Private Lives

By

'Giorgio Morandi, 1890-1964' -- Metropolitan Museum of Art

'Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting 1927-1937' -- Museum of Modern Art

'Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone' -- New Museum

'Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton' -- New Museum

'Douglas Blau' -- Institute of Contemporary Art

I.

What will be the impact of the financial crisis on artists, galleries, and auction houses? I sense that many important players in the art market have seen a slowdown coming since the beginning of the year, and it is reasonable to assume that in New York City, where the art scene in the West Twenties has grown dramatically in the past decade, some galleries will close. At the high-end auctions this fall, many works did not find buyers, and the anxiety in the voices of a number of art dealers in the last few weeks has been unmistakable, unlike anything I can recall. There are different theories about how this will sort itself out. Some see a return to sobriety, an end to the most egregious excesses of art-world glamourmongering, and a strengthening of interest in artists with steadier, less glitzy reputations and longer, more gradual careers. Others argue that with the financial markets in disarray, the people with the most disposable income are going to conclude that the Jeff Koons they put near the swimming pool a few years ago is the best investment they ever made. Now, as before, everybody sees what they want to see.

I have to confess that I have only a limited interest in these questions. Experience has taught me that every decade or so the art market gets weak in the knees, and when it roars back a few years later the picture palaces specializing in Warhol and other assorted idiocies do better than ever before. It is my unshakeable conviction that artists who are truly engaged in their craft will pursue it no matter what. I have never known the quality of an artist's work to be affected, one way or another, by economic circumstances. Among the contemporary artists I admire, there are those who make a living by selling their work and those who make their living differently, and artistically it does not really matter one way or the other.

As for the public's responses to work in the galleries and the museums, the fact that fewer people are inclined to open their checkbooks does not mean that visitors do not still have eyes to see with and hearts to feel with. Indeed, the argument may be made that in times of economic or social or political upheaval, the arts become more important, precisely because they stand apart from the maelstrom. The ups and downs of Wall Street or the Beltway do not affect the way we approach the Morandi retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Miró exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, or Mary Heilmann's paintings at the New Museum, or Sheila Hicks's eloquent weavings at Davis and Langdale, or the swill in Richard Prince's new show at the Gagosian Gallery. In good times and in bad times, there will be good things to see and bad things to see. Some people will deduce from this that the arts have failed to connect with the rest of life. I arrive at the reverse conclusion--that the arts, because they are in a deep way autonomous, have an essential and inextinguishable place in our lives.

Art, so it seems to me, represents the triumph of private feeling over public pressures, or at least the ability of private feeling to assert itself in the face of public pressures and public values. I would argue that true art is always characterized by its unto-itself-ness, its freestanding-ness, its independence. This is not to say that the arts are untouched by the rest of life, only that they are affected by it in their own fashion. I cannot insist too much on this point. It is certainly a marginal view at present, when most discussions about contemporary art tend to focus on the artist's social and economic success. Artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons are famous for being famous, and what generally interests people about their work is not what they do but why the particular sort of thing that they do has found favor in the marketplace. Such questions, which keep journalists working overtime, are by no means regarded as merely journalistic. Contextualism has a great deal of intellectual cachet: in the past generation, the work of artists from Rembrandt to Picasso has been interpreted by some of the most widely respected art historians as fueled not by imaginative necessity but by market forces, and the argument goes far beyond the perfectly reasonable supposition that some artists have been savvy salesmen.

It is true that there is no artist who has ever stood entirely apart from his or her time. But whatever the complexities of the artist's shifting social and economic situation, the artistic act is also an individualistic impulse rooted in the sense of self that is at the heart of the human condition. Meyer Schapiro believed this to be the case not only among the artists of Romantic Europe but even among the sculptors and painters of Romanesque Europe, and although his views remain controversial, I am convinced that they are incontrovertible. If you believe that art is, in all times and places, a reflection of the possibilities of individuality, then you must embrace this as an a priori conviction, a matter of philosophy.

