Sunday, August 09, 2009

Robert Hughes, 1996-2000

Monday, Jan. 08, 1996

TWO OF THE CASUALTIES OF THE Republican Congress's petulant drive to shut down parts of the government have been--well, you'd hardly guess. Not only nine Cabinet departments and 38 federal agencies, commissions and boards, but the artists Winslow Homer and Johannes Vermeer.

Winslow Homer was, along with Thomas Eakins, the greatest American painter of the late 19th century. Vermeer of Delft was the greatest Dutch one of the late 17th century. Both are the subjects of extraordinary retrospective shows at the National Gallery in Washington. But because the Republicans' zeal to pressure Bill Clinton into signing their balanced-budget bill has closed the National Gallery (along with the whole Smithsonian complex, and much else), nobody can see Homer in Washington, though the show will travel to Boston in February and New York City in June.

Vermeer is more difficult. From the moment it opened two months ago, it was besieged by art lovers--as many as 4,000 a day, lining up to see 21 paintings, two-thirds of the master's surviving output. Because Vermeer's work is so rare, no such gathering of it has been made since his lifetime, or will happen again in ours. But, on Dec. 16, the show had to close. Last week the National Gallery's director, Earl ("Rusty") Powell III, managed to scrape together the necessary $12,000 or so a day from private museum funds to reopen the Vermeer galleries--though none of the rest of the museum--for just a week, until this Wednesday. Now you see it, now you don't, then you do. But next week, who knows?

Whatever happens, the show has to close for good on Feb. 11 in order to go on view at the Mauritshuis in the Hague in March. Nothing in the budget blackmail epitomizes the Republicans' folly as well as Vermeer. He's the canary in our ideological coal mine. This, one realizes, is part of what Congress's cultural ignorami mean by renewing American civilization. It is done by humiliating cultural institutions and depriving Americans of what the institutions contain. Meanwhile, at the National Gallery, lines have been forming at 6 a.m. in below-freezing weather and stretching round the block. And what are the unticketed missing? Quite simply, one of the most perfect shows that has ever been installed in an American museum.

Forget about social history. Though any post-Marxist pedant can wring out the usual insights about patriarchy and property in 17th century Dutch bourgeois life, none of them touch on the peculiar magic of Vermeer's images. Like Piero della Francesca, Vermeer was a highly inexpressive artist. He didn't even paint a self-portrait, as far as anyone knows. You come out of the exhibit knowing almost as little about Vermeer the man as when you went in. Biography, faint: Lived in Delft, a backwater. Son of a silkworker. A Papist in a Calvinist town. Quite successful nonetheless. Married Catharina Bolnes, about whom equally little is recorded. One of the few sure facts is that he had 11 children, all of whom faced destitution after he died in 1675, at the depth of a financial depression that all but destroyed the Dutch art market. But his pictures don't show a trace of what must, at times, have been a domestic hell of squalling and brown diapers.

His interiors raise the obsessive cleanliness of Dutch domestic culture to the level of abstraction--no wonder his great Dutch successor, Mondrian, loved him, for that and other reasons. Vermeer's jonkers and juffers (dandies and damsels) are so neat, dressy and full of decorum that you can hardly compare them to the rowdier figures elsewhere in 17th century Dutch art, coming on with wineglasses and making gestures of sexual insinuation. Vermeer's are seldom marked by experience, and except for maids and servants, they all belong to the same stratum--a class, needless to say, rather above his. Does this make them insipid? Sometimes, yes, but it can also turn them into vessels of lyric innocence, as in the Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665-66, with her liquidly painted turban of virginal blue, who turns her shining gaze to meet yours as though she'd never seen another human being.

Vermeer wasn't a great draftsman, and he could be an oddly clumsy one in some details of the human body--though he excelled in virtuoso rendering of inanimate objects, catching the moony sheen of pearls or the precise tautness of a viol's catgut strings. As an analyst of human character, he was quite vapid compared with Rembrandt or Frans Hals.

He was, above all, an unsurpassed painter of light. He used the finest-ground colors, and he knew everything about glazing and underpainting. Those ultramarine blues, whites and lead-tin yellows make each image an epitome of a luminous world, a place not merely revealed by light but constructed by it. Even his darks shine. The late 17th century in Holland was an age of the eye: optics was a ruling scientific interest, and the telescope and microscope were opening tracts of nature that up till then had been below or beyond normal sight. As an aid to painting his View of Delft, Vermeer probably used the camera obscura--a box with a lens that captures the image of a scene on ground glass. It may be that the circles of confusion--the luminous spots caused by imperfections of the lens--gave him the idea for his poignant highlights, the liquid white dots that sparkle off eyeball, lip or chair and give them such a dewy appearance, as though rendered with an airbrush.

Light comes out as sacred, even in a homely scene--or especially there. Vermeer's religious paintings and allegories aren't very moving or convincing; God is in the shimmering, glinting details of the house. In Young Woman with a Pitcher, circa 1658-60, the subject holds a gilt water pitcher while opening a casement window whose leaded pane looks just like a 1912 Mondrian apple tree turned on its side. Blue is everywhere: deep ultramarine in her skirt and sleeves, lighter blue in the cloth on the table, whose tone rhymes with the rolling bar of the map on the wall--a recession of precisely judged color echoes. It is also reflected in the pitcher, whose basin gathers beneath its rim an exquisitely ordered mosaic of reflections from the tabletop. And then there is the white cotton that drapes her head and shoulders, whose every starched plane and level of translucency is observed, light filtering through a small, soft structure that's as satisfying as one of Cezanne's hillsides.

Sight has taken over from narrative. Nothing really happens. Time has stopped. Yet for all his classicism, his tense repose and care with proportion and interval, Vermeer can be a theatrical painter. It's just that the theatricality is cooled down by being shifted from people to props, leaving the peace of the figures undisturbed. It's like the moment when a curtain rises to show an actor in reverie ignoring the audience.

A vivid example is The Music Lesson, circa 1662-64. The foreground is occupied by the elephantine bulk of a table draped in a Turkish carpet. Its thick folds of wool and the blue tracery on its shadowed flank, which looks dull in reproduction but fairly blazes in the original, delay your eye as it tries to get into the picture. More obstacles are built into the space between the carpet and the figures at the end of the room. There is a white pitcher on the table, a sky-blue chair with gleaming brass tack heads, and finally the voluptuous mass of a bass viol lying on the floor.

In negotiating these things, your eye becomes tuned to the distance of the figures and to the air around them: the woman at the keyboard whose back is turned but whose absorbed face can be glimpsed in the canted wall mirror, and her teacher (or perhaps, given Vermeer's interest in music as a metaphor of harmonious love, her suitor) in black. You can gauge the depth of the room from the perspective clarity of its floor tiles. It is real, but at the end it becomes a paradise of abstraction, in the sober play of dark-framed rectangles of picture, mirror and the long lid of the virginal's cabinet.

Vermeer's visual music is utterly mysterious. He wasn't only abstract on the large scale of composition, negative shape and depth. When you look at the details, you see a system of coherent microforms in every representation of small pattern and texture, whether he's doing the faux-marble finish of a virginal case or resolving the optical glitter of a gold frame into tiny lozenges of paint. You're meant to enjoy both the illusion and the means by which it's brought about. Supremely conscious of his language, he puts all the machinery in the open--like Velazquez, but on a tiny scale.

