Monday, July 6, 2015

Nightscapes of New York City, My Newest Series.

Nocturnal Street Scene, 2015, 22"x30," watercolor, gouache & pencil
on paper.

A View of the Chrysler Building, 2015,
26 1/2"x21,"watercolor, gouache
& pencil on paper.
I love the way New York City looks at night; there is something magical about the place:  The darkness obscures the massiveness of the architecture, while the dazzling lights create an illusory and ethereal environment.   When it’s very dark out, buildings disappear above the level of the illumination from streetlights, traffic lights, storefronts and signs; pretty much everything above the second or third floor fades into darkness.  Those lights that shine out from upper story windows are rarely strong enough to define anything outside.  Instead they often look like twinkling little stars in the night sky

 When I walk around the city at night I sometimes feel as if I’m wandering through a gargantuan interactive light sculpture.  But one that is more interesting and mysterious to me precisely because the effect is not the consequence of a grand design, but of something more haphazard and random:  The aggregate of many individual efforts, mostly independent of each other, which coincidently, or not, adds up to a spectacular whole.

Reflections on a Corner, 57th & 7th, 2015, 20"x30,"
watercolor, gouache & pencil on paper.
So, not surprisingly, I decided to do a series of New York City nightscapes.  I started a couple of years ago.  However, progress has been slow.  I’ve discovered that it is challenging to capture the hallucinatory quality that very bright lights have in the dark, but it has been rewarding too.  To me, the nightscapes are evocative of everything I most associate with the city:  A sense of anonymity, or aloneness despite the crowds; extreme commercialism; and, more than anything, the insignificance of the individual in the midst of a place this huge, this densely populated.

To date, I don’t have enough paintings in my nightscape series for a solo show.  However, I have completed a few that I am pleased enough with to have had included in an occasional group show.  One such takes place July 9 - August 25, 2015 at the Manhattan Borough President’s Office, 1 Centre Street, 19th Floor.  I gather viewing is by invitation only, though.  Apparently security won’t let anyone into the building unless they have their name listed-----and then only with a photo ID.  If you are interested in seeing the exhibition, contact me at and I’ll see what I can do.  You could also try contacting the Art Students League of New York, since it is their show:  All the participating artists are either students or members of the League.  Or, you could wait until I have my solo nightscape show----but you’ll have to wait at least another year for that!

All copyrights are reserved to the artist (c) 2015.

Monday, July 28, 2014

I'm Thrilled to Announce My Upcoming Solo Exhibition: Close Calls: 10 Floral Paintings.

All copyrights reserved to the artist (c) 2014.
Well folks, the opening date (August 4) for my second solo exhibition of the summer is fast approaching!  I can't tell you how giddy I am with excitement!  This is only my third solo ever; so putting an exhibit together still feels new to me----although I can't imagine having a show will ever seem old hat.  Before I go on about my new show,  I want to briefly say some things about the last one ("Wildlife," May 27 - June 28).  First, I was pleased to receive compliments regarding the individual paintings, and the show as a whole too.  The creative process can be very subjective, so it's nice to hear other people respond positively to the end product.  (It's very reassuring, too!)  Next, I'd like to mention that I made one sale.  While one sale is better than none, I have to admit I would dearly have liked to have sold more.  I hope to do better next time!  Lastly, I want to mention that I got quite the surprise when an old friend of mine who now lives in LA showed up unannounced:  The conceit was that she had come to New York for my reception!
Copyrights are reserved.

As for my upcoming show, "Close Calls," let me tell you a bit about the paintings.  They feature flora of one sort or another, with the occasional fauna or telephone; it is the florals, though, that give the show its unifying motif.  These paintings, like most of my still lifes (and some of my cityscapes, too), reflect a Realist world view combined with Magical Realist flourishes----I know not everyone considers floral paintings to be "still Lifes" since flowers are not dead or inanimate, and as anyone who has ever painted them can attest, they can be anything but still!  However, I use the term very loosely----But I digress!

