Click here for our review of "Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables" at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
“Birds of a Feather: Joseph Cornell's Homage to Juan Gris” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a small exhibition that brings together a dozen of Cornell's shadow boxes along with the painting by Juan Gris that inspired Cornell.
Joseph Cornell was born in 1903 outside of New York City. He was the eldest of four children. When his father died in 1916, the family was left in bad financial circumstances and had to move into the city. Joseph dedicated most of his life to supporting the family including a younger brother who had cerebal palsy. Painfully shy, Cornell never married and had few relationships and friendships.
Cornell had little formal education. However, he was well-read and interested in cultural activities. Accordingly, he spent much of his free time exploring museums and art galleries. As a result, he began to develop his own art.
The primary medium used by Cornell was the shadow box. He would take various objects that he discovered on his trips around New York and assemble them together. These juxtapositions of found objects had a surrealistic flavor and he was embraced by the Surrealists and New York's artistic community.
On one of his visits to an art gallery, he saw a painting by Juan Gris that he found striking. Gris was born in Spain in 1887 but moved to Paris in 1906 where he became part of the avant garde scene. Although not the inventor of Cubism, he brought that style forward and developed it.
The work that inspired Cornell was “The Man at the Cafe.” In it, Gris depicted the criminal mastermind in a popular series of novels. This shady character is almost entirely obscured by the newspaper he is reading. The shadow from his fedora blocks out his face. Wood grained paneling mixes the background and the figure. Done in the Cubist style, it is divided into geometric planes.
Cornell made 18 shadowboxes, two collages and a sand tray in the series inspired by Gris' painting. Like Gris' painting, he incorporated printed pages and trompe l'oeil wood grain in these works. There is also a central figure but instead of a criminal mastermind, the figure is a cockatoo.
The shadow boxes are much smaller than Gris' painting. Consequently, they are much more intimate visually. Thus, while they may be rooted in the painting, they are a much different visual experience.
“Leon Golub Raw Nerve” at the Met Breuer in New York City is a selective survey of the work of the 20th century American artist Leon Golub.
Born in Chicago in 1922, Golub studied art history at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1942. After the Second World War, he studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. There he met his wife, the artist Nancy Spero, to whom he was married for nearly 50 years.
The two arists lived in Europe for periods during the 1950s and 1960s. While there, Golub developed his interest in 19th century historical painting and artists such as Jacques Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. He was also interested in ancient Greek and Roman art. As a result, at a time when the art establishment was only interested in abstraction, Golub was creating art in which recognizable human figures were central.
Golub, however, was not a conventional artist. While the influences of ancient and traditional art can be seen in his works, he also incorporated much of the force of the abstract expressionist painters. His images were often done with free broad strokes. He added layers of paint and then scraped them away. He left sections of the canvas in its raw state. This technique did not make for pretty pictures but it did make them emotionally powerful.
When Golub and Spero returned to the United States in the 1960s, opposition to the Vietnam War was growing as that conflict escalated. Golub became involved in the anti-war movement and violence and cruelty became themes in his art. Other social and political issues such as racial inequality, torture, oppression and political corruption would also draw Golub's attention throughout the rest of his career.
An artist seeking to convey a political or social message with a work of art has to be careful to avoid making the work dependent upon the viewer's knowledge of the underlying political or social issue. A scene or a symbol that everyone today would recognize as having a certain meaning may not mean anything to a viewer 20 years from now. Thus, a work that is too heavily dependent upon today's headlines may have no meaning in the future.
Golub's works transcend the headlines. For example, “Gigantomachy II' is a monumental painting of a group of muscular male figures fighting, which was done during the Vietnam War. The title refers to a battle between the Olympian gods and a race of giants and the painting recalls an ancient Greek frieze. However, it is not a glorious depiction of battle but rather conveys a sense of cruelty and pain. Thus, it is not just about ending the Vietnam War but is a condemnation of war that continues to have meaning.
Along the same lines, in “Two Black Women and a White Man,” Golub presents two black women sitting on a bench with a white man leaning against a wall behind them. Perhaps, it is a group waiting for a bus. However, the positioning of the figures and the way they are avoiding any interaction, underscores the separation and isolation of the races. The scene could be in the United States during the Civil Rights Movement or in South Africa during Apartheid, it could be now. The message of the picture still comes through.
