Gallery and was surprised at how little I knew of his range and how modern he was.
  • African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde (until April 14, 2013). An exhibition of the African art and artifacts originally owned in the 1910s and 1920s by such New York avant-garde artists and patrons as Alfred Stieglitz, John Quinn, and Walter Arensberg. Unfortunately, displaying a lack of respect, the exhibition is installed in a crammed and makeshift space in the middle of the wide corridor running through the Pre-Columbian and African collections (see photo below), so it's difficult to concentrate on the work. It's a fascinating show, well deserving of a better space; and it comes with an excellent catalog that’s a real bargain at only $10.
And of course the Met’s outstanding Matisse show, In Search of True Painting (until March 17, 2013) — I haven't recovered quite enough to write about it, but I'm getting there. My third visit should do it.

But I do want to write about the Met's Bernini: Sculpting in Clay (until January 6, 2013).
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Head of Saint Jerome, c. 1661, terracotta, 13 13/16 x 11 5/16 x 9 inches (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Alpheus Hyatt Purchasing and Friends of the Fogg Art Museum Funds, 1937.77).
Bernini probably made several thousand of these terracottas, but since they were thought of as rough drafts for his marble and bronze sculptures, not as works of art of any worth, only 52 of them are known to have survived. A remarkable 39 of these, and 30 related drawings, are in this exhibition. To the contemporary eye, these clay studies are significant works of art in themselves rather than a disposable means to an end, and they are prized for their liveliness, for the personal touch of the artist, and for the raw physicality of the materials.

I haven’t found any edifying reviews of the exhibition, and the Met’s exhibition website, ordinarily a fount of information, is mysteriously sparse. The exhibition catalog, as one would expect, is scholarly, detailed and filled with photos — but it's a pricy $65. There is, however, a nook where you can sit down and comfortably peruse the catalog.

The best free information I found is the Met’s press release, which isn’t easily accessible, but you can find it here.  As for photos, the exhibition site has four instructional videos, but only ONE photo; and taking photos of the exhibition is verboten. But to give you a taste of the work, here are some photos I took from the exhibition catalog with my iPhone, and some images from the invaluable website of Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum (they contributed 15 terracottas to the exhibition).
Detail of the face of Angel with a Crown of Thorns, ca. 1667-68, (Kimball, AP 1987.02b).
Detail, Angel with Crown of Thorns, (Louvre RF2312).
Bernini, Charity with Two Children (detail breast feeding), 1634, terracotta, 41.6 cm high (Musei Vaticani, - 2423).
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Half-Kneeling Angel, c. 1673, terracotta, 11 1/4 x 6 11/16 x 8 1/16 inches (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Alpheus Hyatt Purchasing and Friends of the Fogg Art Museum Funds, 1937.66).
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Angel Holding the Scourge, c. 1667-1669, terracotta, 11 9/16 x 6 1/8 x 6 5/16 inches (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Alpheus Hyatt Purchasing and Friends of the Fogg Art Museum Funds, 1937.68). 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Art News — Mostly

By Charles Kessler

Yale Community Expansion Preview. Photo: Mike Marsland.
  • Video of James Panero from the New Criterion and the Wall Street Journal, about the Bushwick art scene.
  • The end of ArtCat Calendar. After listing more than16,000 exhibitions at 2,000 plus venues since  November 2004, the lack of advertising revenue has forced Barry Hoggard and James Wagner to call it quits. Too bad. ArtCat was an invaluable resource for listings and for short reviews of lesser-known exhibitions. 
  • The Washington Post reports the Corcoran Gallery of Art will remain in its historic Washington home. Good!

My Favorite Left Bank Posts of 2012:

The Top Ten Art Exhibitions of 2012:
Henri Matisse, Still Life with Yellow Curtain, Anemones and Fruit, 1925, oil on canvas, 31 ½ x 39 ⅜ inches (Private Collection).
1 - 10: The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Matisse: In Search of True Painting. Yes, all of the top ten! It blew me away. I'm speechless. I mean that literally — I have nothing to say! I'll be going back a few times so I'm sure I'll recover.

Recommended Reading:

Irving Sandler, the guest editor of the December/January issue of the Brooklyn Rail, with the help of Elizabeth Baker, Phong Bui, and Amei Wallach, came up with 14 questions to ask art critics about the state of art criticism today. He got answers from more than 20 critics. Among my favorites were Peter Plagens and Barbara Rose (whose take on Gerhard Richter I agree with: "Richter has slid into mannerism, formula, repetition, and mass production").