If I insist on this point, it is because when I go to the galleries and the museums I am looking for something with the power to push away the particulars of the moment, to demonstrate the power of the individual as an arbiter of his or her own imagination. We do not need artists to tell us that these are perilous economic times. And we do not need art to tell us that Barack Obama's victory signals a magnificent new direction in American political life. Art is not a mirror of society but an essential part of the fabric of society, with a unique role to play, and more than anything else its role has to do with affirming the stubborn particularity of a person's experience.

 

II.

The question of artistic individualism--of the extent to which an artist's style is a reflection of personal choice rather than public opinion--is much in play right now at the New Museum, which is host to shows of paintings and other works by Elizabeth Peyton and Mary Heilmann. Both these painters have gained a strong following in recent years precisely because they are not mass-production artists in the vein of Hirst or Koons. Peyton's small portraits of friends and notables are frankly, vehemently painterly, with flashy, high-keyed color; you are left with the impression that she tossed these little pictures off in an hour, as if they were mash notes. And Heilmann's abstract paintings, also sometimes exuberantly candy-colored, reprise old-modern formal concerns about shape and structure with a what-the-hell insouciance. "Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone," which was organized at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, California, and "Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton," which the New Museum has put together, make an interesting pair. These artists--born a generation apart, Heilmann in 1940, Peyton in 1965--suggest that individualism may be not only a subject, but also a snare or an illusion, a pose or a defense. It is no wonder that formal questions often turn out to be questions of character.

Heilmann begins with a most appealing assumption, namely that the language of abstract art, which was already well established by the time she was a young artist, is something that she can now employ in the most intimate manner, as if non-objectivity were not an ideology to be shouted from the rooftops but a predilection to be whispered and gossiped about. The thin washes of paint and casually irregular edges--the general offhandedness--that Heilmann brings to her work gives her admirers the feeling that she is sidling up to Mondrian and Hofmann and Newman and Noland, joshing with them, kidding around. Heilmann's winking approach to formal matters succeeds in two paintings in the New Museum show, Neo Noir (1998) and The Third Man (1999), both darkly twinkling canvases. Heilmann has arrayed rectilinear patches of brilliant color, the hot pinks and oranges and racy yellows and blues she favors, and then she has layered a scumble of deep midnight blue over the surface, leaving little rectangular openings through which the brilliant bits shine forth. There is a nighttime romanticism about these paintings, and the provisional quality of the paint handling, the washy darks and the lopsided bright edges, suggests sneakily rapturous emotions. In these two works, Heilmann's playfulness and off-kilter lyricism are lodged deep in the canvas. But more often, her variegated gambits--the gaggles of differently colored spots, the meandering lines, the psychedelic stripes--fail to give informality a legible, formal value.

Nobody would claim that Mary Heilmann is not an individualist. The problem that I have with her individualism is that it is not clearly enough stamped on her work. The dare-to-be-a-slob unfinished style of so many of her paintings does not register as a realization of a personality but as a souvenir of one. The painting becomes a Dadaist gesture. The critic Dave Hickey begins his essay in the Heilmann catalogue by explaining that the artist, whom he regards with great warmth, has always struck him as being like the schoolgirl in pigtails in a famous painting by Norman Rockwell, "sitting on a bench outside the principal's office with an enormous black eye and a smile of sly triumph on her lips. In my lexicon, that's Mary.... The atmosphere of that sly smile brightens the offhand insouciance of her paintings; it enhances their tomboy dishabille and inflects their selfpossession with an impish kind of glee."

I would love a painting that did all that. The problem with Hickey's salute is that he is not admiring Heilmann's paintings. He is admiring the artist herself, much as Duchamp's buddies used to look at one of his utterly static and uninteresting Readymades and imbue it with all the charm and sly wit of their friend Marcel. Wit, paradox, and ambiguity can be sunk deep into an abstract painting. Thornton Willis, an artist of pretty much the same generation as Heilmann, has done something like this in his recent canvases, where the ebullient harlequin patterning suggests an utterly unexpected and slyly disquieting encounter between the spirit of Abstract Expressionism and the spirit of the commedia dell'arte. As for Heilmann and her supporters, I do not think they can see where an interesting person ends and an interesting painting begins.

