At the Galleries
The fall season was something of a William Kentridge fest, with his eagerly anticipated production of Alban Berg’s Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera, performances of his “chamber opera,” Refuse the Hour, with music by Philip Miller, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, lectures by the artist at institutions ranging from the New York Studio School to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the launch of a magnificent edition of Frank Wedekind and Carl Richard Mueller’s The Lulu Plays, with Kentridge’s drawings, and an exhibition of those drawings at Marian Goodman Gallery. (The protean South African’s recent videos will inaugurate 2016 at the gallery.)
“Refuse the Hour,” a taut, packed amalgam of Kentridge as author and performer, with video projections, oddball machines, extraordinary singers and musicians, and the astonishing dancer Dada Masilo, was either a distillation or an expansion of the multimedia installation The Refusal of Time, jointly owned by the Met and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which was shown in New York last year. Like the installation, the opera was a meditation on time, a demonstration of both the inevitability of its passage and ways of attempting its reversal (at least through the artifice of performance), along with a generous acknowledgement of the general absurdity of life. The piece combined unforgettable images and phrases, rhythmic sounds, quirky animated machine-props, and movement that encompassed the deceptively casual—the sturdy Kentridge’s expressive, often very formalized walking —and the immensely dynamic and inflected—the agile Masilo’s whiplash trajectories through space. A powerful moment, when the fragile-seeming Masilo carried Kentridge on her back, encapsulated male/female, white/black relationships in a single gesture. It was typical of the work’s layered, deeply engaging character.
Lulu, like Kentridge’s earlier Met production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose, seamlessly fused overscaled, animated, black-and- white drawings, projected on multilevel panels, and the action of the singers; notes of color were mainly provided by the costumes. The drawings simultaneously enhanced and commented on the wrenching story of an irresistible woman, literally raised from the gutter, who destroys the men around her by her detached passivity, sinks lower and lower, and is finally murdered by Jack the Ripper. As specified by Berg, Lulu’s unhappy adventures between the two Wedekind plays on which the opera is based were recounted in an evocative film combining “real” images and drawing. Throughout, Kentridge’s vigorous brush-and-ink drawings ranged from portraits of Berg and Wedekind, to the wild beasts described in the prologue, to heads and nude figures of Lulu herself (some based on the soprano Marlis Petersen, who brilliantly embodied the role). There were also abstract “cancellations” of the recognizable, including a stylized curtain of vertical strokes. No matter how complex or visually arresting the projected images, however, they were always in the service of the music and the action, never a distraction.
Kentridge’s drawings were stamped with his powerful personality—sometimes we saw his hand moving the brush—but everything was inflected by German Expressionist graphics and films. The portrait of Lulu, being painted as the opera begins by an artist who becomes one of her victims, became a dominant motif, repeatedly projected, in guises as mutable as Lulu herself, sometimes in the form of overlapping drawings that fluttered apart to reveal a nude figure, sometimes as a reclining or splayed nude. Larger than life drawings of fragmented body parts appeared occasionally on helmet-like masks or pasted almost randomly on Lulu, surrogates, perhaps, for actual nudity or emblems of exaggerated sexuality. The mobile, unstable images, now projected at enormous scale, now attached to a performer, reinforced Lulu’s describing herself as someone without pretense, who allows men to project whatever they wish onto her. Both visually and musically, the production was stunning, both wrenching and exhilarating.
At Marian Goodman, Kentridge’s drawings for Arion Press’s luxurious, illustrated edition of Wedekind’s The Lulu Plays were presented as if in the studio—unframed, pinned to the wall, in multiple rows. The bold brush-and-ink images imposed on haphazardly assembled scavenged pages of old publications included portraits of Lulu as a cross between Petersen and Louise Brooks, who played the role in the celebrated film Pandora’s Box, plus Berg, Wedekind, Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Sigmund Freud, all “cast” as the characters in the play. Once again, Kentridge’s imagery reflected his assimilation of the work of such German painters as Max Beckmann, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Emil Nolde. The intimacy of the drawings and the directness of the installation were a wonderful counterpoint to the spectacle of the opera. I eagerly await January’s showing of Kentridge’s videos.
A very different conception of drawing, punctuated by a few potent three-dimensional objects, could be seen in “Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions” at the Morgan Library and Museum. Puryear, who is acclaimed for his enigmatic, introspective, often volumetric constructions and his sensitivity to the properties of materials ranging from tar on wire mesh to wood, rattan, and metal, has rarely shown his works on paper, so the roughly chronological exhibition offered a fascinating glimpse into both his evolution and his methods. Early figurative drawings and woodcuts, some done when the artist served in the Peace Corps, in Africa, bore witness to the acute sense of observation and refinement of means that still characterize his art, while pointing to the resonant economy of his mature works.
