Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Grateful For Old Friends

Thoughts on an extended weekend in the museums and galleries of New York.

Thursday

Arrived in New York, checked into the hotel and went straight to the Morgan Library & Museum to see Palladio and his Legacy: A Transatlantic Journey and Flemish Illuminations in the Era of Catherine of Cleves.

The Morgan is always welcoming with its emphasis on small-scale contemplative art, its library reminiscent of a bygone era and the absence of crowds. Not so welcoming is the latest addition to the building, designed by Renzo Piano and completed in 2006. The central court may be the most profligate use of museum space in all of New York, standing in sharp and banal contrast to the intimacy of the work the Morgan collects and shows.

Once inside the exhibition space, however, the serenity that is the Morgan is re-established immediately. Palladio's renderings and scale models of some of his and others' projects directly influenced by him draw me in with their detail and intricacy. What impresses me most is learning about Palladio's exhaustive determination to observe classical traditions first hand and later recapitulate them in his own elegant modern terms for both individual and institutional patrons. He was, among many things, a first rate student of the traditions out of which he came. The fruits of this studiousness ultimately resulted in his Four Books of Architecture, published and republished throughout Europe and America, sometimes with substantial liberties taken by publishers as the exhibition makes clear. The books became and remain among the most influential works on architecture.

The presence of scale models cannot be overestimated here, providing scope to Palladio's theories and practices, especially for those of us who haven't seen many of his buildings. Among the pleasant surprises is a rendering by Thomas Jefferson, Palladio's most fervent American adherent, of a rejected submission for the competition to design the White House. Compared to the structure eventually built, Jefferson's proposal is positively palatial...an irony in a new democracy apparently not lost on the judges.

Illuminated manuscripts are the Morgan's stock and trade. No institution save the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore approaches (but does not match) their impressive collection overall. The current show of Dutch illuminations by the Master of Catherine of Cleves are among the most treasured in the world. Deeply satisfying for their rich detail, ornamentation and narratives, their vibrant colors offer a respite from Palladio's monochromatic drawings.

The emphasis on visualizing biblical events in ordinary, every day settings is typical of northern artists during the profoundly sacred Middle Ages and anticipates the far more secular Golden Age of Dutch still life and genre painting that will follow. The elaborate borders surrounding these scenes are unprecedented as far as I can tell not only for their variety but for their avoidance of the sort of repetitive decorative motifs that we shall see the next day at the Met in the Limbourg Brothers work. Instead, all sorts of ordinary objects, some quite whimsical, surround the narratives and contrast sharply with them. I find myself wondering whether or not this particular book anticipates the tradition of drolleries seen in later works. I am also left wondering how other illuminators and scribes managed to see works such as these given their private nature and individual, cloistered if you will, ownership!

Before departing we spend time examining the ongoing exhibition Masterworks from the Morgan: Near Eastern Seals. These always curious objects fascinate as much for their technical brilliance and difficulty as for their iconography.


Friday

Up early to walk from our hotel in midtown to the Met. I always approach the Met with some trepidation, scanning the normally overflowing front steps to gauge the size of the crowds awaiting us inside. Being early and cool this particular morning, the scattered visitors on the steps belie the throngs indoors. All [unrealistic] hopes of a quiet interlude are immediately dispelled.

The Met may always be packed and bustling yet once past the entry points it becomes manageable. Our principal objective today is The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry. Only in New York, I muse, can two of the greatest examples of manuscript illumination be on display at two different institutions at the same time.

This exhibit of arguably the most famous manuscript illuminators of all time, is brilliantly displayed, each page given ample space either on the walls or at free-standing podiums that invite close inspection while leaning on inclined display cases. A rack of magnifying glasses greets visitors at the entrance and makes viewing the details very rewarding. We are informed that "because [the book] is currently unbound, it is possible to exhibit all of its illuminated pages as individual leaves, a unique opportunity never to be repeated." (The Morgan lacks the space for such an extensive display and can only show a few of the 157 pages from the book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves.)

Fortunately, the exhibit is sparsely attended, allowing as much time to linger over each page as I want. I am struck by how dazzling the colors remain, due no doubt in some measure to the limited exposure of the folios to light of any kind. The colors used by the Limbourg Brothers and their contemporaries seem unique to illuminated manuscripts of Medieval Europe, much as the colors of Indian miniature paintings have always struck me as having their own special palette. In these Belles Heures deep royal blues, rich carmine and aquamarines abound while gold leaf is liberally and delicately sprinkled about. Each page seems more dazzling than the next.

