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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Reflections on Water in American Painting at the Arkell Museum

Anton Otto Fischer Summer Seas oil on canvas 1945

The drive along the Thruway to Canajoharie is a great set-up for seeing Reflections on Water in American Painting at the Arkell Museum. Along the way, the toll road follows the Mohawk River for miles, affording frequent and pleasant views of just the sort of landscape that inspired many of the artists in this excellent show.

Drawn from the collection of Arthur J. Phelan (best known for works depicting the American West), Reflections on Water is perfectly suited to the Arkell – its first stop on a national tour – because it includes a number of artists who are either in the Arkell’s permanent collection or might as well be. Comprised of 50 paintings dating from 1828 to 1945, the show provides lessons in both history and geography, as it mirrors the American expansion from east to west. In addition to the expected Atlantic Ocean and Hudson River scenes, there are also images from the Great Lakes, the Mississippi and Columbia rivers, even an Alaskan glacier.

Phelan, a former banker who later got involved in ocean shipping, began collecting marine paintings in the 1960s and displays a keen eye for outstanding work by lesser-known artists. Unsurprisingly, there are numerous pictures here that would appeal to any typical man or boy who enjoys action and activity – but there are many more that indicate a more specifically artistic sensibility that transcends the hunting, sailing, and fighting genres.

The crown jewel of the collection (shown above at right), a miniature tour de force made by William Merritt Chase while looking up the Arno River from his villa in Florence, Italy, is atypical in its foreign subject, but announces the seriousness and breadth of the collection. And it has plenty of company in a gallery filled with many fine American Impressionist canvases, such as a stunning winter scene by Elmer Livingston MacRae and Willard Metcalf’s petite Twachtman-like marsh view.

These, like many other works in the show, were made in Connecticut, where Phelan spent his summers growing up, and they form the core of the collection, both from the personal standpoint and artistically. Phelan, who holds two degrees in American history from Yale University, said “I have built a number of collections that started with a chance acquisition of an artwork that reminded me of something from my past.” He also said, in a 1978 Washington Post interview, that he “got interested in art through an interest in the historical process, because paintings offer a clear record of the changes that people have made in the environment.”

The second quote may explain two other key groups of pictures in the show: those that go deeper into the historical aspect of life in the United States (such as James Bard’s meticulous, fanciful 1873 rendering of a Hudson River steamboat, shown at the bottom of this post) and those that represent industrialization (such as Reginald Marsh's 1936 Lift Bridge, Jersey Marshes, shown below at right). Others present popular pastimes, including duck hunting and beach vacationing (such as Aiden Lassell Ripley's 1935 Beach Scene, shown above at left), but most of the work in the show is landscape – and the majority of that falls into the timeframe of the heyday of American Impressionists, revealing a softer side to the historian-collector whose first purchase depicts a burning ship and its fleeing crew.

I don’t know if it’s a trend, but it appears that exhibitions drawn from personal collections are becoming more common (see my review of an exhibition at the Hyde Collection earlier this year). This may not be a bad thing, as institutional perspectives can get stuck in conventional thinking, which an independent voice can possibly shake up. But it also means there’s a risk that the (moneyed) source of the collection is more vain than rigorous, and that we will be subjected to a lot of second-rate work in the process of polishing their ego with our attention.

Fortunately, Phelan does not seem to be that sort of collector; despite its slightly punny title, Reflections on Water is a first-rate show that explores a strong personal sensibility while exposing a number of unfairly overlooked figures from our rich artistic history. If you haven’t yet seen the wonderfully renewed and expanded Arkell Museum, use this opportunity as an excuse to go – I promise it will be an unqualified pleasure.

Reflections on Water in American Painting, organized by Exhibits Development Group and accompanied by a nicely produced color brochure with several reproductions and a fine, historically oriented essay by John Seelye, runs through Oct. 3. A related event set for Oct. 2 will feature NPR’s Selected Shorts readers performing seaside stories live as a fundraiser for the museum. For details, call (518) 673-2314 or go to

Friday, July 23, 2010

Picasso Looks at Degas at the Clark Art Institute

It's the much anticipated, must-see exhibition of the season, and Picasso Looks at Degas at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute does not disappoint. Having brought together a stellar selection of masterpieces and lesser-known curiosities from around the globe, for an exhibition that will not be seen elsewhere in North America at any time, the Clark has an unqualified triumph on its hands.

