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  critic's notebook

by Walter Robinson  

The Studio Museum in Harlem

Charles Rangel at the
Studio Museum

Sam Gilliam (left)
and Mel Edwards. Photo Peter Sprosty.

Guests at the Norman Lewis Show.
If you read ArtNet News, you know that the Studio Museum in Harlem announced plans for expansion last week, sounding themes of education, heritage and community. Studio Museum director Kinshasha Conwill puts on a good show. On hand was Congressman Charlie Rangel, who spoke of traveling with President Bill Clinton in Africa, noting the musical-sounding names retained by Africans and vowing to "show our neighbors that we are not minorities in God's world."

Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields spoke, as did the newly elected City Council member Bill Perkins, who remembered by name several of the former artists-in-residence at the museum back when he was taking work-release inmates on visits there. Not bad for a politician.

And there were artists, from Max Roach and Sam Gilliam to Nari Ward and Brett Cook-Dizney. Elizabeth Catlett spoke, as did younger artists like Nanette Carter and Helen Evans Ramsaran. And William T. Williams movingly described the museum as "a place of hope, a place of inspiration, a place of nurture."

The subtext of the press conference was rather different. New York State Council on the Arts executive director Nicolette Clark, who was there specifically "on behalf of New York Governor George Pataki," put her foot right in it when she admitted that this was her first visit to the museum after nearly two years on the job. Simply said, Harlem does not count in New York politics. Such is evident in everything from the persistent underdevelopment of 125th Street, which should be booming in today's economy, to the fact that the New York Times failed even to take note of the museum's plans.

If our uptown politicians really cared, of course, they'd do something. As for the museum program, it's true that it's no great shakes. The current show, "Norman Lewis: Black Paintings, 1948-1977," is a straightforward retrospective of an impressive second-level Abstract Expressionist, and is up from Apr. 1 through Sept. 20, the kind of long run that speaks of underfunding anywhere except the Dia Center. The Studio Museum's planned expansion will provide the museum with its first permanent collection galleries and its first auditorium. Incredible, for a 30-year-old institution.


Robert Rauschenberg
Before his recent early death the art critic David Bourdon had became famously engaged in the cause of animal rights. It must be his spirit, then, that moved German officials to detain the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective, slated to open in June at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, because of the taxidermy included.

Can you imagine the pre-PETA, animal-rights-deprived days, back in the late '50s, when it must have seemed a good idea to spruce up a tired abstraction by attaching a dead, stuffed animal? Let's have an inventory of the roadkill that the Texas son used in his pictures: Several chickens, a rooster, a vulture, a goat, a sheep . . .


Court papers
Could the stuffy, old-masterish J. Paul Getty Museum really be a hotbed of adultery and free sex? If you go by the sexual-discrimination lawsuit -- now settled -- filed against the museum last December by drawings curator Nicholas Turner, the answer to that question would be Y-E-S.

In the suit, Turner admits to an adulterous six-month-long affair with a subordinate, Kathleen Kibler, and repeats Kibler's claim that "everyone in the museum had affairs," including Turner's predecessor (that would be George Goldner, now drawings curator at the Metropolitan Museum) and Deborah Gribbon, the Getty Museum's associate director (said to be angling for the directorship of the Kimbell Art Museum in Forth Worth, vacant since the departure of Edmund Pillsbury).

What does it all mean, besides the fact that your reporter should actually read those legal briefs that cross his desk? Don't know.


Judd Tully at work.

Carol Vogel
To file in time for the morning papers, reporters at the big evening art auctions in New York have to write their stories immediately after the sales. Some of them -- Judd Tully for the Washington Post, Alexandra Peers of the Wall Street Journal -- set up their laptops right at the auction houses.

Such haste can result in errors. It happens to everyone, and I would never gloat about it, never, not even when the garbled copy appears under the byline of New York Times auction correspondent Carol Vogel, as it did in her May 13 dispatch on the previous night's sale of 20th-century art at Christie's, to wit:

"The sale, which fell under the rubric of 20th-century art, was a first for Christie's, which is determined to repackage its sales. This season, it has grouped artists who flourished from 1900 to 1945, in its 19th-century and Impressionist sale, which was held last week. Artists dating from roughly from 1945 until 1970 were sold in last night's sale which Christie's called its auction of 20th-century art."

