Sunday, April 23, 2017

Whistler's Mother

I  first saw an image of  "Whistler's Mother" as printed on a bubble gum wrapper when I was about ten years old.  Apparently that association seemed unlikely enough to have stayed in my memory ever since.

About fifteen years later I vaguely recall seeing the original in Paris -  but in a museum with so many exciting Impressionist  paintings, it was far less impressive and did not get much of my attention.

Now the original "Arrangement in Grey and Black" has finally followed me to Chicago - so I can contemplate it at greater length.

And as it turns out --  I really don't like it.

That may be the result of it being hung beneath protective glass whose reflections destroy most attempts to feel that careful arrangement in gray and black which the artist wanted us to appreciate.

But even without the glass -- it would still probably feel leaden and creepy to me.

This lonely, morose old woman is about to fall through the bottom of the canvas and sink beneath the floor.

As a gray and black abstract painting, it resembles the grim despair of Milton Resnick - but without the strength.  It just feels depressing.

That could be how the artist felt about his mom -- but looking around the room at his other work -- it's how he feels in general.  He savors melancholy.

Nocturne, 1878

That melancholy is most beautifully expressed in his nocturnal seascapes , like the print shown above - which also accompanied this exhibit.

While, as also demonstrated by another large painting in this show -  the  portrait of the great Chicago collector, Jerome Eddy -  Whistler did not have the temperament to portray other people.  He was too much into himself.

I also doubt that he had a sense of pictorial volume strong enough to handle close-ups of the human body.  His proper subject was landscape.

Charles Guerard – 1883

 The show also included three variations on Whistler's design - of which the above is my favorite.
This is an arrangement in gray and black that I actually find appealing.

 Richard Josey – 1879

Whereas this version - the one by an artist more closely associated with Whistler himself - shows the sentimental direction that will eventually take the image to a bubble gum wrapper.

Thomas Robert way – 1892  


Stephen F. Eisenman has also written about this show for New City - primarily focusing on the issue of form ("Grey and Black") versus content ("Whistler's Mother").

As an art historian he places the issue into the context of its time -- and details the content that he has observed himself - the handkerchief, gold ring, and ruddy cheeks - which, by the way , can be observed in an online reproduction.

What he does not discuss is the form of "Whistler's Mother",  except in contrast to the three printed variations where "the subtle harmonies of tone are sacrificed for the drama of black and white. Moreover, what is most emphasized in the prints is the face, not the surrounding forms or interplay of tonalities."

While I would say that if you go to see the actual painting - and  try to peer through the protective  glass - you might be hard pressed to conclude that those "subtle harmonies of tone" and "interplay of tonalities"  have been arranged all that well.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung at Corbett Vs. Dempsey 2017

I've written about this artist  in 2012 and then again  in 2014 .

If she had a fan club, I'd join it - at least for her larger work.

The gallery shows many of her small, quickly done pieces and even published a catalog of them.

But I think her real ability is that of continuing to improve a large, complicated piece as she works it over time.

This signage would be laughably ironic in just about every other exhibit of contemporary art.

But it's message that her large paintings give me.

Jennifer Jason Leigh Handcuffed to Kurt Russell

This show is ever wilder and more exciting than her earlier ones.

Her hunger for beauty, experience,  and expression pulls in everything - from the kitchen sink and beyond.

And this show, in particular, seems to reflect the domestic energy of kitchen, library, garage, and parlor - while her last show felt more like the sexual energy of the bedroom.

She's in the same league as Kandinsky and Breughel.

The flow of excitement and beauty extends into the smallest areas of detail - no matter how unusual the material.


Melanie Klein's Part Object

Here's a quieter piece that plays with that somber black construction in the lower left  corner.

(appropriately enough, the gallery showed it in a separate room)

Here's the painting within the painting shown above it.

Like details chiseled off cathedrals, it could just as well lead an independent life of its own.

