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  critic's notebook

by Walter Robinson  

Andrew Wyeth
Untitled, 1939

Andrew Wyeth
Crows (Study for Woodshed), 1944

Andrew Wyeth
Untitled (Distant Thunder Study), 1961

Andrew Wyeth
Hoar Frost 1995

Kiki Smith
from The Fourth Day
Destruction of Birds
, 1997
The 80-year-old painter Andrew Wyeth is easily dismissed by "mainstream critical and curatorial circles," confesses former Whitney Museum director David Ross in the foreword to the exhibition catalogue for the Whitney's "Unknown Terrain: The Landscapes of Andrew Wyeth" (May 28-Aug. 30, 1998). As everyone knows, Wyeth is merely a realist, an illustrator. The history of modernism is about style, not realism.

But artists should love this show. Wyeth's landscapes represent what could be called "pure painterly practice," a dialectic of eye and hand, a perfect correlation of observation and artistic execution. The way that his brush moves watercolor across paper -- these inchoate material elements -- to make a perfect picture, it's uncanny.

Wyeth's famously sentimental narrative (i.e., Christina's World, 1948) is all but elided in his landscapes, particularly in the uncultivated nature scenes that carry no sign of human presence. These seem utterly timeless. Meanwhile, of course, the avant-garde has been continuing on its merry way. The occasional convergence of the two paths is what's worth noting.

A visitor to the Whitney can compare Wyeth's seascapes from the 1930s, all blue and fluid and pseudo-expressionistic, with the Cubist harbor scene by John Marin from the same period in the new permanent collection galleries upstairs. The Marin is more interesting as art (Marin is the senior painter, with credentials established two decades earlier), but it is also more arbitrary, more of a "design."

The exhibition's most striking "figurative" work is the trompe l'oeil Crows (1944), an ink and gouache study of two dead birds tacked up by their feet, presumably by the farmer who potted them. The date of the picture makes an unmistakable reference to the war. Fifty years later, dead birds became the subject of a series of works by Kiki Smith. "I was tired of doing people," she's said. "So I did animals." In their use of this motif, the two artists' works are not significantly different.

Wyeth's watercolors from the 1950s and '60s are covered with spatters and smudges as if to reflect the "vitality" that he admired in Abstract Expressionism. Many of these landscapes clearly began with an abstract, gestural, painterly mark, from which then emerged a natural scene in whole or fragment. The image seems to grow organically out of the brushstroke, like an exercise in latter-day Surrealist frottage. It's as if Wyeth couldn't help but overwork it.

Finally, be sure to catch Hoar Frost (1995), a picture of a plain, snow-covered field of dry yellow grass, done in drybrush stipple. The detail is obsessive, the hand invisible, the subject minimal, drained of incident and interest. Hoar frost, at age 77. Once again, as poetry Wyeth is prosaic but as system he's more.

Pollock at work

A digital investigation of Autumn Rhythm
Are you ready to inspect those Jackson Pollock masterpieces for stick figures hiding among the splats and splatters?

In 1969, a young graduate student (who shall remain unidentified here) submitted a paper to her professor, William Rubin, the Picasso expert and then director (now emeritus) of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. "I don't bother to finish reading papers that are ridiculous," he warned his pupils, or so she recalls. Sure enough, our savvy student's submission received his scorn. Her argument? That Pollock's famed allover drip paintings began as figure drawings, done in drips and later covered up in the painting process.

"Show me!" Rubin allegedly exclaimed. "Where are the figures?" Pollock's achievement, according to the writ of Clement Greenberg, was the invention of the "allover" composition, "knit together of a multiplicity of identical or similar elements -- from one end of the canvas to the other."

Now, almost 30 years later, the student's theory has been redeemed by Rubin's able successor, Kirk Varnedoe, in his epochal new Pollock retrospective, due to open at the Museum of Modern Art next October. Advance word is that Varnedoe argues that, yes, Pollock did start his drip paintings with sketchy drawings of people.

The catalogue even features an analysis by critic Pepe Karmel that uses digital imaging techniques on Hans Namuth's films and still photographs to build up "photo-composites" of the early stages of Autumn Rhythm and One, 1950." Karmel posits that Autumn Rhythm begins as a figure, a looping circle constituting the torso, two outstretched loops indicating arms and dangling lines descending from the circle evoking legs. There is further talk of a "stick figure with outstretched arms," "a horse's head and neck," plus spinal columns, legs and feet.

It's not so hard to believe. At the end of his life, Pollock was trying to navigate a way out of the (perceived) dead end of his grand compositions by transforming his explosive splatter-and-drip technique into a more controlled representational idiom.


Finley in the New York Observer...

