At the Galleries
For all of us who spent months longing, like unrequited lovers, to see “actual” works of art, their size, surfaces, and color unaltered by the homogenizing effect of the screen, the reanimation of New York museums and galleries in late August and September was nothing short of thrilling. Exhibitions that had closed within days of opening came back to life; others, seemingly postponed indefinitely, burst upon us with new dates. Reduced hours, fewer open days per week, the need for prearranged timed tickets or appointments, requirements for masks and social distancing while waiting to enter or while viewing, along with all other necessary precautions, seemed inconsequential compared with the pleasure of firsthand encounters with real objects of all kinds.
In March, the last New York art world event I attended was the opening of Kyle Staver’s exhibition at Zürcher Gallery—bold, large-scale, witty reimaginings of mythological and biblical themes, punctuated by the small reliefs the painter makes of her compositions to work out lighting effects. (Nicolas Poussin apparently did something similar.) The unmasked gathering of artists, critics, collectors, friends, and the occasional curator was the usual convivial affair. The only sign of something out of the ordinary was the substitution of elbow bumps and other facetious forms of distanced greeting for embraces. Two days later everything locked down. By coincidence, six months later, when things began to open up, in September, the first opening I dared to attend—masked and distanced, like everyone else—was again at Zürcher Gallery. “11 Women of Spirit, Part 2,” originally scheduled for May, was an installment of “Salon Zürcher,” an ongoing series of group exhibitions, conceived as alternatives to New York’s rather overwrought art fairs. Selected by curator Stephanie Guyet, the show brought together works by Grace Bakst Wapner, Claudia Doring-Baez, Irene Gennaro, Christine Heindl, Elisa Jensen, Anki King, Ellen Kozak, Barbara Laube, Susan Mastrangelo, Claire McConaughy, and Holly Miller—artists of conspicuously different approaches, backgrounds, and ages.
The works ranged from Heindl’s quirky, fine-grained geometric abstractions to McConaughy’s dreamy landscapes, from Laube’s fields of aggressive texture to Bakst Wapner’s near-disembodied, fragile reinventions of the picture plane. A group of Doring-Baez’s small, densely painted images, based on Brassaï photographs, made viewers invent their own narratives to link the ambiguous tableaux. Kozak’s shimmering, seductive accumulations of touches read as abstract distillations of her long-standing fascination with the way light is fractured, reflected, and diffused by the Hudson River, outside her Upstate studio. Jensen’s broadly brushed, barely indicated, silhouetted birds, part of a series called “liminal spaces,” seemed launched into the air by the subtly textured expanses of color surrounding them. Gennaro’s mysterious, burgeoning form, the only sculpture in the show, pulsed between quasi-Surrealist ambiguities and allusions to nature. If there was a unifying thread, it was the presence of the hand, manifest in a wide variety of ways: Miller’s patchwork assemblies of repurposed materials, Mastrangelo’s exuberant drawing with ropes and fabric, King’s loose, descriptive brushwork, and more. Obviously, Salon Zürcher provided only a narrow, if notably diverse slice through the current art world, but seeing, in actuality, a broad selection of serious, ambitious work, all of it by mature women, was an exciting way to return to looking at art after a long drought.
Uptown, “Masterworks from Cézanne to Thiebaud,” the reopening show at Acquavella Galleries, lived up to its extravagant title—an apt way to celebrate the rebirth of the delights of looking. Just about everything installed on both floors of Acquavella’s elegant townhouse rewarded close attention. And there were some splendid surprises, such as a robust, near-monochromatic Joaquín Torres-García, Constructive Monument, 1943, a wall of stacked rows of bold, geometric, unreadable alphabets, runes, and glyphs seemingly derived from modern urban experience. Equally unexpected was a handsome Bradley Walker Tomlin, Number 3, 1953, striking for a more fluid touch and more inventive color than I usually associate with the artist, with an active field of pulsating swipes and patches of tawny ochres, oranges, and dull red, floating turquoise, and emphatic dark grays; I may have to reevaluate my conception of Tomlin. A handsome David Smith, Parrot’s Circle, 1958, kept us engaged with floating elements placed unpredictably against the eponymous ring and a rich, mottled surface. Wayne Thiebaud’s smallish, potent Dark Beach, 2003/2020, gave us a fantastic, omnipotent view of a sandbar sparsely populated by small figures in the surf of a radiant, ultramarine blue ocean, flecked with red—an idyllic holiday dreamscape. And more, including a brash Ellsworth Kelly, Untitled (Red and Yellow), 1989, demonstrating the affectionate relationship of a large square and a smaller triangle with one slightly rounded side.
