At the Galleries
Given today’s gender politics, it’s no surprise that exhibitions by women artists, both solos and wide-ranging surveys, were conspicuous during the past season. Sometimes, no justification was needed beyond the excellence of the work on view, while at others, the effort to redress imbalances and expand awareness seemed to be the driving force, but all were worth noting.
The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., was the final stop for the touring show “Women Artists in Paris, 1850–1900,” organized for the American Federation of Arts by Laurence Madeline. Described as a celebration of “an international group of women who overcame gender-based restrictions to make extraordinary creative strides, taking important steps for a more egalitarian art world,” the show assembled nearly seventy works by women who worked in Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century. Some, like Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalès, and Rosa Bonheur, were residents. Most came to Paris to study for various amounts of time, from the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, Ukraine, and Switzerland, along with a surprising number from Scandinavia. A few of the artists in the show are well known; many are obscure, at best, known, if at all, mainly to specialists. (I suspect, however, that some of the Scandinavians enjoy a certain amount of attention in their home countries, given the smaller number of competitors.)
The talent and confidence of many painters in the exhibition was impressive, as was the evidence of their determination to make art that would be taken seriously. Determination was definitely required. The prestigious École des Beaux-Arts did not accept women until 1897, so before that, aspiring female artists attended private academies where, to judge by the work at the Clark, they received instruction as conservative as anything the Academy offered. Perhaps because of this, few seem to have been aware of the daring explorations of their French vanguard contemporaries, apart from the pioneer modernists Morisot, Cassatt, and the German Expressionist, Paula Modersohn-Becker—who studied briefly in Paris. In this context, Eva Gonzalès’ work appeared, as it seemed to Parisian audiences of her day, like a more palatable, less fierce version of her mentor Édouard Manet’s innovations. Straightforward naturalism, sometimes with very dashing paint handling, or a kind of loose but cautious Post-Impressionist approach dominated the show. Subject matter was equally conventional. As installed at the Clark, “Women Artists in Paris” was organized by themes such as “The Art of Painting”—self-portraits and depictions of women as artists—or the more expected “The Lives of Women,” “Picturing Childhood,” and “Jeunes Filles,” groupings seemingly chosen to underscore the realms deemed suitable for depiction by female painters. “History Painting and Everyday Heroism” documented “women painters who found heroic subject matter in the world around them.” That section included Rosa Bonheur’s muscular painting of a farm scene. (The portrait of Bonheur, looking a lot like Franz Liszt, by her American “long time companion” and biographer, Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, was a high point of sheer unexpectedness and over-the-top-ness.)
“Women Artists in Paris” made us admire the grit and effort of the painters it showcased, but the selection also confirmed why the show’s well-known artists are well known. Berthe Morisot may have been the most adventurous painter of the group, with her slashing brushstrokes and evocations of shimmering light. Mary Cassatt’s fine Portrait of an Elderly Lady in a Bonnet: Red Background (c. 1887) attested to her powers, but the other Cassatts included were not among her best. Cecilia Beaux, whose sense of light and bravura brushwork rival John Singer Sargeant’s efforts, looked terrific. Unfortunately, most of the works on view were not up to that level, but there were occasional happy surprises throughout, such as the Swedish painter Mina Carlson-Bredberg’s casual report on French art education, Académie Julian, Mademoiselle Beson Drinking from a Glass (c. 1884). Faced with so many well-intentioned but rather undistinguished works, however, it was hard not to think (unfashionably, I admit) about all the hopeful male artists of the period who were ignored, presumably not because of their gender but because of their problematic ability. Might this not be true of artists of both sexes? Yet we must applaud the effort to call our attention to all of these brave, dedicated women. Every female artist I know who saw the show was gratified and excited.
That things have changed since the days of the Clark’s show was confirmed by “X Marks the Spot: Women of the New York Studio School,” at the school’s 8th Street gallery, chosen by Malado Baldwin and Maia Ibar, alumnae of the NYSS MFA program. (I teach art history in that program but had nothing to do with the selection.) The Studio School curriculum emphasizes translating perception into mark- and form-making, through drawing and modeling from the figure. This rigorous discipline is intended not as an end in itself, as training at the Academy once was, but rather as a solid basis for exploring other directions. The wide-ranging works in “X Marks the Spot” made clear that the Studio School’s international roster of female graduates (and one inspired “gender fluid” British cross-dresser) keep that intention alive.