“Provocations: Anslem Kiefer at the Met Breuer” is a large exhibition drawn from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection of works by the contemporary German artist.
Anslem Kiefer was born in Germany two months before the end of the Second World War in Europe. Kiefer planned from childhood to be an artist. However, when he entered the University of Freiberg, he began as a pre-law and language student. However, he soon switched to the study of art and went on to studying art at academies in Karlsruhe and Dusseldorf. He studied informally with the artist Joseph Beuys. Now a well-established artist, he lives in the South of France.
Keifer's work has been primarily concerned with relating German history and culture to the present day. In particular, he has sought to confront the Nazi era.
Following the end of the Second World War, the symbols of the Nazi era were outlawed in Germany. The victorious Allies were concerned that the Nazi movement could be revived if these symbols were allowed to be displayed. For many of the vanquished German people the ban made it easier to forget the horrors that had been committed in their name. However, by the 1960s, German intellectuals were arguing that the Germany had to come to terms with its past.
In 1969, Kiefer came to public attention with a series of photographs that he had taken of himself in his father's Wermacht uniform giving the Nazi salute. The photos were taken with a background of historic monuments around Europe and by the seaside. Audiences wondered whether the photos were meant to be ironic or as praise for the Nazis. Kiefer's objective was to cause people to confront rather than bury the past.
Kiefer has over the years expanded the scope of his work to include a broad range of German history and culture. However, since the Nazi propaganda machine conscripted much of German music, myth, legend and history, the specter of the Nazi era is never far away.
Described as a Neo-expressionist, Kiefer has used a variety of mediums in his work. In addition to traditional painting and photography, his works have incorporated such things as earth, lead, straw and broken glass. He is also known for works on a monumental scale.
One such monumental work displayed in the exhibition is “Bohemia Lies by the Sea” (1996). The painting has some of the force of an abstract expressionist work. However, it is actually a scene of a rutted country road extending through a field of poppies. The title is taken from an Austrian poem in which the poet longs for utopia but recognizes that it is unreachable just as landlocked Bohemia can never be by the sea. The connection to the Nazi era is that Bohemia is in the Sudetenland annexed by the Nazis just before the war. Furthermore, poppies are a symbol for lives lost in war.
While Kiefer is known for his large works, I found myself drawn more to some of the smaller works in the exhibition. For example, in “Herzeleide” (Suffering heart), Keifer based his watercolor on the image in a Nazi era book of a mother looking at a document informing her that her son has been killed. Nazi propaganda exalted such sacrifices. In his painting, Kiefer has replaced the document with an artist's palette.
“My Father Pledged Me A Sword” is based upon Wagner's Ring Cycle operas. In the operas, Woton, king of the gods, thrust a sword into in an ash tree. Later, his son Sigmund is in need of the sword and cries out for it. However, Kiefer has painted the sword not in a tree but in a rock atop a high cliff overlooking a fjord - - much more difficult to retrieve.
Even assuming aguendo that the viewer knew nothing about German history or culture, Kiefer's art still works. The works are well composed. Sometimes bleak and sometimes harsh, they are always emotionally powerful and thought-provoking.
“American Painters in Italy: From Copley to Sargent” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an intimate exhibition of works from 18 American artists illustrating the influence of Italy on their art. Drawn from the museum's collection, it includes drawings and sketches as well as a number of watercolor paintings.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, people interested in pursuing a career in art were encouraged to travel to Italy to study that country's long artistic history and culture. Of course, only a few had the means to make the arduous trip across the Atlantic from America. Still, beginning with Benjamin West in 1760, a number of American artists who would later achieve lasting fame made the journey.
For example, Thomas Cole traveled to Italy in 1825 during a sojourn that took him to England and several European capitals. In Italy, he enrolled in art classes in Florence and made copies of works by Italian Renaissance masters. He also ventured out and made sketches of the Italian landscape. When he returned to the United States, he incorporated what he had learned in his landscapes. Thus, Cole's time in Italy can be said to have influenced the Hudson River School and American landscape painting.
