I mentioned yesterday that you should go see The Artist’s Eye: Wolf Kahn as Curator, currently up at the National Academy of Design (one block north of the Guggenheim) through April 18. For those too lazy to scroll down to the Top Five listing in the right-hand column, here’s what I wrote:
The poet of magenta and orange culls 50-odd personal favorites from the Academy’s permanent collection, mostly (but not entirely) representational, mostly (but not entirely) landscapes, mostly (but not entirely) celebrity-free. The last gallery contains 10 recent paintings by Kahn, including “Chaos and Hidden Order,” a stunning natural abstract (my phrase, not Kahn’s) painted last year in Africa. Bright, fresh, engaging, and thought-provoking, especially if you think paint on canvas is soooo over. Definitely worth seeing, more than once.
What I didn’t mention, that being a capsule review, was that Kahn not only picked the paintings but wrote the wall labels for the show. I’m sure that’s not without precedent, but it isn’t common, either (Jane Freilicher didn’t do it when she curated last year’s “Artist’s Eye” show at the Academy). The texts are fascinating–informal, unpretentious, written from the practical perspective of a practicing painter. Here, for example, is Kahn on Albert Pinkham Ryder’s “Marine”:
Ryder is one of the artists who continue to influence me in my own work, because he really loved the substance of paint. Also, he never acknowledged finishing a painting but kept adjusting and changing it for years. He had the gift of translating paint into passion, but his aim, it seems to me, was to paint unchanging nature as simply and straight-forwardly as he could. Notice the uneasy coming together of water and sky at the horizon: white against black, but nothing stops. A wonderful little picture.
Wouldn’t you rather read a label like that than one by some anonymous museum staffer?
Sarah Weinman and I have been exchanging e-mail apropos of my recent posting about Glenn Gould, and we’ve gotten into a conversation about what I call “practitioner criticism,” by which I mean arts criticism written by working artists. This kind of criticism intrigues me precisely because it isn’t “objective,” and rarely if ever pretends to be: instead, it’s all about the critic-artist and his personal priorities, and is all the more illuminating as a result. What George Bernard Shaw had to say about Shakespeare, or Hector Berlioz about Beethoven, is by definition more interesting than anything I could possibly say about either man, regardless of whether Shaw or Berlioz happened to be right or wrong.
Here’s what Wolf Kahn has to say about curating “The Artist’s Eye,” which I think could reasonably be described as an exercise in applied practitioner criticism:
I have only cursory knowledge of American art from 1825 (the date the National Academy of Design was founded) until about 1930. It’s likely that I know a bit more from 1930 to the present. Still, how to choose from the ample racks in the storage area those pictures which it seems important to show at this time?…The best thing, it seems to me, is to put my faith on my “eye,” and to cull fifty or so paintings from the collection which succeed to engage my personal “eye.” Is a picture coloristically exciting? Are the elements dispersed on the canvas, or the panel, in a visually beautiful way? Is the picture the carrier of strong feeling? Is it eccentric? Extreme?…Let my eye, therefore, be the surrogate for yours–we may end up shaking hands in agreement–sometimes.
I love that, syntactical slips and all. And I don’t see how anyone could resist going to see a museum exhibition curated on such a basis. So don’t resist–go. Now. The National Academy of Design is never crowded, even on weekends. And when you’re there, keep an eye out for me, because I’m planning to come back soon with a friend or two in tow.