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ARCHIVE OF DAVID COHEN’S FRIDAY COLUMNS AT ARTCRITICAL

 

Last week’s column:

“Grisaille Technicolor”, a profile of Ena Swansea to mark the decision by the Hassam Purchase Committee of the American Academy of Arts and Letters to purchase and present a work by her to an American museum

Previous weeks’ columns:

“Painting that’s good enough to eat”, a review of Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective at the Phillips Collection, Washington DC, coming to the Whitney Museum of American Art in Summer 2001

 “Academy Notes”, a review of the Invitational Exhibition of Paintings and Sculptures at the American Academy of Arts and Letters

“Pure Beauty and the Beastly Sublime”, a review of Barbara Hepworth at PaceWildenstein Gallery

“Nice Photos of Naughty Bohemians”, a review of “Bad Behavior” by Bill Hayward

 “A frolic with David Salle”, a review of his exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery

 

DAVID COHEN every Friday at artcritical.com

March 23, 2001

Grisaille Technicolor!

Ena Swansea Gray 2001, oil on linen 108 x 108 inches

Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery

SEE MORE IMAGES BY SWANSEA AT ROBERTMILLERGALLERY.COM

 

News is just in that Ena Swansea, one of the thirty eight artists featured in this year’s Invitational Exhibition of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, has been selected by the Academy’s Hassam Purchase Committee.  This committee purchases works for future presentation to American museums.  Another of the sixteen artists so-honored this year is Nicole Eisenman, whose work was featured in this column.  To mark this significant event, this week I profile the work of Ena Swansea.  An earlier version of this article was published in Artnet Magazine [see the article] on the occasion of the artist’s debut exhibition at the Robert Miller Gallery in November 1999. 

 

 

ENA SWANSEA paints - as she converses - with voluptuous intelligence.  Of course, it’s a bit of a presumption to impose such a statement upon a viewer solely privileged to know her work.  What can be stated quite objectively, however, is that compressed within the strange limitations of her palette is an expansive range of hue and tone; that the smooth sheen of her surface understates an elaborate choreography of brushmark; that her ethereal compositions pulsate with living intensity.  Subtle and unobstrusive as these pictures at first appear, they are actually rude with painterly activity in the way a person can be rude with good health.

 

According to Pliny, the first artist was a woman who painted shadows.  It is recounted in Book XXXV of his Historia Naturalis that a Corinthian maid, the daughter of Boutades, a potter from Skyon, drew the silhouette of her fiancé, who was about to go abroad, from the shadow of his head cast on the wall by a candle.  Her father then filled in the outlines with clay and modelled the face in relief so that his daughter would have a souvenir of her beloved to console her in her loneliness. 

 

Ena Swansea's painted shadows exude such voluptuous intelligence that admirers are lured into mixed metaphor: "she illuminates shadow".  At the opposite end of history from Pliny's Corinthian maid, she can be said to paint in the shadow of tradition, but rather than capitulating to prognostictions about "the end of art history" and playing fashionable end-games with style, she basks in the light of the masters, whose techniques she distils.

 

Initially seductive for their very coyness, these pictures gradually reveal strengths precisely in those areas where a given quality seemed sparse.  Compressed within the strange limitations of her palette, for instance, is an expansive range of hue and tone (her grisaille is technicolor!)  The smooth sheen of her surface understates an elaborate choreography of brushmark.  Ethereal compositions actually pulsate.  One of the minimalists talked about art that's smart enough to be dumb. Swansea is smart enough just to be quiet, to steer a gentle course between the histrionics of self-expression, the pedantry of observation, the rhetoric of reduction.

 

Painted shadows flutter in and out of the history of art just like real shadows on a sunny fall day.  Sometimes they are a detail to make illusion the more complete, sometimes an excrescence to be sacrificed on the altar of artifice.  The Impressionists are credited with the discovery of the color in shadow.  Swansea steps back from the expressive overstatement of this truth to reintroduce an element of surprise. Color, like form, is to be softly intimated, to pursuade gently.  But let's not overplay this subtlty business: Swansea is cinematic in immediacy and scale; as in a movie-house - or concert hall - quietness envelops us, nuance is there for us.

