A Museum Roundup, and the Gober Show
Picasso: A Cubist Commission in Brooklyn - The Metropolitan Museum of Art - September 14, 2023–January 14, 2024
Vertigo of Color: Matisse, Derain, and the Origins of Fauvism - The Metropolitan Museum of Art - October 13, 2023–January 21, 2024
Manet/Degas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art - September 24, 2023–January 7, 2024
Robert Gober - Cows at a Pond - Demisch Danant - September 7–October 21, 2023
Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture - Lever House - May 31, 2023–May 1, 2024
Picasso in Fontainebleau - MoMA - October 8, 2023–February 17, 2024
ED RUSCHA/NOW THEN - MoMA - September 10, 2023–January 13, 2024
Picasso: A Cubist Commission in Brooklyn
This could have been one of the greatest decorative commissions of all time if Picasso had gotten even close to finishing it, but it makes sense that Cubism was an awkward vehicle for meeting the demands of matching the exact dimensions of panels in Hamilton Easter Field's library. William Rubin has a brief essay on this commission in Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism, which seems to be the first research that sought to reconstruct which paintings were made for Field and was presumably the main source for the exhibition. I didn't notice any new information in the show in spite of the essay being 34 years old and described by the author as some rushed preliminary research, and the exhibition information fails to mention what's probably the most interesting part of the essay, which is that, aside from the narrow vertical and horizontal rectangular canvases here, the commission required five large square pieces that would have been by far the largest works of Analytic Cubism. The only trace of these having ever existed is one photograph of Picasso in his studio that shows a large, incomplete painting that was likely an attempt at one of these and was presumably destroyed. Notably, he didn't scale up his rendering to match the larger canvas, so the final result would have been an extreme exception from the norm of other works from the period and seems to have been simply incompatible with his methods at the time. Maybe Rubin's assertion that the large canvas in the photograph was for the commission has been disproven, I don't know. At any rate, the works here are unusual enough: The two earliest paintings, the tall, narrow Nude Woman and Reclining Woman on a Sofa are the most resolved since the relative simplicity of Cubism at the time made them more compositionally flexible; Man With a Guitar and Man With a Mandolin were lengthened by about a third and that added bottom length was left unfinished, perhaps because the changed dimensions upset the compositional harmony of the completed portions; Pipe Rack and Still Life on a Table and Still Life on a Piano are horizontal canvases that seem to struggle, again, with the dimensional constraints, as they feel both over-packed in the center and sparse at their edges, but that frustrated complexity makes them a unique exception to the usual extreme consistency of Analytic Cubism. Most of the accompanying drawings are from an early Cubist peak in 1910 and are pretty spectacular, the Stieglitz collection drawing and the rightmost of the Cadaqués trio in particular. As a small exhibition about a curious footnote in the history of Cubism it's undeniably less impressive than last year's trompe l'oeil show, but, curatorially speaking, I much prefer it for being an exceptionally nerdy exercise in art historical detail.
Vertigo of Color: Matisse, Derain, and the Origins of Fauvism
Matisse and Derain's Fauvism is the foil to Picasso and Braque's Cubism, although to be honest I didn't know that until I got here. I have a book on Fauvism but I haven't read it yet... Between the two movements there's no question which ended up being more important and influential, but where Cubism is still difficult, brainy, and borderline pretentious, Fauvism is uniquely ebullient and pleasurable, which makes sense because color is an uncomplicated, accessible quality of surface whereas form is a quality of depth that takes hard work to grapple with and is anything but immediate. Of the two painters Matisse is, unsurprisingly, the far superior technician, imparting a more subtle, waving sense of movement, as well as a more complex rendering of shading and depth. Derain's modeling is comparatively less deft and his spaces tend to emphasize a willful flatness, but this blunt technique more directly emphasizes the Fauvist approach to stark and vivid color. Matisse shows more concern for blending his emphatic colors into an atmospheric haze or purplish shadows, as in Olive Trees at Collioure, where the technique, while convincing, deemphasizes the purity of the colors themselves. Matisse is the more gifted artist, of course, but Fauvism was an early experiment and a stepping stone in his development into one of the greatest painters of the 20th century, and Derain later receded into a conservative and mostly unexceptional classicism. Matisse is mostly represented here by studies and sketches in comparison to Derain's completed canvases, which may be why I find him slightly less successful as a Fauve, but that's not to imply that his work is lacking; Nude in a Wood is incredible, as is the small still life on cardboard and the tiny beach scene covered in splotchy dots. I just think Derain's boats, his Mountains of Collioure, or the Environs of Collioure are the more radical works and more representatively Fauvist.