In the second-floor gallery devoted to earlier work, we could follow the permutations of a swelling form—head, vessel, internal organ, or perhaps torso—at different scales and drawing mediums, from utilitarian but elegant preparations to fully realized, finely tuned, expressive images; a few unequivocal sculptures of heads enriched the mix. The selection was anchored by a large, exquisitely crafted construction in wood: a complex, openwork, space-greedy volume containing a kind of emblem in tar and wire. Downstairs, in the jewel-box Thaw Gallery, more recent drawings and a row of small, subtly varied sculptures explored the many manifestations of a form derived from the Phrygian cap worn by revolutionaries as a symbol of liberty, headgear that, by extension, implies a protest against slavery. The proportions of the form sometimes shifted, making it even more ambiguous. One of Puryear’s monumental outdoor pieces was documented, as well, by a large drawing made to be translated into stacked granite blocks. All in all, an informative and visually rewarding show that enriched our understanding of an extraordinary artist.
“Jules Olitski: On the Edge, A Decade of Innovation,” at Leslie Feely, was similarly revelatory. A fine selection of Olitski’s delicately modulated paintings from the 1970s revealed his exploration of elusive surfaces, subtle hues, and tonal variations. Feely quotes Olitski as saying, about works of this kind, “I was trying to extend Rembrandt’s use of flowing paint, his chiaroscuro, and just as much, his impasto into modern painting.” In contrast to the disembodied expanses of sprayed-on, chromatic color that established the painter’s reputation in the 1960s, his works of the 1970s test the expressive possibilities of richly inflected surfaces and subdued but rich color. At times, the thick, manipulated impasto (achieved with the most up-to-date acrylic paint technology of the time) becomes like shallow relief. At other times, Olitski seems to be rethinking the implications of Cubist fragmentation, translated into giant sweeps and pushed fully toward abstractness. As always, the size and proportion of the intuitively adjusted fields are crucial, as are the occasional drawn lines that restate boundaries or trace paths across the canvas, altering the space and triggering multiple associations with everything from landscape to reclining figures. The paintings in “On the Edge” demanded that we invest time to absorb their eloquent nuances. If we looked long enough, for example, surprising blushes of often seductive color eventually bloomed out of delicate grays and tans. As always, Olitski here presented us with slowly yielding works whose apparent simplicity proved to encapsulate a lifetime’s passionate thinking about the entire history of art and a lifetime’s commitment to finding ways of translating that history into powerfully associative abstract language.
“Passion and Commitment” was the title of a remarkable show at FreedmanArt this season: selections from the collection lovingly and perceptively assembled over more than six decades by the eminent Philadelphia-based radiation oncologist Dr. Luther W. Brady, Jr. Dr. Brady’s discerning choices include stellar works by Milton Avery, Jack Bush, Richard Diebenkorn, Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph Gottlieb, Howard Hodgkin, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, David Smith, and Frank Stella, among other luminaries. What distinguishes the collection, in addition to the uniform excellence of its components, is the evidence of a single, informed, independent intelligence behind each choice. Most works are fairly intimate—the collection is promised to a variety of museums, but Dr. Brady has always lived with his art—although there are a few exceptional larger pictures, such as a forth- right, deceptively simple Avery; a brash, slightly Surrealist Hofmann; and a tough, eccentric Gottlieb, a tense, dynamic black-on-gray web from the little-known Labyrinth series. Dr. Brady’s Frankenthalers range from a youthful Neo-Cubist work, made in 1949, the year the precocious artist graduated from Bennington College, to a moody flood of richly modulated browns and taupes, painted in 1979, in response to Edouard Manet’s The Ragpicker. And that’s not to mention David Smith’s odd-ball ceramic sculpture and a small, very choice wall-hung fairly recent Stella, from his continuing “Scarlatti Series,” a swirl of extruded, delicately colored high-tech material, engaged by “drawing” with silvery metal.
“Passion and Commitment” bore witness to Dr. Brady’s educated eye for high quality and his discerning taste for the unpredictable. The museums slated to receive these marvelous works are very fortunate.
We could follow the processes of another acute, informed, passionate eye at the Princeton University Art Museum, in “Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection.” Henry Pearlman assembled this stellar group of works, now housed in Princeton, over about three decades, beginning in the 1940s. The collection is perhaps most notable for its Paul Cézannes, which include a powerful view of Mont Sainte-Victoire from the very end of the painter’s life, an enchanting head of his son, as a toddler, and a terrific bather seen from the rear, among other splendid works. Even more spectacular, if that’s possible, are the Cézanne watercolors, not only because of their sheer number and their extraordinary quality, but also because of their encapsulation of most of the painter’s significant themes, from the 1870s to about 1906, the year of his death.
If we could force ourselves to leave the Cézanne section of the installation, however, we were rewarded by some stunning, visceral landscapes and still lifes, and an incisive portrait by Chaim Soutine, some exceptionally fine Amedeo Modigliani portraits and one of his rare stone sculptures, a knock-out bather by Edgar Degas, and an iconic Vincent van Gogh of the Tarascon stagecoach, among other delights. Many of the works in the Pearlman Collection are deservedly well known from their frequent inclusion in exhibitions worldwide, but it was a special pleasure to see them together.