 

What a wonderful subject shadows are for an artist negotiating a space for herself between abstraction and representation.  They are nature's readymade art.  To paint them is to ackowledge a platonic status for art that is at once dismissive and compelling, for shadows are a byproduct, fleeting, elusive, distortive of the things they latch onto, a sensation revealed in time.  To fix a shadow is to arrest time more impertinently than virtually any other kind of mimesis.  To paint shadows is to advertise the affinities between the chosen medium and subject, the elusiveness and quirkiness of each. 

 

Swansea might have eavesdropped Gauguin's advice to Emile Bernard: "If, instead of a figure, you put the shadow only of a person, you have found an original starting point, the strangeness of which you have calculated."*  Her shadows are palpable, but the objects that might have cast them are spirited away.  In a similar conceit, the responsible light source has been obscured.  The compositions are also botanically impossible, bringing together flowers and leaves which could not, naturally, cohabit on the same branch.  But for all this artifice, the images register as credible.  To feel real counts for more than actually being so.

 

Although she has played around with shadow boxes, she has said that the photographic images that resulted from these experiments were staid in comparison with the mesmerizing compositions she comes up with from imagination.  She realised that she would have to continue to construct her compositions formally, painstaking though this process is.  Her approach is traditional, scaling up her big canvases from resolved sketches.  There is, nonetheless, and despite the supreme painterliness of these images, a kind of photographic quality.  Or maybe not so much quality as aura.  Her images have the authority of a moment of moving film.  The sensation - fleeting but particular, elusive but gripping - stretches the space between projection and memory. 

 

* quoted from E.H.Gombrich Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art, (London: National Gallery, 1995).  

 

Upcoming books, lectures and publications by David Cohen

 

 

March 9, 2001

Painting that’s good enough to eat

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March 9, 2001

Academy Notes

 

INVITATIONAL EXHIBITION OF PAINTING AND SCULPTURE, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City

 

Nicole Eisenman Fishing 2000 oil on board 43x56”

(collection of Craig and Ivelin Robins, Miami Beach, FL;

photo courtesy Jack Tilton Gallery, New York)

 

 

Bouvard and Pécuchet pretty much had the right idea about academies.  Never miss an opportunity to ridicule them, and never turn down an invitation to join!  My own “received idea” about Salon-type exhibitions is largely informed by London’s Royal Academy of Arts which every year delights ladies in tweed (plaid) from the Home Counties and embarrasses the artworld with that time-honored ritual, the Summer Exhibition.  Academicians, already an odd-enough cocktail, add to the brew of their own eclecticism by opening their august walls to other talents, new or old.  Nothing can be more calculated to offend a modernist sensibility than the double- and triple- hangs with a resulting visual cacophony that typify the RA Show and the comparable Salons (de Mai, d’Automne etc.) arranged periodically at the Grand Palais in Paris and indeed anywhere where exhibiting societies of yore survive.  Post-modernists generally find cooler ways to overturn the applecart of modernist purism than throwing in their lot with these meat markets (though one year, as it happens, YBA Michael Landy did submit a market stall to the RA where it held pride of place under a rotunda).  Anyhow, this is all by way of introduction to the totally unexpected positive feelings engendered in me by this year’s “Invitational” exhibition at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. 

 

I don’t know what others do when they receive an invitation with thirty-eight names on them, but in a mix of curiosity and vanity I like to circle any acquaintances, and to my astonishment, when this particular card arrived on my desk I soon found a baker’s dozen of haloed names.  These were all artists I admired and respected; yet in my wildest dreams I would only curate them into one exhibit as a Surrealist gesture.  A sewing machine and an umbrella are more likely to meet on a dissecting table than Melissa Meyer, Chakaia Booker, Amy Sillman, and Martha Diamond to exhibit together in glorious, top-lit nineteenth-century galleries in a complex of like-buildings floating as incongruously amid the northern reaches of Harlem as the Taj Mahal in modern Agra.  But that’s exactly what’s going on at the Academy’s Art Galleries at Audubon Terrace at Broadway between 155 and 156 Streets til April 1.  For those of us – shame on us! – who have never ventured to this neighborhood before, the delights of Velázquez and Goya and much else await at the Hispanic Society of America next door.