The unanticipated highlight of our visit turns out to be a nearby display of The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy. Their loan is made possible by renovations at their permanent place of residence at the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Dijon. Temporarily separated from their normal location spread among the carved cloisters that form the base of the tomb of Duke Philip the Bold itself, these figures by Claus Sluter and his workshop are displayed in two free-standing rows at the Met. They can be seen here http://www.themourners.org. What makes the Met's display such a unique opportunity is that we see each figure in the round for the first time since they were carved, unimpeded by their placement in the supporting structure that forms the tomb's base. Momentarily freed, the individuality of the mourners comes through, especially the pathos in their faces, posture and gestures. We found them quite moving.

After our morning sojourn in the Middle Ages, we began our chronological march forward with the Bronzino drawings which surprisingly did not particularly interest me and followed these with visits to old friends including Vermeer and Rembrandt whose work always does. The Met owns five of the 34 paintings experts agree are by Vermeer and together with three more a few blocks further south on Fifth Avenue at the Frick, one can see nearly a quarter of his oeuvre in a single afternoon. To my mind this fortuitous proximity is one of the great museum-going opportunities of our age.

Next came my mandatory visit to the American collection, particularly the Hudson River School painters whose sublime interpretations of the American landscape always leave me nostalgic for a country I have never experienced. Mine is a rather odd response, I'll admit, but nonetheless I am exhilarated!

We concluded our visit to the Met breezing through the photographs from the permanent collection with a stop at the exhibition Surface Tension: Contemporary Photography from the collection, purporting to show how a substantial number of photographers exploit the tension between the medium's inherently heightened three-dimensional illusionism and actual two dimensionality. This is hardly a contemporary notion, the whole of modernism's realism strain having addressed this concern beginning more than a hundred years ago, but, then, photography still suffers an inferiority complex at times in relation to its older brethren and seems fated to reinvent the wheel every few years. Few photographers shown here managed anything approaching insight on the subject and only one, Andrew Bush, produced images of any fascination and these owed far more to the 19 Century trompe l'oeil paintings of Harnett and Peto than to modernism.

After leaving the Met we made a slight detour en route to the Frick to visit the Acquavella Galleries which have mounted a much-talked about exhibition entitled Robert & Ethel Scull: Portrait of a Collection. The most remarkable thing about this exhibition was the reunification of 37 pieces from the now widely scattered collection, a triumph of the curator's art of persuasion if nothing else.

The Sculls were not only among the earliest and most prominent collectors of Pop and Minimalism, they were themselves the subjects in several instances, most notably Andy Warhol's "Ethel Scull 36 Times," and George Segal's "Portrait of Robert and Ethel Scull," both of which were loaned to the show. The Sculls friendship with these artists blurred the line at times between patron and participant and that, in the end, is the real interest of this show, not the work seen here which despite having entered the canon no longer excites for the most part. (Perhaps some of the works not made available would alter my opinion...though I doubt it.) The Sculls had a good eye for the work of artists who would eventually enter the pantheon as their eventual sale of the collection for then-record prices only underscored, but time has dulled much of the work itself...though not the prices which have soared since that auction.

Our last stop of the day is the Frick where we continued to reacquaint ourselves with old friends, especially Van Eyck, Vermeer, Rembrandt and Holbein. It wasn't that long ago that one virtually had the Frick to oneself, so tranquil was the atmosphere and leisurely the pace. The crowds have grown here, too, but remain manageable because the space for special exhibitions is limited and not capable of blockbusters, which after all are what draw the masses.

As we stroll at a leisurely pace we enter a room in which Holbein's portrait of Oliver Cromwell hangs on one side of the mantle and his Sir Thomas Moore on the other. Holbein's ability to see surfaces and the character beneath them with equal intensity has never been matched in portraiture even by Rembrandt, for whom character and light, not surface, were paramount.. These two paintings remain fascinating year after year.

Standing in front of the Moore portrait I am reminded of an exhibition at the Morgan several years ago of Holbein's drawings from the Court of Henry VIII. Loaned entirely from the Queen of England's collection, the dozens of drawings provide a comprehensive portrait of the royal court's many and varied personalities to a degree not undertaken of any particular subculture or group as far as I know prior to the advent of photography. Many artists painted numerous members of a given court, but never on a scale comparable to that of Holbein.

The drawings, many done in silver point on a pink paper, probe character to the same depth as the paintings mentioned above but with far more economy. Many barely outline the upper torso and clothing but finely render the facial features and expressions.

To my surprise and delight, I am also intrigued by some of the Gainsborough portraits here including Elizabeth and Mary Linley - the Linley Sisters, in the special exhibition Masterpieces of European Painting from Dulwich Picture Gallery. Gainsborough had always seemed quite rarefied to me, his society portraits of gentlemen and women remote and mannered, but today the sitters' personalities emerge from the dreamy attenuation of his technique and palette.

Saturday

This was the day we had set aside to "do" MOMA. Arriving early, we were greeted by long lines that stretched from the entrance at mid-block nearly around the corner of Six Avenue. We struck up a conversation with four Spanish women from San Sebastian and gathered some information for a forthcoming trip.

