Two months away from Santa Barbara were never far from art, and although it is excruciatingly difficult to translate visual experiences into words, I can at least record my reactions as I recall them.
First, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is my home base away from home, a five-minute walk from our apartment on 79th St. I have already described some of the problem I had with the Met’s major spring show on Winslow Homer. In that piece I also noted the Met’s emphasis on Black-related art, in both subject and creator. I hadn’t yet toured the contemporary galleries where, again, the Met tried to make up for decades of exclusion in one fell swoop. In the generally pleasing Epic Abstraction show on the upper level, which I had seen before, Joan Mitchell’s monumental La Vie en Rose, out to travel, has been replaced with paintings by two Indigenous artists and a third minority. No matter. But the entire large floor below, where once stately portraits by Whistler, Chase, Sargent and my Robert Reid held sway, there was an unremittingly uninteresting parade of works by Blacks and other underrepresented constituencies, like Lebanese and lesbians. The least appealing piece, however, was the only one I noted by a white American male: a block of (beeswax) cheese with widely separate human hairs on top by Robert Gober.
I went with Siri, my fashion consultant, to the Costume Institute’s Made in America, Part II extravaganza in the Met’s American period rooms. Again, quite unnecessarily, I thought, Blacks and females were everywhere, both in the movie directors chosen to stage the exhibits and in the acknowledgements of people who worked on the dresses, neglecting entirely the larger world of immigrant labor that powered the garment industry. Again, there was one white male, in this case Martin Scorsese, whose staging of the Frank Lloyd Wright Room from Deephaven, Minnesota, was perhaps the show’s highlight. I couldn’t judge the fashions, but Siri was disappointed by how dark the rooms were and, consequently, how hard it was to clearly see the dresses. I was disappointed by how low and poorly lit all the accompanying labels were. To stand in front of one meant to block the little light needed to read it. (Siri employed her iPhone flashlight and was thanked by those around her.) I didn’t see it, but Siri said that Part I of the exhibition, still on view in the usual costume quarters, was more illuminating.
The other big temporary exhibition was sculptures by Charles Ray, generously spaced in the other Special Exhibitions hall, next to the Homer. One work at a time by Ray is sort of interesting, and the “sort of” is mainly because it inevitably poses the question, “is this Art, and if so, why?” I knew Ray mostly from the deconstructed and reconstructed silver car in the collection of the Walker in Minneapolis, where it stood for something in the middle of a gallery. Whatever the point–and it’s one that relies on erudite wall labels delving into the artist’s thought and work processes–it loses interest as it’s repeated over and over. His latest piece was an 8-foot “Archangel” carved by a Japanese master from hinoki wood, bare-chested and wearing flip-flops. One wondered, what exactly was Ray’s contribution to the process? And what it would “mean” with any of a dozen different titles. For some reason, I think (sales prices, maybe?), Ray is deemed an artist’s artist, while Jeff Koons is, instead, a lesser popular phenomenon. I don’t think I could tell the two apart.
A smaller special exhibition was a collection of early paintings by the sculptor Louise Bourgeois, very much in a post-Max Ernst mode. Roberta Smith, in a subsequent Times review, judged these works merited a reevaluation of Bourgeois and American Modernism, but they were little more than a curiosity to me. Had she not become an important sculptor, and were she not a female artist, I doubt anything here would have shown up in this museum.
I wandered back and forth through many regular galleries of the Met and found my greatest pleasure in looking at two paintings by Johan Barthold Jongkind, View from the Quai d’Orsay (1854) and Honfleur (1865), tucked into a corner along with an almost-as-lovely work by Daubigny. Similarly, my happiest moments at Frick Madison were spent with Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl (1657). Call me a traditionalist, call me old-fashioned, but this is where my heart is: works that are calm, well lit, harmoniously colored, carefully composed and lovingly representational.
Just as close as the Met are numerous galleries, a great advantage of our 79th St. location. There were a dozen portraits by Francis Bacon at Skarstedt; a career-spanning selection of Basquiats at Venus over Manhattan; Italian Primitives matched with Lucio Fontana at R&V; a set of new Takashi Murakamis at Gagosian; and most amazingly, more than a dozen Pompeian frescoes from Naples at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World on 84th St.
The Guggenheim seemingly pulled all of its Kandinskys from storage and offered a reverse retrospective: it suggested starting with his latest works and watching how certain themes and shapes were consistently presaged in earlier works. His style certainly changed, and some paintings I loved, some I didn’t care for. In general, it was the hard-edged geometric abstractions flying in space that appealed to me, as they did 50 years ago. The blobs of bright colors, not so much.
Speaking of bright colors, we rejoined MoMA just to see the exhibition based on Matisse’s Red Studio. What fun to spend a weekend day walking down Fifth Avenue to 53rd St., visiting just one show in two galleries, and walking back through sunny Central Park. Seeing all the objects in person that Matisse had included in his painting was more a novelty than revelation. More interesting was the second room that described the painting’s history, from its commissioning to its rejection to its display in a nightclub to its accession by MoMA 37 years later. It was a mini-seminar on the history of modern art.