The exhibition contains a number of works done as part of such educational journeys. For example, there is a page of drawings by Thomas Sully of works by Michelangelo. There is also a watercolor copy by Julian Alden Weir of a painting by Botticelli.
Italy's influence on American artists is shown in other ways. For example, J. Carroll Beckwith's chalk drawing called “The Veronese Print.” is a portrait of a Victorian era woman.. The reference to the Italian Renaissance master Paolo Veronese in the picture's title is to a print on the wall behind the sitter.
Of course, American artists traveled to Italy for purposes other than studying. In 1879, James McNeil Whistler traveled to Venice to do a series of etchings for the Fine Art Society in London. While he was there, he did nearly 100 pastel drawings of the city. His “Note in Pink and Brown” is an intriguing drawing of a scene from one of Venice's canals. Whistler omits unnecessary detail to produce a vague, dream-like atmosphere.
The highlight of the exhibition is a series of watercolors by John Singer Sargent. Born in Florence, Italy to expatriate American parents, Sargent traveled often to Italy. Most of these watercolors are landscapes of Venice or studies of architectural features. His watercolors are freer than the commissioned portraits for which he is best known. Furthermore, the colors are more vivid in the watercolors, more like those of his friend Claude Monet.
Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School of landscape painting are distinctly American, depicting the magnificent scenery of the United States in the first part of the 19th century. In “Thomas Cole's Journey Atlantic Crossings,” as exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we wee how both Cole's art and his thinking was shaped by his experiences in Europe.
Cole was born in northwest England in 1801. The Industrial Revolution was beginning and during his boyhood, Cole witnessed the transformation from a rural society to an industrial one with nature giving way to factories and crowded cities.
For a time, the young Cole worked in the new mills designing patterns for textiles. However, in 1818, facing financial hardship in England, Cole's father moved the family to the United States.
As a young man Thomas Cole traveled around Pennsylvania and Ohio painting portraits. Although he was largely self-taught, Cole achieved some success, exhibiting his work at the Philadelphia Academy.
In 1825, Cole fell in love, not with a person but with the beauty of the undeveloped Catskill region of New York. He painted what he saw and although landscape painting was not a well-established genre in the young United States, his paintings drew attention and he was made a member of the National Academy.
Cole decided that in order to develop as an artist he had to return to Europe. There he could study past masters and meet leading contemporary artists.
His first stop was England. There was a long tradition of landscape painting in England. In addition, two contemporary painters were taking this genre in new directions.
J. M. W. Turner was incorporating bold colors and unrestrained brush work to produce pieces that were significantly different than traditional landscape painting. His work has been described as a forerunner of modern art. Cole was impressed with some of Turner's paintings but was uncomfortable with both Turner's unkempt appearance and the wildness of his approach to art.
Cole was much more comfortable with John Constable, with whom he became friends. Constable's large finished canvases were more traditional and constrained than Turner's works. However, the oil sketches that he made in preparation for his finished works have a great freedom of brush work and spontaneity.
In addition to Cole's work, the exhibit displays some of the works by Turner and Constable that Cole saw or could have seen during his journey. Particularly interesting are the numerous Constable oil sketches.
Cole did not just stay in England but traveled into France and Italy. In Italy, he enrolled in classes. made copies of works by Renaissance masters and made oil sketches of the Italian countryside and Roman ruins.
As he had hoped, Cole's journey to Europe enhanced his artistic skills. In addition, he met many wealthy Americans while traveling abroad and received a number of commissions. As a result, his reputation also grew.
Returning to the U.S., Cole had a successful exhibition of his European paintings in New York City. More commissions followed. He established a studio in the Catskills. Other artists also came to study under Cole and he shaped an artistic movement.
Having seen the results of unfettered industrialization in England, Cole became very concerned that President Andrew Jackson was leading the country in the wrong direction. The beautiful American wilderness was in danger from unrestrained development. Cole took up his brushes to warn of the consequences.
Thus, while Cole's works may appear to be just paintings of beautiful scenes, they are actually political pictures. Cole was saying that all this will be lost if you continue with such policies. It is still a timely message.