I have a weird asymmetry of knowledge about Manet and Degas. I've pored over my Degas book and enjoy his work a lot, but I don't know if I've ever read any scholarship on him. On the other hand, I've read Manet and his Critics, T.J. Clark on Olympia, some of Fried's work on him, a breakdown of the relationship between Marcantonio Raimondi's engravings after Raphael and Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, etc., almost all by accident or the recommendation of someone else, but I don't feel particularly well-acquainted with his oeuvre. Manet has been getting all the attention with this show because Olympia is the centerpiece and he has the flashy narrative as the spark that set off the chain reaction of modern art, but, in terms of what I like to look at, I prefer Degas for his sketchy sensuousness and his endlessly iterative motifs of jockeys, ballerinas, bathers, and so on. But Degas is easy and conventionally pleasurable, a painter of modern subjects with an accessible, traditional command of feeling and atmosphere. Manet is a problem, a thorn in the side of history. His approach is, if anything, radically traditional in its persistent use of direct historical references, but his painting is unremittingly modern and, bluntly put, strange. Why did audiences get so mad about Olympia? People have argued incessantly about the source of its unromantic frankness, and I'm not going to pretend to answer the question. I've always preferred the Déjeuner anyways, although Olympia is stunning and magnetic in person, and I think it's the easier window into what's going on with Manet. The Déjeuner is a fucking weird painting, even if you know the central figures are borrowed from the aforementioned Raimondi engraving, or that the woman's nudity is likely inspired by Titian's Pastoral Concert. The figures feel like they're floating over the landscape, particularly the too-large bather in the distance. (Fishing, which is here, has a similarly awkward spatial indeterminacy.) It's a jarring image, a bizarre, unsettling choice to put a naked woman next to a couple of 1860s dandies and a still life basket of fruit. His work never feels classical, and not for a lack of trying. He famously never expected to cause any of his many Salon scandals, and even his most straightforwardly historical canvas, The Dead Christ with Angels fails to convince as a spiritual scene and instead feels like a photograph of dressed-up nativity actors on the front lawn of a church. I've heard it claimed that most avant-gardes were started by aspiring artists who weren't talented enough to succeed in their medium conventionally, like Duchamp or John Cage, and while I have my doubts about how universally applicable that idea is, it seems to describe Manet very well. His lack of finish enraged his contemporaries, and if that doesn't bother us so much now, his inability to make his figures "go together," like in The Balcony, is still glaring. Degas' horse races each display subtle, evocative shifts in atmosphere: a misty morning, a prelude to a thunderstorm, or a bright afternoon, and the entire scene comes together into that feeling of the anticipation of the race's start, or the hesitant calm of jockeys waiting to get into position. Manet's are temporally indistinct, and spectators in The Races in the Bois de Boulogne abruptly turn into barely sketched blobs in the middle distance. Even the closer figures feel stiff and unconvincing blocked in, which reminds me somewhat of early Renaissance paintings where three-point perspective has been figured out but the figures look like cardboard cutouts, as in Perugino's Delivery of the Keys. It may sound like I'm being harsh, and I guess I am, but by pointing out his technical deficiencies I don't mean to imply that he's a failed or overrated artist. Degas goes down smoothly, a forefather to the Impressionist romanticism that's well-liked by mothers and postcards, but Manet is nowhere near as palatable, which is why he still provokes so much discussion. 150 years on, he still needs to be explained and struggled with, and I'm not sure I can think of an older artist that's less forthcoming for contemporary audiences. His Plum Brandy, alongside Degas' The Absinthe Drinker, has none of the latter's famous air of dissipation and may as well be a normal snapshot, but no one in 1877 had ever seen a normal snapshot, so the effect was shocking. (It's ironic but fitting that Degas was the fan of photography, not Manet.) He has his masterpieces here too, like Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, On the Beach, Boulogne-sur-Mer, his portrait of the Monet family, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, The Ham, among Olympia and others. His inconsistency and strangeness is what made him radical and epoch-making; like Cézanne, his aspirations were at odds with reality and he often failed, but his failures laid the ground for the steps that would be made by the next generation of artists. Degas succeeded far more often, but he's someone we now take for granted as "merely great." Comme si, comme ça.
Robert Gober - Cows at a Pond
This is a great concept show, almost problematically so in the sense that the transparent sentimentality explored by Gober is perhaps better expressed by his collection of archival ephemera, newspapers, signs, posters, etc. than it is by his own work. He's always courting an imaginary Americana that he clearly puts a lot of effort into curating, pampering, and perpetuating in both his art and his collecting, but I find his later work to be overly affectated by this endless nostalgia. He's obsessed with the aura of historical objects like a Nixon poster or a doodle by JFK and tries to transmit that feeling through his own work but, no matter how proficient he is at imitating the real thing, it's still a simulacrum that pales in comparison to an actual vestige of the past. The actual vestiges are here, though, and next to his art they're curated together into a seamless sensibility that's mutually reinforcing. Maybe this dichotomy isn't a real problem for Gober and the two don't compete in his mind, which would be fine with me except that I wish he did more shows like this. I assume Matthew Marks is too austere to allow that sort of installation, which implies to me that he did this show for the fun of it more than anything else, and that sense of informality allows the gallery to feel somewhere between a cluttered living room and an art gallery, which is much to the show's advantage. I understand that's not exactly a viable business model though.
Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture
Two of the three outdoor sculptures were missing, there was a pile of traffic barriers and crap where one of them should have been even though the show opened in May. The one that's there is a set of three of his usual shapes in aluminum, which looks like it belongs in a place like this. You can't go in the lobby without a keycard to see the indoor pieces up close, mostly scale models and none of it colorful, so they're not particularly alluring anyway. I wish I knew why Lever House bothered doing this at all, because they clearly don't care if anyone sees it.
Picasso in Fontainebleau
There's some great late Cubist pieces in the show but it's dominated by Picasso's turn to neoclassical figures, which has a distinct feeling of shifting down a few gears, like Fontainebleau was a vacation from aesthetic progress on top of being a literal vacation. Lord knows Picasso was allowed to take a break though, and him going back into conventional figuration feels very much like a self-conscious decision to settle back for a while into the easy chair of all the painterly conventions he'd already mastered. But Painting is never easy, and all the versions of Women at the Spring are exercises in ordinary composition that are no less demanding than new modes of composition. I like the smaller sketches more than the big final one, there's a compacted style that comes from execution of details in miniature that's distinctive and reminds me a bit of something out of Tiepolo, and they have a sense of spontaneity where the larger pieces feel somewhat belabored, like he had to force himself to finish something that he was losing interest in. Maybe he was seeing if his will was a great enough force that he could revive tradition after he'd blown it apart, but even Picasso couldn't resist history.
ED RUSCHA: NOW/THEN
A few of Ruscha's earliest pieces here, Su, Dublin, Parking Lines, are some of my favorite artworks I've seen this year, and how lucky of Larry Gagosian that he gets to own a lot of them. I don't even know why really, the clean layouts and the readymade pop comic appropriations that he's playing with before landing on his own voice have a fecundity of style that even his best-known works don't quite provide, even though there's nothing revolutionary about them. Maybe I'm just a sucker for first-wave pop art. His early work in general is explosive, exhibiting as clearly as anyone that contagious youthful energy and sense of possibility that was in the air in the '60s, when a kid back from a family trip to Europe could pluck almost out of thin air a new approach to painting that still feels enormously fresh and vital without much more than some experience in ad design and a sense of humor. By paring down his palate to the almost-too-simple materials of words and logos, the blunt objectivity of the camera and the comic potentials in shifting perspectives, he gave himself a stone that he managed to squeeze an incredible amount of water from for a decade: Hurting the Word Radio, Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights, all the artist's books, The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, etc. In general the first three rooms are practically flawless, and even the Liquid Paintings up through 1969 are great, although it's possible to infer from them in retrospect that he might have been starting to run out of ways to avoid repeating himself. Right at 1970 the ideas seem to stop coming, or at least the best ones were behind him, and that furious decade of inventiveness becomes a burden like with a star athlete who suddenly starts to feel their age at their peak. I'm not convinced by his pigment experiments or much of anything on display from the following decade, although Chocolate Room was good the first time I saw the show a couple of months ago when it still smelled like chocolate. In the early '80s he goes a bit "male Jenny Holzer" which is sometimes funny, sometimes annoying, but both periods, which are pretty poorly represented, feel like they were spent searching for something that felt as effortless as his earlier work did. He finally finds a solution in the mid-'80s with airbrushed acrylic and appropriated images, which breaks enough new ground to avoid feeling like strained self-repetition. Works like Jumbo, Five Past Eleven, and The End, are a return to the form of his original wit, but his batting average drops a bit with the missteps of the redacted text pieces and the letter "o" painted on books. By the '00s he's finds comfort in repeating himself, if not quite complacency, and he manages to pull it off sometimes, especially when the work doesn't obviously look like "a Ruscha," i.e. Psycho Spaghetti Western 7, Bliss Bucket, or Azteca / Azteca in Decline. He's a good artist and at the beginning he was incredible, but the methodology that allowed for such early brilliance was also the straitjacket that took him decades to work his way out of, and even then only partially. The simple fact is just that being one of the many artists who landed on a unique personal formula for making art in the '60s is no guarantee that that formula was going to be inexhaustible, no matter how brilliant it was to begin with. I don't mean that dismissively, repetition is the hardest thing there is!