Opinions & Observations

Single-artist exhibitions and displays can enhance your appreciation of the artist – or not. The Felix Vallotton show in London (and subsequently at the Met) was a prime example of the former: his work was unfamiliar beforehand; his style developed in interesting ways over his career; and the paintings selected were almost all top-notch and rarely repetitive. The Legion of Honor’s exhibition of James Tissot in San Francisco qualified for the latter. Tissot has long been a personal favorite of mine; I had seen a major Tissot show before (Yale 1999); and I already knew most of his best pictures. This exhibition did cover his career in greater length, dredging up little-known early works that didn’t add much to his reputation and still won’t. It also pivoted to his post-society Biblical scenes, though only with his watercolor sketches, not, for instance, the beautiful oil of the Magi I so loved at the MIA. The show’s problem, for me, was in collecting a number of duplicative, mediocre paintings, which took some of the edge off his individuality when shown with his Impressionist contemporaries.

Tissot was a painter of fancy dresses, not faces. Seeing one or two of his women with blank expressions, you wonder about the ambiguity of the situation depicted. When dozens, however, share the same vapid stare, you quickly lose interest. How much more interesting would be an exhibition called, “Degas, Stevens, Tissot,” in which three highly accomplished artists working in the same milieu at the same time painted women in society with different styles and rather different aims.

The plague of sameness also struck me at SFMOMA, where I ran through the Fisher collection floors for possibly my third time. Most galleries were given over to single-artist displays – no doubt to highlight the depth of the Fishers’ collection. The artists shown were all modern-art-museum household names: Warhol, Lichtenstein, Andre, Marden, Still, Kelly (3+ rooms), Guston, Twombly, Martin, LeWitt (but, relief, not Judd) – so, no surprises there. It takes only one “Cold Mountain” loop painting or one Ben-day cartoon to “get” what Marden and Lichtenstein, respectively, are doing. Seeing four of the same adds no frisson of recognition or understanding of their oeuvre. In fact, putting seven Agnes Martin paintings together makes me less able, or inclined, to get inside and meditate on her work.

SFMOMA’s 2d-floor galleries contained a more general survey of the permanent collection, which I found captivating. Similar to the approach of MOMA in New York, the curators used each gallery to present a single theme – Surrealism, Mexico, Materials, Expressing Abstraction, Early Minimalism – which allowed for interesting juxtapositions and also showcased female and international artists recently added to the collection. Similarly, my favorite gallery amid the upper-floor big-name circuit was a multi-artist display showing the bright colors of Sam Gilliam, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler and Alma Thomas.

The new special exhibition at SFMOMA, “Soft Power,” introduced single works by contemporary third-world artists, often very large and, by themselves, not terribly engaging. In all, I was disappointed by SFMOMA, although in fairness I had just been to the Tate Modern and MOMA. And SFMOMA did make a special point of displaying, sui generis, Matisse’s The Girl With Green Eyes, the first, and only, painting I copied in my brief stab at oil painting.

As suggested, the newly renovated MOMA in New York, which we breezed through quickly at a members’ preview, was a knockout. The entire presentation has been rethought: the familiar icons are still there, but the context is new. It is no longer a linear march of the modern art canon. In each gallery, works are drawn that relate to a theme, which makes you look at each work on its own merits – why is it here? – and intrigues you with the thought that each gallery could look quite different at your next visit. Recent acquisitions are scattered throughout, and they are invariably by formerly neglected artists – women, artists of color, foreigners – just enough to keep things fresh, not enough to pander. The layout isn’t perfect – and with so many buildings joined together could never be – but it seems more manageable than before. Already, I look forward to return visits; it’s impossible, and best not, to try to see too much in a single day.

I saw four other major single-artist shows this fall: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Vija Celmins in New York, Eduard Manet and Shirin Neshat in Los Angeles. Kirchner, shown at the Neue Galerie, has never been a favorite, and after seeing a body of his work I consider him a one-hit wonder. That one hit is Street, Berlin, which expressively captures the flamboyant decadence of pre-war Germany and appears in all the standard textbooks, his tilted figures and pink colors grabbing the viewer in its vortex. Surprisingly, I saw it twice – once at MOMA and a few days later at the Neue, with both versions belonging to MOMA! The only other work I liked was, also surprisingly, a pastel from the MIA that I had never seen.

The Celmins exhibition at the Met Breuer was too much of a good thing (she apparently agrees). Her artistry is amazing, and no matter how much the labels tried to explain I could never grasp how she draws the ocean and the sky to look like photographs. Looking at five similar works together, I could pick out my favorite; but why, as usual, does the Met feel it has to collect every single example it can corral? I would be just as satisfied to see a show of the best of each subject she pursued, and not have to wade through two floors of galleries.

The Shirin Neshat show at the Broad also had some of that sameness, but you felt you could take in a whole room at once without having to look at each individual piece, except for a suite of portraits uniquely using color in a monochromatic way. Partly that was her intent, and partly the use of Farsi calligraphy to differentiate the otherwise similar portrait photographs put any deeper meaning beyond our reach. The strength of the show was her videos, which are mesmerizing and which one wanted to see in full, taking more time than we had. The images of black-clad women and white-clad men are striking – as the still photos attest – and there is simple, compelling drama that keeps you riveted until the end. When you add a soundtrack by Philip Glass, the work is even more powerful.

Late Manet at the Broad provided no revelations, as his work is so well known. It was, of course, a treat to see old friends from the Met and elsewhere in a new setting; and by concentrating on Manet’s last years it allowed me to categorize his works in a way I could have, but hadn’t, done before. In any case, his small pictures of flowers in vases are a treat to savor. Surveys like this do allow one, of course, to see many paintings for the first time, as works that normally sit in storage are brought out and considered relevant. Perhaps my favorite moment came in front of a large, commissioned portrait of a man with a lion he had shot. The wall label pointed out how a critic had lambasted this painting when it was shown. Usually, we read such reviews and marvel at how short-sighted the contemporary reviewer was. In this case, though, history had proven him correct.

I spent a delightful Saturday afternoon in Chelsea, seeing more shows than I can remember. Richard Serra’s cylinders and wall of steel, Sarah Sze’s video-added contraptions and Amy Sherald’s cool portraits of Blacks were among the big-name shows that stood out. Near our Upper East Side apartment were two remarkable exhibitions of artists I barely knew but now feel at home with, and better for it: Alma Thomas at Mnuchin and Pierre Soulages at Dominique Levy. How those two galleries, especially, continue to mount museum-quality shows amazes me. And there’s something about the gallery setting that adds to the experience. Maybe it’s the lack of wall labels that makes me just look at the art, or maybe it’s the feeling that I’m discovering the artist, rather than having them anointed by a museum. A display of large paintings by Zou Wu-Ki at Gagosian’s ground floor gallery, behind the bookstore, was even more modest and, for that, impressive.

Finally, there was Romare Bearden’s “Something Over, Something Else” series of autobiographical collages at the High Museum in Atlanta, and the hit-and-miss grab-bag of six artists’ selections of works from the Guggenheim. The best, for me, was Richard Prince’s unexpected take on abstraction.

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