Who cares if the thesis of the show is little more than an academic footnote to these two artists' transcendent careers? Any excuse to put such treasure a short drive from my backyard is good enough for me! There's no doubt many people from much further away than that will be more than delighted to come and sip from the deep well that Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso plunged into, separately but similarly, well over a century ago.

Not that the show's thesis is meaningless or mistaken. Picasso, the great, self-described thief, stole freely and gleefully from the master of his father's generation, in whom he clearly recognized a kindred spirit. His earliest work follows a markedly similar trajectory as that of Degas, and his latest work directly imitated and celebrated a specific series of prints by Degas, posing Degas himself as their protagonist. Point made.

A problem with the exhibition is that it begins by forcing juxtapositions one could find in almost any two serious artists' early work - nude studies, self-portraits and the like - which slightly undermines the almost astounding connections revealed later on. Equally, one grows tired of the repetition of the concept, which becomes an insistent drumbeat that won't let up. Degas painted his sister - Picasso painted his sister; Degas hung out with folks in cafes - Picasso hung out with folks in cafes; Degas loved women - Picasso loved women; and so on and on. We get it, and after a while we get sick of it.

But we don't get sick of the art. Expertly and beautifully installed in five galleries (one downstairs, the rest above), delectable tidbits from private collections join celebrated works in a well-calibrated crescendo of knockout groups and juxtapositions (the show was co-organized by the Clark and the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, both of which contribute many works from their collections).

Colors are carefully employed for maximum effect - the largest space (nicely broken up by angled walls) is painted a creamy white, creating an open flow for works in extremely diverse media and every scale, from tiny drawings to large paintings and sculptures. The other spaces, in dark gray, sage green, and carmine, create intensity and intimacy for the more concentrated themes of the early years, the dance, and the brothels.

Hindered only by the unavoidable hips and elbows of the crowd, a viewer can revel in this smorgasbord of brilliant work depicting nude bathers, dancers, denizens of Parisian nightlife, domestic servants, and the artists' friends and family members. Everywhere are signs of riveted attention and masterful ability. Both Degas and Picasso started out strong and remained strongly committed, constantly honing their ideas and techniques while allowing their native skills with line, form, and color to flourish.

The result is an orgy of lush viewing pleasure (not to mention a goodly amount of actual orgiastic activity being depicted in it). Of the particular joys that abound in this exhibition, I must point out one very large Degas painting of a woman after the bath - monochromatic, it displays his exquisite lines and compositional massing with almost total carelessness, leaving the observer weak with gratitude that the master kept the piece mysteriously unfinished.

Most of the other highlights of the show come in pairs. A Degas cafe scene (borrowed from the Musée D'Orsay in Paris) joins a similar Picasso from his blue period (on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum).

Two paintings, each titled Woman Ironing, demonstrate the direct influence of Degas on Picasso; that of the former, painted at the height of Impressionism and having been displayed in a gallery that Picasso frequented, became the template for Picasso's 1904 effort, a grippingly modern interpretation. Their permanent homes, at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City are relatively close together, but not exactly side by side as one sees the pieces in this exhibition.

Nearby, two exquisite portraits hanging politely distant on a large wall, are strikingly similar - in this case, not because Picasso had previously seen the Degas, but because each artist was strongly influenced by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya in making it.

And in the highlight of highlights, equal-sized paintings in cleverly contrasting colors face off on the white gallery's last big wall, with plenty of room to let them breathe. Degas' is horizontal and shows a woman combing her daughter's thick, red hair. Now part of the collection of The National Gallery in London, this gorgeous painting once belonged to Picasso's friend Henri Matisse, at whose home he surely had the opportunity to study it.

Picasso's response, a vertical 1952 painting on loan from a private collection, is done in grays and blues in his signature mature style and displays a statuesque woman wringing her hair. Just being able to exploit the unique opportunity to peruse and compare these two pieces directly is well worth the $15 seasonal price of admission to the Clark.

Picasso Looks at Degas is open every day (closed Mondays after Aug 31) and remains on view through Sept. 12. Also of interest is a rare installation at the Clark of contemporary art by the recently deceased Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz, which places his works in the context of the Clark's permanent collection, as well as in the new Stone Hill Center's galleries.

