The two strongest painting shows in Manhattan at the moment are not in museums and focus either entirely or in part on still life. In both shows, how un-still and varied still life painting can be is made wonderfully clear.
"Louisa Matthiasdottir: A Retrospective" at Scandinavia House on Park Avenue has about 100 paintings, drawings and one sculpture, and spans the artists career. "Giorgio Morandi: Paintings, 1950-64," at Lucas Schoormans Gallery in Chelsea, consists of exactly six late paintings and two drawings, each a little miracle of passion, sensitivity and restraint.
Restraint, a great sense of design and (a too little acknowledged) wit can be found in Louisa Matthiasdottirs work, too. Born in Iceland, Matthiasdottir (1917-2000) is one artist that always seems to have been quietly determined to paint her own way.
Her bold assertive brush strokes practically will her subjects to remain quiet, thus immortalized for future perusal and delectation. In a way, she stilled life, even in her figurative pieces.
Matthiasdottir refined and painted only the essence of what she saw. Her subjects were limited to those things she could observe and knew intimately -- her family, friends, the harbor at Reykjavik, and her still lifes. You can watch her daughter Temma growing up in her work.
Matthiasdottir settled in New York in 1943, but returned to Iceland often and spent some summers in Paris. Her art draws from this triad of places.
Though known as a realist, she absorbed Cubism in Paris where she studied for a year in the 30s. It is most noticeable in her harbor scenes. Planes of color assert themselves in her other subjects, too, becoming increasingly apparent over time (and after a brief excursion into Abstract Expressionist paint handling during the 1950s, when she studied with Hans Hofmann in Greenwich Village).
Matthiasdottirs paintings are composed of interlocking blocks of color within whose confines her broad, brushstrokes adds subtle tonal effects. These works seem perfectly balanced, although the degree of realism and abstraction varies from one painting to the next.
Some previously unseen gouaches from around 1948, originally made for a childrens book, that were lost and only recently found, show that much of her style was set by this time -- figures and surroundings composed of flat, simplified shapes of a single color.
They may have been inspired by her earliest training at the School of Arts and Crafts in Copenhagen. Denmark ruled Iceland at the time and her native Reykjavik could provide no art instruction. That she ventured this far away from home for training is indicative of her early commitment to art.
She paints herself unflinchingly, a tall reserved woman, but one who certainly had a sense of humor about her own introspection. Like many sensitive people, her connection to animals was acute, judging by her paintings of pet dogs, cats and Icelandic sheep. She often portrays herself with non-verbal, animal friends.
Matthiasdottirs still lifes, like all her paintings, use only a limited number of colors that are organized into snappy syncopations. They may be spare, but they are clearly, coolly articulated and brimming with life.
"Louisa Matthiasdottier: A Retrospective" is on view at Scandinavia House, Sept. 21-Nov. 13, 2004.
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Spare but simmering with life could apply to the pieces in "Giorgio Morandi: Paintings, 1950-64," now at Lucas Schoormans Gallery in New Yorks Chelsea art district.
The small, grayed canvases of bottles and other vessels that make up the late still lifes of Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) are famous for their monumentality and almost eerie sense of presence. By manipulating the composition, the edges of the bottles and vases, the play of light across their surfaces and minute tonal and spatial effects, the paintings come alive as striking tableaux. The spacious hanging in the gallery certainly helps bring this out.
An oil borrowed from Smith College lines up vessels next to each other like a large family posing for a picture. Another with four alternating dark and light pieces arranged behind one another in greater depth looks more like a conga line.
With so much variation possible, what did this notoriously misanthropic bachelor need with real people? Morandi had an entire alternative universe -- even if it was covered with dust. And he really did let most of his vessels get dusty, and he did insist on making his own paints and stretching his own canvases, becoming even more controlling and god-like about his art.
Morandi often worked in series. Two of the paintings on display are from a set of three, based on minor variations around one grouping of vessels, yet they evoke surprisingly different responses.
The show at Lucas Schoormans offers an all too rare opportunity to appreciate this Italian masters carefully calibrated compositions.
"Giorgio Morandi: Late Paintings" remains on view at Lucas Schoormans through Dec. 4, 2004.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.
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