In my floral paintings, the central flower motif is paired with incongruous elements throughout:  Goldfish appear to sail through the sky next to waterlilies; venomous spiders and/or ominously displaced telephone receivers are next to decorative floral arrangements; a jack rabbit’s shadow appears next to cacti, although there is no rabbit in sight.  The pairings have a dissonance that suggests the accidental----purely chance----aspect of life.  Leaving the viewer to wonder if they are looking at the aftermath of an incident, or not.

I hope I have managed to pique your interest enough to entice you to come to my show!  By the by, anyone who would like to come to my reception (Tuesday, August 12) is more than welcome to!  Don't hesitate to drop by anytime during the show's run, either.  The "gallery" area of the Berlitz language Center is entirely accessible to the public.  No entrance fee, nor appointment is necessary.

Close Calls:  10 Floral Paintings.  Watercolors by Margaret Montgomery.  Show runs:  August 4 - 29.  Monday - Saturday.  Presented at Berlitz Language Center/Rockefeller Center, 40 West 51st Street, NYC.  

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Consideration of Gauguin and the Recent Exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art.

"Maruru" (Offerings of Gratitude), from Gauguin's print series "Noa Noa," 1893 - 94.
A major exhibition that covers a significant period in a major artist's career can provide the perfect opportunity to consider their work anew, both individual pieces and as part of a larger body, too.  A well put together show should bring the big ideas and themes that animate the work into sharper focus, too.  And a great artist's career is about the evolution of the ideas and principles that constitute their aesthetic vision:  As is the case with Gauguin, who is one of the most interesting and audacious post impressionist artists.  And just how so, was apparent in the recent exhibition "Gauguin:  Metamorphosis" at the Museum of Modern Art.  It featured his prints and sculptures, which admittedly surprised me at first; because I've always thought of Gauguin as a painter, period.  The prints are of interest, though.  They encapsulate the major themes and motifs that appear throughout Gauguin's oeuvre; and show how he reworked and developed his motifs, familiar to most from his paintings.  The prints are also beautiful works of art in their own right; although, they lack the paintings' vibrant color.  They are, instead, quite dark and monochromatic:  Individual images merge with like-hued surroundings, giving them an ambiguous, enigmatic quality.

Also of interest, and as this show made clear, is the extent to which Gauguin's personal life and artistic career are inextricably intertwined, his life and pursuits serving both as subject matter and selling point too:  Gauguin engaged in a certain amount of self-mythologizing, portraying himself as having turned his back on civilization.  He seems to have wanted to portray himself as having forsaken Europe and European ways; as having turned into a "savage," living amongst "savages."  Indeed, one of the centerpieces of the show was a sculpture of a wild looking woman stomping a wolf and twisting its pup, which Gauguin reportedly intended as a metaphorical self-portrait.  All that gives his life a performance art-like aspect.  (I've read that an ailing Gauguin wanted to return to France before he died, but was persuaded not to because it would have spoilt the larger-than-life legend he had created surrounding himself and life.)
"Auti Te Pape" (Women at the River),
 from the Suite Noa Noa, 1893 - 94.

As could be seen from the show, Gauguin did largely reject European conventions both personally and in his art, in favor of freer, more sensuous ways, which he sought first in the Caribbean and lastly in Polynesia.  There Gauguin seems to have found what he was looking for:  Freedom from the constraints of European mores.  (In Polynesia Gauguin had several mistresses and a few children out-of-wedlock too.) In his artwork, Gauguin portrays Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands largely as an earthly paradise, not yet spoilt by the corrupting influence of civilization; as a realm where the sensual and spiritual naturally coexist.  That view of Polynesia as more primitive, as less socially evolved, is condescending and very Eurocentric----ironically, given Gauguin's repudiation of European mores.  But then again, his art isn't meant to be an objective treatise on any society or culture; instead it is all about subjective expression:  His imagery, largely archetypal representations of his own invention; his Tahitian scenery, largely mental landscapes.  (I've read that Gauguin's art was a source of inspiration for some of the Abstract Expressionists, whose art dealt with Jungian archetypes and the subconscious.)

