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|the jazz painter
by Peter Schjeldahl
"An Expressionist in Paris: The Paintings of Chaim Soutine," Apr. 26-Aug. 10, 1998, at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10128.
Painting is not dead, except as a high, museum art. Henceforth, it will thrive as a high, popular art. Like jazz, it will stand not against but at the rarefied pinnacle of popular culture. The critic Dave Hickey advances this view, which I want to believe. It may even be true, as witness the mysterious authority of current painting modes that, without irony, run sophisticated or soulful changes on vernacular imagery. The notion also squares with a growing mood of restless, wholesale revaluation of classical museum art.
Much if not most of the established modern canon palpably deflates like a punctured blimp. Old stuff that used to be beyond the pale -- notably including modes of failed seriousness like Beaux-Arts academism and Social Realism -- feels friskily suggestive. "Outsider" creativity of all kinds waltzes in the front door while formerly imperial reputations trudge around to the service entrance.
If real, the big shift will liberate painting from the meddlesome condescension of institutions and academies -- and of markets, too, except the sort defined not by a lot of money but by some money plus a lot of particular esteem. Painting's core audience will be a self-selected elite of the hip and ardent -- adepts of visual culture in general, which they adore while being permanently dissatisfied with standard fare.
What does this contemporary prophecy have to do with a smallish retrospective of Chaim Soutine, the archbohemian Parisian expressionist who died in 1943 at the age of 50? To my surprise and delight at a revelatory, must-see show, everything. At his best, Soutine was a jazz master -- maybe the smokiest and keenest ever -- of sheerly painting, taking things that paint alone can do to peak intensity as a matter of course. He could squeeze himself off the end of a brush as Charlie Parker distilled himself through a saxophone.
I never understood before that Soutine, whose last American retrospective was 48 years ago, has a best and a worst. Coming upon his works willy-nilly, I have deemed him hit or miss. The Jewish Museum's sharp selection by Norman L. Kleeblatt and Kenneth E. Silver makes plain that, from about 1918 to about 1924, the young immigrant from a Lithuanian shtetl rarely put a foot wrong on a whipping, bucking tightrope between chaos and mere style. When he fell, heroic messes resulted. Thereafter, he tended to tip the other way, declining into self-conscious Parisian painterly cuisine.
I want all ambitious painters everywhere to emerge from their studios and stand before the miracle of early Soutine. Then they should go and groove likewise on the crisis of every technical and formal decision in the toil of painting. It can cause our neck hairs to stand up, watching Soutine make one perfectly unexpectable move after another -- as if administering CPR to a creature that, but for such continual and desperate ingenuity, would die.
Try this: with your hand, mimic in the air the brushstrokes of a Soutine that you are looking at. Feel the velocity and pressure. Intuit the thought. Your arm will fill with a spectral sensation of uncanny intelligence. You will be astounded by what mere gestural motion drags out of your mind and heart. Soon overwhelmed, you will marvel at Soutine's stamina. You may fear for his health. (Perforated ulcers killed him.)
Intent at times on undiluted color touches, Soutine would use a clean brush for each stroke. Discarded brushes littered the floor around him. The moral is that if anything matters, it matters totally -- and if anything doesn't matter, such as orderly composition during Soutine's great period, it doesn't matter one bit. The point for him was to maintain a seething surface, every square inch of it sentient, that did not cohere laterally (decoratively or even pictorially) but only in a tumbling forward rush.
Subject matter mattered to Soutine. His pictures had to address something. His greatest paintings, for me, are always portraits, though landscapes and dead-animal pictures contain his most densely thrilling passages. His later, lesser work becomes pretty much about such passages, which admittedly can be really something. To comprehend the feathers on a dead turkey as Soutine did in some otherwise rather self-imitative paintings circa 1925, you would probably need to sleep with a dead turkey.
It was like Soutine to connect with his artistic idol, Rembrandt, through the latter's painting in the Louvre, The Slaughtered Ox: meat as paint, paint as meat. Socially dislocated, Soutine was blessed and cursed with an elemental, strictly uncouth vision. This made him spiritually conservative, devoted to art as a sort of ancient mystery cult. Thus his bizarre compulsion to begin most of his paintings on top of old paintings that he bought at flea markets -- as if to have his hand reassuringly held by a departed painter's ghost at the onset of each new, harrowing adventure.
This show demands that you pick favorite pictures, seemingly done by the artist with you in mind. My main crush the other day was on Woman in Red (ca. 1923-24), in which a goofily nice-looking person in a long-sleeved gown and a huge hat appears subject to vertiginous forces. A storm squall from the right extends her hat to the left in a slurring cantilever. Some geological event in the chair she occupies jams a salient from the left into her waist. All the while, her loco little head perches sweetly on her pert little neck.
Why does the strangely impersonal violence of this work make me feel like shouting with happiness? I think it's because I love painting, practiced here with such robust freedom. Painters can do anything they want with images. They needn't have reasons. The things don't have to make sense. There must only be genuine wanting -- a craving for immediacy that erupts amid ordinariness and, disciplined by the materials and procedures of a sublime craft, immortalizes a moment when life stood at full flood.
Like most of Soutine's images, Woman in Red is a kind of cartoon with a depth charge built in -- registering in an instant, then detonating. One feels a human presence in its subject, but at a mental remove, cycled through the artist's subjectivity. That kind of cycling, a specialty of painting, seems urgent today, when young painters seek to realize heartfelt meaning in our floating world of a zillion mechanical and cybernetic apparitions. Soutine comes right on time this spring, showing how to take an active hand in the future of imagination.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.