The selection included paintings, sculpture, and works on paper, in a broad spectrum of media and an even broader spectrum of approaches, along with video and performance art. Among the noteworthy paintings in a group of strong efforts: Ulgen Semerci’s stacked, monochrome evocation of the meeting of sea and sand; Fran O’Neill’s energetic abstract swirls and swipes; Isabel Barber’s intimate, restrained view down a corridor; Niki Singleton’s playful, sinister, cartoon-like image; Marie Peter-Toltz’s vigorous heroine; Katie Ruiz’s dissolving patterned cloth; Claudia Doring Baez’s confrontation of seated figure and perched goat; Cecelia Rembert’s robust abstraction; Erin Perrazzelli’s plainspoken self-portrait with her children; Kim Uchiyama’s forthright bands of color; Ariel Kleinberg’s “quilt” of creepy drawings; Susan Sussman’s straightforward, luminous landscape; and many, many more that lack of space precludes mentioning. Among the few sculptures included: Yi Zhang’s mysterious, clenched composite and Babette Rittenberg’s Janus-like little split head. The performances and videos expanded the show’s sense of abundance and variety, although, regrettably, few of them were as compelling as works in other media. Robert Anderson’s economical enactment of transgender yearning and Malado Baldwin’s oblique video inquiry into female self-perception were exceptions. Still, despite the considerable longueurs of the other pieces, it was good to see that Studio School alumnae were investigating media not associated with their training.
The diverse works in “X Marks the Spot” were proof that just about anything is possible these days. This sense of limitless boundaries was in marked contrast to the prevailing conservatism of the works in “Women Artists in Paris.” Even more encouraging was the large number of artists in the Studio School exhibition—about ninety, which was only a fraction, of necessity, of those who submitted to the show. We receive daily proof of lingering inequities in the art world, for women, men, and everyone else, but the strength, ambition, and unfettered quality of “X Marks the Spot” suggest that there’s been a great deal of progress in how female artists are regarded since those intrepid women ventured to Paris more than a century and a half ago.
Yi Zhang’s engaging sculpture in “X Marks the Spot” was part of a recent series that the Beijing-based artist exhibited last summer at John Davis Gallery, Hudson, New York. Mostly intimate in size, often hung on the wall or placed so that we looked down at them, the pieces were distinguished by their mixture of materials and their potent sense of having been manipulated by a sturdy hand; rhythmic stitching seemed to force unruly shapes into place and made the action of that hand more visible. At first, we were engaged by the play of complex, concave and convex shapes, nested within one another, expanding outwards, or in the largest work, the narrow, suspended Evening Lead (2018), dangling from one another, laced by delicate braided elements. Zhang’s works are elusive, unexpected, and convincing; they remain unidentifiable but hover on the edge of Baroque elaboration, without seeming overcomplicated or overwrought. Spend some time and straps, buckles, and other fragments of actuality begin to declare themselves, until we suddenly realize that these enigmatic objects had their origins in running shoes and boots, deconstructed, wrenched apart, and forced into new, unpredictable configurations.
Zhang’s complex composites update the Cubist tradition of construction with found objects and add a political commentary of her own. When she first came to New York, to pursue an MFA at the Studio School, she says she was shocked by American wastefulness, as demonstrated by the number of perfectly usable things she saw discarded on her way to school. Her work, over the next two years, often incorporated repurposed, scavenged elements collected from the street. Her recent sculptures, mostly constructed with her own shoes and sometimes punctuated with fragile “ropes” braided from her own hair, continue this thrifty practice. Zhang elicits poetry and humor through recycling, transubstantiating banal objects otherwise destined for landfill into expressive, tough-minded sculptures that both intrigue and surprise us. I’m eager to see what she does next.
“Cadence,” Jill Nathanson’s show of recent paintings at Berry Campbell, in Chelsea, continued her exploration of the emotional resonance of translucent, luminous, unnameable color and allusive but unidentifiable shapes. Nathanson is a profoundly intuitive (albeit widely read and thoughtful) painter. Her radiant, lyrical paintings appear to have come into being spontaneously, effortlessly, without preconception, as if their overlapping pools of color somehow magically appeared in just the right relationships, yearning at one another across the surface. In fact, they are the result of a slow, complex process that begins with Nathanson’s generating sheets of translucent color on the computer and then “carving” them into shapes that she assembles in modest-size studies. When she has achieved a configuration that speaks to her, she translates it into one of her large paintings, using a thick acrylic polymer medium developed for her by Golden Artist Colors. It’s very time consuming. Each color must be put down separately and allowed to dry before another hue can be added.
