Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805) is one of the great French draughtsmen of the 18th century. Strangely, he has yet to gain the recognition for his art that Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard, Chardin and David have achieved. How wonderful that Edgar Munhall, curator emeritus of the Frick Collection, has resurrected this artist almost single-handedly!
Curiously, the French have recently elevated Monsieur Munhall to the rank of Officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters, but would not take his current exhibition of Greuze drawings.
Munhill has written extensively about Greuze and organized the only major retrospective of his work in 1976, and now has produced the first exhibition and catalogue devoted to his drawings. "Greuze the Draughtsman" is on view at the Frick, May 14-Aug. 4, 2002, and subsequently appears at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Sept. 10-Dec. 1. It's not to be missed.
Jean-Baptiste Greuze was enthralled by the everyday, not the distant past. Rather than historical works, he created genre scenes filled with passion. His Compositional Study for "A Marriage Contract" relates to one of his great, multi-figure and multi-generational paintings. Several smaller-scale studies for the same work show how he endowed each of the many figures in his domestic dramas with a whole host of emotions. His Head of an Old Man shows the dignity, sorrow, hope and resignation of the father, while his drawing of The Notary, probably made after the painting was completed in 1761, is an insightful study of a peasant practitioner.
Greuze's popularity in his own time came from producing the soap operas of his day. Collectors paid large sums for his paintings and the numerous detailed drawings he made while creating them. The only surprise is that he is no longer commands a huge audience when soaps are a world-wide addiction.
Even in the late 1700s, some people thought his works cut a bit too close to the bone. He depicted The Beloved Mother as a beautiful but exhausted woman surrounded by a horde of kids. His painting The Father's Curse: The Ungrateful Son and its pendant, The Father's Curse: The Punished Son, and their related drawings tell the story of a father begging his son to not join the army and his son returning crippled at the moment of his father's death. A tale not exactly containing the saccharine sweetness of a mythological Boucher.
Along with his clear-eyed analysis of families, Greuze was willing to up the emotional ante with symbolic details. His drawings for The Paralytic include a single hand of the elderly subject of the work that is a poignant repository of the man's whole life.
Similarly, the red and black chalk study for the mastiff bitch that suckles her young while peering into her master's face underlines the care that one generation depends upon another to deliver. By extension, the nurturing of the old man now can be reciprocated by his descendents in his time of need.
Plus the drawing of the mastiff is just a great dog drawing. And Greuze's oeuvre is filled with them. From the 1760s comes the brush-with-ink-wash-over-chalks of Madame Greuze on a Chaise Longue with a Dog that features a lovely lapdog. From around 1800 comes his black-and-red-chalk Study for the Head of a Dog, a wide-eyed and devoted panting spaniel with a lot of personality.
Greuze's chief focus, however, remained the human animal, and he tackled both sex and affection of the human kind in his work. Perhaps most clearly sexual is his ecstatic post-coital drawing Head of a Woman in red chalk from 1765.
His pair of pastels of actors, Portrait of Baptiste aîné (meaning "eldest son") and Portrait of Madame Baptiste aîné from 1798-1800, are very beautiful works, a testament to the affection of the artist for his subjects as well as subjects' love of each other. Greuze, always an egotist, suffered from a marriage gone bad, so perhaps he was especially appreciative of the happy union of his two friends.
The show includes a wild early ink sketch for a book illustration, Compositional Study for "Sophronie" and some of Greuze's later forays into religious and mythological themes. But Greuze will be remembered most for his scenes of everyday life and the passions that they generate. Hats off to Munhall for a superb job!
The catalogue has works from both venues, so it's worth picking up not only for the essays and entries, but for a look at the additional drawings. Greuze the Draughtsman costs $75 in hardcover and $49.95 in softcover.
One way to savor the exhibition in New York is to take advantage of the Frick Collection's new evening hours. On Fridays the Frick is open until 8:45 p.m., and there will be a cash bar in the museum's garden court from 6:30 p.m.
