Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN          
      A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, October 16, 2003
 

 

 

Picasso: The Classical Period, at C & M Arts
45 E 78th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, 212-861-0020, through December 5

Gregory Amenoff: Paintings, at Salander-O'Reilly
20 E 79th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, 212-879-6606, through October 25

Peter Heinemann: Flamingo Heaven, at Gallery Schlesinger
24 E 73, 2nd floor, between Fifth and Madison Avenues, 212-734-3600, through October 30

DAVID COHEN

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The story of Picasso's protean struggles with style is fraught with contradictions, and never more so than when it came to classicism. This was the moment (roughly 1917 through the mid-1920s) when the greatest innovator in 20th-century art suddenly seemed to lead its rear guard as well.

"Picasso: The Classical Period" is a sumptuous exhibition of two dozen works at C&M Arts accompanied by a catalogue by the redoubtable Picasso biographer, John Richardson.

Picasso's classicism is seen as his answer to a general "call to order" among the avant-garde in the wake of World War I. After all that carnage, cubism, whose antics implied anarchy and fragmentation, cut too close to the bone. Other artists who followed this call, tempering their earlier modernist excesses with new restraint, harmony, and wholeness, included Leger, Derain, Cocteau, and Stravinsky.

But art is always more complicated than this. In Picasso, in particular, competing tendencies perplexingly overlap. The serene finesse of his Ingres-inspired portraits of his haughty new Russian ballerina wife, Olga, cohabits in his oeuvre with ongoing variations on synthetic cubism - the colorful "cheat" cubism with which he subverted his own analytical principles.

In 1917 Picasso visited Rome in the company of Cocteau and the choreographer Léonide Massine to work on the ballet Parade for Diaghilev. He also took a couple of excursions to Naples and was blown away by Pompeii and by the colossi in the Museo Nazionale's Farnese galleries. The gigantism that would characterize his stocky classical nudes, including what Mr. Richardson calls the "bananization" of limbs, apparently had its inspiration here, though the contemporary example of Aristide Maillol must also have played a role. These influences took just three years to gestate, and a flowering of neo-classicism occurred in 1920.

 

This fabulously selected (or fortuitously eclectic) show reveals how, within this one specific style, there is a range of tendencies as diverse as the competing styles in the career at large: The microcosm compresses the diversity of the bigger mix. Some pictures here throw together different kinds of representation almost as boldly as the "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," even as they adhere to the kind of compositional unity the earlier masterpiece eschewed.

The show celebrates the 10th anniversary of C&M Arts, the most tony of uptown galleries. Flexing some muscle, they have secured loans from the Met, the Modern (the seminal "Three Women at the Spring," 1921), and other named collections. Choice examples of Greco-Roman statuary are interspersed throughout the show. In a way, though, the real gems here are the drawings and oil sketches, in which Picasso frequently betrays more than he does in the big machines.

The pastels, in particular, have a tough awkwardness that recalls the tortuous early romanticism of Cézanne, and is a far cry from the poise and tenderness of the conte crayon "Portrait in 3/4 Profile" (1923) or the almost Rococo finesse of "Conversation" (also 1923). A small (32" long) "Bathers" recalls, in its central figure, Cézanne's grand Bather of 1895. Whatever revolutions or counter-revolutions occurred in Picasso's crazy career, Cézanne remained the unchallenged constitutional monarch.

Picasso sometimes looked to the ancients with a freshness that belies any sense of the "retardaire"; at other times, he filtered the classics through 18th- and 19th-century revivals. But even as he played games with language, he pushed that language forward. The enigma of Picasso is that, even as a pasticheur, he retained the energy and drive of a pioneer.

***

Gregory Amenoff Eastertide 2003
oil on canvas, 89 x 124 inches, courtesy Salander-O'Reilly

Gregory Amenoff came of age as a painter in another period of bombastic revivals: the early 1980s, an age of plate-smashing neo-expressionism and camp classicism. His neo-romantic landscapes, with their mystical overtones and old masterly touch, may have seemed a counter to such excesses, but he shared many characteristics of the period, too. He was no stranger, for instance, to the stragegic dislocations of scale and language.

Mr. Amenoff's works have often been complicated, in a wild-man sense, throwing the eye around with a bewildering array of effects. The ambitious, highly wrought landscapes in his current show at Salander-O'Reilly are similarly dense, and as intriguing as any he has made. What is new is a convincing harmony that suggests maturity of vision. Complication is seen growing into complexity.

Mr. Amenoff's language hovers between the perceptual and the metaphysical, between groundedness and mysticism, detail and the grand view. "Eastertide" (2003), a 10'wide panorama, has the viewer peer over jagged foreground rocks at a long highland view. The contrast between the zig-zagging, flattened-out rocks and the soft greens of the landscape behind recalls the geometric-organic contrast in Miró's early Catalan landscapes, not to mention Giovanni Bellini's "Agony in the Garden." To my eye, the most likeable painting in the show is the much smaller "Ecco Pool II" (2003), which has the compacted glow of a Marsden Hartley or an Albert Pinkham Ryder.

***

Peter Heinemann Flamingo Heaven 2003 (detail)
oil on linen, 8 x 12 feet. courtesy Gallery Schlesinger

Peter Heinemann's compact, eccentric exhibition at Gallery Schlesinger should not be missed. It consists of an 8' x 12' diptych, "Flamingo Heaven" (2003); three supporting drawings; and an early, Beckmann-esque self-portrait. For many years, Mr. Heinemann has led a weekly drawing workshop at the School of Visual Arts, and the interchange here between his empirical life drawing and the stylized figuration of his mural is quite fascinating. His charcoal drawings consist of myriad quick studies arranged on two large pages, and often heap figures on top of one another in darkening clusters that contrast with spares expanses of empty page, in a way that brings to mind Botticelli's Dante illustrations.

The outlined figures in the mural, meanwhile, bring more decadent forebears to mind, from Beardsley to the newly fashionable outsider Henry Darger. In the drastic economy of his figuration there is even a hint of SVA's most famous alumnnus, Keith Haring, although Mr. Heinemann is incapable of Haring's degree of banality. Mr. Heinemann depicts a Garden of Earthly Delights in which, after a bacchanal (Puvis de Chavannes set to the Beatles), everyone is turned into a flamingo. There is music-making, jousting, and flirting by a cast of cartoon characters of diverse size, scale, and style. There are Native American Kachina heads, Mohican hairdos, characters of different generations and epochs, even (by the look of it) Martians. Stock characters dance, do the splits, or loll about post-coitally. Mr. Heinemann's heaven is blessed with a miraculous interplay of flatness and depth, density and openness, overlap and individuality.

 

 

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