 

Of course, the Invitational follows hot on the heels of those bazaars, the Armory and Pier shows, so New Yorkers may still have the magpie sensibility needed to extract aesthetic experience from the quagmire of overload.  I should say, however, that the Academy show is installed with remarkable dignity considering the number of artists included, and the depth given to each artist.  The sculptor Lucky DeBellevue is given better opportunity to do his thing here than he was in the encyclopedic “Greater New York” show at P.S.1 in Queens last year.  His exquisite mesh of chenille stems in the suspended canopy The Underneath made for a magisterial entrance to the South Gallery.  A heightened sense of nature versus artifice is sustained as the visitor turns left, to find, framed by an alcove, a sumptuous Ena Swansea shadow painting.  The annex revealed a new artist to me: Justen Ladda, whose sensationally crafted Tree of Knowledge in glass crystal beads- knowingly, wickedly kitschy - is sorely tempting. 

 

On a similarly lapsarian note, it struck me on this occasion that Nicole Eisenman’s slick, slippery, mannerist panel paintings of mean, muscley ice-maidens (which I had actually seen already at the Jack Tilton Gallery, but needed a second viewing to be convinced by) could be the work of Adam Elsheimer angry ex-wife, Lilith!  Fishing, 2000 (borrowed from a Miami Beach collection) I have now decided is a masterpiece.  The gleeful, girlish illustrational quality of this image, of a surly sisterhood lounging around in tight catsuits on Giotto-like icy hillocks and presiding over the dunking of a hapless Acteon (hoisted – literally - by his own petard) compounds rather than distracts from the intensity of the whole.  Sure, this is Bad Painting with a capital B, but there is real aesthetic communication here, not just art about art, which is why, in my opinion, Eisenman leaves John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage out in the cold (it’s Nicole who really “breaks the ice”!).  The tight contorted awkwardness sits well with the erotic energy experienced by painter and viewer alike in this Rubenesque paean to voluptuous girl-power.  But enough... this review is about to get X-rated! 

 

Seriously, though, you can see the problem with a Salon review.  There are thirty-eight artists here, and I’d like to talk in similar depth about, say, twenty-four of them.  It’s tempting to delve into the revelations that arise from the juxtaposition of artists from totally different milieus.  I love the way Jacqueline Humphries’s sparse, sleek drip paintings, commentaries on, as much as essays in, abstraction are on the other side of a wall with Charles Cajori’s sweaty AbEx figural abstractions, as if to say, here are two sides of one coin.  And it is interesting how, out of the icebox of Mary Boone’s uptown gallery, Will Cotton’s high-end kitsch ice-cream paintings melt into the hokey academic still lives by Nancy Hogan hanging next to them.  But still, there is no group aesthetic, no zeitgeist that I’m smart enough to discern.  I guess this is why there’s never an effective equivalent of Ruskin’s Academy Notes or Baudelaire’s Salon Reviews for the Whitney Biennial or the Venice Biennale, the modern equivalents of those sprawling old fixtures.  So, I can’t actually review the American Academy of Arts and Letters Invitation Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture.  But I certainly can recommend it.

 

Exhibition continues to April 1, 2001

 

March 2, 2001

Pure Beauty and the Beastly Sublime

BARBARA HEPWORTH: Stone Sculpture, at PaceWildenstein, New York City

 

As every kid in New York knows, Albany is the State Capital, Washington is the Federal capital, and New York City is the capital of the world.  The palpable symbol of this last noble truth is the UN Secretariat Building, whose totem of universality is Barbara Hepworth's Single Form, 1961-64, that pierced menhir tanning itself in the world's most famous 1950s swimming pool. 