Nathanson’s painstaking method demands close attention and enormous expertise, yet the resulting images never appear labored or calculated. There’s little evidence of the artist’s hand, yet the paintings seem charged with a particular personality and resonate with a wide range of moods and emotions. Edges are made to carry the burden of drawing, although at times, Nathanson superimposes touches of the brush or fingers that, together with rare slender or angular elements, change the dynamics of the picture. The work of Nathanson’s ancestors, especially Kenneth Noland (whom she knew well), Jules Olitski, and Helen Frankenthaler, offers a precedent for this kind of disembodied, color-based painting, but Nathanson has updated and expanded the legacy of Color Field abstraction. Her paintings are notably original and of the present moment. In part, the freshness of Nathanson’s work depends on her wholly individual sense of color, an ability to orchestrate allusive hues that we feel we’ve never seen before and certainly have never seen in the evocative relationships before us. Nothing is predictable, yet everything seems right, rather like the assonances and dissonances in a Charles Ives or Igor Stravinsky score. Nathanson’s suave surfaces also contribute to the contemporary quality of her paintings, as does the way her compositions resist being deciphered; her overlapping shapes often suggest shifting, unstable spaces, but we can never be certain just what’s on top of what. Some paintings seem to distill nature; a centralized composition can seem floral, while others flirt with memories of landscape. Ultimately, however, Nathanson’s ambiguous layers of color demand and reward our concentration without fully revealing their secrets. Perhaps the musical analogy that Nathanson sometimes hints at with her titles is more helpful. Whatever we conclude, we know we are confronted by rigorous but beautiful images that are impossible to ignore. I’ve been following Nathanson’s work for years. She keeps getting better and better.
Male artists, some of them dead and white, were, as usual, well represented in the most interesting exhibitions of the past season. At the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, “Giacometti” offered a comprehensive, often surprising overview of the reticent artist’s entire career. Sculpture always looks better than painting on the Guggenheim’s ramp, and this beautifully installed show was particularly effective. The scale of even the largest of Giacometti’s pared-down figures and urgently worked heads was sympathetic to the space, and there were many ingenious, handsomely devised alternatives to the usual “shop window” effect of having to view everything from one side and from a limited distance (apart from the often frustrating long view across the rotunda).
Organized in collaboration with the Fondation Giacometti by Guggenheim curator Megan Fontanella and the Fondation’s director Catherine Grenier, the show included sculptures and paintings from the artist’s entire career: Cubist- and Surrealist-inflected works and miniature heads of the 1930s; nervous, scribbled portraits and figure paintings of the 1940s; well-known tense, attenuated, heavy-footed women and striding men of the last quarter century of the artist’s life; a group of late portraits. There were a fair number of signature works that allowed us to follow Giacometti’s explorations of sturdy volumes, at different scales, as well as his “non-sculptures” seemingly born of a wish to hold two masses of space apart, and his densely worked heads, at once ferociously present and disembodied.
The real pleasure of the show was the emphasis on unexpected, little-known works from the Fondation. While it was frustrating to have only a drawing for the mysterious The Palace at 4 a.m. (1932), instead of the frail, lashed-together “house-sculpture,” with its haunting inhabitants, in compensation, there were the tiny but monumental early heads mounted on substantial bases and the dazzling, rarely seen plasters, sometimes the beginnings of familiar works, made personal and tentative by their material. The plaster version of the oversized, detached, slender limb, The Leg (1958), was almost worth the entire visit. The shift away from symmetry, as the weight of the implied figure rolled toward the inside of instep, as always, suggested potential movement, but never seemed as eloquent as it did in the pale, dry, ochre hue and chalky texture of the plaster. And, as in all the plasters, the surface seemed particularly articulate. Giacometti famously chased each bronze as it emerged from the mold, reworking the surface to his liking, but there’s still something specially revealing about touch in the plasters. The entire show, supplemented by a revealing film, was more about process than result. Many works, especially the plasters, were so intimate that it was like watching Giacometti work. We came away feeling that we’d learned something new about an artist we thought we knew well.
A few blocks uptown, at the Jewish Museum, “Chaim Soutine: Flesh,” organized by the museum’s curator Stephen Brown, offered an overview of what must be termed Soutine’s still lifes, made between 1919 and his death in 1943, with a concentration on the 1920s. The show made clear, however, that “still life” is entirely inadequate. Nothing could be more un-still, more throbbingly animate, or more weirdly different from the tradition of decorous still life painting than Soutine’s fierce images of fish, fowl, and sides of beef, all painted from life (or more accurately, death). Urgent drawing, supercharged color, and passionately manipulated paint enliven every image. Forks menace hapless sardines like predatory hands; the fish howl in protest. Turkeys, hung to enhance the flavor of their meat, writhe against the wall, their livid yellow flesh luminous against clusters of blue-black feathers and sweeps of dark, radiant Prussian blue, lit by flickers of orange. At first glance, Soutine’s paint application seems relentlessly vigorous and agitated, but the more time we spent with the works in “Flesh,” the more we became aware of the delicacy of his touch. The soft plumes on the wings, neck, and legs of the brutally naked fowl, for example, are suggested with thread-like, rhythmic strokes that contrast dramatically with the broad handling elsewhere. The emotional temperature of all the paintings in “Flesh” was inflected by this kind of subtlety.