Upstairs, fine works by modern masters rewarded the climb, starting with a luminous Gustave Caillebotte, The Seine at Argenteuil, 1882; lovingly rendered sailboats moored in the foreground and one in full sail, mid-stream, reminded us of the artist’s skill as a yachtsman and inventor of boating equipment. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s good- humored, sketchy Portrait of Henri Nocq, 1897, presented a studio interior with the subject, in top hat and cape, apparently turning to look quizzically at us over his shoulder, before returning his attention to a large work on an easel. Most unexpected? Perhaps Girl with Doll, 1894–96, Paul Cézanne’s surprisingly tender portrait of an introspective, chubby young girl with cropped dark hair, a painting noteworthy for its swelling forms, deemed significant enough to have been on extended loan to the National Gallery, London, some years ago. An exuberant Henri Matisse, Still Life with Mimosas on Black Background, 1944, turned clusters of yellow blooms, lemons, and incised leaf shapes into expansive shifting patterns. Until the middle of October, a more or less private viewing, by appointment, of Acquavella Galleries’ fine assortment was an exhilarating alternative for anyone not yet ready to brave a museum visit.
Also Uptown, a rare treat was provided by “Albert York (1928–2009) Paintings and Drawings,” presented at Meredith Ward Fine Art by Davis & Langdale Company, who have long represented this “artist’s artist.” York’s deceptively unassuming little paintings of landscapes, still lifes, and the occasional animal or figure are cult objects, not seen as often or in such quantity as his admirers—I’m one of them—would wish. That’s mainly because York produced very few works, and the extant ones are jealously treasured by their owners. The twelve paintings and six drawings in this fall’s exhibition, all from a distinguished private collection were, we were told, the largest group of Yorks offered for sale since 1965. It was an impressive selection spanning almost four decades of the artist’s working life with paintings made between the 1960s and the late 1980s, and drawings ranging from a sheet of firmly articulated nudes made in 1952 to pages of rapid notations of skulls, skeletons, and a dog’s head made in 2004.
York’s paintings sneak up on you. At first acquaintance, because of their small size and “ordinary” imagery, they seem modest, straightforward, perhaps self-effacing. But their firm, trued and faired structure keeps us engaged, and they soon announce themselves as tough-minded, uncompromising meditations on the nature of painting itself, particularly American painting. York, born the same year as both Helen Frankenthaler and Andy Warhol, chose to make very small figurative works at a time when serious painting was generally assumed to be large and abstract or, taking the Pop artists into account, large and inflected by vernacular culture. He was not alone among his contemporaries and near-contemporaries in rejecting both the legacy of postwar New York abstraction and the cynicism of Pop to return to reference—think Alex Katz, Lois Dodd, Paul Resika, and Jane Freilicher, among others—but the famously reclusive, independent-minded York also kept himself personally aloof from the New York art world. Today, his unpretentious subject matter and his forthright approach resonate less with what was going on in the New York art world during his working life than with everything we know about the history of working from the motif (whether, in fact, his paintings were done en plein air or in the studio, from perception or imagination). There’s a particularly Yankee, bare-bones flavor to York’s paintings that seems related, in its focus on essentials, to Albert Pinkham Ryder’s sea paintings, despite the obvious differences in subject, mood, and palette. The postwar painter closest to York, in many ways, is Fairfield Porter, a generation older, but similarly preoccupied with seemingly banal subjects, conjured up with a direct, emphatic touch, albeit at a larger scale and with more complexity.