Gauguin rejected the Realism of the Impressionists early on in his career.  Opting for a subjective aesthetic.  Along with Emile Bernard, he developed Synthetism, characterized by flat shapes and vibrant colors.  The style, so well known from his Tahitian paintings, is meant to convey the subjectivity of remembered experience rather than the neutral objectivity that is inferred when art is made from direct observation.  While they lack the vibrant color of his paintings, the prints, as well as the sculptures, reveal Gauguin's conscious development of  his unique art form; replete with his own symbolism and imagery, including semi-made up religious iconography----borrowed from various sources, including Buddhism, Christianity and Tahitian mythology.
"Nave Nave Fenua" (Delightful
Land), 1893 - 94.

There are three print series in the exhibition, which Gauguin conceived of in narrative terms, of which my favorite is the so-called "Noa Noa" series, which, according to the exhibition's accompanying text, Gauguin produced with the hope of creating an appreciation for his early Tahitian paintings.  (Apparently, they were not an immediate hit with the Parisian art market.)  The series serve as a summation, of sorts, of all the themes and motifs that appear in Gauguin's Tahitian paintings:  Encompassing something of a grand lifecycle, they range from creation to death; and include the aspects of the human experience that most preoccupied Gauguin-----love, fear, spiritualism.  Indeed, I was already familiar with most of the imagery from his paintings; such as that of a Tahitian Eden featuring a very earthy Eve, as seen in the print "Nave Nave Fenua."

In Polynesia, Gauguin's style was also inspired by the so-called "primitivism" of the culture.  That was evident in the show, both in the prints and in the paintings.  He incorporated many elements of "primitivism" in his later artworks, such as bold decorative designs and a disregard for proportionally correct representations of the figure.  In his prints and paintings all of his Tahitian Eves , for example, have disproportionally sturdy legs and large, somewhat prehensile looking feet, giving them a particularly earthbound appearance----they almost look as if they are holding onto the ground!  That is the case in his print "Nave Nave Fenua" featuring Gauguin's version of Eve----as well as in his earlier painting of the same title.

To me, Gauguin's art always seems timeless.  Perhaps, it is in part because it doesn't deal with objective reality, only imaginary entities and scenes:  Nothing identifiable ties them to anything in particular.  And, even though he used real-life models, the figures in his paintings are mythical entities or archetypal characters, not real people.  Also his use of symbols, motifs and themes----much borrowed from various religions----is, while personal,  also archetypal enough to be universally recognizable; and therefore resonate with a wider audience, across generations.  But more than anything it is Gauguin's obvious conviction in what he was doing, apparent in the boldness and steadfastness of his work, that makes him such a compelling artist.  I know, that makes me a believer as well.

The Show Ended June 8.  Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, NYC.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Guess What! I'm About to Have My Second Solo Exhibition! And, Everyone is Invited!

All copyrights are reserved to the artist (c) 2014.

This summer I'm having two solo exhibitions.  Not one, two!  I can't tell you how thrilled I am to have an opportunity to show my work publicly.  Artists always work with an audience in mind (forget about any platitudes to the contrary).  I wouldn't go so far as to say that an artist needs an audience to validate their work, but the purpose of art is to make a visual statement with an eye toward having a cultural impact.  After all, the creative process doesn't happen in a vacuum, every artist is influenced by their cultural, political and social environment and so it is only right that they would want to leave their mark on it, in turn.