Picture credits, from top and left to right: The Blue Room (The Tub) 1901 by Pablo Picasso; Woman Ironing 1876-1887 by Edgar Degas; Woman Ironing 1904 by Pablo Picasso; In a Café (L'Absinthe) 1875-6 by Edgar Degas; Sebastia Junyer Vidal 1903 by Pablo Picasso; Combing the Hair (La Coiffure) 1892-1896 by Edgar Degas; Nude Wringing her Hair 1952 by Pablo Picasso; Nude Woman Drying Herself 1884-86 by Edgar Degas.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

John Ransom Phillips at Opalka Gallery and Albany Institute of History & Art

Based on his current exhibitions in Albany, there are at least two John Ransom Phillipses - and that doesn't take into account his purported past lives in Europe and Egypt. The pair of shows by this mysteriously motivated painter at The Sage Colleges' Opalka Gallery and the Albany Institute of History & Art combine to present some 50 works of art from an even larger body that focuses on the Civil War and its most famous photographer, Mathew Brady.

While Phillips claims to have formerly been a 16th-century Dutch painter, he does not expressly state that he thinks he was also Brady - but he clearly identifies with the celebrated icon of 19th-century photography, as well as with his contemporary, the poet and battlefield nurse Walt Whitman.

I'm used to artists, so the nuttiness factor isn't all that offputting here; neither is the prospect of trying to apprehend a multifaceted vision in bi-polar fashion across a few miles of my home city. But the complexity of the work itself does challenge - Phillips paints in oil on canvas and in watercolor on paper, using stylistic sources almost as diverse as all of modern art. To quote from the Institute's wall text, which in turn quotes from a book-length essay by Alan Trachtenberg, "Phillips re-imagines the story of Brady's life within ... work [that] combines elements of colorist expressionism, surrealism, abstraction, pop art and cubism."

As seen in these two shows, Phillips also takes two clearly divergent approaches to this process. Titled Ransoming Mathew Brady: Searching for Celebrity, the Opalka show features larger works that concentrate on Brady's studio activities, often depicting camera equipment, props, and sitters in a quasi-theatrical setting. The Institute's selection, titled Ransoming Mathew Brady: Re-Imagining the Civil War is all about the battlefields and the men who lost life and limb upon them.

This dichotomy is successful in forming two relatively coherent exhibitions that are nonetheless closely tied, but it does require the interested viewer to make two stops. I would recommend seeing the Opalka show first (as I did) because I think the Institute show is better and you'll want your experience to improve as it goes along.
Then again, the Institute show, though it has more paintings in a trickier space, is much easier to follow and take in as a whole, while the Opalka show, with several extremely complex, multi-panel pieces, is far more difficult to understand. So it might be easier to take the reverse approach and warm up with Civil War before attacking Celebrity. I can't say for sure because, being only one person, I couldn't try it both ways (though I wish I could have, just to see what would have happened).

What did happen when I innocently wandered into the Opalka show, having never laid eyes on a Phillips painting before, was that I became persistently perplexed. The gallery's exhibition coordinator informed me later that Phillips has a doctorate in symbols, which didn't surprise me one bit - I believe you might need one, too, to fully understand this work.

The Institute show, on the other hand, is quite relaxing (visually speaking). Dominated by several very nearly abstract images with beautiful passages of pure paint, its messages are clear but mainly quietly stated; this aspect of Phillips' painting is more dream than nightmare. That said, there are some rather disturbing images here, even if they are sometimes presented in a rather cartoonish style (more on that further down).

In both exhibitions, the watercolors function as a sort of primer, providing a window into Phillips' thinking process with inked words, most of them quotations from Brady. The watercolors also act as a bridge between the two shows, linking them stylistically and conceptually. They are done in a loose way that is better suited to the direct medium painted small on paper than it is to the layered medium painted larger on canvas or linen.

And that constitutes my main objection to this painter overall. While many of the watercolors feel cartoonish in their essence, it is difficult to take work seriously that depicts its main subject (Brady) as a silly-looking figure not much more expressive than a doll. It's also annoying (for me, anyway) when the comic-strip convention of rendering hands and feet with four digits rather than five is applied to museum-bound art in the form of otherwise well crafted and ambitious paintings. When Phillips trivializes the subject in this way, I am left with more perplexity.

