El Greco, Rosenquist, and Kiki Smith

Philip Pearlstein: John Perreault, 1975

Welcome to my blog. I’m really excited to be writing about art every week once again. Finally technology has caught up with my preferred writing style. Let me explain what I mean. Years ago when I was writing for the Village Voice, I remember that after my first year of art columns an irate reader wrote complaining I had used the first person pronoun 73 times. First of all, he obviously did not follow what was then called the New Journalism. Secondly, my goal was to include myself in the picture, not out of egotism, but so readers would know what was going on or, as we used to say, where I was coming from. I had a voice. I argued with myself. I included the quotidian. I wanted to show that looking at art is not separated from life. Perceiving art can’t be isolated from thinking or feeling. I did the same thing when I was writing for the Soho News in the ’70s. And now, although I use the required dispassionate mode for other venues, here I can more obviously let the reader in on the process of looking at art. Blog culture demands the personal. What could be better? More honest? So now on to…


When asked why he robbed banks, a once famous holdup man answered “because that’s where the money is.” So to paraphrase Willie Sutton, we keep on going to museums because that’s where the art is. Of course, art is now everywhere, not just in museums or art galleries. It’s on the streets, in fields and even on the internet. The difference is that museums are supposed to have fool-proof art, art that already has survived or soon will survive the test of time.

Unfortunately, this is an idea that has lost its currency. But we keep on going to museums, on dates or as solitary wanderers, on flings, seeking beauty, prestige, edification, fun. Oh, yes, certainly fun.

There is, after all, thanks to many points of purchase, a mall effect at the Metropolitan and the Guggenheim museums. To be art, it seems, art must create desire: must sell itself or, increasingly, the celebrity of the artist. Art creates a higher form of shopping. If you can’t buy the art, you can definitely buy the refrigerator magnet. Mind you, I love museum shops.

Pressed for time in a foreign land, an initial museum shop visit will let you know what you shouldn’t miss inside or, on your way out, might make you turn around and go back in. It’s not the postcards that make people come to museums, but what the postcards (and scarves, ties, jigsaw puzzles, calendars, and pins) represent. For instance, last June I noticed that the zigzag logo representing the footprint of the Jewish Museum in Berlin is given gift-shop prominence (on scarves, ties, jigsaw puzzles, calendars and pins). This may tell you that most people come for the architecture and not the cluttered, murky exhibition that wanders from floor to floor, requiring stenciled red footprints to get you from one display to the next.

Back in New York, the good news is that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is jam-packed with visitors again, but please note that both the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art (more correctly, MoMA QNS) are still closed two days a week. We know what that means: they save money on guards, ticket-takers, and the electric bill. The loss of gate is minor; 98 percent of the people who would have come on that extra dark day will visit later in the week and buy just as many souvenirs. Years ago, when I was privy to such things, I remember a MoMA annual report that revealed that more money was made from gift shop sales than from admittance fees. These purchases help keep the doors open, so even more people can purchase tchotchkas.

Domenikos Theotokopoulos (a.k.a. El Greco)

But who could fault the El Greco (through January 11) exhibition at the Metropolitan? Me, for one, but not because of the paintings. I myself had a little book of El Greco reproductions when I was ten. Let me try to leave aside that I always have a hard time with commissioned portraits. No matter how much lace is involved, they usually remind me of what whores artists have had to be. The same is true for most church or state commissions. Are religious paintings just excuses for compositions or are the artists sincere? We’ll never know or, more correctly, perhaps we are not supposed to ask. This would be like asking a present-day artist when commissioned by a corporation to uplift some dismal lobby, if he or she really, really believes in capitalism. Maybe, yes; maybe, no. Maybe the rent needs to be paid.

The beginning of the El Greco installation insinuates that the artistic roots of the Greek-born Domenikos Theotokopoulos are in his icons. He painted some in his youth. Never mind, as the exhibition proves, that it did not take him very long to abandon the frontality, the simplicity, and a lot of the direct spirituality of that tradition for more Westernized depictions, finally breaking through, or so the story goes, in his late and wildly mannerist, individualist paintings, to become a proto-modernist!

Photos and texts removed from books and placed on museum walls or refashioned as hand-outs assume more importance than may have been intended. Here the presentation implies that El Greco was great because Jackson Pollock made drawings of his paintings and that earlier the master’s Opening of the Fifth Seal, apparently misinterpreted, inspired Picasso’s Les Demoiselle d’Avignon (now being cleaned and repaired at MoMA). Wouldn’t El Greco have been a wonderful, sometimes daring painter even if Picasso and Pollock had never existed? I blush at the number of times I have used the same defense of this or that artist: the reflected glory of influence. Nevertheless, perfectly awful or merely minor artists have influenced some great ones. Great ones have influenced hordes of schlocky paint-pushers.Influence is interesting, but not conclusive. Of course, the Pollock El Greco studies are available in three beautiful, facsimile notebooks for $750 at various Metropolitan Museum of Art checkout counters.

Philip Guston

Another offering at the Metropolitan, a Philip Guston retrospective (now closed), was underlit and, more important suffers from the “bad” paintings his late cartoon paintings came to inspire. After awhile cartooning just looks stupid. Let that be a lesson. Being an influence can also work against you.

The story here is the artist’s radical style-change. Upset by what was coming down in the ’60s, Guston reverted to his Depression/WPA iconography, or at least the hooded Klan figures he once used, but presenting his rage in cartoon simplicity.