My first show opens later this month (May 27).  It is titled "Wildlife" and it is comprised of paintings from an ongoing series featuring crustaceans, occasionally with a bird or spider and with an eclectic mix of everyday objects.  I juxtapose unrelated objects in all of my still lifes in order to create dynamic and interesting paintings.  In this show, pheasants and plastic food containers; spiders and a disembodied Buddha head; crustaceans and alarm clocks; the addition of elements that confound and confuse can make for a more multilayered work of art.  Some of the subject matter can be interpreted as symbol or metaphor, as well.  For example, the juxtaposition of arachnids or crustaceans with manmade objects could suggest the relative brevity of human existence, but the enormity of our impact on the environment.  Because crustaceans and arachnids go way back, millions of years, they are reminders of the vastness of geologic time:  Crabs go back to the Jurassic period, 200-145 million years ago; lobsters and spiders the Cretaceous period, some 145 million years ago.  In contrast we humans are but a blip on the geological time scale!  And the overturned pitchers and empty or near empty plastic containers could be metaphors for the arbitrary and negative effect much of human activity has had.
All copyrights are reserved to the artist (c) 2014.

My artwork, by and large, reflects a Realist aesthetic; there is a recurring Magical Realist strain that runs through it, though.  And, this exhibition is representative of that aspect of my oeuvre.  Ordinary and everyday items are the subject matter of all of my paintings, regardless of whether they fall under the rubric of Realism or Magic Realism; however, the latter have a fantastical aspect, which is purely situational (contextual).  For example, a bird confronting a crab or crustaceans competing with spiders are not the stuff of ordinary life!  Although there is nothing fantastical about a bird, crab or spider per se.

Magic Realism is a literary and artistic genre in which realistic subject matter or narrative is portrayed in a naturalistic way in combination with fantastical elements in order to explore the dichotomy between the rational and irrational aspects of life as it is experienced by the individual.  (Regardless of one’s best efforts to order and control circumstances, life is always subject to chance, to the accidental!)  This may sound an awful lot like surrealism, but the emphasis is on material objects instead of subconscious or dream images that defy the laws of physics.

My second solo show this summer will take place in August.  I will post the details as soon as I settle on a title for the show and ascertain the exact starting date, as well.  Although, I can report now that it will feature florals in a primarily realist mode with flourishes of the fantastical.  And both of my upcoming shows will be at Berlitz Language Center/Rockefeller Center, 40 West 51st Street, Sidewalk Level (NYC):  Site of my first and only previous solo show.  I think it is an ideal venue for a relative neophyte to exhibiting solo, such as myself; and a great opportunity to get hands on experience putting together a show in a setting where the stakes aren't as high as they would be in an actual gallery.  Also, I know that at least some people there will be giving my art more than a cursory once-over----I've been told that classes at Berlitz view and discuss such exhibitions in order to hone language skills. 

I hope no one is hesitant to drop in on my show.  The people are friendly and the "gallery" area of Berlitz is entirely accessible to the public.  No entrance fee, nor appointment is necessary.  My first show is May 27 - June 28.  Gallery hours are 9:00am - 5:00pm Mon - Fri; 9:00am - 3:00pm Sat & Sun.
Additionally, there will be a reception June 4, 6:00pm - 7:30.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Cityscape in the Round: TJ Wilcox: In the Air, at the Whitney Museum.

A View of TJ Wilcox's Cinematic Panorama at the Whitney.

I'm a lifelong New Yorker and an artist who often draws on the city for inspiration and subject matter.  So,  I've long been aware of how much Manhattan has changed over the decades, and yet how much it seems to stay the same; of how much history attaches to the place too, both personal and public---- phenomena that the TJ Wilcox's installation at the Whitney, "In the Air," mimics.  In recent years I've been painting more ambitious cityscapes than the little plein air ones I've long done, so I find myself grappling more and more with what I want them to convey:   Do I want to make a realist statement about the insignificance of the individual in a place as vast as New York?  A magic realist one about the often random aspect of life in a place as large and varied as this?  Perhaps a little of both, as contradictory as that may be.  So, it was with great curiosity that I visited the Wilcox show and made note of his take on the city.  And, Wilcox's panorama of Manhattan is nothing if not contradictory, showing both the exuberant creativity of New York artists and the destruction that has been visited upon the city, too.

