The linear and the painterly: How art today uses its traditions
Saul Steinberg: Illuminations
The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue
New York City
December 1, 2006 – March 4, 2007
[at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC to June 24, 2007]
Merlin James: Painting to Painting
New York Studio School
8 West 8 Street
New York City
212 673 6466
February 8 – March 24, 2007
Saul Steinberg (1914-99) loved to draw. He depicts architecture; cowboys; fashion; furniture; Manhattan social and street life; opera sets for Rossini and Stravinsky; portraits of artists, such asDelacroix (after Nadar) (1994) and Giacometti’s Face (1983); and still lives like Breakfast Still Life(1974). He combines drawing and photographs as in Woman in Tub (1950) into which he sketches a nude, and Excavation (1951-52) with little houses added. He does calligraphy and over-the-top seventeenth-century allegories, and draws small American towns and big cities in this country and Europe. And he also uses other media on paper: cut brown paper bags for his Six Masks (1959-65); leaking ballpoint pens for Road, Samarkand, USSR (1956); rubber stamps for the all-over composition, Indians, Cyclists, Artists (1968); rubber stamps and postcards for Nine Postcards(1969); and thumbprints in Passport (1951). Everyone knows his often reproduced View of the World from 9th Avenue (1976), showing the world as seen looking westward from Manhattan. But equally deserving of attention is The West Side (1973), which reverses the viewing direction; or another map, The Flat Earth (1991) which, as the title says, evens out the planet.
Steinberg is consistently and amazingly inventive. Consider Untitled (Paris/Sardinia) (1963), in which two talking women reveal how different their vacations in central Paris and the island of Sardinia were. Or look at The Line (1954), a 29-section, folded 33-foot-long Chinese scroll-like drawing too long to be fully displayed, a virtuoso illustration of the many uses of one horizontal line. Across the hall at the Morgan’s display of drawings, “Private Treasures: Four Centuries of European Master Drawings,” Sinibaldo Scorza’s early baroque Orpheus and the Animals (1620-21) also reveals a rich imagination. But while Steinberg displays the skill of an old master draftsman, almost all of his subjects are modern. Like newspaper illustrator Constantin Guys, the subject of Charles Baudelaire’s 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” Steinberg is “always, spiritually, in the condition of (…) convalescence.” Such a return to childhood, so Baudelaire adds, which is so typical of modernism, comes only when an artist “is possessed in the highest degree of the faculty of keenly interesting himself in things,” even if they seem merely trivial. Displayed in one not-noteworthy gallery, subdivided with partitions, the 117 works of art in this exhibition tell the history of the twentieth century. In his adopted country, Steinberg was marginalized as a mere illustrator, Ernst Gombrich’s favorite modernist. What a strange fate for the creator of the anamorphic Five false paintings (ca. 1971) of standing figures, Marcel Duchamp, and a painting by Mondrian; the dazzling November 26, 1965 (1965) that uses ink and watercolors to tell what happened to the artist on that day; and considerable art devoted to explicitly political subjects, such as Ex Voto: Execution of King (1951) and Street War (Cadavre Exquis) (1972/74).
Merlin James (b.1960), an art writer who paints, does small pictures, rarely more than two feet tall or wide, after details from the old masters or old photographs. Sower (2001) is from Jean-François Millet; Castaways (1984) from boating scenes by Eugene Delacroix and Edouard Manet; and Ruin (Ruisdael) (1995) from Jacob van Ruisdael’s Landscape with the Ruins of Egmond Castle (ca. 1650-55), which, itself a ruin, has a hole cut through the canvas. Sometimes his details are almost unidentifiable. Without the comparison images, I would certainly not have connected Cat and Fête (2000) to Titian’s Concert Champêtre (ca. 1510) or linked Jude Farm (2004) with Sir William Nicholson’s Judd’s Farm (1912). Often James’s sources are visually obvious, as when Bathroom Mirror (2006) re-does Pierre Bonnard’s Self-Portrait in the Bathroom Mirror (1943-460, or Parapet and Sky (2005) reworks a picture of a Naples rooftop by Thomas Jones. But some are frankly esoteric, like paintings by Jean Hélion or photographs from the Alinari Brothers. And his most complicated picture, Étretat (2004-05), is based on paintings showing that beach by Courbet, Monet, and Matisse. Judging just from this description, James’s procedure might seem a form of art historical appropriation. But not at all — in fact he uses the resources of European art history to make paintings in his own style, with a muted palette. Harvest (1995-97) redoes a detail from the background of Nicolas Poussin’s Summer, or, Ruth and Boaz(1660-64), brightening the tonality; and After Poussin (1995) reworks Landscape with the Body of Phocion Carried out of Athens (1648) into a very dark image indeed.
Because Poussin is mostly written about in terminally academic ways, it is enlightening to see a painter’s response to the visual qualities of his art. Just as Cézanne was said to re-do Poussin after nature, so James in effect re-does painting after the old masters, as if for him the painters’ subjects traditionally found in the real world could effectively be replaced by materials all assembled from within art museums. The history of painting is rich enough, he shows, to give a sufficiently gifted painter all the subjects he can reasonably require.
I am in awe of Merlin James and Saul Steinberg, for in their very different styles they show everything that we can reasonably expect visual art to present; James in his painterly manner with the aid of the old masters, and Steinberg, a great linear artist, directly drawing from life. And they share a certain dry sense of humor not found in much contemporary art. In-between going back to these exhibitions, I made my Chelsea rounds, seeing the usual image appropriations, installations, large-scale photographs, and videos used to stage debates about politics. But after seeing Merlin’s and Steinberg’s shows, the concerns of the rest of the American art world look pretty parochial–and their historical allusions, much of them too obviously ambitious, a little strained.