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The Whitney Museum of American Art is showing the largest selection of drawings by Claes Oldenburg to date. Having recently purchased 88 drawings by the Swedish-born Pop sculptor of soft objects and erector of non-heroic monuments, the Whitney received several additional pieces from the artist and his partner, Coosje van Bruggen. The Whitney's former drawings curator, Janie C. Lee, and a private foundation of Whitney chairman Leonard A. Lauder and his wife, Evelyn, arranged the purchase of most of the drawings from the John and Kimiko Powers Collection.
A total of 92 Oldenburg drawings now belong to the Whitney. All are on display and a joy to see. On the first floor are large drawings made by Oldenburg in collaboration with his wife, van Bruggen, from 1992 to 1998. Most are related with large-scale sculpture or installation pieces. Viewers can trace ways that the pair plays with and refines their ideas. One notebook page with cut and collaged bits of a photo of a clarinet in an arc leads to a charcoal of a bowed Clarinet Bridge from 1992.
Upstairs are works from 1959 to 1977. Some relate to Oldenburg's influential Pop installation "The Store," some are one-off exercises, and others refer to numerous colossal monuments, both fantastic and built. The intersection of dream states and fantasy with Oldenburg's large-scale projects comes alive in Drainpipe-Dream State in pencil and crayon from 1967.
Oldenburg's loose and loopy line morphs from one thing to the next. While color is used sparingly, his sense of color can be exciting. The watercolor Proposal for a Cathedral in the form of a Colossal Faucet, Lake Union, Seattle (1972), for example, has the lush ripe tones of macerated tropical fruit.
A catalogue is available in hardcover for $45.
"Claes Oldenburg Drawings, 1959-1977, Claes Oldenburg with Coosje van Bruggen Drawings, 1992-1998 in the Whitney Museum of American Art, June 7-Sept. 15, 2002, at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
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Simon Frost, English-born but now living and working in Brooklyn, uses exquisitely detailed repetitive line-making to create his drawings. His second solo show at Peter Blum in Soho shows him making tiny circular cell-like forms that accumulate into an irregular mass. Could this vortex be frog spawn, pond scum, bubbles, an agglutination of human monocytes or subatomic particles?
Whatever it is, it's arresting, as is the waterfall of lines that are actually vertical rows of miniscule circles in another piece. All of Frost's works are untitled, whether in graphite, ink or casein.
A small drawing, 3½ inches by 8 3/8 inches, in red ink looks like a close-up of part of a braided rug. Another red ink drawing only slightly larger and vertical in orientation is even more interesting, with lines of tiny circles forming distinct, interlocking areas.
A grid in orange casein is made of two sizes of elongated forms in alternating rows that call to mind corn-on-the-cob, while two works in sepia have floating ribbons of vertical or almost vertical pen strokes.
What all these works share is a delicacy that is elegant and invites intimacy. It is also a delicacy can only be arrived at over a long period of time.
I phoned Frost and learned that he started out as a sculptor in metal and found objects. About eight years ago, he felt the need for a fresh path. Having made some engravings on metal, he started drawing on paper and worked toward "the challenge of simplicity."
First in tiny overlapping circles of graphite, then over laboriously prepared layers of casein using a grid, then more directly in ink, he has pursued his goal. He also mentioned buying up special paper from 1930s English mills that are no longer in production for some of his works.
Whatever materials Frost uses, he works magic with them. Each drawing entices with its visual purity. As he turns out from one to only a handful of drawings a year, it's amazing that a small ink can be purchased for $5,500. A larger drawing of about 3 x 2 ft. costs $14,000.
The gallery is soon to offer a large, ca. 40 x 76 in drypoint engraving on copper plate by the artist, Frost's only print to date. The gorgeous reddish swaths that extend from a central point are formed by infinitesimal lines, no two of which touch. Quite an exercise. The piece was executed with the help of a metal template back in 1995. It will be offered in an edition of 10 with the first five priced at $3,500 each.
Frost's kind of Minimalism may not be for everyone, but will surely appeal to the sophisticated collector. He's definitely an artist to watch.
The exhibition is on view through July 27, 2002, at Peter Blum, 99 Wooster Street in New York.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.