Woman's Head Amedeo Modigliani ca. 1912-13 at the Guggenheim
This art column's going to be different.
It's dedicated to popularizing the fine arts, choosing nothing but the best, and going nuts about the choices. It'll save you from visual indigestion in museums, galleries and auction houses.
The nation's museums are crammed with art as never before. I suffer from visual shock all the time and hate it. Yet I understand the reasons for the overcrowding. Museums must gorge themselves, since one of their sacred missions is to gather up the art of all civilizations and preserve it for future generations.
Why don't they put half the stuff in the basement? Well, basement or attic space happens to be even more limited than space in public galleries. Plus, all museum pros know that a work in storage -- even the most carefully-watched storage -- never fares as well as when it's out there in the open.
Special exhibitions these days are desperately overloaded. Much of the stuff is footnote material and not worth your time. Why the bellyful? It's possible that curators think loading up the galleries is scholarship.
They're wrong, for catalogue photographs of the peripheral works would suffice, and cut the costs dramatically. But that'll never happen. When I was running the Metropolitan Museum, each time I'd suggest that a curator could winnow a show down, I'd be attacked as a philistine bean-counter. So what if my Tut show had only 55 pieces and seemed to satisfy the public appetite for Pharoanic treasures? Today a plethora is what you're going to get. Let me dispense the antacids.
Museum curators are unwilling to make frank statements about quality for fear of offending potential donors, especially since 85 percent of art acquisitions come as gifts. But I can talk about what's good, better, best. What do I care about offending donors? I'm qualified to judge, too, having all the art degrees plus a lifetime of experience.
At the Met I visually devoured thousands of objects and received a handsome stipend to see as many museum and private collections around the world as I could. I was constantly on the move -- and still am. You'd be amazed at how easy it is for the director of the mighty Met to get his hands on anything he wants. I don't think anyone around has seen so many works of art from as many civilizations as I have -- nor collected more for a museum (around 25,000 objects). And all I cared about was why one work was better than another.
"Old Master Drawings from The Hermitage and Pushkin Museums" at the Morgan Library, New York
Piece by piece, this is the hottest show in town. And here in the order of the catalogue are the ones that wiped me out:
Federico Zuccaro's 16th-century Angels and Cherubim, a study for a destroyed Roman fresco. No faces are more angelic in art, not even Tiepolo's. This is so gorgeous, it's entrapment.
Jacopo Ligozzi's 16th-century Study of a Flying Fish -- scientific and infinitely poetic. What a combo!
Jacques de Gheyn's Two Witches with a Cat. My God, the crackling lines of this beauty! These bitches will scare you to death.
Peter Paul Rubens' scrumptious large study of a Roman statue depicting A Centaur Tormented by Cupid. It possesses all the fire of the 17th century and the fat juiciness of paganism.
Anthony van Dyck's Portrait of Pieter Breugel the Younger has to be one of the most penetrating black chalk portraits of the entire "golden" 17th century. Those burning eyes!
Albrecht Dürer's charcoal study for the Virgin and Child for a stained glass window. So big and sculptural you can almost hug it.
The super highlights of the entire show are the three remarkably finished drawings by the 18th-19th- century Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich -- Moonrise, Owl in a Gothic Window, and Coffin on a Grave. These are not to be missed, especially since there's only one work by this intriguing artist in the U.S., a small painting in the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Precious, profoundly moving and exotic. I got goose bumps. These alone are worth the visit.
Jean-Baptiste Greuze's timeless 18th-century study of a Young Woman in a Chair. The other three Greuzes are knockouts, too. It's the only social realism that works.
Gustave Doré's theatrical pencil, ink, and gray wash study of a thug with a sword shouting up the winding staircase out of some episode in Bluebeard. You can practically hear the curses ringing out.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's smashing head of Yvette Guilbert, that pasty-faced sexpot, singing "Linger, Linger Loo." I've not seen better by Lautrec.
Pollock's prime at MoMA
Not much time left to take in MoMA's Jackson Pollock show (it closes Feb. 7, 1999), particularly since 4,000 people mob it each day and there's no Ticketmaster service. If you can get in, go to the one unforgettable room showing work from the midpoint of the 20th century -- the one with Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950, from the Met; MoMA's 17-foot-wide One: Number 31, 1950, Dusseldorf's Number 32, 1950 and Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950 from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The best in the show is Lavender Mist, as Pollock was more intriguing when he was lyrical with his color.
In all of the above, the mature Pollock is at the height of his enthralling power. But isn't it really all the emperor's new clothes? Old drip and splash phony-baloney cobbled together by the art dealers' cartel to make big bucks, "my kid can do better," works by a drunken bum who couldn't draw, and, admit it, had nothing to say? I still hear this kind of crap today.
Defense? If you have to have it, Jackson Pollock's style, his complex signature or language, and his technique, which is simply another artistic tool, are as valid as anything made throughout the 50 centuries of art. I laugh when I hear a style dumped on or a technique blasted as lesser -- it's like saying French is better than Spanish or oil painting more profound than tempera. You can always look upon Pollock as a creator of decorative arts -- they don't have anything to "say" either.
Okay, I'm biased. I've been smitten by Pollock's works since I first encountered them in the early '50s. Once I came to the Met in 1959, I had a ball talking endlessly about Pollock's fallen-angel energy with curator Robert Beverly Hale, who snagged Autumn Rhythm for the museum. He confided he'd wept at the trustees' meeting when he'd proposed the picture, figuring they'd quickly vote the funds restricted for contemporary Americans -- $2,500 was all it cost -- just to get the blubbering slob out of sight. Hale muttered to me, "It worked, but do it only once in your curatorial career."