I received another lesson with a personal tour of the American Museum of Folk Art from Director Jason Busch. The question, What is Folk Art, is just as tricky as the question, What is Art; but there was something there for everyone, and I was just as impressed by Jason’s tales of how the items, and entire collections, had been brought into the museum, which badly needs new display spaces and even a new building. It’s easy to imagine the thinking behind the ill-fated expansion to 53rd St. The collection now is even more deserving of that kind of upgrade.
Our extra-museum art excursions took us to Christie’s showroom (I also visited Sotheby’s), TEFAF and Frieze New York. Least interesting was Frieze, although it was fun to see the Shed at Hudson Yards. News reports spoke of heavy sales, which goes to show how far the market is from my taste. I saw one picture in the whole place I would have been interested in owning. I think I will skip Frieze in the future. It was more of an event in the tent on Randall’s Island, and with three times as many exhibitors there was a better chance of finding something to our liking. TEFAF, of course, had many more things to our liking, as it generally featured established stars of the art world; but with prices in the six- and seven-figure range the objects were to be admired, rather than coveted. Touring with Mia Director Katie Luber made the show more fun, but there was more pointing out pieces by artists we already liked than discovering anything new. The best art, by far, was on view at Christie’s: Monet, Van Gogh, Mitchell, Rothko, Balthus, Caillebotte, Leutze, on and on. Here we were looking at eight figures. And there were lesser works to be offered in day auctions in May. What struck us the most was, how could there be that much money for art, just at this one particular moment? But the sales proved that there was.
Given my preference for traditional art, it surprised me that my two favorite art outings in May were downtown, to the New Museum and the Whitney Biennial. The former hosted a retrospective of Faith Ringgold, whose commitment to art matched her identification as Black and female. Perhaps it was her exclusion from the mainstream of critically accepted white male art that led her art in new directions, in terms of subject matter, style and materials. Her originality and authenticity shone through in multiple galleries, in series of projects that were very different yet still related. The drawing was flat and simplified, the messaging was pointed and one series was painted entirely without the color white. Later works, all on a very large scale, incorporated hand-written stories, and her “story quilts” are probably Ringgold’s best-known work. As much as she portrayed Black suppression, or disadvantage, she retained a sly sense of humor that made the medicine go down easy. As the best retrospective does, this show made me feel both that I will henceforth recognize an artist and, even more, better understand her work.
I have had mixed reactions to previous Whitney Biennials, generally liking a work here or there but more often feeling lost. This edition, however, seemed more focused and unified, richer and more rewarding. (The New Yorker called it “startlingly coherent.”) First, and significant, was the presentation: the 6th floor was swathed in black, cloaked in darkness; the 5th was open, airy and light. Rather than drone on, as past Biennials have, this provided a fresh feel when you changed floors. I may be oversimplifying, but there I also sensed a consistency in the works chosen. Most (all?) of the artists were Black, Indigenous, gay or otherwise representative of a minority culture, and their work seemed to at least reflect, if not emphasize, their identity. Rather than find this off-putting, as I tend to, this somehow felt correct, perhaps because the works also had esthetic or intellectual appeal. I didn’t take notes and am not qualified to single out individual artists, almost none of whom I knew. But weeks later I can still recall the statue by the Canadian Indigenous artist Rebecca Bellmore, whom I knew of from a Liz Armstrong show at the MIA years ago. She wrapped a sleeping bag into the shape of a standing, huddled person, then cast it as a ceramic and surrounded it with a golden blanket of shotgun cartridges. A Hmong artist from Minnesota arranged a suite of posed photographs that captured the feel of her culture, from formal portraits of grandparents to boys playing street basketball to lush jungle to a solitary tiger. The only video we watched in its entirety, at the New Yorker’s recommendation, showed the Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco rowing aimlessly alongside Hart Island, where unidentified Covid victims are buried, with poems about death superimposed. My other favorite video (there were too many to take in) was a four-track California playlet featuring lifelike animated figures in normal, but slightly disturbing, situations. Abstract art made from beads and the leather of teepees were other Indigenous entries. And large black works by Adam Pendleton. Our two hours there felt too short. Had it not come on our last day in New York, I would have been tempted to return and see more.
A brief detour from Little Island to 22nd St. on our way home brought us to Dia Beacon and a remarkable meditative sculptural and sound installation by Camille Norment. It was very much in the league of Walter DeMaria and reminded us of the great and large-scale things that Dia, a non-profit, can do.
Needless to say, I only scratched the surface of available art in New York, and I haven’t mentioned my several visits to Questroyal in search of possible American Art acquisitions. We certainly, however, saw our fill.