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Resourceful Rishel: Philadelphia’s Sensational “Cézanne and Beyond”

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The Philadelphia Museum of Art, decked out for its new blockbuster

If you live within driving distance of Philadelphia, I’ve got just two words for you:

ROAD TRIP!

If the Philadelphia Museum is too far a drive, then hop a train, a boat or a plane, but DO NOT let May 17 pass by without devoting serious time to the masterful Cézanne and Beyond, crafted by that consummate exhibition-maker, Joseph Rishel. Those of you, like me, who had the good fortune to be levitated by Joe’s definitive Cézanne retrospective of 1996 don’t need any further prodding.

What’s amazing about this show (aside from the striking, thought-provoking visual evidence of interrelationships between the master and such disparate admirers as Alberto Giacometti, Marsden Hartley, Ellsworth Kelly and Jasper Johns, among many others) is Rishel’s ability to pry loose tightly held masterpiece loans from very private lenders. Time and again, you’re stopped in your tracks, marveling at works you’ve never seen before and are unlikely to see again after this show closes.

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Cézanne, Compotier and Plate of Biscuits, c. 1877, private collection

When I asked Rishel why this must-see assemblage won’t travel, his answer was what I had anticipated: Many lenders could not be induced to part with their closely held treasures for more than three months…only for Joe.

I was particularly fascinated by his strategy, related to me over lunch, for softening tough collectors: In a gambit he’d never tried before, he created “playing cards” that graphically demonstrated to a potential lender how his work would fit in with the others around it. He persuasively made the case that the coveted missing card was essential to the game.

One wooed in this manner was Steve Wynn, whose elbowed Picasso portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter (not lent to the Museum of Modern Art, but recently seen at Acquavella Galleries, New York) was dispatched to Philly to cohabit with Madame Cézanne, likewise ensconced in a red armchair, with hands folded:

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Left: Picasso, “Le Rêve,” 1932, Collection of Steve and Elaine Wynn
Right:
Cézanne, Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair,” c. 1877, Boston Museum of Fine Arts

There’s one artist who got away, however: Rishel and Katherine Sachs, who collaborated on the show as adjunct curator, had this to say in their absorbing catalogue essay, “The Making of an Exhibition”:

We were for some time keen to engage Richard Serra in our dance. Yet as kind as he was in sharing his opinions about the show, he finally withdrew from consideration, observing that he was more influenced by Matisse through Barnett Newman than directly by Cézanne.

During the press preview, the ebullient curator mentioned that this show was meant to be fun.

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Joseph Rishel, right, and Katherine Sachs at the press preview

The most fun for me was trying to figure out what was going through his nimble mind when orchestrating these evocative juxtapositions. The correspondences go far beyond mere imitation of style or composition (though there’s some of that too). And they go much deeper than what Rishel called “pat the bunny”—here’s a ginger pot, there’s a ginger pot.

What comes across forcefully is Cézanne’s status as what Matisse termed “a benevolent god of painting.” Each artist took away something unique
and personal from encounters with the master’s oeuvre; all came
away with an enriched sense of individual artistic purpose.

Cézanne filtered
through Ellsworth Kelly’s sensibility, for example, comes out as pure Kelly:

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Left: Cézanne, ‘The Gulf of Marseille, Seen from L’Estaque,” c. 1878-79, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
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Right: Kelly, “Lake II,” 2002, Beyeler Collection, Basel

I couldn’t help but contrast this sense of Cézanne’s benign influence on his acolytes with the impression left by the Whitney Museum’s “Picasso and American Art” of 2006, which I previously said could have been subtitled, “Picasso Eats His Young”: His killer works devoured neighboring morsels by weaker American contenders, whom he held in thrall.

The Philadelphia exhibition, which merits a second visit, may have been the last great project of Anne d’Harnoncourt, the museum’s late director and Rishel’s wife, to whom the must-have catalogue is dedicated. The only time during our conversation when Joe’s eyes briefly clouded was when he mentioned that he and Anne used to visit “Puppy Palace” to watch baby dogs at play. He said they’d always wanted a pup, but never got one.

The artworks in the galleries, he said, bouncing his hands up and down, were friskily playing with each other—just like puppies.

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