The lure of earthly beauty and a certain macabre spirituality are the unlikely attractions of "Prague: The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437," the new blockbuster at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The relatively enlightened Charles IV (1316-1378), King of Bohemia and later Holy Roman Emperor, was determined to make Prague a rival to Paris and Rome, and to this end built St. Vitus Cathedral and several chapels, filling them with holy relics and jeweled artworks of considerable luxury.
Most striking to contemporary eyes are the Schönen Madonnen, or Beautiful Madonnas, gilded and polychromed statues and paintings of remarkable allure. The young Mother Mary stands in an insouciant s-shaped pose, a naked Christ Child perched on her out-thrust hip. Curly locks peek out from under a diaphonous veil, which frames a blissfully smiling face with raised eyebrows, a direct gaze and even, in the Strahov Madonna (ca. 1430s), what might pass for bee-stung lips.
It’s nice to think that this erotics of piety might reflect a joyous confidence in humanity’s salvation, as is suggested by Gerhard Schmidt in the show’s catalogue. The ostensible chastity of the Virgin Mother only serves to emphasize her carnal appearance -- a fact that was not lost on reformers like Jan Hus, who considered such beauty inappropriately worldly, if not a sign of the Antichrist, who was thought to be due for an appearance.
Also at the Met are dozens of reliquaries, including a golden, jewel-encrusted bust that supposedly contains the arm bone of Saint John the Baptist, and a piece of the tablecloth from the Last Supper -- it has a vaguely Southwestern pattern in brown and yellow stripes -- that comes with its own lavish rock crystal container, plus several "Vera Icons," "true images" of the face of Jesus, paintings of the veil that Saint Veronica used to wipe Jesus’ face on the road to Cavalry, and that subsequently displayed his image.
Today, of course, beauty belongs to the fashion industry, especially fashion photography, where it can be seen as a function of an elaborate (if straightforward) sexual economy of female display and male desire. Down at Matthew Marks Gallery on West 22nd Street, the married fashion photographers Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin have installed a show that they call "The Now People," and that they accompany with talk of "politics as a spiritual experience that leads to a positive place." Are we on the same page here, or what?
But can fashion photography be art? The photographers have made several goofy-looking constructions that combine big photos of models with Rauschenbergian, Kieferlike objects -- a metal cage, a hanging silver ball, large metal sculptures by Eugene van Lamsweerde, who I somehow have the idea is Inez’s father. One huge wall of the gallery is plastered with hundreds of photographs of models and movie stars, all of them lovely, many of them topless. Somehow, this orgy of beauty isn’t quite challenging enough -- great tits, but bad art. Which is not to say that it doesn’t have its own kind of charge.
A modest degree of revenge on the otherworldly beauty of fashion models is provided by Japanese fashion photographer Izima Kaoru, whose new color photographs are at Von Lintel Gallery on West 25th Street. Kaoru’s "Landscape with a Corpse" series shows Japanese clotheshorses playing dead in fancy YSL Rive Gauche or Dolce Gabbana outfits. They're pleasantly reminiscent of David Hemmings in Blow-Up, and despite the morbid premise, or perhaps because of it, several of the works are marked sold at $10,500-$18,500.
During a recent visit, Thomas von Lintel noted that he now represents Sharon Louden, last seen at Anthony Grant’s 57th Street gallery before Grant joined Sotheby’s. Von Lintel is also exhibiting works by Thomas Vu, an art professor at Columbia whose students have included Dana Schutz.
As long as today’s subject is women as art objects -- what? how did that happen? -- let’s elude to the new exhibition at Francis Naumann Fine Art on East 80th Street, where Mike Bidlo has installed 16 erased Willem de Kooning drawings of women, all of his own making -- the drawings and the erasures -- framed and matted, with a black-and-white photograph of the now-obliterated drawing taped to the back, and mounds of eraser shavings, or "ashes," displayed nearby under glass domes. Purchasers of each drawing get some residue of the destruction in a glassine envelope. The drawings are priced at $10,000 to $22,000.