The strange thing about Heilmann--and I would say the same about Peyton--is that she is not individualistic enough. In order for individual values to become formal values, they must be transformed through an artistic process that is at once furiously personal and--if it succeeds--strangely impersonal. Such a process involves a kind of inwardness and steadiness that I do not see in Heilmann or Peyton. Peyton has clever, amusing instincts. While her portrait subjects vary--she has done drawings of King Ludwig of Bavaria, and news reports in the days after the election highlighted her painting of Michelle Obama--Peyton's essential subject is a youngish art and music crowd, with impressions of celebrities such as Kurt Cobain mingling with portraits of her own friends.

Nearly everybody who thinks about the bohemian playground that is Peyton's world rightly sees allusions to the art of Florine Stettheimer, Alex Katz, David Hockney, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Nan Goldin. I, too, enjoy looking at pictures of attractive, offbeat people whiling away the hours. Elizabeth Peyton is by no means a disinterested spectator in this laid-back comedy of manners. She is one of those women who have a taste for slender, delicately handsome young men, the kind of sly gypsy boys who sometimes landed the knockout girlfriends in college and whose very passivity had something to do with their heterosexual power. The world that Peyton chronicles is perfectly credible; it is her paintings that are not believable. The sociology may be interesting, but what she has done with it amounts to little more than setting up a series of visual place-markers. In Peyton's pictures the flesh tones are hesitant, the lips and eyebrows look pasted on, and the contrast of dark hair and pale skin is repeated in a formulaic way.

Both Heilmann and Peyton have made their reputations in a post-ideological art world where painters believe they are free to do their own thing, working figuratively or abstractly or in any combination of the two, without recourse to any particular view of historical development. While the promise of a post-ideological era in the arts is that each work will be judged on its own merits, in practice the ensuing pluralistic confusion has left many artists more convinced than ever that they must develop a personal brand. Art history has not been replaced by personal history so much as by niche marketing, with artists known less for what they do than for where they show and who collects and discusses their work.

Given Peyton's rock-star reputation and her retro-chic allure, it may seem to some like apostasy to point out that her work might usefully be compared to that of some less widely discussed representational artists, such as Stuart Shils, whose landscapes are currently at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, an establishment associated with traditional values, which for many people places Shils in an entirely different universe from Peyton. I would argue that both these artists fall short for some of the same reasons. They both make a fetish of the little picture. They both have a sweet tooth for poetic generalization. The smeared or dragged areas of saturated or paled color that Shils uses to evoke immediate impressions are lyrical only in the most frustratingly telegraphic way, and in that sense not unlike Peyton's rapid-fire evocations of a friend's blankly dreamy gaze.

Peyton and Shils--and even Heilmann, in her slightly histrionic way--ask to be admired for their marginality. Each of these artists has rejected the idea of the major statement, of the work that has a polemical power. I sympathize with their distaste for grandstanding. Still, as anybody knows who has studied the wonderful images in the margins of medieval manuscripts, what really matters is what you do once you have established yourself at the margins. The weaver Sheila Hicks, who was born in 1934 and whose intimately scaled work was at Davis and Langdale in October, has a feeling for the romantic possibilities of geometry that some people see in Heilmann's work, with the difference that Hicks gives her images a metaphoric intricacy. Hicks, who has done her roughly nine-by-six-inch weavings on the same handloom since the 1960s, works with a wide varieties of fibers and a rainbow's worth of colors, so that the essentially rectilinear nature of the weaver's warp and woof becomes the staging ground for tumbled allusions and associations.

At Davis and Langdale, each weaving was accompanied by a bit of descriptive writing, a sort of prose poem that urged a gallerygoer to set off into the labyrinth of Hicks's mind. About Weaving From Memory, a warm, tawny composition with forms interlocking to suggest the geological or archeological past, Hicks had this to say: "Prisoner of recall. Locked thoughts couched in the landscape of an endless saga. Contained blocks of confident Autumn harmony. Not far from Versailles." These open-ended notes urge us to view the composition, which is made of cotton, linen, silk, and wool, as a fragment of some obscure yet richly articulated visual language. In Hicks's work, geological, vegetal, and urbanist metaphors jostle against one another, sometimes pressing on us simultaneously. Hicks is immersed in the history of weaving. At times she seems to be channeling the attitudes of weavers past, suggesting the matter-of-fact decorative power of American Indian blankets, or the medievalist nostalgia of the Arts and Crafts movement, or the modernist optimism of the Bauhaus. Art history becomes personal history, which is the only art history that ever really matters.

