Its a Gray Old World: Grisaille at Luxembourg & Dayan
November 7, 2011to January 28, 2012
64 East 77th Street, between Madison and Park avenues,
New York City, 212 452 4646
On the ground floor in the very narrow, five story Upper East Side townhouse of Luxembourg & Dayan is Glenn Brown’s Oscillate Wildly (After “Autumnal Cannibalism” by Salvador Dali) (1999). Up the steep stairs you come upon Willem van de Velde the Elder’s pen and ink drawing, A Dutch Harbor in Calm, with small vessels inshore and beached among fisherman, a Kaag at anchor and other ships (late 1640s); and then you view oil paintings by Alex Katz, (Provincetown, 1959) Christopher Wool (Jazz and AWOL, 2005) and Alberto Giacometti (Téte de Diego, 1958). And still further upstairs, amid austere abstractions by Carl Andre, Daniel Buren, Brice Marden and Robert Morris, Betty Tompkins’ large acrylic Fuck Painting #4 (1972) is something of a surprise.
All these works are in grisaille, which here is understood not just as another color but the non-color remaining when all other colors are eliminated. North Renaissance masters sometimes painted the outer wings of altarpieces in grisaille. Imitating the look of stone, these constrained images were generally visible only during Lent. Because grisaille is perceptually inert, that non-color is ideally suited to conceptual and minimal art. Jasper Johns’ Screen Piece 5 (1968) feels withdrawn, and Daniel Buren’s Photo-souvenir: Peinture acrylique blance sur tassi rayé, blanc et gris anthracite (1966) looks sullen. We do, it is true, think of ‘a grey day’ as depressing, but in this gallery, set against intensely colored walls, this ensemble of grisaille works is oddly exhilarating. When academic art historians have devoted so much bookish attention to identifying relationships between the old masters, the modernists and contemporary”artists, how exciting, how positively life-enhancing it is to see the way “grisaille’ relates American and European art from historically distant periods. The great modernist art writer Adrian Stokes argued that color allows pictorial “organization to be . . . intricate: a mutual evocation between forms must take place at all angles and at all distances and in all directions throughout a picture, so that each part will seem rooted in its place and working there.” By asking us to identify felt affinities between very diverse paintings and sculptures, savoring the connections between Jeff Koons’s Italian Woman (1986), Gerhard Richter’s Grau (1974), and John Currin’s L’intimité (2011), all installed in front of five lengths of Joesph Dufour et Cie’s panoramic wallpaper entitled Reconciliation of Venus and Psyche: Psyche Abandoned, Psyche Wafted by Zephyrs (1815), this grisaille ensemble functions as a total work of art.
Luxembourg & Dayan has generously supported this sensationally good exhibition, which was first seen in London last month, with a lavish catalogue containing tipped-in plates, like those found in Skira publications of a half-century ago, a nicely luxurious touch.