 

The sculpture was a memorial for Dag Hammarskjold, the arts-loving Secretary General who was a personal friend of Hepworth's.  Just this once, Hepworth beat her old friend and rival Henry Moore to a moment of sculptural apotheosis (of course, he had adorned the UNESCO Building in Paris a few years earlier).  Every other time it was she who came off badly from the inevitable comparisons invited by their twin-track careers.  They had, after all, graduated from the same schools (Leeds and the Royal College of Art); they were both championed by the same critic, Herbert Read; they both produced Epstein-influenced heavy limbed "primitive" sculptures, soon to be followed by modernist essays with holes and strings, belatedly and reluctantly followed by a turn from "direct carving" to modeling in bronze, more to meet the commissions spurned by post-war building boom than out of creative "inner necessity".  At every stage it looked as if the female artist was dutifully following the male, to the chagrin, understandably, of Hepworth's feminist advocates.  The choice of Hepworth to represent Britain at the 1950 Venice Biennale made her look like a Moore student, and of course there was no golden lion as there had been for Moore in 1948.  All a bit of a sob story, and in reviewing the current exhibition of her late carvings at PaceWildenstein I was determined to leave the beastly bad Moore out of it.  But guess what jumped out at me, as striding down 57th Street on my way to Pace I passed the curvy voluptuous Grace Building?  One of Moore's most memorable and original mature works, his Standing Figure: Knife Edge, 1961: robust, earthy, dynamic, morphological, monumental, abrasive, heroic.  One hates to submit to gendered dualities, but there is no escaping the virility of Moore, even with his persistent feminine subject matter, compared to the soft, subtle, and understated in Hepworth. 

 

Herbert Read (and other critics) saw the two sculptors in starkly contrastive terms, though rarely failing to point out Hepworth's debt to Moore.  By contrasting Hepworth's desire for "loveliness" and a "sense of mystery" with Moore's striving for "power" and "vitality", Read effectively identified Hepworth with beauty, Moore with the sublime, to follow Edmund Burke's classic distinction.  In this world view Moore's vision is grand, fearless, millenial, whereas Hepworth's is refined and confined.  Moore was, for Read, the artist most significantly in touch with the archetypal collective unconscious, the artist-seer of his time.  Hepworth was apollonian, Moore dionysian.

 

Beauty is, indeed, the only word that will do for the cool, sensual, mystical modernism of the group of fourteen Hepworth carvings mostly dating from the last decade of her life (she died in 1975) exquisitely installed - those gray-blue walls! - at PaceWildenstein.  And it is their wobbly-edged subtly asymmetrical beauty which makes them fresh.  There is an undeniable problem with Moore, which the Hepworth of the UN Building shares, and that is an overwhelming mid-century humanist-modernist rhetoric.  These late marble sculptures by Hepworth are free of that, and even of the rhetoric of "truth to materials" and direct carving - they are impersonal in touch, and were in fact mostly carved by supervised assistants - that inflected her experimental work of the 1930s.  Sophie Bowness, the artist's granddaughter, points out in her elegant catalogue essay that these late carvings recall the purist modernism of this earlier period, but in look not strategy. 

 

I guess what it comes down to is this: the sublime inevitably entails a degree of theatricality for its effect, which cannot help but wear off, whereas beauty by its nature touches on actual, physical sensations rather than imagined or recalled ones.  The "loveliness" and "sense of mystery" of Hepworth's sculptures are precisely what give them renewable aesthetic potential.  For sure they are period-bound in their utopian sense of purity.  She and Moore belonged to a puritanical modernist generation committed to a notion of universal form as a quasi-religion.  Unlike Picasso, they are both constitutionally incapable of stylistic self-irony.  True to her affinities with Arp, Mondrian, Gabo, and Brancusi, Hepworth's titles invariably incorporate the word "form" and are pregnant with a vague, generalised sense of growth and life and natural rhythm.  Hepworth's brilliant style gambit was to connect her abstraction with prehistory - think of all those "menhirs" – as an alternative to primitivism, conceptually linking her cool modernist streamlining with a "timeless" human continuum.  Of course "timelessness" itself dates as surely as hi-tech futurism does because ideological belief in it rises and falls as relentlessly as hem lines.  But the sense of refinement in Barbara Hepworth is so acute that purity of form and high style are rendered inseperable. 

