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A Museum Where “Beauty Reigns”

We’ve certainly had exhibitions focusing on beauty in contemporary art before, but not one (that I know of) subtitled anything like A Baroque Sensibility in Recent Painting. I thought it was an interesting premise, worth looking at.

Love_is_what_you_make_it_out_to_be_2013_72_x_72_Mixed_Media_Collage_on_Canvas-110-800-600-100-rd-255-255-255The exhibition, at and organized by the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, opened on June 11. Beauty Reigns was curated by René Paul Barilleaux, the museum’s chief curator and curator of art after 1945. He chose thirteen “emerging and mid-career abstract painters whose art is characterized in whole or part by high-key color, obsessive layering of surface imagery, use of overall and repeated patterns, stylized motifs, fragments of representation, and a tension between melancholy and the sublime.”

The 13 are Jose Alvarez D.O.P.A; Kamrooz Aram; Charles Burwell; Annette Davidek; Fausto Fernandez; Nancy Lorenz; Ryan McGinness; Beatriz Milhazes; Jiha Moon; Paul Henry Ramirez; Rex Ray; Rosalyn Schwartz; and Susan Chrysler White. Some I’ve heard of, some not.

Barilleaux says their work exudes “exoticism, exuberance, and optimism.”  That’s  nice for a change. I didn’t see much of that at the Whitney biennial, and although one can find beautiful works at many of the best and most respected art fairs, people don’t talk much about it. At least not in those terms. “Beauty” is a put-down to some. 

We_Came_From_the_Stars-113-800-600-100-rd-255-255-255It’s hard to judge an exhibit from afar; you really have to see works in person. But I can’t get to the McNay, so I did look at the works on the web and in the catalogue.

From that, I think the exhibit, which runs until Aug. 17, provides some luscious works of art. I’ve posted two here, Love is What You Make it Out to Be, a collage by Fernandez, above right, and We Came from the Stars, a mixed-media assemblage that the McNay has acquired, above left.

As I’ve alluded, Beauty Reigns confronts a problem with contemporary art. Whereas some people flock to it, in love with the new, almost instinctively and unquestionably sure about its merits, another group — which I would guess is considerably larger — has trouble dealing with most contemporary art. Much is not lovely to look at, while also being difficult to understand, to draw any meaning from. The “my kid can do that” response applies to much abstract art. Both groups tend to disdain each other.

But Barilleaux, quoted in the San Antonio Current, explains himself and his goal here:  

I wanted people to experience art that was optimistic and uplifting. This is baroque art with a small ‘b,’ so it’s not imitating work of the Baroque period in the 17th and early 18th centuries, but it is theatrical and beautiful, maybe even over-the-top and a little obsessive. This is an exhibit designed to give viewers visual pleasure, though all of these artists have different ideas about what beauty is.”

Later, in the same piece, Dan R. Goddard, a former art critic for the San Antonio Express-News (whose own critical response to the exhibit is behind a paywall, alas), writes:

Barilleaux acknowledges that those who buy into the idea that anything beautiful can’t be serious may be tempted to dismiss many of the works in “Beauty Reigns” as wallpaper. However, he adds, “that may just show how limited we are by what we think wallpaper should be.” 

Goddard’s article contains much more background about some artists in the show, including some interviews. Read it here.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of the McNay Art Museum



  1. So René Paul Barilleaux chose abstract painters whose art is characterized by “a tension between melancholy and the sublime” and is “optimistic.”? (And thinks that wallpaper can be “serious?”) What claptrap! Not even with their cutesy titles can one discern any of these qualities in the two works shown here. As to the concept of “beauty,” I found of interest critic Dave Hickey’s idea (quoted in Dan R. Goddard’s article) that “the spectator usually finds beauty in art that embodies his or her own values.” Values like “optimism”—even “melancholy,” found in true art such as this wonderful painting by Degas at the Phillips Collection:

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)

    • The Degas is superb. But Degas was an artist of the avant-garde, when the avant-garde still had the power to shock, and I suspect this picture was hardly the thing that most Parisians were likely to like. After the passage of time, it looks different–better. And to us, it’s a masterpiece. Perhaps the works in the McNay will last after all. I’m with Judith–I like them. And I like the idea that beauty is worth identifying and defending.