Georgia- or Take me back, take me way way way back

The only thing on this canvas is paint (no bottles, toys, or other assorted domestic junk)

But still, you might notice that the stretchers are showing through the perforated canvas near the left edge.

Her compositional drive knows no restraint.

Each of those black splotches with the blue squares feels both unique, spontaneous, and perfect.

Mrs. Parker's Desk in anticipation of Alfred Jensen

Here is something completely different -- it feels ominous and mystical.

History Painting for the New Queer Subject

And here's more of her loopy energy.

It feels wacky enough to depict a Donald Trump rally in the Republican primaries - as well as a Gay Pride Parade.

When she draws humans, they're usually queasy and distorted.

But not that woman's face in the upper right corner. (is it Jennifer Jason Leigh?)


This was the most developed figure painting in this show - and I don't really care for it.

I want to see a wild woman's world -- not a wild woman herself.

Jennifer Jason Leigh as the Damsels of Avignon

I just can't imagine how she got all this weird junk to fit together so nicely.

It's rapturous.


Drinking Kerosene,  Spitting Fire

There were many small pieces in the show - most of which failed for me.

But as a person who makes a lot of gunky/gooey messes himself -- this is the best mess I've seen in a while.


Note : Alan Pocaro reviewed this show for New City, concluding that:

Given the nation’s current political climate, Zuckerman-Hartung’s oppositional anti-aesthetics ought to feel more timely than they do. Instead, the force of her visual statement feels unnecessarily diminished by the panoptic approach to material

On the contrary, it appears to me that in her large scale work, MZH is remarkably independent from the current trend of "oppositional anti-aesthetics" -- while a "panoptic approach to material" may be inseparable from her self - and it has been forcefully expressed by her visual statement.

I'd also say that beauty always provokes an endless search for meaning -- though the editor's headline for the Pocaro review ("Beauty in Search of Meaning")  might suggest otherwise.

Note 2 : MZH is a serious student, and teacher, of the art of painting.  Her 95 Theses on Painting  can be found here.

But take a look at the work of Yvonne Wells a gym teacher and paramedic who discovered, without studying art history, that she had an incredible talent for pulling together all kinds of weird stuff and making it look good.

Which is to say -- MZH's  achievements might better be attributed to a certain kind of brain rather than a certain kind of education.


Note 3:

Here's another review, this one by Bruce Thorn. As a painter himself, Thorn is more about precision and bio-mechanical texture than the "tactile, formal, abstract mayhem" that both of us find in MZH.
Where Thorn would carefully design a parachute, MZH would jump out of a airplane with a sack of old clothes and improvise something on the way down.

 He shares my approach to art criticism: " Forget all the hype and forget all the art speak manifestos. Let’s just look at the art and trust our own responses, shall we?"-- He does not, however, ignore the artist's practice of celebrity tagging (" Warhol also prospered using stock images of iconic celebrities."). And though he questions "Is it fair to blame the messengers for resounding cultural ambiguity and lack of commitment to ideas?" - he does raise that issue, doesn't he?

It feels like this artist/critic's professional insight has been compromised by professional rivalry.

Yet still - that insight remains formidable: "The strength of Zuckerman-Hartung’s work is in its conceptual and material freedoms, studied carelessness and immediacy, all achieved through casual process. The beauty is in the details, though there is an overall prettiness and cuteness. The paintings become generally pleasant and accessible by exiling specificity and clarity. With the larger paintings on display, I found myself ignoring the whole picture while being seduced by unlimited, spectacular close-up details. Zuckerman-Hartung’s mastery of composition is not strong enough to pull the plethora of interesting tidbits and tickles together into one big knockout punch. The works are educated, calculated, adventurous, hip and highbrow, but Zuckerman-Hartung still chooses to hobble things together like a schoolgirl making a scrapbook or decorations for her room."