And then, suddenly, he pulls you inside, through the looking glass, and you are left in awe at the intensity of this seemingly quiet vision, its power to enclose you in its fictions. Unless, presumably, you are up there on Capitol Hill, talking about how you can abolish the deficit by funding B-2 bombers and closing down Vermeer.

Monday, Jan. 22, 1996

THE ENGLISH PAINTER HOWARD Hodgkin, whose work is on show at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 28 (and will open at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, on March 31) is not for those art-world puritans who would rather have their art difficult than enjoyable. If anyone painting today believes in the pleasure principle, it is Hodgkin, and if you think that optical sensuous delight for its own sake has somehow become unkosher since Matisse, and that ideas are mainly what count in art, don't go.

Hodgkin's paintings are not about ideas. They are feelings declared in color--feelings triggered by places (Venice, Naples, Morocco, India, or rooms in London) or by memories of encounters (sociable or sexual), all embedded in pigment of quite shameless lushness. They are intelligent not in the way argument can be but in the way painting is--though, in most cutting-edge art, actually isn't.

Hodgkin, whose good-luck god is the French intimiste Edouard Vuillard (he of the dots, of the closely tuned interior scenes that vibrate with a sense of life amply lived and yet separate from public events), is a connoisseur and collector as well as an artist. The two don't necessarily go together. Good taste never made a new picture yet. There is, and ought to be, something immoderate and crazy about painting that goes beyond acts of taste and comparison. Hodgkin's failures may be the outcome of too much taste, not too little, but he is a glutton through and through, and his expertise about such areas of art as Indian miniature painting doesn't mean that his own paintings end up imitating the objects of his affection.

His paintings carry stories, but only in their titles. The blue lintel and green tongue of paint in Gossip, 1994-95, are not going to tell you what the gossip was about. Dinner in Palazzo Albrizzi, 1984-88, commemorates a meal prepared at an art dealer's lodgings during the Venice Biennale 12 years ago, but Hodgkin's cadmium red extravaganza, with its broad serpentine shapes buttressed by planks of green, does not offer the slightest clue about the food, the company or the room.

The paintings tend to be objects: thick wooden boards, never canvas, and heavily framed. The paint is constantly reworked--not fiddled with, but glazed and obliterated over the years by successive coats. Each is a palimpsest, one improvisation partly burying another but leaving hints of it behind. Pigment covers the frame as well as the board, wanting to overrun the confines of surface. Even when Hodgkin's paintings are on the wall, you think of picking them up, the small ones especially, and hefting them in your hand. Dense, resistant lumps of color, real things in the real world--a status reflected by one of Hodgkin's wittier titles, A Small Thing but My Own, 1983-85. Distantly, they are related to medieval gold-ground paintings; more recently, to Cubist collage objects--except that there is no collage, only paint.

Having set up these constrictions of size and solidity, Hodgkin then pushes against them as hard as he can, and the tension that results can be magic: small panels with huge brushstrokes, subtle and fleeting effects of glaze and scumble contrasting with the rigidity of their support, and frames (with frames of paint inside, as well) that squeeze speckled, color-saturated vistas into distant postcards. The window effect isn't just a mannerism. It speaks of a certain anxiety, the desire to guard memory in the act of revealing it: "The more evanescent the emotion I want to convey," Hodgkin once remarked, "the thicker the panel, the heavier the framing, the more elaborate the border, so that this delicate thing will remain protected and intact."

Since the late 1960s, Hodgkin's images have had a pronounced architectural character, influenced by Fernand Leger's "tubism" as well as by Vuillard. Grantchester Road, 1975, is an interior with a fireplace, and the indoor plants are of the same pictorial species as the green spreading palms in Hodgkin's Indian paintings. The separation of room and gaze gives Hodgkin's work its basic trope, that of peeping and peering--from culture (the room) into nature (everything else) and back again. It's not about seeing here and now but about the memory of having seen; not complete and ordered possession of a sight but the turbulence of memory, inflected with a sense of loss at its elusiveness.

Hodgkin's complete originality is in his color, which, as art historian Michael Auping says in the catalog, "has a strange quality of simultaneously seeming totally invented, yet completely natural." Its reds and lemon yellows, its blackened viridians and fiercely luminous blues, its swoony Whistlerian grays are like no other color in modern painting. They give his work a perverse to-and-fro between the intimate and the operatic--Aida done in a marionette theater. Such color isn't just showy. It can be extremely tender, intelligently seductive, in the way that art has every right to be. It also insists on distinction--the need to feel one thing at a time, and to remember not what it looked like but what it felt like. Hodgkin's shapes may be nebulous, but his feelings, or so the paintings persuade you, seldom are.

Monday, Feb. 19, 1996

UNTIL ABOUT 1880, THE ACCEPTed epic subject of American painting was the Western frontier. By 1900 this had slid into nostalgia; it was no longer in synch with social reality. Most Americans lived in cities, and the myth of the West was just that: a myth, however durable. The real frontier was urban--a place of hitherto unimagined overcrowding, of cultural collision enforced by huge-scale immigration, of rapid change, where class ground against class like the imperfect rollers of a giant machine. Its epitome was New York City--Bagdad-on-the-Subway, as the writer O. Henry called it--a city in convulsive and continuous transition, bursting at the seams with high spirits, misery and spectacle.

The painters who reported on it were nicknamed the Ashcan School by a critic in the 1930s, and the label has stuck. They were Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, Everett Shinn, William Glackens and George Bellows, and among them they created the first art of urban America. The current show at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, "Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York," is a fine introduction to their work.

The group had formed around Henri in Philadelphia. Henri's original family name was Cozad--he was a very distant relation of Mary Cassatt--but his father, a riverboat gambler and property shark, had shot a man in Nebraska and had moved East and changed his name to escape the judge and jury. Young Henri (pronounced Hen-rye) became an artist through study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, which in the 1880s was still what its chief teacher, the great realist Thomas Eakins, had made it: the best place in America to learn direct, factual realist painting, based on incessant drawing of the naked body.

Henri made a pilgrimage to Paris in 1888 and absorbed a fairly academic style of Impressionism during three years of study there. But it was his second trip to Paris in the mid-1890s that confirmed his direction as an artist. Dissatisfied with Impressionism as an art of insubstantial surfaces, he immersed himself in dark tonal painting, based on Manet and Frans Hals. He wanted the image to be not a shimmer of light but a lump in the mind, given urgency by slashing brushstrokes and depth by strong contrast. He liked Hals' vulgarity and reflected it in his portraits, one of the most spectacular of which is in this show--Salome, 1909, a portrait of a dancer known as Mademoiselle Voclezca. Her long leg, thrust out with strutting sexual arrogance and glinting through the overbrushed black veil, had more oomph than a thousand of the virginal Muses and personifications of Columbia painted by academics like Kenyon Cox.

