Report from Berlin
Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
February 6-May 3, 2009
Picturing America: Photorealism in the 1970s
Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin
March 7- May 10, 2009
Blockbuster exhibitions can be extremely small. When recently the Frick presented the London Cimabue alongside its Manhattan mate, in the small room next to the bookstore, a revelatory visual relationship was displayed. Emulating that American practice, this vast German museum, which usually displays only old master paintings, showed within one tiny gallery just three pictures, two small Giottos and one Rothko, all from Berlin collections. Between Giotto’s Crucifixion on the left and his Death of the Virgin Mary on the right, was Rothko’s No. 5 (Reds), in a marvelous intimate setting. In The Artist’s Reality written in 1940, Rothko described Giotto as the master of plastic-tactile art. A phase from that book is quoted on the wall at the entry to this exhibition: “It is Giotto’s color . . . that produced the great effect of tactility.” Rothko was interested in how, without using perspective, Giotto could create pictorial space. And he was fascinated with Giotto’s capacity to present tragedy, which was the goal, also, of his own classical abstractions. He wanted that his pictures have the same intimate relationship to spectators as the paintings of Fra Angelica, another early Renaissance figure he admired, as found in the monk’s cells at San Marco, Florence.
As the thick catalogue notes, there is a long critical tradition relating Rothko’s art to sacred European painting. Building upon, and criticizing this literature, the catalogue contains nine essays on Rothko’s ways of thinking about spirituality, Giotto’s iconography, and, also, the story of how the director of the National Gallery in Berlin came to purchase this Rothko. What light does all of this interesting information share on our visual experience? I grant that this juxtaposition allows us to sharpen our attention to the fabrics represented in the Giottos. But Rothko never saw these paintings. Following Greenberg, very many commentators have sought to link Abstract Expressionism to old master tradition. And emulating Rothko, numerous art writers have related his abstractions to sacred European painting. Turning from the catalogue to this display reveals the basic problem inherent in such comparisons. No. 5 (Reds) looks different from these Giottos. That Giotto fascinated Rothko does not show that viewing his pictures had any influence on his own art. The catalogue drives some exhibitions. Its catalogue sank this one.
After minimalism and pop art came photorealism. Prominently featured in Documenta 5 (1972), this art form provided German collectors with their image of America. But while the best minimalists and pop artists established their credentials, most of the photorealists had less satisfying careers. Chuck Close went on to become famous, though with portraits somewhat different from those here on display. Richard Estes, who deserves to be revived, continues to make magnificent pictures. Wonderfully successful in Nedick’s (1970), he falls into banality in The Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, Summer, 1979 (1979) when he makes no use of the reflections that give life to his representations of urban architecture. Recently Robert Bechtle has had a major retrospective. But Tom Blackwell, Charles Bell, Robert Cottingham, Don Eddy, Audrey Flack (the one female photorealist), Ralph Goings, Ron Kleemann , Richard McLean, John Salt, and Ben Schonzeit, who are interesting minor artists, have effectively disappeared.
Deutsche Guggenheim generously allows us to reflect on this recent history. Readers of Charles Baudelaire’s greatest essay “The painting of modern life,” and the now famous account of Impressionism by his Marxist academic champion, T. J. Clark, can understand why these paintings attracted attention. When the photorealists show contemporary subjects—depicting automobiles, family scenes, motorcycles, public advertising, storefronts and the other apparatus of everyday life– are they not doing what Baudelaire’s hero, Constantin Guys, wanted an artist to do? They present the pleasurable beauty of contemporary life. But whether because they inspired no distinguished theorizing; or because these paintings are fatally close to their photographic sources; or simply because in the 1980s the American art world moved on: in any event, these artists have not established their place within the postmodernist canon. Perhaps the problem is that photorealism was too neutral, too little involved in political critique. In the wings of this show one can envisage Jeff Wall, whose altogether more aggressive take on our culture turned out to be the wave of the future. Unlike him, these photorealists merely show what they see. There is one masterpiece in exhibition, Malcolm Morley’s Open Golf Championship (National Open) (1968), a picture that shows that even a sports event can inspire a painter. It deserves comparison with Adolf Menzel’s pictures found nearby in the Altes Museum. But in this mean-spirited hanging, which is much too tight, this great painting lacks breathing room. (And in the catalogue, I could hardly believe my eyes, Morley’s image is bled across the centerfold.) Having assembled this magnificently revealing exhibition, the Guggenheim failed to carry through.