I always enjoy viewing other artists' portrayals of New York precisely to see their take on it.  And I wasn't disappointed by this show.  The installation is quite large, it takes up most of the Museums's second floor and consists of a giant circular screen, upon which a kaleidoscopic panorama unfolds:  According to the installation wall text, the cinema-in-the-round format harks back to the late nineteenth century, when cinema was a new medium.  Wilcox's panorama is a 360-degree view of Manhattan, using four cameras, it was shot from the rooftop of Wilcox's Union Square studio on a single day in September 2012----from sunrise to sunset.   Using some sort of stop-motion animation technique, Wilcox was able to greatly speed up the fifteen hours between dawn and dusk to fit a half hour long format; that serves as a backdrop or framing device for six short narrative films that are shown sequentially.
A still from "Futura," one of six film vignettes that appear
within "In the Air." 

The narratives range from the distant past to more recent events.  Taken together, they form, as much as anything, a meditation on the interconnectedness of past and present, both imagined and real; and of the intersection of personal memory and the historical record.  There is no real logical progression from one vignette to another.  Yet there is just enough thematic similarity between some of the narrative films to make them seem to tie into one another:  The vignettes "Futura" and "John,"  are an example, each relates a large-scale catastrophe that left an indelible mark on the public.  The former, the crash of the Hindenburg; the latter, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.  Obviously, there is no rational connection between the two events, the only tie-in, the theme of catastrophe and collective trauma. Similarities that are arbitrary, without any factual relation.  Yet, in the viewing of "In the Air," random similarities seem to take on the aura of significance.

 "Futura" uses old news footage showing the Hindenburg crash interspersed with Wilcox's filmed mock-up of an apparently actual, unrealized, plan to use the Empire State Building as a docking station for dirigibles.  I must say, I thought the mock-up was one of the panorama's more amusing touches.  In it, people are shown on a very flimsy looking gangway extending from a blimp to the top of the Empire State.  It added a note of levity to an otherwise tragic subject.

"John" uses the superintendent of Wilcox's building to relate the attacks on the Trade Center.  By using his superintendent's eye-witness account, instead of news footage, Wilcox establishes the interconnectedness of personal memory with that of the public account.  Of course, Wilcox didn't have to show us images for us to visualize what happened that day.  We saw the attacks televised, over and over.   But the super's matter-of-fact narrative makes the events more relatable, seem less mythic, more down-to-earth:  He describes going from incredulity, to horrified realization----not unlike the reaction I had to telecasts of the attack!
"Silver Cloud," one of six vignettes that unfolds during the
cinematic panorama:  "In the Air."

I was also amused by the vignette "Silver Cloud." It shows footage shot from Andy Warhol's 47th street "factory" rooftop in 1965, interspersed with newscasts of the papal visit of Paul VI.  In the film a helium filled silver phallus is being launched aloft while the pope's motorcade passes below.  It's a little hard to believe that the film's narrative arc is entirely authentic.  I'm guessing that the launch was shot separately, then added to news footage of the papal visit.  But the conceit of the pope receiving a phallic salute on his visit to the city is very funny.  Like "Silver Cloud,"most of the short narrative films are collages, mixing footage from several sources, such as old news reels and recreations or re-imaginings of events.  And, it isn't always clear what's what, blurring the distinction between fact and fiction.

"Manhattanhenge" is the last of the six vignettes.  It shows the biannual phenomena of the same name.  As natives such as myself probably know, Manhattanhenge is a phenomena that occurs every spring and summer:  On the equinox the setting sun aligns with the basic street grid in Manhattan, so that the sinking disc is visible on the major cross streets, at least those with an unobstructed view such as 57th and 42nd streets.  As you may already know, Manhattanhenge is a neologism derived from Stonehenge.  So, the closing vignette creates an allusive association between Manhattan and a bi-gone and mysterious people.  I suppose the suggestion is that one day the sun will set permanently on Manhattan as it did on the civilization that created Stonehenge.