What's worse, the article's lead was "Labels really don't matter." Hope not! Needless to say, "19th-century and Impressionist art" refers to exactly that, while "20th-century art" covers Fauvism to Pop. "Contemporary art" covers, uh, more contemporary stuff.


Lucian Freud
Large Interior...
With the auction sale last month of his Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau) (1979) at Sotheby's New York for $5.4 million (supposedly to computer guru Paul Allen), the 75-year-old realist Lucien Freud now holds the record for "the all-time top price for a living British artist," according to a report by Edward Helmore in the Guardian. Freud may have mixed feelings about the landmark sale, Helmore writes, since proceeds go to James Kirkman, Freud's definitely ex-dealer, who was supposed to leave the painting to the Tate Gallery. The record sale comes just in time for "Lucien Freud: Some New Pictures" at the Tate, June 3-28, which features deliciously scrofulous depictions of the old goat's multiple wives, lovers and children, plus several portraits of a pregnant Mrs. Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall.


Christina Ricci
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may not be much of a movie, but it does feature Christina Ricci in a supporting role as an artist who obsessively makes portraits of Barbara Streisand (calling Debbie Kass and Kathe Burkhart). She's not really an artist, though. She's a teenage Streisand devotee who drags her tempera-on-cardboard pictures to Las Vegas as part of a pathetic fantasy of presenting them to her idol. Not a good image for the art world. Be glad it's such a slight characterization.

Apostles of online art news know the Museum Security Mailing List, a forum for all manner of art issues and reports. One interesting recent exchange involves the topic of guns in museums. Private citizens do carry concealed weapons, with or without a permit. The Indianapolis Museum bans the possession of firearms by staff members while on museum premises, and also asks visitors to the museum -- including cops -- to leave their weapons outside. Security at the Fine Arts Museums in San Francisco, however, finds this unrealistic, and never asks uniformed peace officers to surrender their firearms.


Reginald Butler
Girl Bending

Girl on Back

Chaim Soutine
Head and Carcass
of a Horse

ca. 1923
The British artist Reg Butler, who died in 1981 at the age of 68, seems to have begun an obsessive artistic project at about age 50. Over the next decade, between 1963 and '73, he completed four painted bronze nudes that are notable for a sexual lyricism with a pathological edge. These "dolls," as Butler referred to them, are painted ghostly white, have resin eyes and wigs of real hair, and are gently distorted in form in a grotesque way. The works were shown at Pierre Matisse in New York in 1973 and later bought as a group, sight unseen, by an art investor who never unpacked them from their crates. Now they're on view at Kent in SoHo, May 2-June 20, where they're worth a visit.

The sculptures are very much part of the era that brought Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud to wide notice. They also share purely formal interest in the relation of sculpture to its base, believe it or not, that relates to the work of Anthony Caro. And now they seem to be obvious precursors of the turn to kinky realism that marks so much of the sensational new British art of the '90s, from Damien Hirst's pickled animals and Marc Quinn's bust of frozen blood to Jenny Saville's fleshy figure paintings and Ron Mueck's half-life-size Dead Dad sculpture.

Reading any art criticism lately? Hilton Kramer is celebrated for fulminating against art things large and small. In his regular column in the weekly New York Observer, however, he let on what he likes. The subject was the current Chaim Soutine show at the Jewish Museum, which provided an occasion for an approving quotation from Albert C. Barnes, Soutine collector and founder of the Barnes Collection in Merion , Pa.

"Soutine's paintings, although they seem so individual, even so bizarre, owe much of their very originality and bizarreness to his use of basic features in Cézanne's form. He emphasizes, by means of a pattern of broad color areas, the location, direction and shape of the main plane occupied by each of the units together with their intersection at contrasting angles. This emphasis involves, as in Cézanne, simplification of representative detail, positiveness of shapes, flattening of rounded surfaces by means of facets or planes, pronounced linear contour of color, accentuation of linear perspective, and surface-pattern of technique.

"A more direct and specific derivation from Cézanne appears in Soutine's grouping of parallel or crisscross brushstrokes into series of angular patches, which, by their relationships of color, light-and-dark, and shape, establish sequences of contrasting small units throughout the surface of the canvas. This produces an all-over compositional color-pattern of patches or planes played in definitely contrasting directions."

This was written in 1931, and represents, according to Kramer, "the essential character and quality of Soutine's pictorial accomplishment."

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of ArtNet Magazine.