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by Thomas Hoving
|The other morning I opened the mail and had my art life lifted -- by what I saw in a catalogue from J. J. Lally & Co., that ne-plus-ultra Oriental Art Gallery on 57th Street in New York City.
Everything at this eminent firm is bound to sizzle in quality but the nine Han Dynasty pottery dancers (Western Han, 206 B.C.-A.D. 8) performing various ritual poses in the elegant and stately "sleeve-tossing" dance miraculously sculpted in dove gray clay hit the stratosphere.
The catalogue for the show at 41 East 57th Street that's open until Apr. 8 quotes a few lines by a Han poet about the dance:
And they waved their long, dangling sleeves
With a curvaceous, cultivated bearing
Their lovely dresses fluttered like flowers in the wind.
Take those wafting, delicate words and translate them into three dimensions and you have the J. J. Lally beauties. They are so fluttery, serene and tender!
Proprietor James Lally says, "These are among the finest secular sculptures of the period from China -- they are refreshingly atypical, filled with humanity and universal appeal. They came from Xian and may have been part of a larger group of, say, 20 to 30."
Only a short week left to see them unless you want to buy one or all of the last three that (at least at this posting) were still available, for a half dozen have rushed into the adoring arms of private collectors and museums. Prices established on a scale of condition and rarity range from $60,000 to $260,000. (Plus U.S. Customs won't seize them to send back to China -- I swear.)
Riemenschneider at the Met
Only a short time left also to visit the Met's show of work by the Franconian master-sculptor of the late 15th- early 16th century, Tilman Riemenschneider. This one opened in Washington's National Gallery, where it was a disaster of an installation -- a congerie of fragments in bare wood, painted wood and stone ripped from larger works, displayed on eye-numbing bone-white walls (I guessed there was a Federal stricture against fabric) accompanied by mind-numbing labels in pathetic artspeak.
The Met's show is far, far more elegant and sympathetic to the sundry fragments, although those pseudo-scholarly labels that blabber on about "polychromy" etc. (why can't they simply say paint?) use the same incomprehensible jargon.
There are around 50 bits and pieces (for, sadly, these are stray survivals, most of which are ripped out of their original contexts) of the Late Gothic master's works gathered from a bunch of sources, many from Berlin where museums are being renovated. They show his intriguingly bland, expressionless figures surrounded and covered by the most intensely crackling, artfully wrinkled, abstracted, meandering, deeply-cut draperies imaginable. Wish the dull figures had such zap!
There's only one full-blown work by Riemenschneider that's pretty much the way it was originally and, of course, that isn't in the show, the Creglingen altarpiece dedicated to the Virgin (some 30 feet tall by 12 feet wide) populated by an army of figures in delicious cafe-au-lait, unpainted limewood. This is truly something that you must see before you croak! It resides in the Herrgottskirche of the tiny hamlet of Creglingen, west of Nuremberg. The ensemble portrays the life of the Virgin Mary with the main, flamboyant act in the drama being her Assumption. (Too bad the Met didn't offer a life-sized photo of Creglingen instead of a detail.)
Amusingly enough, two of the top works in the Metropolitan show are not by Tilmann Riemenschneider. Number one is one of the finest acquisitions made for all the United States in any field of art in the past 30 years -- the foot-high boxwood sculpture attributed stylistically by the Met to the genius Niclaus Gerhaert von Leiden who produced his late 15th-century works mostly in Strasbourg.
This diminutive work is near-perfection, a glistening, vibrant, lovely image of the last quarter of the 15th century that instantly transports you to the realm of heaven. The sweet and knowing face of the Virgin can make a believer out of you. After the exhibition this unsurpassed beauty (damn, I wish I'd collected it!) will go on view at the Cloisters. God knows when. The piece is the quintessential example of what the Met ought to be collecting instead of the largely mediocre works the museum does collect, which are almost universally second to what the place already has. (Hey guys, you're running out of space -- yet again.)
The second best piece in the show is a near-life-size, darkly stained limewood sculpture by the eccentric and troubled Nuremberg genius Veit Stoss. The work depicts the lad Tobias who with the aid of Angel Raphael found a miraculous fish that became the medicine to cure Tobias' father of blindness. This work is brimming with life, movement and humor -- the pair looks like they're performing a village dance -- contrasted with the immobile and grim images of the dour Riemenschneider. As the catalogue remarks, this vitality probably owes a lot to Stoss' admiration for the early Italian Renaissance. (By the way, don't bother with the show catalogue -- it's turgid pseudo-scholarly prose doesn't contribute a whit to advancing the knowledge of Riemenschnieder. And the carefully constructed timeline doesn't give a clue about who, during the lifetime of Riemenschneider, was doing those Renaissance little artistic nothings in Italy.)