 

Barbara Hepworth: Stone Sculpture at PaceWildenstein, 32 E 57 Street, New York City, February 10-March 17, 2001

February 23, 2001

Nice Photos of Naughty Bohemians

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February 16, 2001

A frolic with David Salle

I give up!  I’m tired of not liking David Salle.  In marked contrast, on the evidence of his latest show at Gagosian, which continues to March 3, the artist himself never tires of being David Salle, exhausting though it must be.  For sure, however, there’s still plenty not to like about this perennial Bad Boy of painting, the same things, indeed, that have always irked earnest art lovers: his trickiness and repetitiveness and suspected cynicism. 

 

My repulsion started right at the outset of my career, before even learning that he was one of the ‘80s artists one was supposed to despise.  I was in Toronto, writing my first foreign review (of the renovated Henry Moore wing at the Art Gallery of Ontario) and I was overwhelmed by a visceral disgust at the bombast and sameness of their huge, clearly premature Salle retrospective.  And I remember, quite clearly, that it wasn’t the vaguely nasty subjects that appalled me, but the deathly, enervating form.  Right up to his last show at Gagosian’s old SoHo space, with those teddy bears and Alex Katz quotations, my antipathy held out.  And by then I wanted to start liking him.  He was sufficiently out of fashion to warrant admiration for his doggedness, plus I had met him at a panel and found him to be totally charming, plus my whole attitude towards authenticity and appropriation had swung around in my first decade of artwriting.  But the paintings just seemed puny and inadequate. 

 

And yet now I find myself ravished (an appropriate term for images with pastoral frolic as its central, repeated motif) and, well you know what Cicero said about frolicing.  There is indeed a kind of post-coital guilt and confusion when you realise you have been seduced by an artist you thought a turn-off.  Will I now have a revised view of the earlier work?  Will I soon have the old doubts about this newest work?  Has it changed or have I?  Forget Cicero, it’s Heraclitus I need to worry about (as in “You can never step into the river twice”).

 

And now, of course, with these shifting emotions and distorted memories, I don’t have neatly stored within my brain the right memories and responses to do justice to the subject here, to be able to answer the question empirically enough about Salle’s shifts and mine.  Just why is it that this new series seems strong and fresh and vigorous when earlier efforts from the same hand, employing similar strategies and in pursuit indubitably of a consisitent agenda, fell so short? 

 

I have a hunch.  There has been a subtle shift of nonetheless seismic consequence in the balance of power between image and surface treatment.  Before, despite the po-mo overload and deconstructive disregard of the intended meanings of his appropriated sources, power was with the image.  The means of putting the image down was subservient to its emotional tenor, even when this tenor was counter-intuitive to the image, – for example, cold treatment for erotic subjects.  Now, and it is significant that the central image is of innocents fishing in a rococo landscape, touch and tone seem to determine choices of image or artist to appropriate or quote.  One feels, say, that that Derain harlequin came in because the brush demanded it.  It is actually better for Salle to tune in to a Jasper Johns pattern than an Alex Katz figure because – for all his eclecticism and layering - it is texture not context that his painting were crying out for.

 

It is extraordinary, really, how diverse Salle can be in his painterly effects without ever quite capitulating and becoming painterly per se.  He is still more relaxed, more intuitive, more form-conscious, with imagery than he is with shape, gesture, color.  It is as if imagery is the stuff on his palette and paint some fabulous discovery or invention.  What an odd fellow!   But his adventures with paint are invigorating.  Like the happy peasant in his serial stencil he has caught something impressive.  The juxtaposition of linen and canvas, the optical collisions of oil and acrylic, are as constructive as they are deconstructive.  Of course, these tricks all serve to keep any kind of expressiveness in steel enforced quotation marks.  But that’s okay.  This is David Salle.  These paintings have the chilly dryness of a strong martini, if not the purity.

 

 

David Salle: Pastoral continues at Gagosian Gallery, 555 West 24th Street, to March 3, 2001

 

View images from this show at www.gagosian.com/gg/west24.html but be sure to come back here!