...and in the New York Times
Can I say that I think Karen Finley is fantastic? Not only has she has endured an eight-year-long, sexually abusive relationship with Jesse Helms -- the topic of a brilliantly inventive and impressively scatological new monologue included in The Return of the Chocolate-Smeared Woman at the Flea Theater in Tribeca (June 17-July 11, 1998) -- but she's also found herself in a co-dependent relationship with the news media and the Supreme Court.

The media's interest has always been salacious. Nothing like a constitutional issue involving a naked girl! Finley's theatrical diffidence as a pin-up can be seen in the accompanying images, taken from the New York Times and the New York Observer. Finley's "thing" as a performance artist has always been a libidinal energy that is slippery and unpredictable, not wholly frozen into a sado-masochistic fetish. Times theater critic Ben Brantley wrote an excellent review of her show, but its subtext was one of suspicion -- as if Finley's art practice was somehow inauthentic because she reaped a publicity bonanza from being the focus of a right-wing plot.

As for the Supremes, they voted against her, 8 to 1. Only a single judge -- David Souter, a right-winger who is still the court's most stalwart civil libertarian -- admitted the obvious about the content restrictions adopted by the National Endowment for the Arts. It's censorship -- you can't pretend otherwise!

The court ruled that NEA could consider general standards of decency just like it would consider any other variable in making its funding decisions. Suddenly it became clear: NEA grant panels had always been taking decency into account -- they were just ignoring it! Free-speech advocates are left with the a consolation prize: Finley has prompted the Supreme Court to declare that esthetic judgments are inherently subjective.


Karen Finley
"Go Figure"
at MoCA.

Karen Finley
"Go Figure"
at MoCA.
Speaking of Karen Finley, the Whitney Museum has a bone to pick with her and the New York Times. In the paper's July 4 story headlined "The Whitney Cancels a Karen Finley Exhibition," reporter Mel Gussow wrote that the museum "has canceled 'The Great American Nude,' an exhibition featuring the visual and performance art of Karen Finley that had been scheduled to open in December." The hapless show (whose title comes from a series of paintings by Tom Wesselmann) is described as an actual life-drawing class conducted by Finley and surrounded by "paintings, drawings, sculpture and photographs of nudes from the museum's permanent collection." The Times story also says that "the announcement was made on Thursday by Willard Holmes, the Whitney's acting director."

The overall impression is of a cowardly institution playing it safe in response to the recent Supreme Court decision affirming content-based grant rejections at the National Endowment for the Arts.

According the museum, however, the thing wasn't a Finley exhibition at all, but rather a survey of about 100 nudes by approximately 30 artists, most from the permanent collection. The exhibition was to include the Finley life-drawing installation, called Go Figure, that had been previously seen at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. What's more, the Whitney says there was no "announcement" on Thursday or any other time, and that in fact the ill-fated show was removed from the museum's tentative schedule weeks ago, before the departure of director David Ross for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In any case, why was the show canceled? The museum says it was a case of overbooking for a series of major exhibitions called "The American Century" (not "Project of America," as the Times had it). I gotta say, that's no excuse -- and sounds jingoistic in the extreme!

Put "The Great American Nude" back on the schedule, Willard, and let Karen be the curator!


Paul Signac
Fishing Boats in the Sunset, 1891

Vincent van Gogh
Olive Trees, 1889

Henri Matisse
Study for Luxe, Calme et Volupté, 1904

Pablo Picasso
Self-Portrait (Yo), 1901
Summoned at 10:30 a.m. one morning to the Museum of Modern Art for the unveiling of five new paintings from the recent bequest of Betsey Cushing Whitney (1908-1998). Very deluxe, since the museum doesn't open to the public till 11. What's more, the tour guide is none other than the above-mentioned Kirk Varnedoe. MoMA president Agnes Gund is there, too, expressing gratitude that the paintings were given to the museum rather than sent to the auction block -- no small feat, these days.

Varnedoe first guided the assembled journalists -- less than a dozen have shown up -- to an 1891 Neo-Impressionist seascape by Paul Signac, one of a set of five conceived as musical movements. This picture, which shows a fleet of fishing boats coming in at sunset, Signac considered an adagio.

Then came Vincent van Gogh's Olive Trees (1889), which Varnedoe called "physiognomic." It's hung next to the museum's emblematic Starry Night of the same year. The two pictures are obviously kin, and documentary evidence suggests that the artist shipped the pair of them to his brother Theo some 109 years ago, at which point their ownership diverged. "They've come together never to be put in the same crate again," quipped MoMA's registrar.