The colossal oddity of Hicks's little weavings (she calls them Minimes) is the key to their success. Her secret is the secret of any fiercely individualistic view of tradition, namely that the artist must not operate outside of tradition, but must instead wrap herself very tightly in a particular view of tradition. This takes a good deal of guts, and maybe even a degree of megalomania. Douglas Blau, whose collages assembled of film stills and postcards and halftone reproductions are the subject of an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia this fall, dares to create his own mythopoetic history of Europe. He loves to set archetypal figures--the young man, the scientist, the woman in love, the old hermit, the dying hero--against the Continent's ever-changing moral climate. Blau's work has a hipster-nerd appeal. But the sleek postmodern style is only a come-on, and behind that façade he has somehow preserved the soul of a humanist. Blau sees human nature as fundamentally consistent, as a single story that transcends the differing emotional and psychological and intellectual force fields of northern Europe and southern Europe, of Gothic Europe and Baroque Europe and modern Europe. His collages suggest Joseph Cornell's fascination with times past, except that Cornell was content to crystallize in some of his greatest boxes a certain image of French bohemian experience, a fin-de-siècle eternalized through memory and nostalgia, whereas Blau's project has some of the lunatic appeal of Aby Warburg's endlessly expanding map of visual archetypes.

At the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia--where Blau's work is being generously displayed for the first time in more than a decade--he trumps every other artist today who works with appropriated images. Blau's materials are wide-ranging, eclectic. He loves stills from period films, where actors in the 1940s or the 1980s play nineteenth-century characters, but it is not the kitsch of these images that interests him so much as the efforts of directors and actors and set designers to reach beyond our sense of the past to some truth about the past. When he offers, in one collage, several different versions of a classic painting--perhaps a black-and-white postcard, a color postcard, and a reproduction cut from an auction catalogue--he is not rejecting the aura of the original so much as describing the onslaught of images that simultaneously aggrandizes and muffles an artist's vision. Blau likes to overlap different reproductions of the same work of art until these replicas suggest a house of mirrors. Somehow the effect is not to diminish the sense of artistic originality, but to underscore it. The proliferation of copies, which Blau shuffles with the aplomb of a dealer at a table in a casino, becomes a testament to the power of the original.

In Philadelphia, Blau's love affair with the nineteenth century struck me as richer and more complex than Cornell's, though lacking some of Cornell's plangency and shivering sweetness. If Cornell was content to suggest an evening in a little Left Bank hotel, Blau takes as his subject the entire European panorama, the parks and libraries and boudoirs of the nineteenth century, where material culture became a barometer of internal moods. The titles of some of the collages in Philadelphia give a sense of their wild ambitions: The Course of Empire: Twilight (The Ambassadors); The Academy by Gaslight (Sculpture Hall Scene); Public Gardens (The General's Daughter). Blau, who began his career as a curator, is a gatherer and sifter of images. He stands Cubist collage on its head: the Cubists used collage to shatter reality, but for Blau collage is a way of joining together the pieces of the past, of resurrecting the past. His work is cool and dispassionate, but also crazy with feeling.

Blau's collages, which can at first feel finicky, are in fact full of bold strokes and grand gestures. I am excited by any artist who insists that a private vision is also a large vision, suggesting that marginality can have its own kind of monumentality. This is surely also the case with the paintings of Mari Lyons, who, in a series of exhibitions at the First Street Gallery over the past few years, has staked her claim as the complete painter, the master of every genre: still life, interior, portrait, figure, landscape, and cityscape. In September, she exhibited views of upstate New York. I think Lyons wanted us to come to these new paintings with memories of her intricately comedic studies of the parade of people and cars and buses on New York's Upper West Side and of her strikingly eccentric studio interiors, where a carousel horse and a spinning wheel and an African bird and a vase of flowers overlap like rival voices in a late-night conversation. With these new landscapes, Lyons urges us to embrace another side of her personality: a certain quietism, a desire to sit still and contemplate the solidity of a solitary tree or the pinkish light on a hill dense with foliage. Painting the landscape, Lyons holds fast to the urgency that registers in the intensity of her brushwork, in the ripe, confident attack, the unabashed color. Some small landscapes, with areas of color laid in with thick strokes, have a buttery seduction. This show was, more than anything else, about color becoming light.