In Philadelphia, Henri's worldly, rebellious, effusive nature made him a magnet to younger artists, most of whom worked as illustrators for the Philadelphia press--Sloan, Glackens, Shinn and Luks. They drank together, had long poker sessions, bellowed poetry at one another and argued late into the night. Sloan recalled 50 years later that Henri was "a catalyst, an enthusiast ... with the pioneer's contempt for cant and aestheticism." Moreover, he was genuinely interested in the young, and was to inspire several generations of students--not only his younger contemporaries like Sloan and Bellows, but Edward Hopper and Stuart Davis, the Dadaist Man Ray and, strange to say, Leon Trotsky, who briefly studied art at the Ferrer School in New York when Henri was teaching there.

By 1904, Henri and the rest had moved to New York, where an unparalleled field of subjects for painter-journalists awaited them. The artist, they all believed, must connect to the harsh facts of his society, especially in the city; then his art would draw life and staying power from its common subject matter. "His vest is slightly spotted; he is real," said Sloan approvingly of a visiting Irish painter, J.B. Yeats, father of the poet. Luks boasted that he could paint with a shoestring dipped in lard and tar. The artist, smearing oily gunk on a cloth with bristles, is immersed in mess--a manual worker of images. This makes him one with the city and its people. For poetic spirit, he should emulate Walt Whitman, learning to embrace the body of the city and contain multitudes, dirt and all. The masculine realism of Winslow Homer inspired all the Ashcan artists--they, especially Henri and Bellows, wanted to be Homers of the city.

The most talented painters among them were Henri, Bellows and Sloan. Glackens turned into a late-blooming Impressionist, and Shinn was essentially an illustrator, while Luks' coarse, rhetorical talent produced a lot of formulaically macho painting leavened only by a few significant works, such as The Wrestlers, 1905.

Bellows died in 1925, at only 43, and all his best paintings were finished by 1913, the year of the Armory Show. They were the works of a fast-eyed, brilliantly responsive artist whose style looked modern, and in some respects was modern, without offending American conservatives. Bellows' reputation as a radical had more to do with his lowlife subjects and journalistic speed than with any avant-gardeness in the work. His political ideas, like those of Sloan and Henri, were in some general way socialist-anarchist without being particularly militant. He leaned toward a pastoral, unthreatening vision of the disorganized poor, spiced with humor, as in his portraits of tough Irish street urchins or the famous Forty-Two Kids, 1909--not, alas, in this show--depicting a swarm of knobby pale boys horsing around and diving into the Hudson from a broken-down pier.

He had a terrific nose for a story. One of the biggest in New York circa 1909 was illicit prizefighting, and Bellows made intensely vivid and memorable images of it. Ashcan painting, in its description of the Darwinian world of fists evoked by American realist writers like Frank Norris and Jack London, lagged behind literature by 10 years or more, but its attachment to images of clash and struggle aligned it squarely with the American cultural ideology of the day--Theodore Roosevelt's praise of the strenuous life.

The most lyrical--but also the most politically acerbic--of the Ashcan artists was Sloan. A fervent admirer of the social vision of French lithographers, especially Gavarni and Daumier, he kept his satire for the illustrations he did for The Masses and other left-wing magazines. His painted world was more amiable, with its fleshy, rosy girls in dance halls or promenading in Washington Square Park--a Brooklyn Fragonard whispering to a Hester Street Renoir. Sloan saw his people as part of a larger totality, the carnal and cozy body of the city itself, where even the searchlight on top of Madison Square Garden, he wrote, "was scratching the belly of the sky and tickling the building." He liked the roaring dynamism of the El, and in Election Night, 1907, he combined it with a flushed, disorderly crowd in a sort of modern kermis.

Sloan was, as Willem de Kooning would say of himself many years later, a slipping glimpser, with a strong sense of the fleeting moment in which people are caught unawares--arguments on the fire escape, a woman pegging out the wash, lovers furtively embracing on the tenement roof. And though his vision was less flamboyant than Henri's or Bellows', he clearly had a deep effect on younger painters like Reginald Marsh and Hopper. His moments of voyeuristic detachment were amplified in Hopper's glimpses of disconnected urban souls seen through windows. One wants to see more of Sloan; when will some American museum give him the retrospective he deserves?

Monday, Mar. 04, 1996

THE TROUBLE WITH THE SOLOmon R. Guggenheim Museum's much awaited show at its main venue in Manhattan, "Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline," is that its subject is far too big. The task that curator Mark Rosenthal has taken on is roughly comparable to doing an anthology of, say, European and American fiction since 1910 in 300 printed pages. However much you might wish it could be done, it can't. The field is too vast. You end up with a sample here, a masterpiece there, an overschematic story and an infinity of regrets about the omission of things that might or should or could have gone in. How do you tell a story like that of abstraction with microbursts--sometimes five works, sometimes only one--from 49 artists? You get a highly conventionalized narrative of golden oldies that seems both too extensive and not extensive enough.

Abstract art, though it isn't the only or the greatest contribution the 20th century has made to art history, is certainly its distinctive movement. Nobody before 1900 had thought of painting a picture that didn't represent something--a face, a body, a landscape, a still life. The idea that art could be unmoored from appearances, that marks on canvas could convey emotions, spiritual states and pleasures quite independently of any reference to the world as we know it, had a long ancestry in theory. Plato, after all, raised the idea that there were certain perfect forms--the square, the circle and so on--that move us in a way free from the itch of desire.

But in practice, it wasn't tried in any systematic fashion until after 1910, when the three founding fathers of abstract painting--two Russians, Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, and a Dutchman, Piet Mondrian--came, more or less simultaneously, to believe that pure form, in opposing what they saw as the deadly materialism of European culture, could open the way to a world of pure spirit. Abstraction would become a language, the key to utopian states of mental and social harmony that had been only dimly implied in art before. Abstract art would be the music of the spheres for the 20th century, manifesting, wrote Malevich, "the spiritual, therefore the divine, the universal."

This faith in a new world order induced by art collapsed soon enough; today it looks like a fossil from the early Messianic era of modernism. In fact, none of the more exalted claims made for abstract art over the past century have worn well. In the first flush of optimism after the 1917 Revolution, artists like Vladimir Tatlin hoped that abstraction, if made of the common materials used by workers, could lift dialectical materialism to a new plane and so become the basis of a popular art. These dreams ended in indifference and, for some, the Gulag.

Abstract painting lapsed into mannerism in Europe by the late 1930s, and was revived in America by artists who discarded its utopian fantasies and replaced them with ideas related to epic space, primitive ritual, spontaneous gesture and the sublime. But who today still buys the rhetoric that surrounded Abstract Expressionism--all that oracular guff about existential confrontation, tragedy, timelessness and how we're locking horns with Michelangelo?

At every point in its long life, abstraction laid claim to a myth of progress. It was the necessary next stage in art, which went forward--one learned from critic Clement Greenberg and his disciples in the 1960s--by throwing out everything not intrinsic to its nature (whatever that nature was). Art was heroic reductionism, a long-term contest with History. On that basis, it became a worldwide academy-without-walls. But since practically no one believes anymore that there is such a thing as progress in art, this view has taken a terrible beating. The idea that pure abstraction admits you, as artist or as viewer, to superior domains of experience founders on competitive ideas of purity. First you throw out the bath water, then the baby and then the bath.