The lobby requires cattle chutes to process the large crowds purchasing tickets but the line moves quickly and efficiently. Once inside we take the elevator to the top floor and begin working our way down starting with one of my primary objectives of this visit, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century.

Was there ever a photographer who possessed such equal parts profound sympathy and skepticism as Cartier-Bresson? I think not. His pictures share absolutely nothing with the pablum comprising the core theme of The Family of Man yet they took for their departure many similar circumstances and were executed around the same time as quite a few.

Cartier-Bresson possessed an uncanny sense of timing, an acute understanding of the underlying structure of whatever scene unfolded before him and a Gallic sense of irony. It is also worth noting he possessed considerable personal courage as well, venturing into alien, sometimes hostile territories and situations that daunted lesser men. His three escape attempts from a German POW camp during WWII, the third successful, testify to this courage.

The show contains nearly all the iconic images of his enormous oeuvre and more than a few surprises, too. Several things always strike me in his work:

1. How did this diminutive man with short cropped hair manage to place himself before dozens of people, sometimes out in open country but nearly always in a setting where he was the only Westerner present, raise his small Leica discreetly to his eye and shoot many frames without being noticed? Oh, sure, occasionally one individual in the crowd will be looking at him, but this is the exception. He managed to slip into a situation, stalk the "decisive moment", snare it and slip away. The results were hardly mere National Geographic tourism in other peoples' realities. One need only look at images such as those he took of the bank runs in Shanghai as the Communists took over or at the funeral of Gandhi to understand the differences.

2. Though he is not particularly well known for his landscapes, these are always magnificent. The cypresses lining a French road are pure Cartier-Bresson, seemingly glimpsed as he passed by on an adjacent road yet supremely ordered and considered. The decisive moment is rarely if ever an accident; rather, it is anticipated, planned, stalked patiently and finally identified swiftly.

3. His pictures in America are almost universally his weakest, descending at times into cliche but nearly always tinged with an underlying disdain. It is clear he held Americans in little regard and like many of his countrymen failed to see how the vulgarity he despised here had its counterpart in the French bourgeoisie .

The chief surprises were the inclusion of several spreads from magazines such as Life showing the picture stories resulting from his assignments. Adjacent to the pages were some of the images themselves, always full frame, allowing the viewer to clearly see the legendary tension that existed between photographers and editors, who routinely cropped pictures to fit layouts disregarding the original framing. Though the photographer's stamp clearly indicates cropping is to be avoided, editors had their priorities, too.

We tend to forget Cartier-Bresson was a photojournalist much of his professional life and a founding member of Magnum, still the most famous cooperative of photojournalists, because his images are rarely shown in the context of assignments. The inclusion of these spreads addresses a needed reminder but do not alter the perception that Cartier-Bresson was less interested in narratives than in forms.

The show is the first mounted since his death earlier this decade and is a fitting tribute to those who already knew his work and a marvelous introduction to those who did not. Cartier-Bresson, one of my earliest influences, is both old master and old friend of the first water.

After leaving this exhibition we happened upon Lee Bontecou: All Freedom in Every Sense, a mini survey of her work covering roughly four decades. Though familiar with her name, I'd never seen a substantial number of works in one place. The show here features works on paper, wall-mounted sculptures and a recently acquired piece suspended from the ceiling and strikes. Bontecou's work is appealing but strikes one note.

Next, we passed through the permanent collection of Photography. These sort of survey installations of a great institution's holdings invariably omit some people the viewer believes important and includes others thought undeserving. Nowhere do I see a photograph on display by Ray Metzker, one of the most important American photographers of the last fifty years [full disclosure: he was my mentor in graduate school], but John Szarkowski, longtime curator of the department at MOMA, is included. I am appalled by both decisions. The rest of the installation seems skewed in so many directions as to give very little feel for the history of medium the collection no doubt well illustrates...in its vaults.

From Photography we move on to the many of the galleries showcasing the museum's magnificent collection of later 19th Century painting and early to mid 20th Century masterpieces. Here the old friends pour forth. Rousseau, Delvaux, Matisse, Cezanne, Cornell, Ernst et al. As I pass through these galleries I am suddenly struck by the number of people having their pictures taken in front of this or that masterpiece. They are not photographing the paintings; rather, they are having themselves photographed in front of the paintings. "I was here," the pictures declare, just as people have always done in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Famous pictures have become tourist destinations.

The great surprise of our visit turns out to be the show Picasso: Themes and Variations. Comprised entirely of prints, the exhibition focuses on themes ranging from his portraits of women (lovers and wives) to the Minotaur and Bullfighting. What makes the exhibition so revealing is that as Picasso aged he avoided repeating himself; he reinvented and reinterpreted himself and the people and things around him, but he never grew stale. He remained vital and engaged, his art growing well into his eighties.