The best Riemenschneider, by the way, is the powerful stone Enthroned Saint Anne with the Virgin and the Christ Child.
A contemporary joke
To me the best recent art quote has got to be the one burned in the Boston Globe by Judith Shulevitz on Mar. 16, prefacing a long article on Hans Haacke's agitprop piece contra-Rudy at the Whitney. "Four decades after artists began to turn painting and sculpture into the blunt linguistic messages and icky bodily functions that came to be called Conceptual Art -- "art that exists as ideas rather than as objects," as '60s artist Les Levine put it -- it is now apparent that contemporary art is, in fact, a joke."
This is not an insult. If anything, artists these days count themselves lucky to have their work provoke anything as strong as a belly laugh. Rachel Whiteread's cast mattresses and Damien Hirst's shark tank and Jeff Koons' goofy, kitschy puppy all bring smiles to the face, even if -- or maybe especially if -- you think they're a bunch of con artists. Most conceptual art, including the officially "good" stuff, such as the bannered slogans of Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, inspires at best a knowing half-smile, a nodded "I gotcha," and a quick turn away.
The requisite Brechtian ironies -- the wry twists on mass-cultural forms -- are cheap and obvious. The political sensibility is arch and predictable. Even the imagery feels old hat -- a diagram showing links between corporations, technology and art; a video installation with chanting voice-overs; a photograph in which the artist dresses up as something else and goes out in the world, à la Cindy Sherman.
Attending a show of conceptualist or neo-conceptualist art these days gives you the druggy feeling of having wandered into a bad comedy club, where artists one after another stand up to deliver their one-liners and the joke is on them for the banality of their points: Consumerism is bad. Sexism is bad. Censorship is bad. Corporations do not have your interests in mind. Art collectors are rich, mean, corrupt people who commodify art and use it for their own ends.
Nazi plunder in Boston?
Another informative piece in the scintillating Globe is the article by reporter Maureen Dezell stating that the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in April will publish on www.mfa.org a list of paintings that have the barest hint of a Nazi-plunder connection through provenance or ownership. Some 15 works -- so far, for the checking will be ongoing -- from the European collection have possible suspicious quirks of provenance or were associated with folks with some links to Nazi looting. The posting will spell out the museum's suspicions and will supply as time goes on further data hoping for feedback that will either squash or buttress the concerns.
This is the first harvest of what the American Association of Museum Directors pledged to do two years ago, namely, to inventory all holdings to determine what if any Nazi-tainted works might exist.
The MFA is the fourth institution to expedite its research into questionable art. The Art Institute of Chicago, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Museum in New York are working towards something like what the MFA intends to do.
While Boston officials emphasize that there is yet no clear evidence that any of the pieces were plundered during World War II, director Malcolm Rogers was quoted in the Globe story, "We want to make a statement, and to draw attention to legitimate concerns about provenance. ... We want this to be a responsible discussion. So far, the issues have been sensationalized."
Speaking of the general subject please read Jonathan Petropoulos' newest book on art, politics and selling out in the Third Reich. This riveting new one is entitled The Faustian Bargain from Oxford University Press and outlines why and how so many dealers, artists, museum directors and professors embraced Nazism and how they never paid for their evil acts.
Didn't you just love the spate of stories about Thai elephants trained by the irrepressible Russian art-spoofers, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, to splash abstract canvases with their artistically capable trunks? Sure, the top auction price so far seems to be a paltry $2,100, but just you wait. The values of these great elephant abstractionists -- the likes of Renee, Sao and Ramona -- are bound to increase. Whatta investment!
Art historians (at least some art historians) are ga-ga about the works. Mia Fineman, a scholar at Yale University and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looks upon elephant painting as "the ultimate Outsider Art, reinvigorating a moribund art scene and resolving the fin-de-siecle 'crisis in painting' with a bold and uninhibited return to gestural abstraction." I think, seriously.
Elephant painting, according to Vitaly Komar, "is better than de Kooning. Because it is more innocent. De Kooning was corrupted by the art market."
Come on William Wegman! Now that Abrams is about to publish your latest coffee-table about fashionably-dressed Weimaraners, your next doggie book simply has to be about great Weimaraner de Kooning act-alikes.
Art sure has its bizarre and kooky aspects these days.