An art exhibition is usually accompanied by a catalogue. This season started off at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a catalogue that was accompanied by an exhibition.
The first volume of American Drawings and Watercolors in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Yale, $90) is a handsome hardback that has a checklist of all 504 works by artists in the museum's collection, known and unknown, born (or thought to have been born) before 1835. In addition, more than 100 highlights from this group of works, which are on display in the American Wing and form a fascinating excursion through early America, are treated to large reproductions and extensive entries.
A second volume on works by artists born after 1835 and before 1876 is in preparation. The American Wing's extensive John Singer Sargent collection is the subject of a separate catalogue that was published in 2000. Another publication devoted to the design drawings of Louis Comfort Tiffany is also in the works. These books will cover most of the approximately 1,500 sheets in the American Wing. (More recent drawings are housed elsewhere.)
For those interested in the ways that an outstanding collection like the Met's develops and grows, associate curator Kevin J. Avery provides an essay on the subject in this first volume. In the same volume is an essay by Met conservator Marjorie Shelley on the changing fads for different mediums (and the technical innovations underlying them) throughout the history of American drawing. It's the best single article I've read on the subject.
The exhibition, organized by Avery and research assistant Claire E. Conway, begins with the earliest sheets in the collection, a portrait pair by Henrietta Johnston of Charleston, S.C., around 1708 to 1710. The oval-in-square formats owe much in composition and execution to late 17th-century European models, not surprising since Johnston had recently arrived from Ireland, where she had made similar pastels to help support her husband, a Protestant minister.
Remarkably more sophisticated and up-to-date is John Singleton Copley's pastel of Ebenezer Storer (ca. 1767-9), pictured in a luscious deep green damask dressing gown and velvet turban. Two additional sheets by Copley, one of our finest artists, are in the exhibition, augmented by more pastels and oils in other parts of the American Wing.
Portraits dominate American art at first, but topographical views are not far behind. An array of urban and rural views and sketches, from William James Bennet's View of South Street. . . (ca. 1827) to Asher Brown Durand's graphite study of trees (ca. 1855), offer plenty of opportunities to enjoy American scenery.
Non-American vistas are rarer but still available with George Inness' Olive Trees at Tivoli (1873) and James Abbott McNeill Whistler's Variations in Violet and Gray -- Market Place, Dieppe (1885) being especially fine.
Nor have unknown makers been neglected. The Abraham Pixler Family, (ca. 1815), a pictorial family record of births and deaths related to Pennsylvania fraktur, is as impressive for its color as for its abstract composition. This and several other folk works by unknown artists give a rounded picture of early art-making in America.
This is a great chance to see so many of Met's drawings, considering how light-sensitive they are. The exhibition is on view through Dec. 1, 2002.
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The long-awaited "Poussin, Claude and their World: 17th-Century French Drawings from the École de Beaux-Arts, Paris" is now at the Frick Collection. This is the only venue in North America for the exhibition.
Frick curators Colin B. Bailey and Susan Grace Galassi selected works from a slightly larger show organized by Dr. Emmanuelle Brugerolles with assistant Joëlla de Couëssin of the École. The larger exhibition was seen at the École and at the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire in Geneva last year.
As Bailey pointed out at the press preview, this is one show where the order in which you view the works may make a difference.
At the entrance to the Frick galleries, the visitor is confronted by two drawings, a typically eccentrically drawn Mannerist work, The Sense of Smell by Jean de Saint-Igny from around 1630, and Sheet of Studies: Twenty-Two Heads. . . by Michel Corneille the Younger from 1691. One can think of them as bookends for the show.
By following the rough chronology of the exhibition, visitors can trace the development of the French Classical style with its whiff of the Antique, its love of historical subjects, and its emphasis on balance, symmetry, nobility, and often monumentality from its Mannerist beginnings to its gradual refinement in the late 17th century.
The story begins in the Poussin room on the left. Five sheets belong to Simon Vouet, including his stunning, naturalistic Portrait of a Young Man, Half-Length, Wearing a Cape from around 1620. Vouet was called back to France by the King from Rome, where all these artists studied and many spent most of their lives, in 1627. He remained there to execute large decorative paintings for interiors and tapestries, many of which are now lost. His emphasis on figure drawing and monumentality (to be seen especially in two of his studies of draped women in the show) influenced the artists who saw his many royal commissions.