Guston’s precartoon paintings, sometimes referred to as Abstract Impressionism, hold up, although you can see the figuration lurking behind the willfully insouciant surfaces and the rosy but shadowy colors. These are smudge paintings of dusk, not dawn, and as much as one may sympathize with Guston’s social concern they, not the cartoons, are the paintings that will last.

Retrospectives are a risk. Artists both fear and demand them. Collectors love them. Critics welcome the opportunity for an overview of a particular artist’s work. Was I right or wrong? Did I overpraise? Or, perish the thought, did I miss the boat.

Guston’s retrospective is in some ways a disappointment. The show brings up the question of whether lifelong creativity is even possible and if it is always right to let the moment of anger (or the moment of new inspiration) prevail. What happens when an artist suddenly and radically changes style? We know what bad moves stubborn old de Chirico made and was then reduced to forge his own, earlier paintings. We know that Magritte once tried to be a new Renoir but, unlike de Chirico, quickly and wisely reverted to his signature look.

James Rosenquist

The Rosenquist retrospective at the Guggenheim (closes January 25), like the Guston survey, has some fine paintings, but also brings up some troubling questions. Can a presentation space and a presentation ruin art? Or does good art have to stand up to nondomestic vistas, poor editing and sloping floors? More importantly, did Cubism ever really go away?

By all accounts James Rosenquist is one of the key pop artists, along with Dine, Oldenburg, Indiana, Lichtenstein, and Warhol — and of course the precursors Rauschenberg and Johns.

Fortunately, Rosenquist’s 86 -foot wrap-around painting F-111 (1964-65) holds up. As many will remember, the gigantic fighter plane of the title is interrupted along its considerable length by a little girl under a hair dryer, spaghetti, tire-treads and other glossy images. The mural-size Time Dust of 1992, located in the Level 5 Annex, devoted to Rosenquist’s “cosmos” paintings (i.e. space flight images), is, in spite of the silly wall texts, also a winner. And since the Deutsche Bank-commissioned megapaintings are also knockouts, I must conclude that although we still must have his paintings of Marilyn and JFK, with Rosenquist bigger is better. But why? Is it that his day job as a young man was billboard painter? Is it that the first influence is always best?

The smaller paintings, in the majority, are deployed along the ramps of the Guggenheim rotunda. When viewed across the drop-dead plunge of space they are reduced to postage stamps or posters or easel paintings. Their basic Late Cubism, confirmed by the preparatory collages and drawings shown in another “annex,” is very hard to avoid. The influence of Cubism lingers. To those who have had their eyes schooled by the anti-Cubism of the signature works of Pollock, Rothko, Newman, and Reinhardt, this is an unforgivable sin.

When Rosenquist’s scale is big and even when the smaller paintings are seen in normal rooms, the movielike closeup effect screens the fractured space. His fracturing is done through non-narrative image juxtapositions rather than through the prismatic attempt to present multiple viewpoints. Nevertheless, this is still the composing of one area balanced by another in shallow space depicted on a plane. Late Cubism, however, is more about being bombarded by disconnected media images than it is about relativity or the fifth dimension. Somewhere in the mid-’50s, media imagery became the new fifth dimension.

But here’s an idea for a book and/or an exhibition. Let’s take a look at de Kooning, Rauschenberg, Johns (beginning with the flagstone paintings), Rosenquist, and David Salle as Late Cubists. Would that be so bad?

Kiki Smith

And on to the borough of Queens: First, try to remember that MoMA QNS is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Then try to be patient. The No. 7 train often skips 33rd Street and you have to double back at the first express stop that comes your way. Also, say over and over to yourself that this is only temporary and we will have a bigger and more beautiful Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan soon. Not soon enough, I say. But not to worry. The MoMA design store is still open on 53rd Street, and there is a branch on Spring Street in Soho, New York’s version of the Mall of America.

Kiki Smith (“Prints, Books & Things,” closes March) is the currentpatron saint of the art bohemia, so it is not so shocking that she was carted from MOMA Manhattan to MoMA QNS as part of Francis Alys’ The Modern Procession last June. Why was she so honored?

Not because she’s one of sculptor Tony Smith’s daughters or that she was a member of the legendary Co-Lab “collective.” And it ‘s not because, as the catalogue seems to delight in pointing out, she had a self-image as a girl-child and now thinks of herself as a witch-crone. And it’s not because she has been on the cover of ARTnews twice and been known to sport Comme des Garçons garb or that she is represented by PaceWildenstein, the quintessential blue chip gallery. It’s because she really is enormously talented.

There are some oddities about the MoMA survey. It is indeed strange that two of the three artists Smith claims as important influences (Nancy Spero and the late Hannah Wilke) have not had solo exhibitions MoMA. Spero is probably too political, and Wilke died too soon and, in fact, documented her own battle with cancer. But the oddest thing of all is that Smith is represented only by her prints and multiples when a full-scale retrospective would not be out of order.

Although I do like some of her prints and multiples, her sculptures, often dealing with the body and the abjectness of same, inform the printed and editioned works. The MoMA’s groundbreaking Smith website (see below) includes every image in the exhibition and the full text of the catalogue. That test, like the show itself, is exceedingly thorough and will be of value to collectors and scholars. Even I learned a few things: Kiki Smith has never had a studio but prefers to work at various ateliers or as an invited artist. Furthermore, a case can be made that sometimes the iconography of some of the prints and multiples inspired some of her sculptures. But is her work more feminine than feminist? What is feminine? Not only is Smith enormously talented, her talent is splendidly off-center. So how long will we have to wait for a full retrospective?

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