I regret not having seen "In the Air" before.  It is an enormously original vision of New York:  past and present; factual and not.  Yet "In the Air" seems so authoritative and all-encompassing that it seems like much more; almost like a definitive portrait of the city.

TJ Wilcox:  In the Air ends February 9.  Whitney Museum, 945 Madison Avenue (at 75th St.), NYC.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

An Exhibition Of Dutch Genre Paintings On Loan From The Mauritshuis.

Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds, c. 1670 - 75.

I recently went to the Frick's exhibition of Dutch Golden Age paintings, on loan from the Mauritshuis. It is small, only fifteen paintings, but absolutely fabulous----really gorgeous!  Unfortunately it closes in a couple of days, so you'll have to run if you want to catch it!  The Frick has given Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) the place of honor in the show, making it clear that it is meant to be the star attraction.  But while it is undeniably beautiful, I don't think it is the most interesting aspect of the exhibition.   Rather, I think the show in its entirety provides a compelling, insightful and fun look at the seventeenth century Dutch mindset.  It offers a representative sampling of Dutch genre painting.  The subject matter includes still lifes, landscapes, domestic scenes and portraits that, by and large, depict the everyday life of ordinary middle class folk, in marked contrast to much of what was being produced elsewhere in Europe at the time.  It is the seeming ordinariness of the images that makes Dutch art of this period seem so relatable:  That is its special appeal!
Gerard ter Borch, Woman Writing a Letter,
c. 1655.

The seventeenth century was the era of Baroque painting in Europe; while it is largely identified with Catholicism and a Counter-Reformation movement, some of the characteristics that typified Baroque art, such as exaggerated contrasts of light and shadow and saturated color, are present in the works of artists such as  Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer----all represented in this show.  But supernatural, mythological elements that typified much Baroque art are markedly absent from the Dutch Golden Age.  The main reason being that Dutch Calvinism did not allow religious art in churches.  As a consequence, the Dutch artists by and large eschewed religious subject matter in favor of landscapes, still lifes, domestic scenes and other things drawn from everyday, secular experience.  (There are two exceptions represented here, Simeon's Song of Praise and Susanna, both painted by Rembrandt----one of the few Dutch artists of the era to paint biblical scenes.)  Ruisdael's landscape (shown above) is representative of the secular strain:  The workers in his fields are barely visible, they have been reduced to mere specks; there are no larger-than-life entities astride his land, no angels in his skies.  While the clouds that dominate his landscapes may be more evocative than scientifically accurate, they are, nevertheless, just natural formations devoid of supernatural elements.  His is a vision shared by such seventeenth century thinkers as Newton:  In the newly discovered infiniteness of the universe, humans have been reduced to insignificance.

When I think of Dutch seventeenth century painting, what comes to mind foremost are detailed scenes of domestic life----the sort Vermeer is famous for.  Unfortunately, the only Vermeer included in the show is the portrait, Girl with a Pearl Earring.  However,  several Vermeer's from the Frick's permanent collection, which I think are more representative of his oeuvre and Dutch genre painting in general, are on display elsewhere in the museum.
Jan Steen, As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young, c. 1665.

In this show the domestic scenes are by Gerard ter Borch (Woman Writing a Letter, above), Jan Steen (Girl Eating Oysters, c. 1658, and As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young, left) and Nicholas Maes, (The Old Lacemaker, c. 1655).  These genre painters depicted scenes of everyday life and ordinary people with a detailed realism representative of traditions passed down from earlier Netherlandish painters such as Pieter Bruegel.  And, apparently, they shared the earlier artists' love of proverbs too!  Indeed a certain Calvinist puritanism seems to have been common in the Dutch Golden Age.  While Jan Steen's paintings appear at first blush to be more or less straightforward depictions of daily life, they are thought not to show real people. Instead, they are thought to be populated with stock characters such as one would find in a theatre troupe (apparently, Steen had an uncle who belonged to such).  Steen's scenes are arranged in a stagey manner to deliver the pictorial equivalent of declamations against bad behavior.  But, while his paintings are moralistic, the admonitions are leavened with humor; in fact his paintings are rather fun.  Colorful, and even chaotic,  they  portray various manner of bad behavior with only subtle hints to suggest a moral.  Everyone in Steen's As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young looks to be having quite the jolly old time.  It is ostensibly a family celebration, but the proverbial warning of the title appears on the pages the old woman holds, alerting the viewer that this is a lesson!  More subtly, a parrot and a pipe are meant to suggest symbolically that adults' bad example is imitated by their young.  The use of symbols to convey moralistic or proverbial messages seems to have been popular with the seventeenth century Dutch; they appear in other works in the show as well.
Pieter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life, 1630.