Back in the City, at Alexandre Gallery, “John Walker: Looking Out to Sea” offered the latest installment in the love affair of the British-born abstract painter, long an American resident, with coastal Maine. Walker’s recent canvases translate the constant movement and changing light of the sea, seen from a rugged shore, into robust, zig-zagging, roughly brushed bands of color. Staccato interruptions in the jagged rhythms suggest alterations in viewpoint, landscape configurations, distant views, and more, all without compromising the exuberant abstract self-sufficiency of the paintings. For all their wide-ranging allusiveness, Walker’s confrontational, tipped compositions and sensuous, varied surfaces demand that we experience them in purely formal terms, almost independently of their associations.
Yet the perceptions that had triggered these works were almost palpable, in completely non-literal ways. Vivid greens, brazen yellows, and saturated blues, set off by abundant use of white, conjured up bright seaside light, in spring or summer, while alterations in the rhythms of the nested bands, as well as in the width and intensity of lines, became equivalents for the motion of waves. Large superimposed forms implied marine life and the litter of complicated objects, all with specific functions, found on the docks of any working harbor—among many other, often contradictory, fragmentary overtones.
A few earlier paintings, made between 2002 and 2007, with crustier surfaces and a more earthbound palette, moved us back to shore or into a different season, again teasing us with half-glimpsed references to specific places and visual phenomena that flickered in and out of our consciousness, enlivening but not overwhelming their essential abstractness. A selection of the continuing, engaging series of bingo card paintings—miniatures ranging from fairly specific “landscapes” and “seascapes” to geometric improvisations—and a muscular charcoal drawing rounded out the exhibition. The large paintings seemed a bit close together in the gallery’s handsome new space, but the freshness of their color and the energy of their internal rhythms made that nearly irrelevant. Walker is one of the most compelling painters working today. It’s always exciting to see what he’s been up to.
In Philadelphia, the large, ambitious “Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life” made us rethink our definition of the genre. Once the least respected of the academy’s categories—history painting, with its large-scale figures and high-minded narratives ranked highest—still life became a favorite motif of modernists, since inanimate forms, such as bottles, plates, and even fruits and vegetables, permitted an emphasis on purely formal concerns. Despite still life painting’s low rank in the academic hierarchy, traditional artists, committed to a conception of art as mimesis, found that the genre offered opportunities for demonstrating their ability to replicate changing effects of light on a vast range of surfaces and materials, culminating, in nineteenth-century America, in virtuoso trompe-l’œil paintings designed literally to “deceive the eye.” The exhibition embraced all of these possibilities and enlarged our understanding by including works with all manner of inanimate subject matter—bottles, fruit, fish, meat, and fowl, along with flowers, seashells, animals, insects, and eyeglasses—plus a few paintings with figures.
At the outset, we were reminded, by some of John James Audubon’s most spectacular images—an agile flamingo and some acid green parrots—made with dead birds as models, that in Romance languages, “still life” is “dead nature”; the presence of stuffed specimens reinforced the point. The following sections of the show, devoted to the nineteenth century, had their longueurs, in spite of curatorial efforts to tell the story with everything from vastly accomplished professional paintings to earnest amateur efforts, in a range of media. Notwithstanding the presence of some of the best known, most engaging “letter rack” trompe l’œil works of the period, there seemed to be a daunting number of highly illusionistic, not terribly compelling paintings. It was understandable, of course, given what most American painters were doing, at the time, but it was hard not to think that if this were an exhibition about French “dead nature,” we’d be looking at Eugène Delacroix’s explosive bouquets or Gustave Courbet’s late paintings of bruised apples.
Things improved dramatically in the modernist section, where bold, bright, crisp works by Patrick Henry Bruce, Gerald Murphy, and Stuart Davis, among others, offered evidence that verisimilitude, however brilliantly achieved, could be overrated. Inventive compositions, alterations of scale, and unpredictable orchestrations of shapes and hues took precedence over the naturalistic depiction of the pocket watches, eggbeaters, cigarette packaging, and the like that these artists took as points of departure. Charles Sheeler’s elegant 1931 tableau of a cactus plant surrounded by photographer’s lamps in a geometric setting summarized modernist attitudes toward still life, but the complete transformation of the genre by contemporary artists was most clearly embodied at the exhibition’s end by Jasper Johns’s 1960 polychrome bronze Savarin coffee can filled with fictive bronze brushes and Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, 1964. Here the intention was clearly not to fool the eye or demonstrate mimetic skill, but rather to make us question how and why we define these objects as works of art and not as what the critic Arthur Danto called “mere real things.” We’d come a long way from Audubon’s sinuous flamingos.