The idea of the complete painter, the painter who is master of all genres, is an old one, and in modern times it registers as a particular assertion of personal possibility. A few weeks after Lyons's show closed, I saw the overview of works by Louisa Matthiasdottir at Tibor de Nagy. Matthiasdottir, who died in 2000, was born in Iceland and lived most of her life in New York, where she brought a classical modern feeling for the solidity of abstract form to her ringingly succinct evocations of naturalistic space. Like Lyons, Matthiasdottir had no interest in specializing in one type of subject. She moved from still life to the figure to the landscape and back, developing as she went a sense of personal amplitude. It is risky for an artist to attempt to recapitulate so many of the traditional Western pictorial genres, and I do not think it is incidental that both these artists are women, although I would not press the matter of gender too far. Their eagerness to paint it all--city and country, still life and landscape, themselves and their friends--redresses an imbalance. Matthiasdottir and Lyons want to engage with the pictorial structures through which such subjects have been shaped by mostly male artists in the past, so that feminism is rapidly subsumed in formalism, and the large public problem in the particular personal one.

 

III.

This autumn, amid the grip of financial panic and the exhilaration of the presidential election, there has been no lack of concentrated, significant shows of modern masters in New York. The Morandi retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and "Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting 1927-1937" at the Museum of Modern Art have provided triumphant demonstrations of the power of private feeling to sustain itself in the face of public life. Morandi and Miró were born three years apart, in 1890 and 1893, and they both became artists of originality in the years after World War I, when Cubism and abstract art were already established facts. Although each of these men invented images that look like nothing ever painted before, their allegiance was always to the imperatives of their own imaginations, rather than to some overarching idea about the development of art. For both Morandi and Miró, avant-gardism signified not so much a rejection of a public consensus as an insistence that the artist must challenge himself. And so their evolution was non-linear, a play of internal forces--which in Morandi's case meant that flatness and volume, naturalism and anti-naturalism, became possibilities forever alive, forever in competition. As for Miró, the show at the Modern reveals an artist who also saw his art in terms of competing forces--complication and simplification, traditional materials and untraditional--which were marshaled not as grand historical imperatives but as inclinations to be explored by a singular personality.

Anne Umland, the curator of the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, has shown a fine sensitivity to the paradoxes of Miró's career. One of the most vexatious questions raised by the modern movement is what artists such as Picasso, Miró, and Mondrian meant when they spoke of violent artistic change, as they did from time to time in interviews, statements, and letters. Such pronouncements, often taken out of context, have been marshaled by art historians to prove that painting was a dying form by 1925, and that the triumph of environmental art, site-specific art, process art, and conceptual art was in fact an inevitability. What Umland suggests about Miró's interest in anti-painting or the assassination of painting is that for him it was an inclination among other inclinations, one aspect of a more complex and multi-directional psychology.

In this superb show we are confronted, in the first gallery, with the startlingly stripped-down paintings done in 1927, where Miró proves, more convincingly than any artist ever would again, how little it takes to make a powerful painting. Here we see only bare canvas, a few lines, a few patches of color, perhaps an elegantly scrawled word or two. The fascinating thing is that almost immediately afterward, in 1928, Miró was painting his variations on Dutch genre scenes of the seventeenth century, deliciously colored and complexly patterned compositions that are among the most visually intricate achievements of his career. For Miró, anti-painting was a demand not of history but of his own psyche. Modernity was, as much as anything else, an invitation to inwardness, an invitation to exit history and drop through the trapdoor of the imagination into an ever-deepening investigation of the self. In the later decades of his long life, Miró would become a sort of international ambassador of the modern movement, beloved everywhere; but at his most audaciously personal, in the Dutch interiors of 1928 or the "Constellations" that he did in 1941, he was, as much as Morandi, one of the solitary dreamers of twentieth-century art.