Domestic scenes weren't the only venues for Dutch moralizing, as Pieter Claesz's still life, Vanitas (1630) makes clear.  The painting is meant as an allegory.  Vanitas is Latin for vanity, and vanitas images are meant as admonishments against attachment to material goods.  The human skull is a reminder of mortality and the time piece, overturned goblet and frayed folios show the impermanence and, therefore, worthlessness of earthly goods.  I know, the painting may sound unbearably grim, but everything is so beautifully done, that the painting seems to embrace the very attachments it is warning against!

While it was apparently important to Dutch artists of the era, to provide moral instruction, they manage to delight the senses as well.  Indeed, the images are so beautifully realized that it is easy enough to miss  the sermon. And, while this show is small, it manages to give a concise synopsis of what the Dutch Golden Age is all about, making for an educational as well as fun view!

Unfortunately, the show ends this Sunday, January 19th.  The Frick is located, 1 East 70th Street, New York, NY  10021.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Magritte Exhibition At MoMA.

The False Mirror, 1929.

Wow!  "The Mystery of the Ordinary," the Magritte show at the Museum of Modern Art, is really something else!  I was blown away!  The exhibition is huge, featuring some eighty paintings, collages and other items.  And, the focus is on the major ideas and themes that animated Magritte's surrealism such as:  Displacement and isolation; the inadequacy of language to accurately represent things; the opposition between perceptions of what is rational and individual psychological experience; and the difference between the illusionism of traditional painting and physical reality. The show deals with the period between 1926 and 1938, when he produced his most important and memorable surrealist works.  I left the exhibition with a new appreciation for Magritte.  I think it's easy to view his art as gimmicky however, given the picture puzzle aspect of much of it; but that is way too facile; although, many of the visual games he plays have a certain adolescent appeal.  (If you saw his paintings when you were a teen, you might remember thinking:  "How cool!"  Or something along those lines.)
The Treachery of Images, 1929.

As this show makes plain, Magritte was more interested in ideas----in making a statement----than in making attractive or decorative paintings.  He wanted his art to challenge conventional perceptions, to make the viewer reconsider their perception of what is rational.  And, while surrealism was very much a product of 1920's-30's Europe, Magritte's art still seems pertinent.  Today television and the internet can make the distinction between reality or not seem rather amorphous at times.  Also, the sense of disquiet and dread that many of his paintings convey still seem to resonate, although the underlying causes are different then they were in pre-war Europe, of course.  Today it is rapidly changing technology, as well as economic instability, that create a sense of unease and uncertainty.  Art movements of a more recent vintage such as pop and conceptual art show the influence of Surrealism; but hey, maybe it's time for a neo-surrealist movement!
The Secret Player, 1027.

Surrealism challenged rationalism and social constraints.  And, Magritte posed that challenge through the illogic of his images:  Objects appear decontextualized, or dream-like, people have inexplicable doubles.  Many of his paintings feature a curtain on each side, as if drawn back for a big reveal of sorts. The effect is----contradictorily----to suggest that a hidden truth is being exposed or that the composition is a conjuror's illusion.  In "The Secret Player" he uses such a device, there a curtain has been pulled back to expose a scene that defies explanation; it has all the logic of a waking dream.  A man and a double of the man play some undefined game in a make-believe forrest of balusters, while a woman in a corset wearing a surgical mask appears from behind a cabinet door.  What does it all mean?  Who knows?  And, although there is nothing particularly dynamic about the way Magritte painted "The Secret Player," The mysteriousness of the scene is undeniably intriguing.