Each of these impulses has something radical about it at its moment, but does the sense of radicalism continue to seem invigorating after it's been enshrined for 20, 30, 50 years? Not everything that art can say or do is contained in a black canvas by Ad Reinhardt or a white one by Robert Ryman. The world keeps staking its claims, even on abstraction, and so much of the most interesting art of the 20th century exists liminally, at the border between what's abstract and what isn't. Was Miro an abstract artist? Is it illegitimate, when you're looking at Pollock's Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), to find traces of wind, weather and shifting light in the exquisite skeining of its paint and its tremulous, deep-yet-shallow space? What about all the tits and ass in De Kooning?

The instability of abstraction becomes even clearer when you think of the enormous emotional range it has encompassed--from the pale reticence of Agnes Martin's pencil grids, for instance, to the sculpture of Richard Serra, which is so aggressively and patently part of the world of work and substance, so direct in its claims of bodily immediacy, that it seems about as abstract as a rock face.

Everyone will have gripes about the choices in this show. It buries color-field painting, representing it with one Helen Frankenthaler but no Morris Louis, no Kenneth Noland. Its only reference to abstraction in England is one small Wyndham Lewis. It gives too much prominence to Barnett Newman, the most overrated of the Abstract Expressionists--though the inclusion of Olga Rozanova's vertical green stripe on a white ground, painted some 30 years before Newman came up with his vertical zip, is a neatly deflating touch. And beyond the details of choice, the show seems somewhat embalmed by its exclusion of younger abstractionists: the youngest artist in it, that excellent sculptor Martin Puryear, is 54.

Still and all, one should not lose sight of the show's main virtue. Rosenthal has a connoisseur's eye, and he has put together many first-rate paintings--some familiar from a thousand reproductions, but terrific to see in, as it were, the flesh. Some remind you that among the most beautiful images in the world are those provoked by implausible or even fatuous ideas, like Kandinsky's spiritualism. A great Kandinsky such as Painting with Black Arch, 1912, with its play of dense red and blue forms within a matrix of vaporous, yet strongly brushed silvery light, may seem to hover on the edge of being a landscape, but what keeps your gaze circulating in the picture space is the confident self-sufficiency it implies. This really does seem like a parallel world, as does Mondrian's (though in a quite different way)--not an abstraction in the sense of impoverishment, a taking away from reality, but something full. Such a sense of fullness--the plenitude of achieved experience--is what the best art gives us, abstract, figurative or in between, and Rosenthal has assembled enough high moments from the history of abstraction to make the point clear.

One of abstraction's triumphs, he argues in the catalog, is to have become a tradition--a vehicle through which innovation is continuously possible, as the still life and landscape genres have been. Maybe so, but there isn't much sign of renewal in today's abstract painting, most of which seems inescapably the product of a late-period, Alexandrian sensibility. Can abstract art, elitist and demanding by nature, survive as anything but a historical event for an audience force-fed from birth on mass-media images? Come back after the millennium, and ask again.

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Monday, Mar. 25, 1996

FIRST COMES THE DOCTOR; THEN THE PRIEST; THEN THE undertaker; and finally, Sotheby's. When you come down to it, auctioneering is a lugubrious trade. It thrives on death, divorce and debt, and the pink, deferential Brit in the now empty Park Avenue living room is to upper-class America what buzzards once were to luckless prospectors in Arizona. When the famous die, the salesmen perk up--but the trouble is that the really good art and antiques do not necessarily belong to the really famous. Ergo, find a way of using their fame to endorse their possessions, and turn the sale into a relic hunt.

In recent years, the auction business (led, in this regard, by Sotheby's) has shown wonderful ingenuity at such stratagems. There was, for instance, the sale in Switzerland in 1987 of the Duchess of Windsor's jewelry at which the rich of several nations paid five, 10, 20 times their value for baubles once owned by that calcified drone of a woman, merely because another drone had resigned the crown of England to marry her 50 years before. Then there was the Andy Warhol auction, also in 1987, at which bidders sent the price of the defunct celeb's $25 black-mammy and teddy-bear cookie jars to $20,000 and beyond. And now--admittedly in a more chastened economic climate--we have the sale of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' household effects, coming up April 23 through 26.

Thus Sotheby's has secured something that no manufacturer of luxury goods or services in the world was ever able to get: the endorsement of Jackie O, America's chief secular saint (there are no male contenders), on a line of products for sale. A posthumous endorsement, to be sure; but relic hunting, by definition, has to be posthumous. If the Virgin Mary had died surrounded by Chinese soup tureens and minor Hellenistic antiquities, instead of the wooden bench (workshop of St. Joseph, estimate 20 to 30 copper pieces) and the simple tin cup that presumably furnished her abode in Jerusalem, the rush for pious souvenirs would not have been greater.

Some of the faithful will have to be content with the catalog, which was published last week. It is a thick paragon of low-intensity salesmanship: plain cream cover, small gray type, no objet d'art staring from it--which is only proper, since what Sotheby's is selling is spiritual contact. Some 100,000 copies are available, at $90 (hardback) and $45 (soft). This print run will probably take care of the cost of the color plates, which are many and which reproduce such treasures as Lot 924, "A Set of Six French Stoneware Butter Pots, Modern," estimate $75 to $100. The catalog lists 1,195 lots and has a carefully phrased introduction by Jackie's children, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and John F. Kennedy Jr., pointing out that "we have given objects and documents that help chronicle the Kennedy Administration and her role as First Lady to the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation."

In other words, the Camelot garage sale has nothing of historical significance in it. Even the famed rocking chair, factory-made in North Carolina not so long ago, turns out--like the leg bone of St. Mark or the Holy Prepuce--to exist in at least two versions, one at the start of the auction and one, to catch the laggards, at the end; and there is no way to know which one the presidential backside spent more time in. Quite right too. Only aura will count with the bidders.

But what else can be said of the material that is going on the block? Well, who could dislike it? One of Jacqueline Onassis' more winning features was that although she could fight for historic preservation and had a lively sense of how history can speak from objects, she was not a collector; she didn't have the obsessive character of the person who invests his or her self-esteem in an exoskeleton of artworks. She was not, in other words, even faintly touched by the mania of a Wallis Simpson or a Warhol, and so her possessions were less interesting than theirs.

She liked decor, and paging through the catalog is rather like going through some memorial issue of House & Garden dedicated to conventional, upper-class, Sister-Parishy interiors: everything good, nothing exceptional, and certainly nothing weird or exuberant. It reflects the absolutely standard taste of many American women of her class and generation. She liked white-pickled fauteuils and Indian miniatures, 17th century drawings of uncertain authorship, 19th century Chinese blue-and-white pots, theater prints, architectural capriccios, Victorian mahogany and squishy ecru upholstery. Her tastes in painting were exceedingly tame. There is one drawing by Robert Rauschenberg among all the decorator items, and a couple of minor Sargent watercolors, but that's about it--and the Rauschenberg was a gift from the artist anyway. What she liked more was jewelry, both real gems (a whopping diamond as an engagement present from Ari) and fashion confections by Kenneth Jay Lane.