NOTE: The Opalka Gallery exhibition is officially open through July 30, but has been extended a week through Aug. 6. The Albany Institute exhibition runs through Oct. 3. For hours and contact information, check the web sites (linked above).

Image credits for paintings by John Ransom Phillips, from top down: Fallen at Shiloh 2007 Oil on Linen Promised Gift to Yale University Art Museum; Scattered Parts at Murfreesboro 2007 Oil on Linen Collection of Artist; Birds Eye View of Lost and Fallen: Chancellorsville 2007 Oil on Linen Private Collection; Death and Forgotten Selves at Second Manassas 2007 Oil on Linen Collection of the Artist; To be Photographed by Me Made You Unique 2005 Watercolor; Shooting 2007 three panels of oil on canvas

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Monica Miller at Joyce Goldstein Gallery

An extraordinary exhibition of jewel-like paintings by Monica Miller currently fills the Joyce Goldstein Gallery in Chatham, a clean, well-lit, extremely small space on Main Street. Though the gallery has been there for five years, having moved up from SoHo, I confess it's the first time I've seen it, an oversight for which I have no excuse.

I'm thankful Miller's stunning new work brought me and a devoted following to her opening a couple of weeks ago on a hot Saturday when a drive in the country was just what the doctor ordered. At the end of that drive, cool, fresh paintings awaited. Fresh, because it's the first time Miller has worked in oils since the 1970s (her more than 30-year career has concentrated on watercolors and film animation); cool, because her subject is the Kinderhook Creek in all seasons, including some dazzlingly white winter scenarios.

Scenarios, not scenes - these are landscapes, but not quite in the traditional sense. Miller has departed from her former techniques, but her psychedelic tendencies remain. In these paintings, some of which could reasonably be termed surrealistic, while others veer toward the abstract, Miller engages in a conversation with the water of the creek and the land it courses through. Trees, rocks, and skies - even insects - make their appearances, but they wouldn't be there if not for the water.

And, oh, how Miller paints the water! It swirls, shimmers and shines ... it flows silently under the cover of dusk ... it freezes and refracts into rainbow colors ... it threatens to rearrange the landscape. All this and more comes across in elaborately detailed paintings brushed onto old boards not more than 12 by 15 inches in size.

Tiny paintings in a tiny gallery can have a big impact. Go and immerse yourself.

The Joyce Goldstein Gallery is open from 12-5 Thursday-Saturday, 12-3 Sunday. Monica Miller's show, titled Diary of a Trespasser, hangs through July 31. For more information, call 518-392-2250.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Andrew Wyeth: An American Legend at The Hyde Collection

It is, once again, a summer of blockbuster exhibitions in our region; not to be missed among the wealth of fine choices is Andrew Wyeth: An American Legend at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls through Sept. 5.

Built upon the seemingly slight foundation of a single early Wyeth watercolor from the Hyde's collection, the show brings in a trove of major and minor works, making 46 in all, from various sources, including a commercial gallery, several museums, and two private collections. Curated by the Hyde's new director, David F. Setford, and deputy director Erin B. Coe, the exhibition was produced in conjunction with Maine's Farnsworth Art Museum, which provided the great bulk of the loaned works.

The result is a stunning display of masterful and at times provocative work by an artist as controversial as he was popular in his long lifetime (he died last year at the age of 91). Many warm easily to Wyeth because his work has a realist look to it - his ability to create the illusion of verisimilitude with a few strokes of a watercolor brush was unparalleled - but the show makes a convincing argument that far deeper and darker impulses guided this seemingly representational artist.

Grouped into four broad themes (Regionalism, Architecture and Interiors, Magic Realism, and Wyeth's Models) the Hyde exhibition provides plenty of useful notes (written by Setford, and available in a very reasonably priced and nicely produced color catalog) to guide the viewer without imposing too much on one's direct appreciation of the work. This is good, as the great majority of the pieces are watercolors on paper, a medium in which directness is paramount.

The watercolors are augmented by several well-chosen pencil sketches and a significant handful of temperas on panel, Wyeth's other signature medium. For my money, it would do to spend the most time with those more finished paintings, plus a few of the best watercolors, and go away sufficiently dazzled. After all, if you're really looking, a few choice masterpieces will wear you out - and this show has the masterpieces.