Mention Picasso and eyes won't roll, but brows invariably furrow. His persona and work are so overwhelming one is daunted at the prospect of fully grasping what he has meant. He is prodigious and awe-inspiring, racing through the history of art that preceded him, acknowledging old masters like Velazquez and nearer contemporary ones like Cezanne, fully integrating their lessons and remaking their legacies in his own image. Then he abruptly turns from painting and makes three-dimensional objects of extraordinary imagination and ingenuity. Now ceramics. Next prints. Back to painting. He is less Protean Man than he is the master of self-invention and reinvention. The show at MOMA captures this lightning in a bottle.

We are now exhausted and after pausing for a late lunch decide to depart, our brains and our feet aching. One more stop is scheduled for this afternoon. We head over to the Edwynn Houk Gallery and the show Pioneers of Color: Stephen Shore, Joel Myerowitz and William Eggleston.

Pioneers may not be an exhaustive survey but it is clearly a representative one including several well known images. This trio was pioneering in their exclusive use of color when the preponderance of photographers with artistic aspirations or credentials were still using B+W but much of the work is hardly pioneering in any other respect.

Eggleston's reputation may be the most overinflated in 20th Century photography. While he occasionally has an uncanny feel for chaos and the messy appearances of things his work frequently falls flat. Consistent with his uncanny sense is an even rarer feel for garish color, most notably his iconic image of the red ceiling with cords sloppily intersecting at the light bulb. This is a marvelous photograph...and a rarity in his career.

Shore seems the most derivative of the three, taking his cues from a variety of sources, most notably Walker Evans, and applying color. His color views of American roadside life and the man-made landscape might have held some initial fascination in the way that rare color movies from World War II always surprise viewers who thought the war was fought only in B&W, but beyond their curiosity they show little else. Other pictures contain large hints of the work of Lee Friedlander and Robert Frank but without the former's wry wit or the latter's edginess.

Myerowitz is the only one of the three who seems to have had a subtle feel for color, particularly what happens to colors in crepuscular light, but too often his images seem best suited to coffee table books, decorative and nostalgic.

I note that some of the works here are being offered for $40,000 or more. Pioneering can be profitable, at least in the eyes of the seller.

Sunday

Our final day begins with a diversion to a flea market followed by a leisurely brunch and concludes with visits to the Whitney and the International Center for Photography.

It's biennial season at the Whitney, not only the current show but a retrospective of previous ones occupying several other floors. Many big names from the past are here, of course, but their presence doesn't add much luster to this year's installment. The most disturbing contributions from the current winners are the photographs by Nina Berman of former Marine sergeant Ty Ziegel, who was horribly disfigured by a bombing in Iraq. The images focus on Ziegel and his fiance in the weeks leading up to their wedding. The photographs are a blunt, unflinching reminder of the terrible human toll of the war and of the human spirit but their presence here in this context is troubling.

War photographs are no strangers to museums beginning with Roger Fenton and running through Alexander Gardner, Robert Capa, Larry Burrows and Eddie Adams among others but their inclusion always underscores several difficulties beginning with how should we treat documents intended as artless polemics on the one hand and images that while they share formal qualities with works of art were not originally intended to be see in that context. Photography was born straddling this fence and has remained astride it through the eras of picture magazines such as Life and online sites like Flickr.

Berman's pitiless approach to her subject grabs our attention by the throat, but my inclination is to turn around and jamb them down George Bush's throat rather than to contemplate the meanings of the images themselves. Berman succeeds in raising the temperature of my blood but having done so, my thoughts wander to the lies and deceits fundamental to the prosecution of this war and her images become mere souvenirs of the occasion. They are worthwhile but artless.

After the Berman images we decide to depart for our final destination, the International Center for Photography.

Regrettably, we arrive near closing time and scurry through the principal exhibition, Twilight Visions: Photography, Surrealism and Paris. The show is quite large and meanders more than a few times from the purported central theme of surrealism, particularly the well known images of Paris after dark by Brassai. The curators speak of contrasting "real and imagined" versions of Paris, but the inclusion of Brassai's petty hoods, prostitutes and cafe types seems a stretch when speaking of Surrealism or its influence. Ironically, in the next room there is a small and disappointing cache of Atget photographs on display. Many Surrealists acknowledged a far greater debt to his work than to that of Brassai but Atget, who never considered himself as Surrealist, is set apart.

With few exceptions, chiefly Man Ray, photographers were the second stringers of Surrealism and this exhibition attempts to put forth the notion that nothing is more "unreal" or "surreal" than reality itself. It doesn't succeed.

We end the long weekend exhausted and looking forward to returning to our own reality.