What will the lucky ticket holders who are permitted to be present at Sotheby's Manhattan headquarters next month pay for all this stuff? Don't ask. And it probably won't matter to many of them if the value of their trophies drops by half as soon as they are out of the sale room. They will have entered a kind of virtual attic, where the ever less distinct folk memories of Camelot are kept. Who says Americans have lost their sense of piety?

Monday, Mar. 25, 1996

THERE CAN'T BE MANY PEOPLE TOday who would think of putting Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) among the giants of 19th century French painting--Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Monet or Cezanne. Yet in his lifetime he was regarded as one of the greatest landscapists who ever lived, and for most cultivated Frenchmen the very idea of comparing a bungler like Cezanne with their beloved Corot would have seemed faintly barbarous. The big show that opened in Paris last month--drawings and prints at the Bibliotheque Nationale, 163 paintings at the Grand Palais--marking the 200th anniversary of Corot's birth, is unlikely to bring that feeling back. (It travels to Ottawa's National Gallery of Canada in the summer and to New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art in the fall.) But it's worth seeing, since though Corot may not be as good as people once thought, he's much better than we now tend to suppose.

Part of the problem is, and long has been, the fakes. Corot was so popular on both sides of the Atlantic that he was, notoriously, the most faked artist of the 19th century. Corot painted 3,000 pictures, the saying went, of which 10,000 have been sold in America. His late work in particular--those silvery, atmospheric nymph-and-willow scenes like Memory of Mortefontaine, 1864, elegiac in tone and populated by rustic figures who descended from Claude Lorrain's shepherdesses--fetched record prices at a time when Impressionism still seemed rather daring to most Americans, and painting posthumous versions of them became quite an industry.

The show's catalog gives some bizarre detail on this, including the case of an obsessive Corot collector in France, a Dr. Jousseaume, who died in the early 1920s and left a collection of 2,414 works by Corot, every one of which turned out to be phony. And then there were the innocent copies, the homages to Corot by later artists and the copies of Corot by Corot himself. No wonder that even certifiably genuine Corots began to look just a little suspicious.

Why did he have such a vast reputation? Largely because he was seen as a living bridge between the classical tradition of French landscape and contemporary painting, whether by contemporary you meant the Barbizon painters of the mid-19th century, like Theodore Rousseau and Charles Daubigny, or the more recent vision of Monet and the Impressionists. Corot's career began in the 1820s, at a time when classical landscape--the ideal scene with temples, ruins and mellow boscage, populated by figures out of Ovid's Metamorphoses or Vergil's Georgics--was still very much a part of French art. Its greatest exponents, Nicolas Poussin and Lorrain, were French, and their work still cast a long shadow. But it existed alongside a newer appetite for natural vision, the direct recording of the facts of landscape, whose wellhead was the English artist John Constable.

Constable's paintings were the sensation of the 1824 Paris Salon, and their complex freshness came as a revelation to younger French artists, including the 28-year-old Corot, who was on the verge of departing for Italy. Today it's hard to imagine the delicious feelings of initiation and surrender with which foreign artists once went to Italy. Each view in Rome, every corner of Naples or Latium, seemed impregnated with meaning--by the memory of artists who had painted them before, by the presence of Antiquity and by the mellow beauty of the light. But to see Nature so authoritatively fused with Culture could also be a misery for a newcomer, for how could you say something new about it? "This sun sheds a light that fills me with despair," Corot moaned in a letter to a friend on the first of his sojourns in Italy (1825-28). "I feel all the impotence of my palette."

Despite his doubts--and he was a man of excessive modesty--Corot's early responses to Italy have a special place in his work, and in French art as a whole. They are small, painted on the spot and marvelously fresh, done with a truth of tone worthy of Constable. Tone, not line or color, describes the distances and shapes in these studies. Corot painted them directly, with a loaded brush, and they show an extreme sensitivity to atmosphere. Their light is clear and mild, and under it each plane in the jumble of Roman roofs and walls becomes part of a coherent spatial whole that delights your eye; nobody has ever rendered the exact effect of sunlight on stucco more beguilingly than Corot when young.

Corot's small oils of subjects like the view from the Pincio across Santa Trinita del Monte and the panorama of Rome below, and his studies of rustic places like Civita Castellana, were never meant to be shown in public. Until 1849 none were. They were intended solely as preparations for larger studio compositions, but these rarely have the elan and directness of his first insights. For him they were triggers of memory. "After my excursions," he wrote, "I invite Nature to come and spend a few days at home with me; brush in hand, I hunt for nuts in the forest of my studio; there, I hear the birds sing, the trees shiver in the wind."

Corot was lucky in having a modest private income--his parents were well-off dressmakers in Paris--and he did not need to labor constantly on the big machines that spelled success or failure at the Salons. So he could work on the studies for their own sake, and these, not the bigger works, entitle him to be seen as a true precursor of Impressionism. Many of his lithographs and etchings of landscape have the same vitality. Full of wind and weather, they show pleasure in the mark for its own sake--Corot was a terrific scribbler at his best--and some are boldly experimental. In the 1850s Corot was among the first artists to explore the so-called cliche-verre, a way of printmaking that entailed covering a sheet of glass with opaque collodion, scratching the design through it, then placing it over photosensitized paper and exposing it to light--an early hybrid of etching and photography.

The official Corot is generally a bore. The nymphs, shepherds and Sileni who decorate the big classical landscapes of his middle years are inert and stereotyped. He didn't have the temperament for the sensuousness Poussin put in his classical scenes; Corot's nymphs are just studio models. In Bacchante with a Panther, 1860, the girl teasing the big cat with what appears to be a dead starling looks like Mlle. Goosepimple, thanks to the gray French skies above and the damp earth under her bottom.

Corot was much better at trees than people, let alone pagan divinities. His weakest drawings are of the figure, his strongest of vegetable nature--one especially, an ink drawing of creepers on a rock done around 1827, has a wiry inquisitorial line and a fierce truth to the motif that remind one, without exaggeration, of Durer. In landscape his hand roamed free, giving the foreground hill in Volterra, the Citadel, 1834, a lively splotching of indeterminate dark scrub whose excited marks carry more visual weight than the distant hill town. But his early portraits are maladroit Ingres, and he was almost incapable of bringing off large biblical or literary compositions: his late painting of Dante and Vergil menaced by the she-wolf at the edge of the Dark Wood has to be one of the most bathetic illustrations for the Inferno ever made--not only the animals but the poets themselves look stuffed.

And yet in his last years, from 1865 or so until his death, Corot produced an exquisite series of small figure paintings, mostly of young women sitting before the easel in the brown clutter of his studio. Some remind you of Chardin, others are prophecies of Whistler. Interrupted Reading, circa 1870-73, is strikingly modern in its broadly painted triangular planes of muted color, regulated by two patches of black--the model's hair and her bodice--and relieved only by some red coral beads. Its Raphaelesque formal clarity looks back to neoclassicism but also forward to Picasso's dropsical women. It shows that, for Corot, the lessons of Italy never ended.