Surrealism had its antecedents in the nineteenth century Romantic and Symbolist movements.  It not only shared an opposition to rationalism with those movements, but like the earlier artists, the surrealists conceived of, and presented reality as basically a mental projection; however, the individual, as conceived by Magritte, seem to have considerably less control over his/her life.  Magritte presents individuals as largely spectators to the drama of life, rather than as primary actors.  He conveys that through recurring motifs, such as:   doppelganger-like doubles;  dream-like imagery; and the use of stage-like curtains pulled back to bracket his compositions.
Not to be Reproduced, 1937.

Some of his double images convey a sort of out-of-body experience, too.  As if the individual is watching their own life unfold at a remove.  That is the sense I get, anyway, from "Not to be Reproduced," Magritte's "portrait" of art collector Edward James.  I love this painting!  Because of the literal manner in which details are painted, it takes a moment to realize that the imagery makes no sense.  That the secondary figure is not a mirror reflection of the foreground figure, but a slightly diminutive double.  And, yet the secondary book cover is indeed a mirror reflection of the one in the foreground.  So, what is happening here?  As with "The Secret Player" and other Magritte's, "Not to be Reproduced" defies rational explanation.  But one thing that is certain is that the universe represented here does not conform to the laws of physics, or logic!

There are a number of Magritte's word paintings in the show too.  Including, what is probably his most famous one:  "The Treachery of Images," which has the image of a pipe with "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" (this is not a pipe) written beneath.  As many have already observed, Magritte is making the point that a painted representation of something is not the thing itself.  "The Treachery of Images" deals with the dichotomy between reality and pictorial representation----between reality and illusionism.   However, most of his word paintings are even more concerned with the difference between linguistic representations and their real life objects.  "The Interpretation of Dreams," 1936 is more typical of his word paintings.   In it, four objects are pictured with written captions, but the words and images don't match.  I suppose the point is that words aren't adequate substitutes for real things any more than visual images are.  I have to admit I'm not a big fan of text in paintings, in Magritte's or anyone else's either.  I think a painting should make its statement visually.  Relying on text to get a message across always seems like a copout to me.
The Threshold of Liberty, 1936.

The show includes some of Magritte's collages, which are of interest only because many of his paintings, such as "The Threshold of Liberty," have a collage-like sensibility.  It looks as if collage may have been the original inspiration for some of his recurring themes such as isolation, displacement and decontextualization.  In "The Threshold," and other paintings, Magritte juxtaposes unrelated images to create an imaginary interior space:  A female torso is adjacent to wood paneling, which is adjacent to jingle bells, which are next to marble paneling, which is on top of lattice work, and so on.  The seeming randomness of the selection of images has a mimetic aspect.  It suggests a process of mental association, in which the connection between things isn't always rational----or obvious.  And, seeing Magritte's collages in the show, was a bit like peeking behind the curtains at his thought process!  Indeed, the comprehensiveness of the show made it possible to gain insight into the development and expansion of all the themes that play a salient part in Magritte's oeuvre.

The Magritte exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art is exhilarating and inspirational!  Many of the works on display grapple with ideas about art that concern artists of all eras:  In particular the difference between illusionism and reality----between the two-dimensionality of a canvas and perspectival illusion.  But, while Magritte's paintings certainly transcend their time, I don't think they could have been produced in any other period or place than 1920's-30's Europe.  His surrealism betrays the widespread interest and cultural influence Freudian psychology had during the era; although, Magritte insisted that his paintings weren't open to psychological interpretation.

The Magritte show is at the Museum of Modern Art until January 12.  11 West 53rd Street, New York, NY  10019.