I appreciate philosophical assertions like this one: "There is an implication of innocence and insouciance concerning lack of craftsmanship and permanence, as if proclaiming that life is to be lived in the moment. Our days belong to a hedonistic time. Not in the sense of orgies and bacchanalian feasts, but in that yesterday and tomorrow don’t matter much, only the now is of concern. I’m no philosopher, but I can’t see the moment as having value if past and future don’t matter. The present is gone as soon as it gets here."

I also appreciate ideological critiques like this one: "That this very enjoyable artwork is quite successful might say volumes about the ethos of our times, except for the little gnawing fact that most people do not give a rat’s paintbrush about the ethereal profession of contemporary art. So much for any critique of capitalism, this game gets played in ivory towers and private studios."

And though I feel that each of MZH's large paintings do indeed deliver "one big knockout punch", I  agree that the Picasso-like section of Never Forget "is so complete that it just doesn’t need any more."

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Definition of Classical

Antoine Coypel, detail from the ceiling of the Royal Chapel, Versailles, 1716

"Le dessein elegant de l'antique sculpture, Joint aux effets naifs que fournit la nature" - Antoine Coypel
The above quotation was brought to my attention by Susanna Caviglia in her essay "Roccoco Classicisms" that accompanied the 2017 "Classicisms" exhibit at the Smart Museum. ( I discuss that exhibit here )
As the catalog pointed out,  "Classical art" deserves scare quotes because it has been far from a singularity.   The term itself did not appear until after 1810 - a century after Coypel had  died.
But since I use it prescriptively , that is exactly how I would define the profession of Classical art. Like any language,  it stands upon a foundation of tradition. But in a way unique to the Greco-Roman-Western European tradition, it attempts to naively engage with nature.
In the visual arts -- that engagement is called life drawing.

In the same catalog, Rebecca Zorach offers a similar formulation:  "In Vasari's account of the relationship between Masaccio and Masolino working on the Brancacci Chapel,  or the competition of Brunelleschi and Ghiberti over the Florentine Baptistery doors, the classical constitutes itself as a matter of volumetric and ordered forms freely inspired by Greco-roman sculpture yet naturalistically animated" (note: Vasari wrote that Masaccio "gave a beginning to beautiful attitudes, movements, liveliness, and vivacity, and to a certain relief truly characteristic and natural; which no painter up to his time had ever done")

I  admire the detail shown at the top of this post - but unfortunately, Coypel (1661-1722)  cannot survive comparison with his incredible contemporary,  Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1970).  Online, most of Coypel's work looks like it was done by a Disney cartoonist.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Remarkable Aay Preston-Myint

This was the most eye-catching piece in the DePaul Art Museum last weekend -- and that includes three exhibits on two floors.  It's symphonic.  It's overwhelming.

Not even the early Modernists (Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso, et al)  could generate more visual excitement.  A hundred years ago,  Preston-Myint would have been painting sets for the Ballet Russe.

It's included in an exhibit for artists "who address the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic in North America through the lens of childhood, education, popular culture and race".  To quote gallery signage, this artist was  "inspired by his own relationship to the history and present-day manifestations of AIDS activism and its relationship to nightlife."

I sense a connection to nightlife --- but not the disease.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Remembering Ann Nathan Gallery

More galleries seem to be closing than opening -- at least, the galleries that I like.

Ann Nathan's gallery showed more dramatic figurative painting than any other gallery in Chicago, and I began visiting many years before I began writing about what I saw.

The middle brow market wants sweet and  sentimental  figure painting.  The high brow (and investment grade) market wants darkness, irony, and nihilism.  Her shows were somewhere in between - which is where I also like to be.

In some ways the closing of an art gallery has much more impact than the passing of an artist.  When a gallery closes, many artists drop out of sight.

The lifespan of an established art gallery really ought to be celebrated at a place like  the Chicago Cultural Center -  gathering together the many artists whom the gallery has shown over the years  to mark a distinct moment in the history of Chicago culture.

I'm really going to miss her.

But on the bright side,  her assistant, Victor Armendariz, will be opening
his own gallery in March, with many of the same artists.

I can't wait!