"The Strangest Art," a review by Wendy Lesser of A History of Opera: The Last 400 Years, by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, is both entertaining and insightful, not only about opera, but about art in general:
Opera must be one of the weirdest forms of entertainment on the planet. Its exaggerated characters bear little relation to living people, and its plots are often ludicrous. Yet it demands from its audiences real involvement, real sympathy, even real tears. Mothers constantly fail to recognise their sons, sisters their brothers, husbands their wives, but we, sitting at a distance of hundreds of metres, are expected to penetrate all the thin disguises. Women dress as men posing as women—mainly in order to make love to other women—and nobody turns a hair. And on top of all this, people sing all their lines: not in the way you or I might sing, in a lullaby-ish, folk song-ish mode, but inhumanly, extremely, with a visible awareness of their own remarkable achievement.
... Opera’s unreality, it turns out, releases it to be something more real than most fictions, because it can acknowledge and still transcend that unreality. 
And a long New Yorker article, compelling throughout, by Joshua Foer about an amateur linguist who invented "one single language that combined the coolest features from all the world’s languages." The article covers everything from a discussion of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase" to linguistics as art. There's even a surprise ending involving Ukrainian terrorists.
“I had this realization that every individual language does at least one thing better than every other language,” he said. For example, the Australian Aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t use egocentric coördinates like “left,” “right,” “in front of,” or “behind.” Instead, speakers use only the cardinal directions. They don’t have left and right legs but north and south legs, which become east and west legs upon turning ninety degrees. Among the Wakashan Indians of the Pacific Northwest, a grammatically correct sentence can’t be formed without providing what linguists refer to as “evidentiality,” inflecting the verb to indicate whether you are speaking from direct experience, inference, conjecture, or hearsay.

Why I love New York:
The best way to counter hate: NY Times video by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. In Times Square, protestors counter an anti-Islamic speech by pastor Terry Jones ... by singing the Beatles. Full article here.

FINALLY from palindromist Barry Duncan:
When I hear people talk about the upcoming Mayan apocalypse, my childhood flashes before my eyes. I'm not thinking that the end is near, I'm just remembering the regionally distinctive utterances of my South Jersey playmates: “Give me back that baseball. It's Mayan!”
Well, if the world does end on the 21st, two days before my 56th birthday, I'll always be a palindromic age, which isn't such a bad deal. After all, an apocalyptic event can't be reversed. Or can it?

Time: RIP.
Oh, shall a man?
It's '12, no?
Evil, all.
It's Mayan, huh?
Nay, am still alive on 21
st, in a mall. Ah, shop!
I remit.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Duncan 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Mannerism at the Morgan

By Charles Kessler
Eastroom, Pierpont Morgan's Library
If you’ve never been to the Morgan Library and Museum, go — you’ll love the over-the-top opulence of Pierpont Morgan's library and the lavish residence of his son, J. P. Morgan. (I wrote about the Morgan and some other small east-side museums here.)

I do have some mixed feelings about the new renovation. The Morgan used to be a secluded, scholarly place frequented mostly by print and drawing aficionados. I loved it, but I never felt quite comfortable there — it was a bit intimidating. The airy openness of the 2006 Renzo Piano expansion and renovation made the museum more inviting but also made it less of a special and hallowed place. It’s wonderful though, all the more so because of two exhibitions currently on view: Fantasy and Invention: Rosso Fiorentino and Sixteenth-Century Florentine Drawing (through February 3rd) and Dürer to de Kooning: 100 Master Drawings from Munich (through January 6th).

Lovers of Early Italian Mannerism (the few of us out there) shouldn't get too excited. The Rosso exhibition is modest; it has only one painting (an unfinished one at that) and about 20 drawings taken mostly from the Morgan's collection. The Drawings from Munich show includes a few Mannerist drawings as well. Nevertheless, there is more Mannerist art here than is usually available, so enjoy.

(There are only a few important Early Mannerist paintings in American museums. The LA County Museum has a great Rosso as does the Boston MFA; and the Met and Frick each have a portrait of a young man by Bronzino, here and here (although they're really more Late Mannerist); and the National Gallery has a Pontormo portrait; but that's about all that come to mind. Some museum needs to do a major Early Mannerism exhibition.)