The next gallery was devoted to raw sides of beef that kick against the boundaries of the canvas. Like the contrast of the lurid yellows and oranges of the poultry with their deep blue grounds, the intensity of Soutine’s red sides of beef against zones of translucent dark blue somehow suggests decay and the effect of time on perishable food stuffs. Yet it also moves us solidly into the realm of the aesthetic. The suspended carcasses make us think about Rembrandt’s solemn, wrenching “portrait” of a flayed ox, a surrogate Crucifixion in a dim interior. Soutine’s sides of beef have nothing to do with Christian subtexts, of course, informed as they are by his memories of the ritual slaughter of food animals during his childhood in a Jewish village in what is now Belarus—before he moved to Paris, at twenty. But his gutted carcasses are painted in such radiant crimsons and juicy orange-reds that we think less about the slaughterhouse than about—say—the gorgeous orchestration of reds in Titian’s portrait of the Farnese pope, Paul III, and his grandsons. We think of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese’s silken red robes and hat; Paul’s gleaming cool-red velvet cape and cap; the dull brown-red of Ottavio Farnese’s doublet; the florid brown-red of the damask drape; the glowing vermillion of the tablecloth.
The installation began with early, relatively straightforward still lifes—foodstuffs and objects on tabletops, often with agitated, lace-edged cloths—then continued with “portraits” of single dead creatures. The last gallery featured a few small, rather pastoral works of farm animals and one atypically calm landscape, painted at the end of Soutine’s life, when he was hiding from the Nazi occupation in rural France. These touching, charming images had the emotional charge of the other works in the show but were also calmer and more contemplative. It was as if Soutine, during a horrifying period, was inventing paintings to comfort himself. Dead poultry might have seemed too close to actuality.
Farther north, “Darryl Hughto: From Diamonds to Sailboats”—an exhibition by a live white male—at the Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York, brought together some of the economical abstractions that established the painter’s reputation in the 1970s and a selection of recent, allusive images of sailboats, provoked in part by visits to coastal Maine in the last ten or more years. Organized by the Everson curator, D. J. Hellerman, the show was a homecoming. Hughto studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Michigan, and has exhibited widely in the U.S. But he was born near Syracuse, taught at Syracuse University, and has lived for decades, with his painter wife, Susan Roth, in nearby Canastota. He first showed at the Everson in 1966, in a regional show, and again, in 1973, in a solo exhibition. Now, “From Diamonds to Sailboats” inaugurated the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Everson’s present building, designed by I. M. Pei.
For those of us who have followed Hughto’s work, it was exciting to see some of the Diamonds again. These deceptively simple compositions—a crisp shape, locked against the rectangular canvas—made when a “signature image” was considered a necessity for a serious artist, play havoc with our expectations of geometric relationships. Nothing is quite symmetrical. Hughto sometimes stretched and warped the diamond shapes, while exploring a wide range of paint applications: scraping on paint so that colors stuttered; ruffling the edges; playing with the subtlest of inflections. The Diamonds all seemed confrontational and open, whether the motif was a single vertical element, as in the flickering Burning Bush (1974) or, as in Together Again (1977), an air-blown pairing of two diamonds floating side by side The installation explored, in brief, the many permutations of the image, including the irregularly shaped canvases that resulted when Hughto realized that the triangular corners created by the diamond-against-rectangle structure were often irrelevant and expendable. On one enormous gallery wall a group of these exuberant canvases were deployed in a freewheeling version of a traditional Salon hang, emphasizing the different moods and temperatures the artist found in his motif.
Hughto, who began using explicit imagery about twenty years ago, says that the affinity between the two series surprised him, when he realized that the reflected triangles of the sails often functioned as the diamond shapes did. Seeing the series together at the Everson made us read both types differently. The Sailboats made the Diamonds seem like distillations of experience rather than purely formal inventions. Conversely, while the Sailboats at the Everson depended on more intense color and more loaded surfaces, and alluded to more illusionistic space than the Diamonds, an invigorating spatial ambiguity between the “figure” of the sails and the ”ground” of the sea, in the best of them, such as Sailing Shoes (2016), hinted at how the two kinds of paintings might inform each other. It was good to look back at Hughto’s achievement. It will be even better to see what he does next.