York almost always worked on wood panels, so we are very aware of the juiciness and density of paint and of the movement of the artist’s hand as his assured brushstrokes economically described his chosen motifs—a small vase of flowers, a single cow, a seated dog, a field with a couple of widely spaced trees, a pair of erect Native Americans wrapped in blankets, staring the viewer down. The tension between the paintings’ seductive surfaces and York’s deadpan subject matter, along with other subtle reminders of the artifice of picture-making, conspire to make the works hard to ignore. A personable portrait of a seated dog, for example, is snapped into another realm by a ragged band of dull orange that escapes at the perimeter of the panel, flattening the space and triggering thoughts about abstractness.
The selection in the recent show allowed us to think about the evolution of York’s work while we savored individual, inexplicably compelling works. Dried Flowers, c. 1966, and Green Flowers in a Glass Jar, c. 1968, were both noteworthy for their brilliant color—black, yellow, and orange, in the former, cinnabar red and a dark green verging on black, in the latter. The exhibition’s later works were more subdued, as if chromatic intensity had been transubstantiated into passionate scrutiny and thinking about what a painting can be. Why else would we be mesmerized by a view of a field against distant hills, with a full green tree almost dead center and a brown tree near the right edge? Somehow, this small, plainspoken picture was hard to stop looking at and impossible to forget.
One of the most anticipated and ambitious of 2020’s exhibitions was “Making The Met, 1870–2020.” Originally scheduled to open in April to coincide with the anniversary of the museum’s founding, it became, instead, a paean to the marvels of in-person viewing when the museum reopened at the end of August. (There is, however, a great deal of first rate supplementary material on the Met’s website.) The vast, elegantly installed extravaganza, a collaboration among what seems to be the entire curatorial and support staff, brings together over 250 objects from every department of the encyclopedic collection, contextualized by photographs documenting the museum’s history and such interesting records as a 1928 film taking us “behind the scenes,” plus a very informative animation diagramming the evolution of the present building until 1950. As we quickly learn, the Met’s foundation was an act of the purest optimism, since the new institution had no building, no art, and no professional staff. The transformation of what was essentially a hopeful idea into today’s enormous showcase of paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, photographs, decorative objects, furniture, musical instruments, textiles, costumes, and more, is brought to life in a series of ten more or less chronological, thematic sections, arranged in a clear sequence along a connecting “street” with an enormous, newly reopened window at the end giving on Central Park. We enter through a stunning introductory section that offers a capsule version of the breadth, reach, and excellence of the collections: a fifth-century BC Greek grave stele; a ferocious, nail studded, nineteenth-century power figure from the Congo; a sixteenth-century Nepalese head of Shiva; Auguste Rodin’s suave male nude Age of Bronze, 1876; Vincent van Gogh’s portrait of the wife of the postman Roulin, La Berceuse, 1889; a Richard Avedon photograph of Marilyn Monroe; Isamu Noguchi’s tall, pale, marble construction Kouros, 1945, last seen, visible from all sides, in the installation of selections from the contemporary permanent collection, Epic Abstraction.
The story begins with The Founding Decades, an evocation of the first incarnations of the Met, even before it moved to its permanent home in Central Park in 1880, through early acquisitions and reminders of what the museum looked like then, such as an 1881 painting by Frank Waller, Interior View of the Metropolitan Museum of Art When in Fourteenth Street, showing the galleries, with paintings hung floor to ceiling and over doors, closely studied by a female visitor. We recognize a painting on view not far away, Anthony van Dyck’s Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo, 1624, with the saint airborne above a distant view of the city, supported by putti and gazing upward, presumably at a higher authority. The painting was acquired in 1871, making it one of the first works to enter the collection, along with other old master paintings, a Roman sarcophagus, a vast horde of Cypriot sculpture, a bust of Benjamin Franklin by Jean-Antoine Houdon, assorted armor, and some American and Meso-American works. We are told that not all of these early acquisitions were masterworks or even originals, but that they “expressed the Museum’s aspirations to represent artistic traditions from all over the world.”
The range of those aspirations can be followed in sections as diverse as Art for All, which includes textiles, ephemera, wallpaper, prints, and the like, and Princely Aspirations, which showcases some of the Museum’s most celebrated holdings, such as Rembrandt’s The Toilet of Bathsheba, 1643, and Johannes Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Lute, c. 1662–63. The former section announces a continuing commitment to objects from many different cultures, including baseball cards and African musical instruments, not necessarily rare or precious at the time they were made, that reflect the characteristics of a culture. The latter are works that came to the Met because of affluent collectors and benefactors, such as Benjamin Altman and J. P. Morgan, early on, and later, Robert Lehman, Charles and Jayne Wrightsman, Iris and B. Gerald Cantor, among others, who made munificent gifts over the years.