Almost every sheet here was made as a working drawing, if not for specific works then as sheets from which to draw motifs for future commissions or as proofs of one's ability to draw. Nicolas Poussin, overflowing with ideas, probably made his delightful Jupiter and Antiope in the 1630s when he was occupied with commissions for several mythological paintings. With rapid squiggles of pen and dashes of wash, Poussin sketches out a composition as sexy as it is complex. The female figure is too elongated, of course, but this master would have easily corrected that later. It is the drawing's undeniable freshness and verve that have kept connoisseurs in its thrall for more than 300 years already.
In his later drawings, Poussin lets his brush do more of the work. Scipio Africanus and the Pirates (probably 1640s) is considered, according to the show's excellent catalogue, a late study for a painting. This seems likely as it has been squared for transfer. The bas relief-like tableau has a huge assortment of characters, yet remains sturdily balanced, inviting the eye to delve deeply into its story.
The room to the right of the stairs at the Frick contains, among other works, nine sheets by Claude Lorrain. That Claude was a master of light is easily apprehended in a sheet devoted to Virgil's Aeneas.Coast Scene with Aeneas Hunting (1670) organizes what might have been an unruly expanse -- hunters, stags, forest, ships at anchor, a temple, birds -- with varying degrees of light.
Claude's early devotion to drawing en plein air (examples in the exhibitions include The Pyramid of Caius Cestius with shepherd, cow, ruins, greenery and Study of Trees) gave him the ability to mix and match motifs so as to make his reconstructions of the natural world totally compelling.
The show ends upstairs in a gallery with several works by Charles Le Brun, among others. Noted for his early devotion to drawing, Le Brun spent some time in Vouet's studio. Eventually he became the most fashionable decorative painter in France, the head of the Gobelin tapestry works, a principal decorator of Versailles under Louis XIV and a founder of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. His Winged Female Figure with Raised Arms from the late 1650s or early 1660s reflects the nobility and monumentality, the grace and balance that are hallmarks of the mature Classical style in France.
Israël Silvestre drew his View of the House of Charles Le Brun at Montmorency (probably around 1679) in preparation for an engraving. Before its central pavilion with its symmetrical dependencies floats a boat with figures on an artificial lake. Swans are added so that the composition remains perfectly balanced -- and more than a little static.
The exhibition is on view through Dec. 1, 2002.
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Somewhere between pixels and mosaics lie the cut-postage stamp works of Paul Edlin (b.1931). "Paul Edlin: A Retrospective" surveys work spanning his 18 years as an artist. It is on view at the Andrew Edlin Gallery, run by his nephew, and inaugurates the gallery's new space in Chelsea. This is Paul Edlin's fourth solo show; his first with the Edlin Gallery.
Paul Edlin's preferred medium is postage stamps sliced into tiny bits and glued to museum board. His subjects range from animals, especially birds, to genre scenes and imaginary beings. His philosophical and mystical bent can be seen in titles like Three Stages of Life and Loving the Aliens. He has also done a couple of portraits and an occasional abstract.
Predominantly self-taught, Edlin began his career combining stamps with other media, like tempera, watercolor, ink and balsa wood in Defender of the Flag from 1984. It effectively combines a purple jay with stamps in a decorative surround and measures 10 by 8 inches.
Edlin's pieces are all about 10 by 8 inches, only intermittently jumping to 12 by 15 inches, until around 1990. Then he makes the leap to 20 by 16 inches or 11 by 14 inches for most of his works and uses only stamps.
When asked why he gave up on other media, he only mentioned being disappointed in Utrecht Art Supply not making any more of his favorite tempera. Whatever his reasoning, he has persisted in turning out imaginative compositions like Mirror of Birds (1994) with its warm palette to odder pieces like his Unknown Forms (2001).
Reclusive because of life-long hearing problems but always wanting to be an artist, Edlin seems to have succeeded. His work is in two public collections in Switzerland and has appeared at the Outsider Art Fair and in museum and gallery group exhibitions in addition to his solo shows in this country.
Smaller pieces are priced at $2,000 and larger ones are $4,500 and $7,500. The show is on view through Oct. 12, 2002, at Andrew Edlin Gallery, 529 West 20th Street in Manhattan.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.