Mannerism is indeed mannered in some ways: it tends to be idiosyncratic, artificial and contrived (as opposed to naturalistic), and it's sometimes over-elaborate. As a result, it takes a bit of getting used to. But it’s not mannered in other, more important ways: it's not stilted, affected or lacking feeling — at least not Early Mannerism as practiced by Jacopo da Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino in Florence, and Parmigianino in Rome. (Late Mannerism is where you might find empty virtuosity and bizarre, outlandish subjects that are meant to shock just for the sake of shocking. Sound familiar?) “Anti-Classical” or better “Anti-High Renaissance” might be a more descriptive term for it since it was a reaction against the restraining ideals of the Italian High Renaissance.

As great as Italian High Renaissance art is, it had a restrictive aesthetic ideal and limited expressive range, and it must have been difficult (or boring) for artists to sustain it for long. Images had to be convincingly realistic yet more idealized than real life; likewise space in paintings had to be rational yet removed from our own world. The art had to be balanced without being rigid, theatrical but serene, monumental but intimate — all that, and the subject matter had to be profound (think Leonardo’s Last Supper).

A case can be made that the artists most associated with the Italian High Renaissance, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, quickly tired of it in its purist form (from about 1495 - 1515) and launched the change to Mannerism.
Leonardo da Vinci, St. John the Baptist, c.1513-1516, oil on walnut wood panel, 27.2 x 22.4 inches (Louvre, Paris).
For example, a late painting by the master himself, Leonardo da Vinci, St. John the Baptist, is weirdly, and uncharacteristically, creepy. Rather than depicting St. John the Baptist as a wiry, haggard Old Testament prophet in the traditional manner, Leonardo made him androgynously effeminate, placed him in an indeterminate dark space, and gave him a mysterious gesture and smile. Not exactly High Renaissance traits.

Raphael too, in his later paintings, violated classical ideals. His Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary is highly charged emotionally (it's the moment when Christ falls and his mother pitifully reaches out to him); the figures are piled up into a crammed and hard-to-decipher space; the composition is not symmetrically balanced in the High Renaissance manner but instead it's a dramatic diagonal; and Christ isn't even the focal point of the composition.
Raphael, Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary, c. 1516, Oil on canvas (transferred from panel), 318 x 229 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.
And of course Michelangelo's Last Judgement, if not the Sibyls in his earlier Sistine Chapel, were models for the Mannerists.

So with Rosso’s Holy Family, the figures are attenuated and the proportions elongated; figures are pushed up to the surface in a tense and compressed space; the Virgin's nipples disconcertingly show through her dress; and there's an odd mix of Christian and pagan imagery (John the Baptist is wearing a grapevine crown like Bacchus). Most disturbing is the Virgin's 3-finger super elongated claw-like hand that's at once graceful, tender and sinister. (Someone I struck up a conversation with suggested she might be suffering with Morfan's Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes, among other horrors, long, thin fingers — not that Rosso required a basis in nature for his expressive purpose — unlike Leonardo.)
Rosso Fiorentino, Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist, ca. 1520, oil on panel, 25 x 16 ¾ inches (The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Photo © The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore).
Compare this Rosso with a quintessential High Renaissance Holy Family by Raphael:
Raphael, Madonna of the Rose, 1516, oil on panel transfered to canvas, 41 ½  x 33 inches (Prado).
Rosso makes no attempt to create a plausibly real scene in a real space. What's being depicted is not ordinary human activity, and it's not an idealized scene either, but rather it's an almost hallucinogenic, spiritual ecstasy more akin to medieval mosaics in spirit than to the High Renaissance. This ecstatic emotion is conveyed by the glowing colors and the swirling, rhythmic brushwork. (The painting is unfinished so it's probably rougher and less polished than it would be if he had finished it — but still.) In the Rosso, St. Joseph and St. John are so emotionally overwrought they seem to be dissipating visually.

Detail, head of St. John The Baptist. 
One other thing. Rosso's Virgin and Child look at us; they address us. We're not just outside observers passively watching a holy scene, but instead we are made to be active participants — and that's unsettling.
Jacopo da Pontormo,  Male Nudes, c.1520, red chalk on paper, no size given but about 18 x 10 inches.   
Also in the exhibition is a drawing of male nudes by Pontormo. Like Rosso's painting, the figures are  elongated, placed in a shallow space and pushed to the front; in addition, the figures are in precariously balanced poses and have spooky vacant eyes (probably an exaggeration of the manner of his teacher, the High Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto). As a result, the figures have a haunting ethereality and otherworldliness about them.

