Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A mission to view

I made some precision art viewing strikes in the city last Friday.  It was a great day to just indulge in walking and seeing through Manhattan.
First up was Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940 at The Jewish Museum which ends tomorrow.  In candy bar parlance, Vuillard, in my estimation is a Snickers.  His early work are all inclusive and loaded with an abundance of tasty nouga, AND peanuts And caramel, not to mention chocolate.
A recent Art News column presents the case of the influence Vuillard has had on a range of current artists, including Lisa Yuskavage who gave a talk on Vuillard

I've long admired Vuillard's works for all the attributes he's known for: dense, heavily patterned expanses that collapse space along with his figures that fuse with the background.  The weird Victorian psychadelia he creates is trippy and magical.  As much as I treat viewing his works as happening upon dark muddy jewels, I've never sought to learn more about his career.  The exhibit frames the arc of his career with the influence three women had on him in different stages of his life.  For me, the exhibit was a let down - at least after the first third of the show.  Not that the exhibit itself was lacking -  but in my new exposure to this artist's trajectory.  A trajectory that begins at a visionary, damn great place and then winds its way into convention -  a highly competent, perhaps masterly convention, but an illustrative, even compliant convention just the same.

The works that represent the meaty part of the stew for me were created early in his career in the late 1800's.  And there are a few gems of his brilliant massaging of hues and bizarre tweakings of space.  These works in particular demand a prolonged look in order to really read what's going on.  For me, these instances offer up some of the best examples of works that brilliantly ride that fine edge between abstraction and representation.  The Drawer from 1892, in the exhibit is a prime example.  It's a kind of ecumenical approach in coalescing these two poles that I appreciate and strive for, in a way, myself.  I see the artist as fully present and porous to the process and subject matter at hand in paintings of this time.
Edouard Vuillard
The Drawer, c. 1892
Oil on canvas
18 7/8 x 14 1/4 in. (48 x 36 cm)
V. Madrigal Collection, New York

For me the real beaut in the show are the 12 lithographs in the Vollard Portfolio.  Created in 1899, these "Landscapes and Interiors" as they are often known are Vuillard at his mishmash best.  The colors, particularly the rosey to orange reds feel very very fresh and the slightly out of register fine filigreed wallpaper in a few works read as very contemporary.

Interior with Pink Wallpaper I (Intérieur aux tentures roses I) from Landscapes and Interiors (Paysages et intérieurs)1899. 

Lithograph from a portfolio of twelve lithographs and lithographed cover, composition: 13 15/16 x 10 15/16" (35.4 x 27.8 cm); sheet: 15 7/16 x 12 1/16" (39.2 x 30.7 cm). Publisher: Vollard, Paris. Printer: Auguste Clot, Paris. Edition: 100. Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The additive process of multiple plates in print making accentuates the undercurrent of weird-making brilliance of Vuillard.  Each constituent form exists as it's own abstracted self, fending off every other discreet shape even as they tenously hold together in the service of the overall composition.

The Avenue (L'Avenue) from Landscapes and Interiors (Paysages et intérieurs)1899. 

Lithograph from a portfolio of twelve lithographs and lithographed cover, composition (irreg.): 12 1/4 x 16 5/16" (31.1 x 41.4 cm); sheet: 12 5/8 x 17 5/16" (32 x 44 cm). Publisher: Vollard, Paris. Printer: Auguste Clot, Paris. Edition: 100. Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

I'd really like to see this suite of prints exhibited alongside Thomas Schutte's large scale "wood cut" prints of interiors. Chromatically speaking, and in terms of the treatment of surfaces; patterning and texture, this could be very interesting...and easy to do since MoMA holds a set of each.

As the exhibit progresses, the paintings - the portraits, anyway- begin to read as more conventional representations - representations intended to comport to the sitter's conventional appearance....There's no doubt that Vuillard expertly imbued these works expertly with his penchant for complex, rich compositional and textural environments and the technical prowess is certainly present.  But there's definitely a vibe of the artist's vision tamed - almost neutered- in the service of representing members of the high society.  I began thinking of Warhol's late celebrity portraits before fully recognizing what I was seeing in the works before me; a similar work for hire kind of ethos.  Ken Johnson's review of the exhibit argues that such response to the show as mine sell short these later paintings.  He's probably right.  There's no less care taken in the production of these portraits set in interiors....perhaps there too much.  The few landscapes of this period, including some of the slightly earlier decorative mural panels escape the cringe component I found in the portraits.  There are moments of brilliance, like in the portrait of the Kapferer brothers in their dining room.  The red carpet almost insidiously envelops the space, then continues into an adjacent room receding on the right side of the painting and bleeds into what can be supposed to be a blood velvet settee.  The crimson of this recessed backroom overpowers that of the foreground, giving the sense of a potent spirit lurking - and twisting space in that familiar Vuillard oxygen vanquishing compression. (The image of the painting at the other end of this link does not do the painting's chromatic lushness justice.)  What can be said for these portraits is that they really capture the mode and aura of the time rather well, although it veers just a little too close to the commercial illustration of the sort one sees in magazines and adverts from the early part of the 20th Century.

I think my reaction stems primarily from the distance the later portraits reside from his earlier treatment of such works, and that in a quirk of technical handling, Vuillard's paint treatment embellishes the scenes with a touch of preciousness.  I don't think I'd have the same reaction to society portraits painted by Manet (this is a thought procurred from seeing a recent Two Coats of Paint post.)  But Manet doesn't exhibit the suspicious shift in manner or mode that I'm seeing in these Vuillard portraits. 