In this vein, the exhibit presents a series known as “The Course of Empire.” In the various canvases, Cole shows the same landscape first in its wild state and then progressively through development into a classical city and eventually to the final ruin of civilization. Perhaps more more subtlety, Cole expresses much the same message in“The Oxbow,” which shows a pristine river valley about to be engulfed by a massive storm.
Cole's works transcend their political message. He had mastered traditional landscape painting and used it to portray magnificent scenes. Furthermore, his ability to compose a scene so as to make it speak to a wide audience cannot be denied.
In my view, this exhibition is mislabeled. The title “Gilded Age Drawings at the Met” suggests a collection of black and white sketches of hefty figures supposed to be gods and goddesses from Greek mythology or other syrupy themes that were popular in the late Victorian age. In reality, this exhibit is a delightful small group of colorful watercolors and pastels done by artists whose work has transcended their time.
Included in this exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art are several watercolors by John Singer Sargent. Sargent was one of the most successful portrait painters of his day. However, he also did watercolors. These were not intended for public display but rather were for his own benefit. As a result, they are done in a very loose style using a palette reflecting the fact that he also spent time working with Monet and the Impressionism.
Most of the Sargent watercolors are landscapes or other Impressionistic scenes. However, there is also a small watercolor done during World War I when he visited the front lines as a war artist. It is of two men suffering from the effects of mustard gas and is a very powerful piece.
Thomas Eakins is also represented. Unlike Sargent, Eakins exhibited his watercolors and they bear a close resemblance to the style he used in his oil paintings. These are illustration-like scenes from everyday life including the controversial “Dancing Lesson.” Is it a sympathetic illustration of black life shortly after emancipation or is it meant as a comedy that re-enforces racial stereotypes? The signage appears to conclude the former noting that it won a silver medal when it was exhibited in Boston in the 1870s.
There are also several watercolors by Winslow Homer. These capture the various moods and energy of the sea in a variety of scenes. Homer manipulated the watercolors to produce amazing sea and sky effects.
James McNeill Whistler was also a successful Victorian era artist. However, his style looked more toward the future than the art establishment of the day. “His Lady in Grey” is a tiny watercolor that is similar in concept to some his full-length female portraits.
I sometimes come across comments on social media about whether a watercolor should be just translucent paint. However, in almost all of these works, the masters used gouache (opaque watercolor) along with the translucent watercolors.
Not all the works in this exhibit are watercolors. There are also two pastels by Mary Cassat. One is a large, yet tender, finished work that returns to her favorite theme - - the relationship between a mother and her child. The other work is more of a sketch on colored paper showing a woman on a bench knitting. There is a great deal of energy in the Impressionist master's short, seemingly rapid, strokes.
There are also works by artists who are less well-known to the general public. Jane Peterson's scene of a New York City street during the patriotic parades around World War I complements Childe Hassan's popular paintings of those days. Charles Ethan Porter, an African American artists who specialized in still lifes is also represented. John LaFarge did not try to capture the image of flowers with absolute realism but rather sought to capture their essence thus foreshadowing the century which followed.
Also on display are some artist boxes from the late 19th century. What is surprising is that the pans and tubes of watercolor paint and the brushes do not look much different than those of today.
“Henry James and American Painting” at the Morgan Library and Museum explored the relationship between one of the 19th century's foremost authors and several visual artists.
Henry James was born in 1843 into a wealthy family from Albany, New York. However, he spent much of his early life traveling around Europe. When the family returned to the United States, it settled in Newport, Rhode Island but subsequently moved to Boston, Massachusetts. During this time, James developed friendships with many of the great minds of New England such as the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. He also embarked on a career as a writer.
In 1869, James returned to Europe where he would stay for most of the rest of his life. He became a central figure in the American ex-patriot community. And, as documented in this exhibit, many of his friends were artists.
James saw the creative process of the novelist as being analogous to the creative process of the visual artist. In addition, he often used references to visual art in his writings His more experimental later works have been compared to Impressionist painting.
Perhaps the best known American artist living in Europe during this period was John Singer Sargent. James knew Sargent, wrote about him and sat for portraits by him. In addition to a formal portrait commissioned by James' friends to mark his seventieth birthday, the exhibit had a number of more informal works by Sargent. These included portraits of friends as well as a series of watercolors and oils done by Sargent while in Venice. As the signage in the exhibit indicated, several were works that James had known and/or commented upon.
