Last week started off with a bang at the Museum of Modern Art press preview for "De Kooning: A Retrospective," when New Republic art critic Jed Perl blew his top at the press officer who didn't have a complimentary copy of the catalogue for him. "I'm one of a handful of critics writing for a national magazine, and I must have that catalogue immediately," he said, in a surprising display of temper.
"He has a point," said Norman Rockwell biographer Deborah Solomon, guiltily clutching her own copy of the book, apparently the last of the press-office supply. "Did you get one, she asked me?" No, I said, I didn’t even have an invite to the press preview. Solomon, who added that she and Perl had started their art-criticism careers together at the New Criterion, pointed out that catalogues were stacked high in the shop nearby. They're $75, or about $50 on Amazon.
Perl does blog regularly at the New Republic, where no deK review has yet appeared, though he did a smartly entry on the "Art of Gandhara" show at Asia Society, titled "The Taliban's Least Favorite Buddhist Art, Now on View in New York." Don't know about the SEO qualities of that headline, Jed! Meanwhile, word to the wise: Call the MoMA press office in advance and it will messenger you a copy of the catalogue before the show even opens.
Was it a response to the exhibition? Or a bit of institutional critique? Or was it nothing? Perl’s blog is called The Picture.
Speaking of art critics, someone gossiped that L&M Arts, without anything special on view, threw a small de Kooning dinner party all the same, with New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl as the guest of honor. Peter read his review of the show at MoMA, which has since appeared in this week’s magazine. A ceremonial reading -- now that's the way art criticism should be treated.
As for "De Kooning" itself, it will be loved for all the obvious, wondrous reasons. The guy could really doodle, and packed a lot of graphic energy and speed into those precise and swashbuckling brushstrokes. They say "freedom," and "perfection," at least if you’re in the mood. Some of the most Cubist pictures are impossibly complicated, and pleasantly difficult to parse.
MoMA's sixth-floor galleries have never been reconfigured so well -- better even than Gagosian Gallery or Sotheby's York Avenue showroom. Hanging in the open entrance gallery is Backdrop for "Labyrinth" (1946), which stretches from floor to ceiling and is painted on canvas drop cloth -- an idea deK no doubt got from Julian Schnabel.
De Kooning’s brushstroke has echoes further uptown in the new works by Jenny Saville (b. 1970) at Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue, where the man’s bravura paint handling appears to be channeled into the woman’s masterful if academic figure drawing. Within the swarm of red, pink, coral and white slashes that make up Saville's rather harsh, rather sad visages -- it's abject, of course -- the eyes stand out, blue and unusually soft.
People were especially loving Saville’s large charcoal self-portraits holding two squalling toddlers, clearly posed to update the classic scene of the Madonna with the Baptist and JC. This bit of heresy, showing the portentous kids in discontent, is almost but not quite as amusing as Max Ernst's Spanking the Christ Child (1926) at the Ludwig Collection in Cologne.
One of Saville’s drawings features a superimposed classical bust, and Metropolitan Museum supercurator Gary Tinterow was overheard suggesting Alma Mater as a reference (my alma mater, Columbia University, has one on its steps), but the artist didn't really respond. How much are these things? Must be at least $1 million (her auction record is $2.4 mil).
Saville’s painting style may perhaps be closer to Alex Katz than de Kooning (and closer still to John Singer Sargent). To be a 21st-century expressionist, you really have to let your freak flag fly, and for that, go to Maccarone in the far West Village, where the Norwegian New Yorker Bjarne Melgaard (b. 1967) has opened the wildest show of the week.
It’s really a group exhibition, slapdash and messy, titled “After Shelly Duvall ’72 (Frogs on the High Line)” and including a bunch of artists like Richard Kern, who contributes his legendary film of a young woman pooping on the floor (asshole view) -- which suggests the scatological esthetic at play here -- and a selection of paintings from ”The Estate of Martin Wong,” which is always good to see. The Kern film, called Strip for Me Now, dates from 1993-98 and is priced at $7,500, in an edition of two.
The show explicitly plumbs Melgaard’s manic psyche, not least via the video by photographer Sebastian Mlynarski of the artist in session with his analyst, something I have to go back and watch in full. But I was preoccupied more with Mlynarski’s wife, Natasha Roje, a PhD art history candidate at CUNY (and former Gagosian Gallery employee), and her twin sister, Dawn Roje, a biologist (or something) at the American Museum of Natural History. See photo, left.
What other things have opened in New York? Some sorts of relics-in-deshabile, cast in bronze by Matthew Barney at Gladstone Gallery, one looking a little like a giant puddle and the other like part of a Chrysler Imperial excavated from the ground, the bronze casts not shiny and golden but the color of dark earth. “Djed,” as the show is titled, has a narrative, typically baroque, this one based on Norman Mailer’s Egyptian Evenings. The Chrysler sculpture -- a canopic jar? -- is topped by a shiny pharoah’s shaft that doubles as a heavy-duty pry bar with no less than three bear-claw nail pullers. Now that’s a wrecking tool.
Uptown at Hauser & Wirth New York, mellow and moody paintings, not at all in the Chinese style, by Shanghai artist Zhang Enli (b. 1965), pictures of a tabletop of jars in the painter’s studio or a piece of hose or a stretch of chain-link fence, like an Asian Luc Tuymans but more affecting. At openings, artists may be typically absent or possibly socializing in the gallery. Zhang was found outside on the sidewalk, smoking. A hip place to be, if unhealthy.
Nearby, new paintings at Knoedler & Co. by New York Studio School head Graham Nickson (1946), large and heavy colored sunsets and smaller delicate watercolors of a single tree, the sort of thing he’s been doing for the last several years. Red Lighting, which took more than two years to finish, is $220,000, while the watercolors are priced at $20,000.
In Chelsea, a new installation by Richard Serra (b. 1935) at Gagosian Gallery on West 24th Street in Chelsea, two new sculptures titled Junction and Cycle, huge arabesques of golden rusted steel whose surprisingly delicate surfaces, New York Observer art critic Sarah Douglas said, resemble cocoa-dusted truffles.
Skoto Gallery on West 20th Street celebrates its 20th anniversary next February -- the irrepressible Skoto is from Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, and speaks of the special energy of Lagos, pop. 8,000,000. This month he is presenting a survey of Kendall Shaw (b. 1924), a “pattern painter” whose works, done with squared-off but flexible lines (think tape), manage to suggest Matisse’s Dance. One of the pictures is the torso of beatnik poet John Giorno, naked as he no doubt likes to be.
New York magazine’s “Approval Matrix” has already placed Seattle artist Michael Leavitt (b. 1977), who makes Barbie-sized sculptures of contemporary artists, transformed to echo their signature art styles -- yes, an idea that’s not new -- in its “highbrow-brilliant” quadrant. How about Damien Hirst sliced in half to show his petrified guts, or Jeff Koons transformed into a bulbous pink biomorph? They’re $2,500 apiece at Jonathan LeVine Gallery, the Street Art redoubt in the West 20th Street gallery building.
Oh, and they were shooting The Good Wife on 11th Avenue. Love that show.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.