Arts Review

At the Galleries

The most spectacular event of the fall season in New York was the reopening, after eight years, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s refurbished, reconceived, and now altogether resplendent galleries formerly known as the “Islamic Wing.” Now, we are instructed to refer to “the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.” It’s not as silly as it sounds. The new title, while admittedly cumbersome, is neither an elaborate means of avoiding the loaded term “Islam” nor merely a prudent effort to forestall criticism from zealots with easily wounded sensibilities. Rather, it is a fairly accurate description of what we encounter—an installation that emphasizes not relig- ious art but the diverse manifestations of a distinctive, extensive, and varied culture in a fairly large part of the world. Only one section is designed to evoke the mosque, through a group of modern, specially commissioned hanging lamps inspired by traditional mosque lights, installed to define an exhibition space that includes some fine, ancient examples of the real thing. (It’s worth noting, though, that the lavishly illustrated, scholarly publication that accompanies the reopening of the wing is titled Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

The newly inclusive title notwithstanding, the region explored and celebrated in the Met’s new installation is one dominated by Islam and by Islamic culture, even though communities embracing other beliefs have certainly existed and often continued to exist within it, under Muslim rule. In addition, the period encompassed by the works on view corresponds roughly to the advent of the new faith and its dissemination throughout the Middle East and North Africa, facts the stunning introductory first gallery at the Met makes no attempt to disguise. A selection of superb objects made of different materials, for radically different functions, from the early years of the Muslim conquest, begins with a page from a magnificent, immense Qur’an, one of the oldest in existence, made in Syria or North Africa in the late eighth or early ninth century and distinguished by vigorous, muscular calligraphy. This sacred text, however, is not only balanced by a secular object, but slightly upstaged by it; a large, elegant, chalk-white earthenware bowl, from tenth-century Persia, is placed on axis with the entrance to the new galleries. This purely utilitarian but exquisite vessel boasts a perfectly placed elongated dark brown inscription around the rim, a recommendation from the Prophet Mohammed that the owner behave well, an announcement, like the script on the monumental Qur’an page—and several other objects in the first room—that the written word will be a leitmotif throughout.

The cumulative effect is not only of opulence—because of the excellence and richness of everything included—but also of intimacy—because little of what is exhibited is monumental in size. Organized in a chronologically and regionally logical progression that attempts to clarify the intricacies of various dynasties, the new installation occupies beautifully appointed galleries that spiral around the Roman courtyard below, borrowing light through windows screened with North African-style wooden lattices. There’s more space than in the old Islamic Wing, accommodating expanded displays of ceramics, architectural fragments, textiles, manuscript paintings, Qur’an pages, carved wood, carpets, tile, complicated metalwork, armor, domestic appurtenances, ritual objects, and more. Some of it is unfamiliar, but there are also many choice items that many of us have been waiting impatiently to see again, such as the selection of illuminated folios from the extraordinary Shahnama (The Persian Book of Kings) of Firdausi produced in Iran in the sixteenth century for Shah Tahmasp, all jewel-like color, agile figures, and tipped, flattened space. Or the alluring reception room from an early eighteenth-century house in Damascus, with its divans and gorgeous woodwork, now looking better than ever, since daylight appears to illuminate the warm tones of the wood, with its gilded decoration.

For sheer luxury, it is impossible to beat the ample galleries allotted to “Carpets, Textiles, and the Greater Ottoman World” and “Art of the Ottoman Court (14th–20th Centuries),” which include an elaborate sixteenth-century wooden ceiling, astonishing carpets, and a delectable selection of Turkish ceramics, mostly from Iznik, with irresistible stylized floral motifs in red, blue, and green against creamy white. Nearby, a tile mihrab—prayer niche—from fourteenth-century Isfahan, a glorious orchestration of turquoise, cobalt blue, and white, plays religious inscriptions in Kufic script against interlaced patterns that seem almost as eloquent. For sheer unexpectedness, there’s a pair of nearly life-sized, crowned “princely figures” in stucco, from mid-eleventh to mid-twelfth-century Iran. Not only is their large size unusual, but their combination of strict frontality and stylized moon faces with delicately arched, projecting brows, along with their elaborate jewelry and clothing with incised patterns, also makes them unignorable and surprising.

Almost everything is rich and complex. Patterns—floral and abstract, geometric, and curvilinear—run riot though the installation, along with examples of calligraphy that span an equally wide range of possibilities, from foursquare to florid. Paintings are small, densely populated, spatially inventive, and full of color and incident. Decorative and utilitarian objects alike are embellished and enhanced. The organization is by place and time, yet the more attention we pay to specifics, the more we begin to think about what unites these diverse examples, pondering the commonalities that link, for example, Indian and Persian painting, despite the distinctive character of each. We begin to think about the cross-fertilization between East and West provoked by trade and travel, noting Chinese overtones in the rendering of landscape forms and clouds in Persian and Turkish painting or seeing evidence of the seductive effect of Western Renaissance perspective on artists who otherwise honor the dictates of Islam, in terms of how they allude to the visible world; a wealth of wide-ranging influences and sometimes contradictory impulses often informs the works on view, in all mediums, to different degrees, at different times, and sometimes simultaneously.