Here are the Ann Nathan shows that I reviewed over the past 8 years:

Monday, October 10, 2016

Two new paintings at the Art Institute

Sebastiano del Piombo
 Christ Carrying the Cross (1515/1517)


Here's the Italian High-Renaissance painting that was recently purchased by the Art Institute.

It was originally part of a triptych  commissioned by Jerónimo Vich y Valterra (1459-1535), who  was Spain’s ambassador to Rome between 1506 and 1521. Trained in Venice, Sebastiano moved to Rome where he served the Papal court along with both Raphael and Michelangelo.

He collaborated with both of them, though his performance is hardly in the same league.

Several copies were made - above is the original -- the one that Vich bequeathed to his heirs - the one that is now in the Prado.

So how does the Chicago copy compare with the original?

A detail is shown above -- with the Prado version at the top.
Even allowing for the defects of my amateur photography -- it does seem that the Prado's version is more sharply modeled.

Did someone  else paint the Chicago copy?  Did Sebastiano himself paint it, but not with the same intensity as when he painted the original?

We'll never know --- but we still can judge which is the better painting.

It's not that this painting is so bad -- it's just not that great.

Here's Del Piombo's portrait of a gentleman who may have been Christopher Columbus.

Online - this is my favorite  Del Piombo painting. It's a detail from a Pieta, done in 1517.
It feels like something Zurbaran might have done a hundred years later.

Here's a detail from a fresco in San Pietro in Montorio.  It was executed 1516-1524.
Michelangelo provided preparatory drawings for one of the other paintings, and certainly feels present here as well. (though in a mangled sort of way)

 The Divine Shepherdess, Quito, c. 1780

Spanish Colonial paintings from The Thoma Collection are on display at the Art Institute through next April, and this one was my favorite.

Over the past few decades, Spanish Colonial art has been emerging as a museum worthy genre, thanks to collectors like the Thoma family who loan their collections to museums.

It's been especially welcome in  Chicago thanks to both our Latin population and our Chicago Imagists.  One might call it un-intended Surrealism.

To me, it feels infantile.  Not that it's been made by children -- but that it's been made for adults who are being treated like children by a priesthood that serves the perpetuation of a sharply defined  European ruling class in a land full of indigenous, illiterate peasants.

But even children's books can occasionally have some good illustration.

This vision of the Virgin might also serve well as the East Asian bodhisattva of compassion, the Guanyin

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Art Expo Chicago: 2016

Willem De Kooning,  1965

Early last year, I had the unpleasant experience of being stopped at the entrance to a commercial art gallery in Chicago and being asked to pay a $20 admission fee.

Who me?  You want me to pay you $20 so I can look at your merchandise and then, possibly, write about it?

The gallerist was adamant. 

Presumably he had qualified me as a non-buyer -- and he was absolutely correct.

On the other hand -- why would I pay a fee to see the work of an artist unknown to me?


For me, art is entirely a viewing rather than a collecting experience.  I don't like to look at the same piece day after day after day.  They turn boring -- then annoying --and finally become as invisible as cracks in the wall.

I wonder what Art Expo would look like if it were entirely funded by  admission fees instead of by sales.

So much of what's shown  seems to be nothing more than Bling -- i.e. expensive baubles intended for the walls of luxury lakefront condominiums.

A very small percentage interests me -- but then, so much is on display -- I am well entertained for a few hours. It's definitely worth the $20.

The highlight of this year's show, for me, was the above oil-on-paper by Willem De Kooning.

It looks like that dedicated Abstract Expressionist just couldn't get accessible, copulating females off his mind.

Delicious in detail as well.

Here's another piece he did in the same year. (it was not at Art Expo).

I like these paintings way, way more than "Excavation", his alleged masterpiece at the Art Institute.

Perhaps it's the subject matter.

Nicholas Africano

Here's another artist who presents naked women -- but more  like how they appear, than like how it feels to be with them.