Later, this aspect of the Met’s history is expanded by focusing on the transformative gifts of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art from Louisine and H. O. Havemeyer, and Walter and Leonore Annenberg, as well as Cubist works from Leonard A. Lauder, and photographs—a discipline initially ignored by the Met—from Alfred Stieglitz. Since the Havemeyer donation was instrumental in defining the Met as we know it—about 2,000 objects ranging from Japanese ceramics and Tiffany glass to El Greco’s confrontational portrait of Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, c.1600, and Edgar Degas’s lush pastel, Woman Having Her Hair Combed, c. 1886–88—it’s understandable why the bequest is emphasized. Unlike most other sections of “Making The Met,” where a single, admittedly often spectacular work stands for an entire aspect of the collection, the Havemeyer bequest is documented by such familiar treasures as Gustave Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot, 1860, Edouard Manet’s Dead Christ with Angels, 1861, Degas’s sculpture Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, cast 1922, and exemplary works by Paul Cézanne and Louisine Havemeyer’s friend Mary Cassatt, among other equally important inclusions. Things being how they are, of course, there are wall texts acknowledging H. O. Havemeyer’s being tainted by having made his immense fortune in sugar, an industry that depended upon slavery and labor under brutal conditions. His wife, however, is praised as an active supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. (Elsewhere, acknowledgement is made of the Met’s rejection of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s collection of American modernism—which led to the foundation of the Whitney Museum—and the Met’s failure to collect the work of Black artists, especially those associated with the Harlem Renaissance, although a work by Jacob Lawrence was purchased from a group show supporting the war effort in the 1940s. In Broadening Perspectives, the last section of the show, however, a glorious, vast, wall-hung piece by the Ghanian-born, Nigerian-resident El Anatsui, all delicate transparency, ripples, and flickering color, made in 2007 and acquired in 2008, is vivid proof that things are changing.)
Other sections, such as Collecting Through Excavation and Creating a National Narrative, include works acquired from Met-sponsored archaeology, mostly through a now-obsolete practice of the excavator and the host country’s sharing objects found on the dig and document the formation of a collection of American furniture and art. Throughout, Japanese armor, French medieval sculpture, Chinese porcelain, a stunning, oversized seventeenth-century Mexican bowl, with cobalt blue decorations, and jewelry from different times and places—among many, many other things—compete for our attention with such well-known, important works as Michelangelo’s vigorous drawing, Study for the Libyan Sibyl, 1510–11; Jean Siméon Chardin’s Soap Bubbles, c. 1733–34; John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, 1883–84; Vasily Kandinsky’s Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II), 1912; a small version of the figure of Victory, from Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ sculpture of General Sherman; a dazzling Winslow Homer of a breaking wave; a magnificent sixteenth- or seventeenth-century cast metal sculpture of a horn player from the court of Benin; and more. And more. And more. And we learn something about the Museum’s early directors and patrons, their predilections and prejudices. We learn, for example, that James J. Rorimer, a curator, then director from 1955 to 1966, and a driving force behind the creation of the Met’s medieval museum, the Cloisters, was also one of the Monuments Men, which put him in an enviable position when the owners of works of art returned to them after being stolen by the Nazis wanted to sell.
“Making The Met” is slightly overwhelming—as it has to be, since it compresses the complicated history of creating a collection, making and expanding a building, and determining what a museum could and should be over a century and a half. The more than 250 works that the exhibition deploys to tell the story include the familiar and the unexpected, the iconic and the surprising. Even in today’s strange times when a museum visit must be planned ahead, and masks and social distancing are enforced, it’s an exhibition that demands and rewards several visits. One of the few good things about the new art world we’re all living in is that museums are no longer crowded. It’s very much like things used to be, many, many years ago, before they were seen as sites for “social experience” and selfies. Book a timed ticket, put on your mask, and don’t miss “Making The Met.”