The setting, with its state-of-the-art vitrines and lighting, is unobtrusive, discreetly enhancing the exhibits. We can enjoy details of the design, such as benches that echo regional prototypes, without being distracted from the main event. But since just about everything on view requires close, focused attention, it is a relief to come upon the newly created Moroccan court, a haven of well-proportioned, nicely lit emptiness, with a soothing fountain and intricately carved surrounding plasterwork. Like the decorated column capitals sparingly deployed elsewhere in the galleries (and the window grilles), the court is the work of highly skilled Moroccan craftsmen, living exponents of the crafts and the aesthetic embodied by the collection, evidence of the continuity of the driving forces of “the Art of the Arab Lands.” Once again, the Met has gotten it right; the reconfigured, reimagined galleries are a delight. It has been worth the long wait for a nourishing resource that demands and will reward many, many repeat visits. Eventually, the exhibited works will rotate—only about 1200 of a collection of about 12,000 objects are presently on view—but I suspect that until any changes are made, each time we return to the inaugural installation, we will discover something completely new and wonderful that we can’t remember having seen on the last visit.

Further downtown, at the Morgan Library and Museum, a relatively modest but visually lush exhibition, “Treasures of Islamic Manuscript Painting from the Morgan,” provided a wonderful addendum to the Met’s extravaganza. While the Library’s Islamic collection is less known than its hoard of medieval manuscripts, it includes remarkable examples, from Qur’ans to secular tales, scientific texts, books of poetry, and romantic epics. J. P. Morgan acquired the first works to enter the collection, a group of extraordinarily refined sixteenth-century Persian paintings, in 1911, after seeing some of them the year before in an important exhibition of Islamic art held in Munich, a show so ambitious that Henri Matisse, a lover of Islamic ceramics and miniature painting, traveled from Paris to see it. Morgan’s initial purchases included the exhibition’s poster girl, a voluptuous nude, reclining after a bath, framed by concentric rectangles of golden filigree. After Morgan died in 1913, his curator/director, Belle da Costa Greene, continued to acquire Islamic manuscripts personally, eventually bequeathing her works to the Morgan—hence “Treasures of Islamic Miniature Painting.”

The marvelous exhibit included a group of Qur’an pages from the early tenth to the seventeenth century, some positively austere, with forthright blocky calligraphy on pale pages, others written with sinuous sweeps and flourishes, and enriched with abstract zones of color and decorative pattern. An extra-large folio shared a vitrine with a miniature Qur’an, so tiny that the octagonal box that contains it was worn as an amulet. Lavish as the Qur’an pages are, the miniature paintings were the most arresting part of the exhibition, both as testimony to the strength and breadth of the collection’s holdings and for their intrinsic merits. The hyper-elegant examples that were Morgan’s entry into the field competed with such delights as enchanting animals from a thirteenth-century natural history compendium, sixteenth-century folios illustrating the tragic story of Laila and Majnun, a Persian Romeo and Juliet, and a copiously illustrated sixteenth-century Turkish translation of the life and miracles of the Sufi mystic and poet Rumi. Images densely populated with gorgeously clad, economically rendered characters, a miracle of pale blue, intense reds, and tender pinks, presented significant incidents from the various narratives. The exhibition labels provided clues to often complicated metaphorical and symbolic incidents: a fraught meeting between the thwarted lovers in the tale of Laila and Majnun, or the stories of a bull, fleeing from butchers, on whose behalf Rumi pleads and of a repentant water monster who asks Rumi’s wife to convey to her husband the monster’s wish to reform. The relationship between narrative and image in these imaginatively conceived works was always provocative, and we could learn a lot about Islamic miniature painting in general, but in the end, it was the paintings’ orchestration of flat, intense color and shape, along with delicious details of costume, setting, and incidental characters that made the Morgan’s show such a treat.

Other narratives, more ambiguous but no less engaging than the stories of Rumi and the unhappy lovers at the Morgan, were to be found in Chelsea, at Edward Thorp Gallery, in “Matthew Blackwell: Tour and Trance,” recent paintings and constructions by this irrepressible master of seductive paint and just plain whacky images. I should say at once that I am a complete sucker for Blackwell’s work, equally fascinated by his luminous color, his varied, virtuoso paint-handling—an adroit manipulation of pigment that, paradoxically, can verge on the ham-fisted—and by the allusive, politically charged, but open-ended events his cast of rangy, faintly disreputable characters enacts. And with each exhibition I’ve seen, his paintings seem to me to have become a little more inventive and hard to pin down.

