Jessica Gandolf, May 9-June 14, 2003, at Adam Baumgold Gallery, 74 East 79th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021
If you haven't yet gotten around to visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and even if you have only a passing interest in our national pastime, Jessica Gandolf's new exhibition of paintings of baseball players (with few pugilists thrown in) nonetheless deserves a visit. Though Gandolf paints in an intimate scale, these images of sports legends capture something beyond heroic exploits and record-setting statistics. We're familiar with these legends of the diamond, having seen them hit home runs and pitch no-hitters, but do we really know anything about their lives, desires and frustrations, in short, their existential angst?
Well, there's the possible exception of Joe DiMaggio. Joltin' Joe, whose hitting streak of 56 games will probably never be broken, became a celebrity off the field, mostly to his chagrin. Gandolf's revealing portrait shows a young DiMaggio, with a forlorn look on his face, as if he might have a premonition of the fateful encounter with a doomed Hollywood legend that was to come.
OK, so DiMaggio wasn't a great statesman like Sir Thomas More, in Hans Holbein's painting in the Frick Collection (nor was he beheaded for high treason, as More was), but he did capture the imagination of Americans during the war years, and his quiet dignity was a part of his aura. With his raised eyebrow and cap pushed back on his head, DiMaggio seems resigned to his fate as hero and tragic figure, something of the Shakespearean in his sad expression.
Reminiscent of the portraits of the 15th-century Northern Gothic masters, such as Holbein, Hans Memling and Rogier van der Weyden, Gandolf relishes the detail that reveals her subject's interior life. Zack Wheat may have led the Brooklyn Robins to the World Series in 1920, but in Gandolf's portrayal, his knitted brow suggests that he has just taken a third strike in the ninth with the bases loaded, the night after his wife threw him out of the house.
Some of the portraits resemble religious icons, epitomized by the intense gaze of the ageless wonder, pitcher Satchel Page, his maroon St. Louis Browns cap casting a deep shadow over his staring, illuminated eyes. Joe Tinker, of the famous double-play combination of Tinkers to Evers to Chance, is depicted in front of a floral pattern that could be wallpaper or the intimation of a more heavenly realm.
Then there is the image of the battered foot soldier, embodied by the ill-fated Red Sox star Tony Conigliaro, his eye swollen shut, having been beaned by a pitch that ended his career. Gandolf occasionally employs abstract backgrounds when the image warrants it, as in Out at Home, in which the raging Jackie Robinson has just been called out at the plate, on a square pattern of yellow and green. One is reminded that it is a game after all.
The catchers, however, seem the saddest of the lot, and maybe the most enlightened. It could be the heavy gear, or the crouch they must assume for all of their professional lives (no wonder so many end up as first basemen), but their expressions imply a much deeper sense of despair, as though they had taken on a much larger burden than what pitch to call on a three-and-two count.
Jimmie Foxx, a homerun hitter who won the Triple Crown in 1933, peers out from behind his facemask like a warrior in a samurai movie, outnumbered and facing oblivion. Yogi Berra resembles a crouching Buddha, having just received what looks like a high inside fast ball in his big mitt, all the red seams showing on the white orb. He is surrounded by sky and thin clouds, a figure for contemplation, if not worship.
Maybe that's Gandolf's point. No matter how much we may revere them, these larger-than-life athletes are ultimately all too human. Even in small canvases that resemble glowing reliquaries, these wary warriors seem to be saying, in the immortal words of Satchel Page, "Don't look back. Something may be gaining on you."