The other Betsy Whitney Cushing pictures include Turning Road at Montgeroult (1898) by Paul Cézanne, its "crystalline, geometric jumble" of houses a premonition of 1909 Cubism; a tiny 1904 study for Luxe, Calme et Volupté by Henri Matisse, painted under the tutelage of Signac, its title taken from a poem by Baudelaire; and Self Portrait (Yo) by Picasso (1901), the artist obviously discovering the power of his famously hypnotic eyes. (He had to discover some power, since he was only 5 feet 3 inches tall, at least on the authority of a famous song about him by Jonathan Richmond.) They say that la bohème of early 20th-century Paris was into telekinesis, reading minds and mesmerism, a pseudo-science that had already been around for 100 years.

What was removed to make room? Munch, Ensor, Vuillard. All in all, making MoMA's vaunted permanent collection galleries even more French.


Tom Otterness
American Art Award, 1998
Whitney Museum American Art Award this year went to Charles R. Lee, chairman and CEO of GTE Corp. Did you know that the Whitney gave an annual award to a corporate art patron? Seven times, so far. The other six corporate winners of this corporate program are Seagrams, NYNEX, J.P. Morgan, Sony, Philip Morris and Leonard Lauder of the Estee Lauder Companies. This time around, the museum raised $1.4 million from more than 100 donors.

The actual award, about six inches tall, was made this year by the Lower East Side sculptor Tom Otterness, whose childlike bronze sculptures have received global renown in the hands of Marlborough Galleries. For the Whitney award, Otterness designed a statue of a tiny gold businessman holding a cell phone, a money-bag where his head should be and with a diamond for a vest button. This little figure is encased within a crystal globe, which sits on a gold turtle, which sits on an engraved crystal plinth.

Clearly, something other than a wholehearted endorsement of the capitalist regime! Hey, Tom! No wonder former Whitney president Leonard Lauder seemed less than happy to meet you!

By the way, how much did the Whitney budget for this witty little doodad? $10,000, somewhat less than its fabrication cost, according to Otterness. And the museum raised $1.3 million. A parable of the true relationship between artist and patron?

By the way, during the dinner the museum apparently thought it wise to wall off anything that might offend ñ not only the Charles Ray survey but also the gestural Pat Steir mural down in the restaurant. The Andrew Wyeth landscape show was left open.

The Milwaukee Art Museum and its energetic director, Russell Bowman, came to town to tout its new $50-million expansion by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava even though it's not scheduled to be unveiled until mid-2000. The new wing will add 28,000 square feet of gallery space to the original 1957 building, designed by Eero Saarinen, and the 1975 addition by Milwaukee architect David Kahler.

Calatrava's design is extreme. It suggests a boat or ship (the museum's on Lake Michigan) and has a soaring, 90-foot-high "apse" that's shaded by a brise soleil, a moveable sunscreen that opens up like wings! I can't imagine making it work and in fact, the model on view didn't.

Lunch at Bolo, a restaurant in the East 20s, was great! And in his presentation, Calatrava did some simple drawings on a big newsprint pad. They were still there when I left -- I should have grabbed one!

He used to be a mild-mannered Art in America reviewer from Troy, N.Y. Then came the call from the New York Times. Now, critic Ken Johnson can be as tough as any of them. That's why it's pleasure in repeating his one-sentence description of the show by Los Angeles artist Dave Muller at Curt Marcus. "Mr. Muller stencils a personal greatest hits list ('Man Ray, Charles Lamb, Eva Hesse') around the room and adds handmade copies of famous art exhibition posters," writes Johnson.

Unfortunately for our cavalier critic, the list is traced not stenciled, appropriated not personal (it's Alex Katz's) and the posters are originals not copies. Ouch! Now, what does he mean when he calls the work "sedate"? Is it a nice way of saying "it sucks?"

What was that I just saw out of the corner of my eye on HBO? An ad for Jerry Seinfield on Broadway, with the comic posing as an artist in his studio, throwing a bucket of yellow paint on a blank canvas. Looks lame!

Charles Ray
Male Mannequin

Art critics get no respect -- especially in an ascending market! There I was, standing at the press preview of the Charles Ray survey at the Whitney Museum with two other exceptionally influential art critics, Jerry Saltz and Linda Yablonsky, talking to the exhibition's curator, Paul Schimmel from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Up comes SoHo dealer David Zwirner and his new partner, Zurich dealer Ivon Wirth. Suddenly, Schimmel breaks away mid-sentence to give them a personalized tour of the show! Hey, it was the press preview, not the dealer preview!!! And I was saying something really interesting!!

Art journalists don't do much better. At Christie's post-auction press conference back on June 3, New York Times reporter Carol Vogel called out chief auctioneer Christopher Burge on the auction-house practice of puffing up sale results by adding in the auction-house commission before calculating how many lots sold for above their presale estimates -- estimates that don't include the commission. What's the breakdown without the commissions figured in, Vogel wanted to know. Burge declined to offer any help. "You can quickly work it out yourself, Carol," Burge smirked.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of ArtNet Magazine.