Is Rauschenberg’s original avant-garde gesture, so shocking in its disrespect for art, and so Freudian as an esthetic Oedipal revolt, ever considered a blow against male chauvinism and its construction of woman as a devouring monster? It seems so here -- but the drawing isn’t so much eradicated as given a lighter touch.
Rauschenberg obliterated his de Kooning in 1953, during the dramatically avant-garde decade in which he also made empty white enamel paintings (designed as surfaces for cast shadows, in 1951) and painted the more-or-less identical Factum I and Factum II (as a poke at "Abstract Expressionist" authenticity, in 1957). For his "Not Robert Rauschenberg: Erased de Kooning Drawing" series, Bidlo drew copies of de K’s Surrealist portrait of a bug-eyed Elaine de Kooning from ca. 1940-41 through the "Women" series of the 1950s to a late Screaming Girls from 1967-68.
Rauschenberg’s de Kooning is now of no consequence, a mere generic marker. But Bidlo’s de K’s are all canonical, well-known, iconic. Before he proceeded, Bidlo sought Rauschenberg’s okay for the project. The master of Captiva, Fla., who turns 90 next month, sent up his sage advice: "All artists take their chances."
At the opening, Francis Naumann pointed out one of the works to Guggenheim Museum curator Robert Rosenblum. "That’s my favorite because of who it depicts," he said. "It’s Juliette Browner, who was married to Man Ray -- de Kooning said that she gave the best blow jobs that he’d ever had." And Man Ray was one fashion photographer who could also make art.
Rosenblum had some news, too. "I’ve convinced the Guggenheim to acquire Harold Stevenson’s The New Adam. The legendary work, done in the 1962, is a F-111-sized painting of a recumbent male nude a la odalisque. Stevenson lives in Idabel, Okla. Finally, a beauty based on the male figure.
But come on now, it’s the 21st century -- we can find beauty without referring to humans at all. Down at Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea, for instance, the vaulted white space is filled with bright painted "pure color" abstractions by Eric Freeman (b. 1970) in which one pulsating color band blends edgelessly into the next. The East Hampton painter, who exhibited at Stux Gallery before coming to Boone in 2003, says he is inspired as much by the glow of computer monitors as by sunsets.
Located on the same "Lenox Library" block as the Frick Collection, the building was originally designed by C.P.H. Gilbert, architect of the Warburg Mansion on East 92nd Street, now home to the Jewish Museum. What of Larry Salander’s moderns, like Paul Georges, Paul Resika and Graham Nickson? They show on, at the former Salander-O’Reilly space on East 79th.
In the front room of Caren Golden Fine Art, a tour-de-force by painter Tom Burckhardt -- a full-scale replica of a cluttered artist’s studio, made entirely of cardboard and black paint. It shows how easy sculpture is, someone said. "It shows how hard painting is," said Burckhardt. The installation travels to DiverseWorks in Houston and the Adrich Museum in Ridgefield, Conn. . . . Similarly, at Cynthia Broan Gallery, sculptures based on other artists’ paintings by painter Michael St. John, including an untitled Jean-Michel Basquiat crowned king that looks good in 3D.
Spotted on West 25th Street, glamorous young art dealer Amalia Dayan putting the finishing touches on her new gallery space, still in jeans and spike heels less than 90 minutes before the Sept. 21 opening. . . .Next door to Acquavella on East 79th Street, Björn Ressle Fine Art features new works by Anthony James, Kika Karadi, Lucy Stein and Kon Trubkovich.
Andy Warhol’s complete FBI file was first revealed in 58-page artist’s book by Margia Kramer in 1988, which is listed in Printed Matter’s online catalogue but out of stock. . . . Next month Don Gummer installs Primary Separation, a split 20-ton boulder suspended on the plaza at Mass MOCA in North Adams, Mass.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.