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Monday, Apr. 29, 1996

For human happiness, democracy may be all very well; but for the visual arts, nothing beats 4,000 years of rigorous bureaucratic feudalism presided over by a lofty elite of scholars with a divine Emperor on top. Such is the lesson of the Metropolitan Museum's present exhibition, "Splendors of Imperial China: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei." Normally when those spavined cliches "treasure," "splendor" or "masterpiece" occur in the name of an exhibition, doubt rises: Methinks the museum doth protest too much. Not this time. In terms of sheer quality, this show can claim to be the greatest conspectus of Chinese art ever held in America.

Its task, on the face of it, is impossible: to epitomize this vast field of visual culture, across four millenniums, with a mere 475 objects--ink paintings and calligraphy, porcelain and jade, lacquer and bronze. And yet it works, for three reasons. The first is the often sublime beauty of the objects. The second is the coherence of its frame: everything comes from the Chinese imperial collections as they developed over the centuries; thus what we see is the slowly changing profile of the highest court taste. And the third is that the museum's 650-page tome of a catalog, prepared under the supervision of Wen C. Fong, the Met's curator of Chinese art, is probably the best introduction to its subject in print.

So why does its cover reproduce a painting that isn't in the show? And why have 22 other choice items gone missing, while the main original sponsors, Mobil and Citibank, pulled out under mainland Chinese pressure as the long process of negotiation and selection was nearing its end? Politics, alas. The loan of these works of art has become a large hot potato in Taipei. And negotiating it proved a diplomatic nightmare for the Met, a four-year walk on eggshells.

On one side there are the Taiwanese officials and others who view the loan to America as a politically essential gesture of cultural goodwill, especially now that mainland China is rattling its missiles and threatening once more to retake what Beijing regards as a runaway province. (Probably the Taipei museum would never have lent the material if the Taiwan government hadn't wanted to stick a finger up Beijing's nostril.) However, Taiwanese cultural nationalists have denounced the loan as a cynical game with irreplaceable national symbols whose meaning cannot in any case be appreciated by the round-eyed barbarians who will flock to the Met to see them. Many Taiwanese regard any American opening to Beijing as betrayal; at the same time, they tend to see themselves, through Taiwan's ownership of the imperial collections, as the true preservers of traditional Chinese art, even though not much art of significance was actually made on that island when it was a province of the empire.

In the face of this tangle of politico-cultural emotions, concessions had to be made. The 11th century painting often considered to be the greatest masterpiece of Northern Sung dynasty landscape, Fan K'uan's Travelers Amid Streams and Mountains, stayed in Taipei, as did the hardly less important scroll by Kuo Hsi, Early Spring, 1072, which graces the catalog's cover. Moreover, there are time limits within the show itself. Its paintings and calligraphies--because of their age and fragility--have to be removed and replaced periodically by others of similar quality and era during the show's run in New York City and later in Chicago, San Francisco and Washington.

When Chiang Kai-shek lost the civil war to Mao Zedong in 1949 and fled to Taiwan, he took the cream of the imperial collection with him, 10,000 paintings and calligraphies, more than half a million objects, rare books and documents, in some 4,000 crates--an act of cultural looting (in Taiwan, read: salvage) that had few equals before and has had none since, though it is pointless to criticize such a fait accompli nearly 50 years later. Who knows what might have happened to the art at the hands of the Red Guards, for instance? Since then the whole vast collection has remained in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, carefully conserved but stingily displayed. Thirty-five years ago, a sampling was shown in the U.S., provoking a new level of interest in the study of Asian art.

This show will take things much further, for specialists, no doubt, but especially for the ordinary viewer. There could be no more vivid introduction to the upper reaches of Chinese art, and this takes hold right at the beginning. No matter how many ritual vessels from the late Shang dynasty (13th to 11th centuries B.C.) you may have seen, the memory of them will pale beside the massive ting, or tripod pot, in the first room, with its swollen bronze belly and deeply incised decoration. And when, in a nearby case, you see a late neolithic pi, or jade disk--a circle of translucent greenish stone with a hole cut in the center, like a harvest moon rising, whose austerity reveals its maker's deep understanding of its material--the notion of progress in art seems more than normally fatuous.

Jade and bronze were the quintessential materials of archaic Chinese art, but ink and paper made it possible to run an empire on documents, and they replaced the stylus by the 2nd century A.D. It is notoriously difficult for Westerners to "get" Chinese calligraphy for the obvious reason that we can't read it and so can only admire it, more or less ignorantly, as abstract brush drawing. And yet its range of expressive power comes through marvelously in this show. At one extreme we see the almost chiseled formality of the 12th century Emperor Hui Tsung's script, with its flicking exactness of stroke; at the other, the blithely spontaneous notation of the 8th century Zen Buddhist monk Huai-su, who liked to work when drunk on rice wine. And somewhere in between is the long-arm forehand and backhand of the 16th century scholar-artist Chu Yun-ming, whose fierce cursive brush writing came to be revered as an example of moral probity in itself.

Wonderful things would continue to be produced for the Chinese imperial courts right down to the 19th century. In pottery, the innovation of blue glaze designs painted on a white ground belongs to the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1272-1368); but it reached its finest period under the later Ming Emperors in such objects as an early 15th century porcelain vase with a furious blue dragon galumphing around it, all its spikes and scales and fierce serpent rhythms contrasting with the suave, plump profile of the vase.

The official portrait approaches a kind of apogee in the Ming dynasty too, but the show contains some striking earlier examples. Witness the anonymous 13th century effigy of the Empress Chabi, wife of the first Yuan Emperor, Shih-tsu, better known to us as Kublai Khan. Did she look like that, this formidable dumpling? Who can know? But it's an image of detached power, the moon face framed in the magnificent red profiles of robe and towering formal headdress.

For delicacy and inventiveness, nothing exceeds the painting and ceramics of the Sung dynasty (960-1279). The show includes examples of Ju porcelain, the rarest and most esteemed type of Chinese ceramic: a lotus bowl and a dish with bodies as thin as fingernails, the absolute simplicity of their form etherialized by their pale turquoise glaze, a color so subtle that it seems to be emitting light rather than reflecting it.

As for the Sung painters, their renderings of mountain landscape--awesome in scale but without theatrical drama, the bare crags rising in swirls and convulsions of gray ink as the background to intensely seen trees and tiny human figures--achieved a relationship between notation and object that would make any draftsman, Eastern or Western, faint with envy. The blots, scribbles, hatchings, scumblings and flicks of the brush build up a world of microforms that seems at once abstract and dense with specific experience. No wonder Beijing wants all this back; no wonder Taipei is determined to keep it.

Monday, May. 06, 1996

The artist Edward Kienholz's last piece was his burial, which took place at a hunting cabin he owned on top of a mountain in Hope, Idaho, in 1994. He had died of a heart attack at age 65, and now his corpulent, embalmed body was wedged into the front seat of a brown 1940 Packard coupe. There was a dollar and a deck of cards in his pocket, a bottle of 1931 Chianti beside him and the ashes of his dog Smash in the back. He was set for the afterlife. To the whine of bagpipes, the Packard, steered by his widow Nancy Reddin Kienholz, rolled like a funeral barge into the big hole. All in all, it was the most Egyptian funeral ever held in Idaho.

