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Friday, August 26, 2011

Three exhibitions at the Fenimore Art Museum

Maurice Prendergast - Landscape with Figures 1910-12 oil on linen
Hurricanes notwithstanding, it’s a nice time of year for a drive to Cooperstown - and with three special exhibitions all ending soon at the Fenimore Art Museum, there’s plenty of reason to make the trip now.

Fans of the Mexican proto-feminist painter Frida Kahlo will be entranced by a traveling show titled Frida Kahlo: through the lens of Nickolas Muray, which centers on pictures of the enigmatic artist taken throughout her 10-year love affair with the Hungarian-born, New York City-based photographer.

Nickolas Muray
Classic Frida (with Magenta Rebozo)
1939 carbon process print
Augmented by inkjet prints of titillating ephemera such as lipstick-kissed letters, the show is not much more than an illustrated soap opera, strangely cool yet passionate, though Muray’s estimable skills with both classic black-and-white and early color technique are brilliantly on display. It’s easy to see from this collection why people such as Salma Hayek and Madonna find Frida so irresistible, though I was equally repelled by the degree of self-indulgence in evidence. If you’re intrigued, you must hurry: The show ends on Sept. 5.

On view through Sept. 11 is a fine, small exhibition of Edward Hopper’s early work titled a window on Edward Hopper, in which the Fenimore has collaborated with the nearby Glimmerglass Festival to reveal the roots of the painter whose work inspired an opera that was mounted there this season.

Though the opera’s performances have ended, the art exhibition stands alone as a valuable investigation into the development of one of America’s foremost painters, and it features some of his really outstanding graphic work that might easily be overlooked if it were in a different context. But here, with just two full-scale oil paintings, and five watercolors to compete with, Hopper’s etchings are a revelation, and his earlier studies are worth the time to examine.

Edward Hopper - Night Shadows 1921 etching
Anyone familiar with the artist’s work will gain insight from the rare display of drawings, going back to his student years and including some commercially oriented illustration (Hopper the painter was 40 before museums began acquiring his art). It’s always a treat to see how an artist develops, and it’s also great fun to have a chance to look at sketches that ultimately led to more impressive finished work.

And, still, the two paintings (Freight Cars, Gloucester, an almost Cubist industrial composition from 1928 and The Camel’s Hump, a dazzling view of Cape Cod dunes from 1931) are as good as it gets; and the watercolors are simply wonderful. Go to see a window on Edward Hopper with the right expectations, and they will be fulfilled.

William Baziotes
Toy 1949 oil on linen
The Hopper show, which draws heavily from a collection formed by Edward W. Root that is now housed at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute in Utica, is a good setup for the highlight of this trio of exhibitions, Prendergast to Pollock: American Modernism from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, which is also drawn from Root’s amazing collection.

Spanning about six decades of painting, Prendergast to Pollock is a mouthwatering showcase of exquisite work by both famous names and also-rans, organized into loosely tied groups of landscapes, still lifes, figures, and abstracts. Not unlike the current New York, New York! Show at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls (reviewed here), this show surveys the transition of styles in American art during much of the 20th century from Impressionism to abstraction, and it demonstrates what an auspiciously astute collector Root was.

The highlights of this exhibition are almost endless. The show opens with a Fauvist-colored masterpiece by Maurice Prendergast, but I skipped by it until I was stopped dead in my tracks by three modestly sized Arthur Dove paintings that still shimmer with energy more than 70 years after they were made. A single piece by William Baziotes, small and playful, is mesmerizing, as is a surprisingly small and energetic Mark Rothko from 1947, before he homed in on his mature style of large blocks of color. Nearby is a similarly patchy and transcendent Arshile Gorky.

Charles Burchfield
House and Tree by Arc Light 1916
Charles Burchfield is represented by three paintings as well, all watercolors, two of which date to 1916 but seem much fresher, as his work always does. Stuart Davis and Theodoros Stamos sit side by side in an asymmetrical, yet perfectly balanced pairing, while other great moments are provided by lesser-known painters, such as Morris Kantor, whose 1929 Ode to the Antique is deliciously surreal, and Charles Howard, whose stylized cityscape exploits great skill with form and color.

I do have one quibble with the show: No women are represented in this selection and, though Root collected very few women artists, that is an oversight in 2011. But the installation is a great success, due in part to the careful selection of medium grey, royal blue, and acid green for the background colors on various wall panels. It continues through Sept. 15.

The Fenimore also offers permanent exhibits from its world-class collections of folk art and American Indian art, and has beautiful, accessible grounds on the shore of Otsego Lake – altogether, a destination worth setting aside a good chunk of time to explore.

Rating: Highly Recommended

Edward Hopper - Freight Cars, Gloucester 1928 oil on canvas

1 comment:

rictus6316 said...

thanks for reminding me about the fenimore shows. had a beautiful drive down on friday, although the irene destruction was shocking. so many families lost so much.

loved the prendergast to pollack show, some real gems by mark tobey, wm baziotes, charles howard, and others. this american modernism is a rich vein that's been undervalued and the MWP has a fine collection.

the kahlo show puzzled me. as a fridaphile, it's always great to see new images of her and the installation neatly suggested her casa azul. she was like a movie star that never made a movie! but i was frustrated that i was looking at inkjet prints in most cases. as the photographer died before this process was invented, are we not looking at replicas made from scanned negatives or prints? people also seemed to enjoy studying the copies of her paintings but this seems like framing pages from an art history book and touring it. high interest value, but strange museology.

also had a nice lunch in the museum cafe by the lake.