      Why can’t wallpaper be serious? Decorative arts go back to the Myceneans, and even earlier. Every encyclopedic museum must of necessity collect decorative arts, including wallpapers. Roman frescos were wall decorations, with many abstract decorative elements–look at the frescos in the Metropolitan. Is wallpaper so different from the ravishing designs in the borders of Medieval manuscripts? Or the even more ravishing abstract designs in the borders of Persian manuscripts? Or the wallpapers that came out of the William Morris workshop? Picasso and Braque included wallpapers in their Cubist collages.

      Abstract designs of all kinds can be eminently “serious” (and beautiful), including wallpapers.

      • BobG: I very much appreciate your informed comments regarding decorative art. We are in agreement. Barilleaux doesn’t consider wallpaper or the abstract pieces in his exhibition to be decorative art, however. Like most people, he uses the term “art” to means “fine art.” Also like most people, he considers “painting” (see the exhibition’s subtitle) to be a fine art, which is what wallpaper also is in his view. Those who disagree, he maintains, are “limited . . . by what [they] think wallpaper should be.”

        As I have argued elsewhere, decorative art is not essentially conceptual in its focus but is, rather, sensory and perceptual. Art (fine art), in contrast, always implies a meaning broader than the particular image represented.

        On the term “serious”: According to Goddard “Barilleaux acknowledges that those who buy into the idea that anything beautiful can’t be serious may be tempted to dismiss many of the works in ‘Beauty Reigns’ as wallpaper.” By “can’t be serious” he means “can’t be art..” I agree with you that wallpaper (as all decorative art) can be serious—in the sense (as I see it) of “very important” in human life.

        Like most people, when Barilleaux uses the term “art” he means “fine art.”

  2. Kirk de Gooyer says:

    Thanks JD… I continue in my personal fascination with conversations about Beauty with a capital “B” (eternal/primal) and beauty with a lowercase “b” (temporal/decorative – in the eye of the beholder). I look forward to this catalogue and ongoing comments and reviews.

  3. Michael M Thomas says:

    I share JD’s liking for this concept. Beauty can also mean visually pleasing. And that can be incited in the beholder in many ways, from many sources. I happen to like yellow, for example.
    One should always investigate where someone is coming from. The editor of Aristos decries the McNay show, quotes Dave Hickey out of context, and declares the show’s curator’s views to be “claptrap,” an epithet unlikely to be taken seriously when it comes from the co-author of “What Art Is: the Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand.” No further comment needed.

    • Michael M. Thomas: You dismiss my criticism of the McNay Art Museum show and its curator solely because I am the co-author of a book on Ayn Rand’s theory of art, as if such a book (which you seem not to have read) ought not be taken seriously. “No further comment needed,” you say. Not so. In civil discourse, some comment, however brief, is always necessary.

      Ayn Rand herself seems to be the problem from your perspective. For all her character flaws and occasional flaws of expression and formulation (of which Michelle Kamhi and I are critical in our book), a number of unbiased scholars who read ‘What Art Is’ thought that Rand’s ideas on art (as Kamhi and I discussed and applied them) were very much to be taken seriously. I don’t ordinarily call attention to such reviews and endorsements when citing ‘What Art Is.’ But you force my hand, and here I feel I must.

      I’ll cite just three. [1] April 2001: “Choice,” published by the Association of College and Research Libraries; [2] September 2001: “The Art Book,” a journal of the Association of Art Historians in Great Britain; and [3] 2000-2002: Jacques Barzun (1907-2012). Widely considered the most eminent cultural historian of the twentieth century, Barzun praised ‘What Art Is’ in letters to Kamhi and me and in an “In Depth” interview on Book TV [C-SPAN2]. Interested readers can read the reviews and our responses on the Aristos website (see the link on its home page). Barzun’s written remarks can be read and his brief comment on C-SPAN viewed at .

      • With all due respect, you did something similar: you dismissed “Beauty Reigns” without seeing more than two examples on my blog — which is far different than seeing them in person.

  4. Robert Love says:

    Beautiful objects have been a mainstay of human culture for its entire duration. I doubt we’re too modern to need it any more.

  5. Robert Love says:

    On the other hand, having scanned through images by each of the above-mentioned artists, I have to say this particular style is simply dippy. “Beautiful” doesn’t mean “pretty” or “cleverly stupid”.

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