Several weeks back I was at the library at MoMA collecting information about Alberto Giacometti's time spent in Geneva during WWII.  I read James Lord's Giacometti biography when I was in Geneva during the Summer of 1992.  I was particularly affected by the account of his moment of artistic crisis that spanned his three years in the city as well as by an earlier panicked episode in Venice.  The phrase "stinking water" has lived vividly with me all this time.  While doing this research, a memory was stirred of being introduced to the work of Ferdinand Hodler at the Musee d'art et d'histoire and other institutionsi in Switzerland.  This Swiss contemporary of the Viennese Secessionists appealed to the allegorically centered artist I was at the time.  I remember his touch was light part in terms of coloration and draftsmanship.  I found no Hodler related books in MoMA's library.

In an uncanny quirk of chance, an exhibit of Hodler's paintings opened at the Neue Galerie last week.  Ferdinand Hodler: View to Infinity was the second of my viewing stops on Friday.

Two Women in Flowers
Oil on canvas
Archäologie und Museum Baselland

A symbolist painter who spent the greater part of his life in Geneva, Holdler was the Swiss equivalent to the Viennese Secessionists and enjoyed a good standing in the eyes of Klimt and Schiele.  Seeing this work in NY was very much like a preemptive departure ahead of my return to Geneva, happening at the end of November.  Hodler's works characterized my repeated visits to the Musee d'art et d'histoire, though lost in time, viewing his paintings at the Neue Galerie triggered a kind of muscle memory.   Some of the works I had seen in Geneva are in the Neue Galerie exhibit, like "Woman in Ecstasy" and "Lake Geneva with Mont Blanc and Swans" from 1918  Did I notice back then the discordant yellow auras of painted and unpainted postures of the swans?  I don't know.  I notice them now, though. The lightness of his Lac Leman landscapes in both touch and luminescence, are welcome familiarities, and it's a thrill to see them now.
The synchronicity of this exhibit opening just when I began recalling my brief relationship with Hodler's works is suspiciously coincidental.  Fortuitous, though, and I'm happy for it.

Ken Johnson also penned a review of this exhibit.  Here is another situation in which I my involvement with an artists work has not translated into learning about his life.  This exhibit relates a compelling narrative of this man's experience and how that experience was processed through his artwork to profound effect.

From the Neue Galerie, I dropped into the Mark Grotjahn exhibit in Gagosian's Madison Ave gallery, and made an aborted attempt to gain entrance to a crowded Whitney to see the Kusama exhibit.  I dropped that idea and headed directly to the Morgan Library for Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper.  Albers is a respectable, influential and honorable chap, but I've never been able to gain access to his work.  He was dealing with a profoundly focused effort, but it often strikes me like a cold, hard edged beautifully colored dead fish.  This is an exhibit of works on paper and his preliminary working studies for his Homage to the Square paintings.
Here too in these galleries, a formative Swiss experience advanced to the fore.  In July of '92 I visited an exhibit of Picasso's Rose and Blue Periods at the Kunstmuseum in Bern.  This was the first such "substantial" art exhibit I had ever seen, and this period of Picasso's work was right up my alley.  The take away for me that day was as much as I enjoyed seeing the finished works, I was most struck by Picasso's preliminary sketches.  Comparatively speaking, these were the objects that were most full of life and vigor.   And as moving as the paintings were/are, I felt something was lost in the translation from one format to the other
This long felt reaction was in my mind upon entering the Morgan Library.  This exhibit of Albers' preparatory works promised a rare view into expressive nature of the process behind his works.
I had two blockages here.
First, I'm just not convinced by the product of Albers' reductive mode of working.  I can respect it, but it doesn't do much for me.  Holland Cotter, on the other hand has been moved by Albers' paintings.
Sure, the Homage drawings presented embodied the loose, searching quality of a working drawing - and artifacts like this are generally quite fascinating to see as they offer a glimpse into an artist's mind, but my reaction to many of these are that they're so mechanical and dry that they amount to so many dry color charts.  I felt as though these things were never meant to be seen, and although many such things can offer a reward to the viewer if they're made visible - even if against the artist's intentions - I don't think they stand up to their fetishized presentation.  A gallery on the floor below is currently featuring examples of Winston Churchill's letters and other written artifacts.  I went in to  and after the first couple items, I left.  I just didn't have the patience for any of that...and I had the same kind of impatience in viewing the Albers exhibit.  There were some early sketches of interlocking forms which promised something interesting and then there was a selection of studies based on the form of a Mexican Adobe house.  The static composition of these pieces so aggravated me - and multiply so with the repetition of the form in alternatively irritating color variations, I just couldn't stomach them.    Of all the artists residing in the Albers household, I guess I just feel more of a resonance with Anni's works.
I'm all for fetish-izing of peripheral material, but I really had a blockage here.  I wasn't put off by it persee, but I didn't have a feel for all but a few of the early sketches in the show.  I forced myself to sit and spend more time looking.  I sat thinking of Picasso in Bern and trying to visualize a context in which I might be transfixed by these informal studies....In an exhibit with far fewer examples?  In an exhibit with fewer studies set amongst resolved works?  Stacked in a drawer as if happened upon by chance.  Mounted on the walls, unframed and less rigidly installed?  Perhaps.

Sometimes our own failings can not be immediately overcome to reach that place we feel might exist...then again that place may just exist in our own desires and the claims of informed others. 

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