Morandi and Miró were radicals in the sense that they were extreme individualists, and as much as Morandi's bottles and Miró's personages might be assimilated as emblems of an age, they remain private avowals. The Morandi retrospective at the Metropolitan, keenly awaited by his many admirers in New York, where there has not been a museum show of his work in decades, cannot be said to be entirely a success: the paintings are exhibited under artificial light in the awkward corridor-like spaces of the Lehman Wing. The installation at the Metropolitan distorts Morandi's colors and hardens his delicate brushwork. The retrospective has inspired some half-dozen smaller shows in New York, and a number of these, such as the group of etchings at Pace Prints and an anthology at Lucas Schoormans, have a four-square elegance lacking at the Metropolitan. But having taken those failings into account, we are left with the enormousness of this man's achievement.

No artist before Morandi ever gave such earth-shattering importance to such slight shifts in color, shape, and interval. No artist discovered more subtly different grays (rose, green, blue, yellow) or more ways to vary the attack and the density and the weight of a brushstroke. To say that Morandi was attentive to the still-life objects that he studied year after year does not even begin to describe the quality of his work. With Morandi, it is not the attention to the objects that counts so much as the attention that he gives to his own attention--a selfawareness so overpowering that it sometimes trumps the facts before his eyes, leading him into an abstraction of reality that has less to do with seeing than with the idea or the experience of sight.

Both the Morandi and the Miró exhibitions have set me to thinking about another modern artist who refused to fit into any historical pattern--of Balthus, whose centenary we are (or should be) celebrating. In 1938, Balthus completed a portrait of Miró and his daughter Dolores that used to be almost always on display at the Museum of Modern Art. And visitors to the Morandi show at the Metropolitan can see, nearby in the Lehman Collection, the magnificent Balthus nude from 1955, a study of a young woman in profile, standing before a mantelpiece on which is displayed a blue pitcher that I am convinced is Balthus's homage to the Italian master. Balthus is also included in the salute to Philippe de Montebello that is currently a major attraction at the Metropolitan. One gallery is dominated by The Mountain (1937), Balthus's most elaborate figure composition. And this serves to remind us that it was in 1984 that the Metropolitan gave New York its first Balthus retrospective in a generation, which was almost universally panned by the critics.

Balthus, who died in 2001, is not discussed much just now--he is punished, or so I believe, for his indomitable individualism. Why do the same critics and gallerygoers who celebrate every sexual gambit or innuendo in a painting by Eric Fischl or John Currin or Lisa Yuskavage turn into a bunch of evangelical moralists when they talk about Balthus? The difference, I think, is that sexuality in Fischl, Currin, and Yuskavage is always presented as a sort of ironic comment on current fashions, whereas Balthus makes it perfectly clear that his thoughts are his alone, that he will experience sexuality in his own way. He represents his eccentricities not as public ironies but as private certainties. And the gambles that he takes--in his subject matter, his stylistic shifts, the bewildering range of allusions--still leave the public feeling uneasy to a degree that Morandi, or for that matter Miró, never will.

I am not especially troubled that Balthus is only dimly understood by even the most educated museumgoers. I have never expected art to grip the public imagination in the way that a precipitous drop in the stock market or the emergence of a new national leader is likely to do. The arts have a unique and very distinct part to play in the life of a society, a role as necessary as it is elusive. One of the great failings of our cultural life is that so few people in positions of power grasp any longer the critical effect that poetry and painting and music, even when they are appreciated by only a relatively small segment of the population, can ultimately have on the population as a whole. Too many people have forgotten that the private life of art must always be a matter of public concern.

So let us remember that 2008 marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of a great artist who from time to time represented himself in his own paintings with his back to the viewer. Looking at those curious self-portraits in Le Passage du Commerce Saint-André and The Painter and His Model, it is not difficult to imagine that the artist is expressing his reluctance to engage with the public. I think that Balthus is reticent precisely because he loves the public, because he respects the privacy of the spectator's feelings and wants the spectator to respect his. This is a paradox that does not much interest the art world. But then it has always fallen to the artists, and not to the art world, to sustain the real life of art.

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.

This article originally ran in the December 24, 2008, issue of the magazine.

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