Blackwell’s expanses of saturated color are interrupted by shorthand references to buildings, trees, geography—to place, generally—and inhabited by (mostly) tall, thin individuals whose personalities are bound up with the loose, expressive, energetic way that paint has been transferred to the canvas. The figures often seem to have been assembled from toys or paper bags or kitchen implements—among other things—and threaten to revert to their previous incarnations if it weren’t for the power of their painted context. Antic musicians, women a little too polite for their surroundings, bearded prophets, ruddy nudes, and rangy dudes, as well as figures who might be surrogate self-portraits, populate Blackwell’s world, conjured up with rapid strokes. A cheerful bear, who once played a more significant role in the paintings, appeared in Tour and Trance as a kind of overscaled “bust” cobbled together from scrap metal and discards, enlivened with paint. Everything seemed to take place in the grittier margins of the “American scene.”

The “tour” of the show’s title seemed inspired by paintings of people riding on lumpish beasts, conveniently labeled, and by a life-size, polychromed sheet metal and scrap canoe, propelled by a mysterious “personage-critter,” standing in the stern, as if poling a punt. The result was like something constructed by an extraordinarily sophisticated, politically savvy, brilliant naïf who was also highly trained, immensely accomplished, and had a taste for Tom Waits. Blackwell further explored this arresting theme in an equally playful, somewhat more explicit canvas. In all his works, exuberant incidents of pure painterly, essentially abstract improvisation—spots, dots, floating strokes, scrawls, and swipes—were fused with images whose space seemed elastic, like that of Mannerist painting, expanding and contracting according to the artist’s will. Blackwell’s pictures posit difficult questions about the nature of painting and probably about the society we live in. His wit and humor, I’m more and more convinced, are intended to disarm us, keeping us from noticing—or from noticing first thing—just how smart and serious an artist he is. But sheer ability and invention, like love and a cough, can’t be hid.

Elsewhere in Chelsea, at Lohin Geduld, Ruth Miller showed recent, apparently modest still lifes, drawings, and some landscapes. The sense of modesty vanished within a few minutes of spending time with these thoughtful, passionately felt, and ferociously intelligent pictures. Under Miller’s penetrating gaze and searching brush, the ordinary accoutrements of domesticity—a white pitcher, some gourds, a large shell, a cabbage—become the carriers of enormous emotional and pictorial significance. The visual weight of each form, the bite of each edge, is noted and accounted for with direct, confident passages of clear color. Detached strokes of a broad brush and shifts from transparency to opacity, together with modulations of unnamable hues, make nominally banal setups into monumental structures of apparently overwhelming importance. The bulge of a cabbage, the curl of a leaf, the roughly indicated highlight on a pitcher enter into a powerful conversation.

Miller is, in every sense, a painters’ painter. At the opening of her impressive show, her colleagues, themselves experienced, gifted artists, kept saying things like “Look at that! I can’t figure out how she does it.” It all looked as if it had simply been breathed onto the canvas, as Miller tracked space, evoked the character of objects, and suggested volume with just the right, subtly related—non-literal—tones and hues, all this while always reveling in paint as paint, at its most controlled, sensual, and responsive.

A greedy landlord apparently is forcing Lohin Geduld out of the small, elegant space the gallery has occupied for almost a decade and filled with exhibitions by uniformly strong artists, such as Miller, from different generations, all of whom notable for following highly individual paths. Let’s hope Lohin Geduld finds a new location quickly. This small, focused alternative to the usual Chelsea scene is much needed.

A little farther downtown, Pat Passlof’s radiant, recent canvases at ElizabethHarrisGallery were at once a glorious celebration of the life of this dedicated, passionate painter and teacher, who died after a long illness at 83, less than a week before the exhibition opened, and a poignant reminder of how much she will be missed. The paintings on view, mostly made in 2009 and a few in 2010–2011, were a notably varied group, some exploring rowdy repeated drawn elements, casually arranged against brushy grounds, others testing the extreme possibilities of both all-overness and more distinct shapes. Far from reflecting diminished capabilities, discomfort, or apprehension, the paintings seemed to announce Passlof’s sheer pleasure in putting materials on a surface, her unwavering belief in the importance of making paintings, and her stated hope that “you keep getting better” the longer you keep at it. Most were resolutely abstract, about mark-making, rhythm, and color as vehicles for expressing individuality, but one dark, vertical canvas, made in 2010–2011, all murky violet and ochres, was haunted by small, agile figures—as some of Passlof’s much earlier works were—here dissolving into incidents of pure brushstrokes and then reformulating themselves.