In addition to their connection to James, these informal works were of interest because they showed Sargent's style free of the economic pressures and constraints of his commissioned portraits. In fact, the watercolors were never intended for sale or exhibition. The style in such informal works is looser and more free. The portrait of writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife borders on the abstract. It is much more 20th century than 19th century.
James was also friends with another famous American ex-patriot, James McNeill Whistler. In fact, James modeled one of the characters in his book The Ambassadors after Whistler.
The exhibit had fewer works by Whistler than by Sargent. “Arrangement in Black and Brown – The Fur Jacket” is a large vertical portrait of a woman. Like Sargent, Whistler had the ability to create intriguing portraits of women, using vagueness to create a sense of mystery. James also created portraits of women in his novels.
Not all of James' artist friends are as well known today as Sargent and Whistler. Lilla Cabot Perry was an American who joined with the community of artists that sprung up around Claude Monet when he was living in Giverny, France . Her portrait of her daughter reflects the strong Impressionist influence.
According to the signs at the exhibit, the relationship between American painters Frank Duveneck and Elizabeth Boott Duveneck and Elizabeth's father, inspired parts of three of James' novels. Elizabeth's father viewed Frank Duveneck as his social inferior and so was against his daughter marrying him. The exhibit had Duveneck's formal portrait of his father-in-law, presenting a very proud and imperial figure. Elizabeth died early on and the exhibit also had the tomb sculpture that Frank carved for her.
In addition to the paintings and other art work, the exhibit had manuscripts and letters that James wrote to various artists.
The exhibit presented a unique bridge between the world of literature and the visual arts. Considering that the Morgan is a museum founded upon a library, the exhibit was highly appropriate.
“Calder: Hyermobility” at the Whitney Museum of American Art is an exhibit of sculptures by Alexander Calder. It focuses on the importance of motion in Calder's work.
Alexander Calder came from an artistic family. His father and grandfather were both sculptors. His mother was a professional portrait painter. Not surprisingly, Calder did art work from an early age and even had studios in the basements of several of the houses that the family occupied while he was growing up.
Knowing the difficulties associated with being a professional artist, his family did not encourage Calder to follow in their footsteps. Instead, he studied to be become a mechanical engineer. Following his graduation from the Stevens Institute in 1919, Calder held a variety of jobs including being a hydraulic engineer and working as a mechanic on a steam ship.
Calder, however, found this work unsatisfying and decided to make art his career. To this end, he enrolled in the Art Students League in New York.
In 1926, he moved to Paris where he established a studio and became friends with a number of avant garde artists. Following a visit to Piet Mondrian's studio, he decided to embrace abstract art.
During this period, Calder became interested in creating sculptures with movable parts. His early works along this line moved by cranks and motors, perhaps reflecting his engineering background.
By the early 1930s, Calder had returned to the United States and his works were less mechanical. Instead, the works moved either in response to touch or to the wind. Marcel Duchamp coined the term “mobiles” to describe Calder's sculptures.
The Whitney exhibit includes several of Calder's mobiles. Some are freestanding while others are suspended from the ceiling. Even when they are static - - which they are most of the time - - the graceful lines and pure colors of these sculptures make them appealing.
At specified times during the day, a staff member appears and “activates” some of the sculptures. Typically, this is done by giving one part of the sculpture a gentle push setting it in motion.
The movement causes the image that the viewer is seeing to change. Whereas a portion of the sculpture was say pointing in one direction originally, it points in a number of different directions as it moves. As a result, the overall shape of the sculpture changes, becoming a new image.
In addition to the mobiles, the Whitney has one of Calder's large static sculptures in the center of the exhibit. These Calder sculptures were dubbed “stabiles” by Jean Arp in 1932 to distinguish them from Calder's mobiles.
With a stabile, the image changes as the viewer moves around the object. In this, the process is not different than traditional sculpture. However, here the forms are abstract - - graceful arches arising from seemingly delicate points.
Over the last 90 years or so, the public has become familiar with abstract sculpture. However, the elegance of Calder's designs, both static and kinetic, are such as to have enduring appeal.
Rich Wagner is a writer, photographer and artist.