Walking through “Paris: Life & Luxury in the Eighteenth Century,” at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, I was always conscious of the iron fist beneath the velvet glove. Although this panoramic view of the decorative arts in eighteenth-century France has its share of sleek and seductive surfaces, by the time I left the galleries I felt as if I had been mugged by the eight-hundred-pound gorilla of design shows. The level of craftsmanship is so daunting that it frequently registers as a form of aggression.
Among the many mysteries of Picasso’s distorted anatomies is how often they strike us as anything but distorted. When Picasso takes one of his great flights of physiognomical fantasy, the face can become an enchanted erotic arabesque, as inevitable as it is unpredictable. I am thinking particularly of a 1937 portrait of Picasso’s lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, crowned with a wreath of flowers, one of the treasures in “Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: L’Amour Fou,” the exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery on West 21st Street until June 25. The show has much of New York transfixed. And why not?
Is there something especially American about the Whitney Museum of American Art’s inability to find a home it can call its own? The Whitney has now announced plans to leave its building on Madison and 75th Street for the Meatpacking District, sixty blocks south. The architect is Renzo Piano, the European with a preternatural gift for making American museum trustees believe they are safe in his hands.
The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is a very brave man. Long before April 3, when he was taken into police custody by the Chinese authorities in Beijing as he attempted to board a flight for Hong Kong, he knew that his vigorous support for human rights in China put him on a collision course with the government. He was badly beaten by the police in 2009, his blog was shut down that same year, and in 2010 his new studio in Shanghai was bulldozed by authorities.
Some men and women are so gloriously alive that even years after their deaths it is difficult to believe they are no longer with us. That is how I feel about the painter Leland Bell, who died of leukemia in 1991 at the age of 69. Lee’s great theme was vitality, gusto. To make a painting was his way of celebrating the life force.
Has an exhibition ever been more purely enchanting than “Rooms With a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? From your first moment in the galleries, you are plunged into an early-nineteenth-century European world that is both intimate and expansive. The intimacy is in the tranquil beauty of the interiors, so lovingly rendered in these generally small paintings and graphic works. And that intimacy is underscored in the many instances where the interior is the artist’s own studio, with furnishings suggesting an austerely classical taste.
Cézanne’s Card Players Metropolitan Museum of Art Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914 Museum of Modern Art Play, beloved by Dadaists and self-described artistic renegades of all stripes, is as old as humankind, perhaps even older than work, to which it is inevitably opposed. For every liberal or radical or romantic who has embraced the spirit of play as a key to freedom, there is a conservative or a classicist who has emphasized the essential place of play in the stabilization of society and the disciplining of desires. For some, play equals anarchy. For others, play equals order.
I do not need to explain why I’ve been thinking about Pandora’s box. The Greek legend of a beautiful woman the gods send to earth with a box containing unimaginable evils has long been associated with the dangers of nuclear energy, an association difficult to overlook in light of the catastrophe in Japan. But what precisely did Pandora do? It was in hopes of answering this question that I took off the shelf a famous art historical study, Pandora’s Box: The Changing Aspects of a Mythical Symbol, by Dora and Erwin Panofsky.
Nobody believed more fervently in art than the painter Gabriel Laderman, who died last week after a long battle with leukemia. Gabriel’s belief in painting was exacting, idiosyncratic, uncompromising, ferocious. I was thunderstruck when I first studied with him, at the Skowhegan School in Maine in 1971. He was in his early forties then, a large man in blue jeans, aggressively casual, with a huge balding head and a Cheshire Cat grin.
Are the people who run our museums aware that their solicitude for museumgoers sounds a lot like condescension? A few weeks ago, Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums, explained that the Metropolitan Museum of Art “can be intimidating” for people who don’t “already know something about art and have a familiarity with the place.” Thomas Campbell, the Met’s very own director, is singing the same song.