The retrospective of 120 works by Kienholz, now at New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art, is a pretty good tribute to this profuse, energetic, sometimes brilliant and sometimes very corny artist. Kienholz didn't believe in refinement. What he believed in was a combination of technical know-how, moral anger and all-American barbaric yawp. Moving through the show is like being alternately slugged and hectored by a redneck Godzilla with strong libertarian-anarchist convictions. His truck used to have ED KIENHOLZ--EXPERT painted on the door. You might not trust Roy Lichtenstein to frame a shed or Jasper Johns to re-weld a railing, but Kienholz was doing that stuff since childhood. He was brought up on a farm in the Northwest, near Fairfield, Washington. He could fix anything, combine anything, so that it worked. But as an artist he was entirely self-taught, and he could neither draw well nor paint convincingly on a flat surface.

The earliest pieces in the show, from 1954 to 1957, are terrible--Beat coffee-shop art writ large. What enabled him to become an artist in the 1960s was junk, scraps, the offcuts and excreta of America, which he combined first into small hybrid pieces and then into whole rooms and environments. As a hunter-gatherer, a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles, he was a whiz. He put in everything, including the kitchen sink--no, make that the whole kitchen. Some of the catalog entries for this show, listing title, date and materials, sound more like small towns than works of art: "The Ozymandias Parade, 1985. Tableau: wood, plastic, mirrored plexiglass, fiberglass horses, light bulbs, recorded music, paint, clothing, plaster casts, rubber, metal, galvanized sheet metal, polyester resin, wagon, pork barrel, suitcases, fake money, telephone, miniature flags, and toys, 147 x 349 x 180 [inches]."

The assembly of junk into metaphoric objects has an ancestry that goes back to Surrealism and German Dada. Joseph Cornell in the 1940s was the first American to base a whole oeuvre on it; Robert Rauschenberg in the '50s picked up on him; and Kienholz in the '60s on Rauschenberg. But whereas Cornell was butterfly gentle and Rauschenberg effusively open, Kienholz was a raging satirist attached to the view from over the top. Show him any kind of Establishment, and he loathed it. Almost from the start his work was about social pain, madness, estrangement. He hated all cant, including the art world's. One of the bigger pieces at the Whitney is The Art Show, 1963-77, in which the Kienholzes (he and Nancy Reddin were co-authors of all the work from 1972 on) constructed an art-gallery space and filled it with cast figures whose faces were air-conditioning grilles. From these would spout taped readings of art-magazine gobbledygook when you, the viewer, pressed a floor switch.

Kienholz wasn't a Pop artist; there was nothing benign or accommodating in his view of mass culture. To him the TV set was both America's anus and its oracle. He was a history artist, working in a real-things-in-the-real-world vernacular that was, by turns, scabrous, brazenly rhetorical and morally obsessed. Compared with the thin, overconceptualized gruel that most political art in postmodern America has become--the stuff the Whitney normally favors--Kienholz was red meat all the way. Which doesn't mean that his output was uniformly good. An item like The Ozymandias Parade, 30 ft. long and including hundreds of figures, from life-size horses to tiny toy Indians and frogs, wants to impress you so much it becomes a fulsome, preachy bore.

Kienholz's best tableaus remind you what a long shadow Edward Hopper cast on American art. (It is a fair bet, though, that Hopper would have found Kienholz's raucousness and sexual satire detestable.) The Beanery, 1965, his famous reconstruction of a grungy West Hollywood bar--a little slice of hell, in fact, full of endless chatter, where all the clients' heads are clocks whose hands have stopped for eternity at 10 p.m.--has its affinities to Hopper's Nighthawks. Even the silver G.I.s in Kienholz's great antimilitarist piece, The Portable War Memorial, 1968, have a spectral Hopperish sadness as they raise the Iwo Jima flag on a patio table.

In his later work this lyricism would too often get buried under the polemics, but in the '60s it was to the fore, and it accounts for the pathos of a piece like The Wait, 1964-65. At first it's a shock, like coming across Mama's corpse from Psycho in a museum. The old woman is waiting for death; her head is a sheep's skull in a jar on whose front is pasted a photo of herself when young; she wears a necklace of memories: jars containing gilded mementos of prayer, marriage, long-gone sexual love. The repeated forms of oval frames, a sewing box and tabletops combine with the big curve of the screen behind the chair to give the piece a strong binding rhythm at odds with the poor shriveled figure. All is dust and mummification except for one touch of life: a real canary cheeping in its cage.

If this is the most touching of Kienholz's early works, the fiercest comes out of a job he briefly held in a California madhouse. Through the door of The State Hospital, 1966, you peer into a charnel house of the soul, in which an emaciated and filthy body lies on the lower bunk of a two-tier unit while his doppelganger lies on the one above, encircled by a neon thought balloon. He is the real patient's dream; there is no escape from the confinement and lunacy; one fortifies the other.

Such tableaus, breaking through the crust of American denial and euphemism about old age, madness, sex and death, packed a wallop 30 years ago, and still do today. It's not surprising that the Kienholzes' work was more popular in Europe, particularly Germany, than in their native America: Americans have never had much appreciation of satire, especially in the visual arts. Even today Kienholz's detractors think he was practicing some kind of anti-Americanism (along with the rest of the godless liberal queer whiners favored by the National Endowment for the Arts, natch). Actually, he was at least as American as his critics--a compulsive Puritan who realized that the City on a Hill had been built in a mud-slide area. The very thought of this moved him to gusts of bitter laughter, and these still blow from his work. Did he exaggerate? Of course; that's what large-hearted moralists do. There are some truths that speak only from the well of exaggeration.

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Monday, Jun. 10, 1996

The greater the artist the greater the doubt; perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize. "As a painter, I become more lucid in front of Nature," Paul Cezanne wrote to his son in 1906, the last year of his life. "But that realization of my sensations is always very painful. I cannot attain the intensity which unfolds to my senses. I don't have that magnificent richness of coloration which animates nature."

As Picasso famously said, it's Cezanne's anxiety that is so interesting. But not only the anxiety. There are anxious mediocrities too. It's the achievement that counts. If Cezanne was not a heroic painter, the word means nothing. This was evident to some of his friends and contemporaries, such as Emile Zola. They saw, as later generations have seen, that his painting was also a moral struggle, in which the search for identity fused with the desire to make the strongest possible images of the Other--Nature--under the continuous inspiration and admonishment of an art tradition that he revered. He compared himself, not quite jokingly, to Moses: "I work doggedly, I glimpse the promised land. Will I be like the great Hebrew leader, or will I be able to enter it?"

He was indeed the Moses of late 19th century art, the conflicted, inspired, sometimes enraged patriarch who led painting toward Modernism--a deceptive Canaan sometimes, not always flowing with milk and honey, but radically new territory all the same. The essential point, however, is that just as Moses died before reaching Canaan, so Cezanne never lived to see Modernism take hold--and he might not have liked what he saw, had he lived. It used to be one of the standard tropes of art history that Cezanne "begat" Cubism, and it is a fact that no serious painter since 1890 has been able to work without reckoning with Cezanne. But the idea that Cubism completed what Cezanne began is an illusion. It may be that Cezanne was reaching for a kind of expression in painting that did not exist in his time and still does not in ours.