Begin with the almost painfully understated, nearly abstract composition titled Cooling Shed, and you will see much of what makes Wyeth a pleasurably persistent problem in American modernism. The painting (a tempera) is a narrow vertical, only about a foot by two feet, with a wide, flat, deep, dark frame that could be barn wood. Within that slice, Wyeth has engaged his love of mystery - light and dark collide there - and his confounding realism made almost minimalist by severe cropping.

An abstracted scene of fragile Americana, the 1953 Cooling Shed is anything but simple or simplistic. The Hyde has intelligently presented nearby a reproduction of a 1938 painting by Charles Sheeler (famous for early abstract photographs and paintings of American subjects) that resembles both Wyeth's painting and Marcel Duchamp's notorious Nude Descending a Staircase; this juxtaposition makes the point visually that Wyeth is also not an artist to be trifled with.

Wyeth's own words on Cooling Shed ("I was thrilled to find such abstraction in the everyday.") belie the degree of difficulty he would have encountered in creating a work of such potent subtlety and transcendence with the merest of materials.

Equally transcendent, the largest painting in the show is also a tempera on panel, one that nearby notes explain did duty as an electric train table for Wyeth's kids before he revived the nearly 8-foot piece in 1950 (it was begun in 1942). Soaring depicts a bleak, coastal farmscape from the point of view of a group of turkey vultures that wheel high above it at a dizzying angle.

Here, as in many other works in the show, "the imminence of death" is a theme that Wyeth explores unblinkingly, while tying it to a quiet but palpable joy. It is this distinct brand of New England stoicism that is most characteristic of Wyeth's work and that I think is the key to its popularity. Even Wyeth's most colorful works (notably among the earliest) are subdued; and most of his work borders on the colorless. Where he does go bright, it is almost always in the direction of a deep blue. The rest of the time, brown dominates.

Aptly, the Hyde's galleries are painted brown and blue for this installation, a design that works well to set the tone for contemplation that this work so clearly demands and deserves. Is it a pleasure to contemplate death? Well, yes, Wyeth seems to be saying, so long as you are eluding it, and not making too great a show of yourself as you do.

This active avoidance of decay is an essential ingredient in the artistic life, and it is exemplified by the secretive production of Wyeth's Helga series, represented in this show by three watercolors (two from 1973, both of which are titled In the Orchard, are reproduced at the top and bottom of this post). Though these are not among the best Helga paintings, it is important that they are included as a representation of Wyeth's daily practice.

Far better are the pencil studies of his other most famous model, Christina Olson; superb as they are, though, they can't quite make up for the absence of Christina's World, the 1948 painting that made Wyeth's name unforgettable. I suppose the Museum of Modern Art in New York City refused to lend it.

Instead, a piece that clearly paved the way for Christina's World is on view, and it is a fine substitute. Titled Turkey Pond, the 1944 tempera depicts a dark figure in hunting garb, but with neither gun nor dog along for the trip, his purpose in walking across the vacant meadow is lost. It is as good an image of existentialism as you will find anywhere.

NOTE: The estate of Andrew Wyeth strictly prohibits the reproduction of his images on the Web; the two images reproduced here are courtesy of Adelson Galleries, New York.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

For Shame! (Sculpture in the Streets)

An example of Seward Johnson's work (not part of current Albany show) titled First Ride

When the Downtown Albany Business Improvement District mounted their annual Sculpture in the Streets exhibition last summer using challenging contemporary art culled by some of the region's best curators, I was thrilled and heartened (see review). "YES!" I thought at the time, "It IS possible to put something better than that dreck by Seward Johnson in Albany's downtown for all the world to see and either like or not."

Well, I am now equally disheartened: Seward Johnson is back, in all his cloyingly clichèd glory, and I don't think you have to be a serious art lover to notice the painful difference between whatever he produces and anything resembling original, creative expression.

It is flat-footed, unfunny, charmless, badly executed kitsch on a creepily expensive scale. It makes me feel embarrassed as an Albanian and as an artist. The public deserves better.

I honestly believe the good folks at the Downtown BID - along with the show's well-meaning and generous sponsors - should be ashamed to have taken this huge step backward in public art. And I beg them to consider going back to the best local sources for next year's installation. Pleeeaaaase!