I think I know the heart of Pollock's creativity and can believe I can articulate it pretty well, but I'll never crackle it like the art critic of the Washington Post, Paul Richard. In mid-November he leaned into the works displayed in this miraculous room in a brilliant way:
"These are his classic drip paintings, the ones he danced into existence using gallon cans of hardware-store enamel and clotted brushes stiff as sticks, which he wielded not as brushes but as wands or as batons. He would move around the canvas in his desperate intensity, and over it as well, casting out long swelling lines in Joe Montana arcs, weaving layered nets of color streams, or strewing sprays of droplet-splats with quick flicks of his wrist. . . . When baroque painters turned church ceilings into heaven -- with skies unfolding, cherubs' wings, and blares of golden light -- they sought such exaltation. . . . These 48-year-old drip paintings are called abstractions, but they make that word seem puny. All pictures are pictures of something, and these Pollocks depict energy, and the interacting laws of viscosity and gravity, and moving shadows writhing beyond the circle of the campfire's light. . . . These drip paintings by Pollock are so full of things to look at, explosions, apparitions, veilings and change that you can't avert your eyes. They pour thoughts into your mind."
A shining gallery and a welter of shining gems
Snooping around for Christmas, I popped in to the gallery I've always placed number one in town, Á La Vieille Russie at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. I asked Mark Schaeffer, from the third (or is it fourth?) generation of owners, what he swoons for. It's a matchless thin platinum bracelet embellished with diamonds and a series of sapphires, three of which are knockouts from Kashmir, the "ne plus ultra" of sapphires. It's delicate, powerful, sinuous and hefty all at once.
The piece showed up recently on the European market and the Schaeffers hoped it was American -- no duty to pay. They started with the original case, which was marked with the name of Boston's distinguished jewelry firm, Shreve, Crump and Low. They eventually dug out the info that the splendid piece was designed by the illustrious New York firm of Oscar Heyman, which still had the original drawing for the bracelet in its archives.
The bracelet dates to around 1920 -- because of the style and because in 1916 Heyman obtained a patent for the exact clasp. It has 12 carats of sapphires and six carats of diamonds, which surround the refreshingly blue stones like an army of devout, sparkling worker bees. There are 12 sapphires -- the five "moguls" are cut into an oval cushion shape with faceted tables. The Kashmirs are the three at the box end of the clasp. The special attraction of Kashmir sapphires is they never go black or inky at night. Schaeffer is convinced that it would be impossible today to find such a set on the gem market. (I checked and he's right.)
If the provenance hadn't come out, one might suspect the bracelet to be English and "royal," were it not for its unmistakable American contemporary 1920s dash. Put this bracelet 100 feet out there with a bunch of other diamond bracelets embellished with emeralds or rubies or even other sapphires and this one would shine like some pulsating blue laser.
Price? Downright affordable for one of the most stunning pieces of jewelry in the country -- $129,000. Go for it!
The Guggenheim and the Pompidou
It's called "Rendezvous" and it's a proudly non-scholarly, hit-'em-with-everything-in-sight show from the shuttered Pompidou and the Guggenheim's own collections. It's down to its last weeks (closes Jan. 24, 1999) and you'd be dumb to miss it, as it's a handy way to feast your eyes on the Beaubourg's finest pieces. Two things from Beaubourg, one a sculpture and the second a recreation of a room, will knock you over.
The first is a dour, dark and sublimely powerful square cinder-block-size limestone head of a woman of 1912 by Amedeo Modigliani that looks like it's 20 tons of solid plutonium. This creature, her baleful physiognomy rudely scratched out on the stone, seems to have crawled out of some prehistoric stone dolmen, an archetypal goddess who, if you add water, will grow to her full 50 feet and will rule the world after unleashing all sorts of horrifying ills, plagues, rituals and cults. This single work alone is equal to your standard blockbuster.
The second is a mesmerizingly contemplative room which comes without bombast or hype and, thankfully, has no giant label laden with pompous art-speak. I've never seen it at the Pompidou and have no idea who dreamed it up for this show, but the installation of three large 1961 paintings by Joan Mirò and a mobile by Alexander Calder all in the same gallery gave me such a rush. It's luxurious, peaceful and infinitely serene -- the closest thing to it is one of the frescoed Stanze in the Vatican, yet the Pompidou assembly has a sense of humor.
The Mirò paintings -- Blue I (1961), Blue II (1961), Blue III (1961) -- have soft, pulsating surfaces of a startling blue that rivals the primest cuts of lapis lazuli ever sliced off the mother lode.
The Calder, Red Lilly Pads (1956) is painted that distinctive red-red-orange that may have been the color of the artist's blood for all I know. It's made up of 13 gently fluttering typically-Calder amoebic "leaves" which form a serene canopy over the settee. The mobile is like a guardian protecting the Miròs, or a lover who whispers poetry at the paintings -- Calder's red lozenges rhyme perfectly with the red and black forms in the Miròs. The artists couldn't have planned these works as an ensemble -- could they? No. But now they're together.
In Blue I, a thin black line like some vigilant dueña firmly keeps a crowd of black and red forms apart. In Blue II, there's a red upright "male" thunderbolt form that herds a harem of black forms off to the right. And in Blue III, a pencil-thin black line has attached itself to a red form and together they are about to put the make on the black shape below.
Art should sometimes be fun.
THOMAS HOVING is a writer and the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.