In many ways, the pictures were seamless continuations of pictorial notions that long preoccupied the artist—a deliberate challenge, perhaps, to the inevitable. Despite her deteriorating health, Passlof’s touch retained its vigor and assertiveness, so that the dense surfaces of her recent canvases seemed to construct themselves as we watched out of a repeated campaign of thrusts, twists, and bold strokes. Passlof’s color, too, in this last, defiant series, was as unpredictable and arresting as ever. A few works tested the limits of a subdued earthy or nocturnal palette, something she often employed before, but most investigated the emotional resonance of full-throttle chroma and luminous, youthful pastels. One smallish, square 2011 painting was a confrontational web of sunlit yellows with springtime greens breaking through and rows of soft-edged, rococo pink shapes floating to the surface, a distillation perhaps of the riotous garden at Passlof’s Upstate home or else a simple declaration of self—either way, a first-rate picture. The largest work in the show, also one of the most recent, was an urgently stroked tapestry of faded pinks, off-whites, and hints of ochre. A horizontal whitish line floated towards the top, above a horizontal, brushy whitish rectangle, near a delicately drawn, calligraphic “symbol”; the result was solemn, roughly beautiful, and very potent. Passlof’s last works should have been mandatory viewing for all young painters. At a time when many seem doubtful of the efficacy of visual economy, even suspicious of abstraction itself, and unwilling to trust the inherent expressive power of their materials, these tough, stripped-down paintings could have taught them a lot.

So could “Harvey Quaytman: A Sensuous Geometry” at David McKee Gallery, Uptown, a review of a series of apparently severe, actually voluptuous variations on the relationship of cruciform shapes to diamonds and squares. All were made between 1986 and 1990, evidence, at the time, of a gradually evolved departure from the shaped paintings with curvilinear forms that first established the artist’s reputation. Quaytman (1937–2002) was clearly an admirer of Piet Mondrian, or at least, an admirer of the disciplined meditation on geometric relationships that drove the cerebral Dutch painter’s work. Like Mondrian, Quaytman delighted in small adjustments and subtle imbalances, shifting his frontal compositions away from symmetry and forcing us to look hard at what is before us, to respond to what is really there. Unlike Mondrian, however, Quaytman never seems to have deduced his compositions from the rectangle, but rather, appeared here to have constructed his deceptively austere variations on the cross, the quadrant, and the irregular grid, piling shape on shape, allowing edges to reveal themselves, and tucking small incidents into corners. In this series, as in others, Quaytman’s palette of saturated violets, deep blues, black, white, earthy reds, and rusty browns was wholly his own.

Longer acquaintance and focused attention to the selection of Quaytman’s paintings at McKee Gallery revealed the aptness of the show’s subtitle, “A Sensuous Geometry.” Nothing was quite what it seemed. Far from being the graphic, crisp, dispassionate structures they appeared to be from a distance, Quaytman’s works, in fact, were notable for their evidence of the hand and for their delicate, exquisitely varied surfaces. From a closer vantage point, a range of fragile textures and layers revealed themselves, so that the history of the making of these confrontational images became a part of their meaning. Small nuances of density, like the asymmetries and changes in the relative weight of the geometric elements, also countered the apparent austerity of these strangely lush, definitely hand-wrought, slow but compelling paintings. The cumulative effect of a group of Quaytman’s works, in my experience, has always been stronger than that of individual paintings, simply because his ability to ring changes on what might seem to be a restricted set of givens then becomes very clear. At McKee, each work held its own, but the conversation among all fifteen definitely enhanced our sense of the artist’s achievement.

Like Passlof’s late paintings, Quaytman’s thoughtful, subtly inflected variants on a simple, but infinitely rich, idea should have been mandatory viewing for aspiring young artists, as examples of thoroughness, probity, and invention. I suspect, however, that more of them were drawn to the exhibition of the East German-born star Neo Rauch’s latest efforts at David Zwirner Gallery, in Chelsea. The show was, not surprisingly, the usual assortment of surrealizing dream images, rendered with a well-trained brush and just enough distortion of space and scale to make it plain that Rauch was treating his meticulous schooling at the Leipzig academy, before the collapse of the East, with proper irony. Essentially, he’s a modern-day Mannerist, specializing in incomprehensible narratives whose very obscurity seems to guarantee that he is taken seriously. Figures who do not seem to belong to the same situation make impenetrable gestures, ignore one another, or collaborate on inexplicable tasks. There’s often just enough art historical allusion to make viewers feel informed, a mélange of period references, a dependence on local color, and an air of portentousness. As I said, more could be learned about the possibilities of expression through painting from either Passlof or Quaytman—not to mention Blackwell or Miller, for those attached to figuration.