I love this guy's sculptures - as well as his amazing commercial achievement of creating a market for contemporary classical figure sculpture.

Each of the above pieces were brought to Expo by three separate galleries.
And his pieces have been appearing at these shows every year that I have blogged about them - going back to 2006.

All of his figures are young, trim, handsome, and quiet. Very quiet.

If you're  going to keep attractive young people about the house --it's good if they are quiet.

Armin Boehm, 2009

Here's a young German painter whom I like  -- or -- at least I like this painting. Looking online, he also makes multi-figure scenes that are less promising.

Betty Woodman, b. 1930

I tend to prefer minimalism in ceramics: the simple bowl with a few muted colors.

But this old woman's stuff is an exception. She's a swinging octogenarian.

I found this pot when looking her up on the internet. As my good friend, the potter John Putnam, says: it looks  Tang Dynasty.

And what complement could be more effusive?

Catherine Maize

Cluttered -- but not.

As is the rest of creation.

Catherine remains one of my favorite natural philosophers.

Franz Kline, 1958

Heroic in design, if not in size.

This small piece shows how careful he could be.


Friedel Dzubas, 1975

My first experience with this early ABX painter (born 1915 Germany)

Hans Hoffman, 1952

I'm not especially fond of this piece - it feels too much like a  tossed salad.

But it's always interesting to see what this important teacher was up to.

Harold Haydon

The more I see of this Chicago artist/teacher/critic, the more I like.

He had a theory/gimmick:  "binocularism".

It's silly -- but I like the results anyway.

While the leading Chicago painters were depicting monsters or nightmares -- he painted school children.

So I like him even more.

Andrew Holmquist

A local painter who  continues to get wilder and  crazier - if that were possible.

We just bought our first flat panel television - and experienced the incredible depth, texture, and color that it offers in comparison with the older cathode ray tube technology that we just hauled off to the trash.

It's my theory that young artists like Holmquist grew up with the new kind of television, and that accounts for the manic visual disruption of his paintings.

 Magalie Guerin

Whatever the group show, her pieces continue to jump out for me - with their own defiant and beautiful self determination.

She's Chicago's next Miyoko Ito.


Manuel Mendive (2006)

His 2012 piece in the concurrent "Drapetomania" show  of Afro-Cuban art at the DuSable Museum
did not attract me as much as this one.

Were recreational drugs involved?

Marlborough Gallery

The Marlborough Gallery has finally returned to Art Expo after a long absence (five years?)

They used to bring painters like Vincent Desiderio, Claudio Bravo, and Odd Nerdrum.

Quite a lineup!

This time they just brought sculptural bling.

Very disappointing.

Matthew Carter

Here's a few harlequin patterns so exciting -- I thought they came from a Caribbean Mardi Gras parade.

But indeed the artist came from downstate Illinois and now lives in Los Angeles where he got his MFA.

His work feels both wonderful and effortless.

Morris Barazani (1924-2015)

A fine early piece by one of Chicago's leading Abstract Expressionists.


Ralston Crawford, 1955

Another artist who was new to me.

He started out doing techno industrial landscapes -- like Sheeler -- and then kept doing the same thing in a non representational way.

This painting hung side-by-side with Stuart Davis -- which is where it belonged.

Raphael Soyer, "Melancholia", 1972

Why isn't this mood depicted any more?

Maybe people feel melancholy enough as it is -- who needs any more?

I'm  doubting that this woman will ever have the energy to get dressed.

This kind of figure painting definitely pre-dates the flat screen TV.

Stephen Coyle

A  nice use of photographic material

Steven Assael

Reminds me of the Romantic dramatics of Henry Fuseli.  I can't relate to it, but it certainly stands out as unique in our time.

Vera Klement

This early work,  from about 40 years ago, feels more autobiographic than more recent work.
So it's much more compelling.

Wayne Thiebaud, 1972

Cloud meets mound.

Very funny.

Here's another list of selections -most of which look pretty good now, but somehow escaped my notice at the show itself.