And in the Dürer to de Kooning: 100 Master Drawings from Munich exhibition there are some other terrific Mannerist or proto-Mannerist drawings:
Fra Bartolommeo, Self Portrait, 1510/12, black chalk heightened with yellow wash on gray paper, 15 x 10 ½ inches.
Jacopo Pontormo, Two Standing Women, after 1530?, red chalk on paper (Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich).
There are other great drawings in the Munich show that have nothing to do with Mannerism, including this marvel:
Rembrandt (1606–1669), Saskia Lying in Bed, a Woman Sitting at Her Feet, ca. 1638, pen and point of brush and brown ink, about 9 x 7 inches.
And finally, there's this:
Willem De Kooning, Standing Man, c.1951, graphite on card, 20 x 32 inches.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


By Charles Kessler

Art News:
The Doria Panel - copy of Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari.
  • The BBC reports Italy's art-theft police have located a 400-year-old copy of a lost Leonardo da Vinci fresco -  the Battle of Anghiari.
  • The New York Times reports that the next Whitney Biennial will be organized by three curators, and each will be given their own floor of the Whitney.  Good move — the curators won't need to compromise on the selection of the art, and they won't have to cope with another curator's art when they're installing the show. The 2014 Whitney Biennial curators are: Stuart Comer, the film curator at the Tate Modern in London; Anthony Elms, an associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia; and Michelle Grabner, a professor and the chairwoman of the painting and drawing department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 
  • Damien Hirst: Jumping the Shark, an article by Andrew Rice on how Hirst has ruined his art market, is getting a lot of attention — maybe because people hope it's true. "For all his celebrity, Hirst’s stock in the art market has experienced a stunning deflation. According to data compiled by the firm Artnet, Hirst works acquired during his commercial peak, between 2005 and 2008, have since resold at an average loss of 30 percent." To put things in perspective though, the last painting of his that sold at auction went for $1.3 million — a 50 percent decline from its peak, but still ....
  • The Getty Museum has developed what might be the first digital scholarly museum catalog — not a print catalog that's been put online, but a catalog developed from the beginning to be digital. And a nifty one it is. It's Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museumand The Iris, the Getty Museum's blog, has a post on how it was done, and how it's different from a print catalog. 
Exhibitions I haven't seen (yet):
Three paintings of Laurette by Matisse (image taken from the New York Times website). 
Roberta Smith gave a glowing review to the Met’s Matisse: In Search of True Painting (open to the public today through March 17th). I found it inspiring that after writing art criticism for almost forty years, she can still be wildly excited about an art exhibition: "... one of the most thrillingly instructive exhibitions about this painter, or painting in general, that you may ever see." (There aren’t any photos of the exhibition on the Met’s website, but the Times has some good ones here.)

Another show I'm looking forward to is the Morgan's Fantasy and Invention: Rosso Fiorentino and Sixteenth-Century Florentine Drawing (until February 3rd).
Rosso Fiorentino, Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist, ca. 1520, oil on panel, 25 x 16 ¾ inches (The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Photo © The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore).
I guess Mannerist art isn't all that popular, at least it isn't shown very often, but I love it — and this should be a good opportunity to see twenty paintings and drawings by Andrea del Sarto, Jacopo Pontormo, Giorgio Vasari and other Florentine Mannerists.

I hadn't been to Williamsburg in more than a year, so last Saturday I thought I'd check on what's happening with the galleries there. Well, not much unfortunately. About three quarters of the galleries listed on WagMap, the main listing website for Brooklyn exhibitions, are no longer in business; and half of the rest (six galleries) were closed when they were supposed to be open (including Pierogi's large space, The Boiler). With the possible exception of Yoon Lee's exhibition in Pierogi's smaller space on N. 9th Street, I wasn't impressed with the shows I did see. So unless things pick up, go to Williamsburg for the restaurants, nightlife and shopping, not for the art.

Recommended reading:
  • Bach’s Music, Back Then and Right Now by pianist Jeremy Denk in The New Republic is a book review of Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie. It's an incisive analysis and appreciation of Bach's music. Here's a sample paragraph:
ONE GREAT advantage Bach has over Beethoven is counterpoint. Late in life Beethoven obsessed over Bach, working at counterpoint and fugue feverishly—as if to purify himself, to escape from the heroic sonata forms that he had brought to their apex. In a “song without words” by Mendelssohn or a nocturne by Chopin, you usually have the opposite of counterpoint: a melody over repeated chords or a texture of arpeggios—that is, filler, something to make the chords last some time while the melody melodizes. There is a hierarchical distinction between foreground and background, between the prominent main voice and the backup band. But in “true counterpoint” no voice is the lapdog of a melody; each voice lives independently. For us humble listeners, whose lives are filled with filler, this seems like an unattainable miracle: everything counts.