Instead of theory, he had "sensation," the experience of being up against the world--fugitive and yet painfully solid, imperious in its thereness and constantly, unrelentingly new. There was painting before Cezanne and painting after him, and they were not the same. But Cezanne's own painting matters more than its consequences. Inevitably, this deep innovator claimed he invented nothing. "In my opinion one doesn't replace the past, one adds a new link to it." Yes and no.

The Cezanne retrospective that opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art last week is beyond question one of the greatest shows that has ever been held in America, or anywhere else. (It opened in Paris in the fall of 1995 and then was seen at the Tate Gallery in London; this is its last stop.) Eight years in preparation, it contains 112 oils and 75 drawings and watercolors. The last Cezanne retrospective was held 60 years ago in Paris. In size, in scholarship, in the magnitude of its subject's achievement, this new one is a truly epic event. God help any fool who is not humbled by it.

In the first and most obvious place, the show is a mighty narrative of development. There was no art in Cezanne's background in Aix-en-Provence, where he was born in 1839. His father was a laborer who became a hatter and, eventually, a banker, thus securing his son from money worries. From 1852 to 1858 young Cezanne studied humanities at the College Bourbon in Aix, where he met the future writer who was to be his lifetime friend, Zola. Then he studied law for a while, but under Zola's constant prodding he turned to painting. By 1861 both young men were in Paris.

Cezanne was fascinated by Gericault, Daumier, Delacroix and the revolutionary Realism of both Courbet and Manet. But he had no facility at all; the impression given off by his early style couillarde--his "ballsy style," as he called it--is of a thwarted, tumultuous, half-articulate imagination bashing against the limits of its own abilities. He produced dark, macabre paintings of murders and orgies whose motivation, despite the guignol of their subject matter, remains as mysterious as their muddy paint and overladen black tonalities.

Nevertheless, he painted his first masterpiece in 1869-70, a portrait of his fellow painter from Aix, Achille Emperaire, with his dwarf's body and weak mantis limbs, enthroned--there is no other word for its weirdly authoritarian effect--in a high-backed chair upholstered in floral chintz. Painted darkly in homage to Manet and preceded by some of the most beautiful head studies in Cezanne's early work, it depicts the stunted Emperaire as a parody king, an "emperor," but with compassion; no mere caricatural impulse could account for the averted gaze and the great, sad, liquid eyes.

Cezanne was, from that point on, a great portraitist, one of the best the world has seen, especially of himself. His self-portraits invite comparison with those of Rembrandt, and the best of them justify it. He begins, in his own images, as a wild man, a solitary, an uncouth glaring peasant with greasy hair massed on either side of the pale dome of a bald head; he ends, in his last years, as a kind of sage. Between the extremes is a painting like the Self-Portrait (Portrait of the Artist with a Rose Background), with its powerfully modeled head, "formed," as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote after he saw it at the 1907 Paris Salon, "as though by hammering from within." The figure gazes at you with that uniquely Cezannian conjuncture of wariness and authority, every molecule of its flesh and bone asserting its pictorial structure against the dissolution suggested by the lavish wet brushstrokes that represent the wallpaper pattern behind it.

Cezanne admired the Impressionists, especially Pissarro and Renoir, and derived inspiration from them; it is hardly possible to imagine his landscapes of the 1870s without their quantum of Impressionist freshness. But the whole thrust of his work is about something other than the delight in the fleeting moment, the "effect" of light, color and atmosphere, to which Impressionism was dedicated. Underneath the delectable surface was structure, like reefs and rocks beneath a smiling sea, and that was what Cezanne sought and obsessively analyzed--the bones and masses of the world. His famous remark about seeking in nature "the cylinder, the sphere, the cone" need not be taken literally--he was never a geometric painter, still less an abstract one, though later abstractionists would build on his work. And yet his greatest paintings bear abstract constructions of tremendous amplitude and sureness.

One example among many is Woman with a Coffeepot, circa 1895. One would need to go back 400 years, to Piero della Francesca's Madonna del Parto, to find a painted human figure of such monumental gravity. All is volume, all is power, not only the large masses--the head that seems hewn from some skin-colored rock, the torso and the flaring blue pyramid of the skirt, the cylindrical coffeepot and the cup with the spoon set vertically in it--but also the microforms, such as the knot tying the woman's apron at her waist, which has the finality of a turned lock. The poetry of this image isn't in expression--it is almost ineloquent--but in space, form and immense deliberation.

Early Cezanne the stumblebum turned into one of the finest manipulators of paint who has ever lived. Perhaps manipulator is the wrong word--it suggests trickery, whereas in Cezanne the relation between the paint surface and the imagined surface of the object (a rock, the side of a house, an apple) is astonishingly direct and candid. This doesn't come across in reproduction. It rises from the paint itself, that discreet paste in which every trace left by the brush seems to help create the impression of solidity, so that you feel you could pick the apple--which is both a rosy sphere of light and a ball as heavy as plutonium--off the table. And yet the surface is never closed, never overdetermined; that is part of the magic.

In the magisterial Still Life with Curtain and Flowered Pitcher, circa 1899, the heavy leaf-pattern curtain on the left and the folds of white cloth below it have the same sculptural density as the fruit and the jug, with its exquisitely suggested peony design. But there, on the right, Cezanne has another white cloth, its folds sharper and more geometrical, its surface unfinished, so that you see glimpses of table through it--and the balance is suddenly perfect, despite but actually because of this shift of gear. Then there is the play between mass and instability--how the fruit in the dishes is so grandly solid, while the plates themselves tilt just enough to convey an underlying peril. The relationships in a still life were as infinite to Cezanne as those in a landscape: "These glasses, these plates, they talk among themselves," he wrote to his friend Joachim Gasquet. "Interminable disclosures."

Cezanne has often been called a universal artist, but you cannot grasp his work unless you realize that he was a deeply local one as well. He was not just French but southern Mediterranean French, a Provencal; and the obsessive, enduring, reinforcing sense of the particular landscape of his cultural memory is wound into his work so far as to completely remove it from the domain of pure, unsymbolic form. In a sense it is part of the great movement away from the national toward the local that characterized so much of European, including French, culture in the latter half of the 19th century.

You feel it particularly in Cezanne's series of landscapes of his "sacred mountain," Mont Sainte-Victoire. Now it is a mere shimmer of profile in a watercolor, whose blank paper becomes the white light of the Midi, burning through the pale flecks of color. Elsewhere, in the late oils, it achieves a tremendous faceted density, that crouched lion of rock. In between there are lyrical tributes to it, as in Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Bellevue, 1882-85, where it appears almost shyly on the left of a tender, early springtime landscape, all new green, traversed by an aqueduct (sign of the ancient Roman roots of Provence) and crossed by a pale road whose kinks are tied to the branch forms of the pine that rises in the foreground to bisect the canvas.

These apart, perhaps the most beautiful evocation of Provence in Cezanne's work is a seascape, The Gulf of Marseille Seen from L'Estaque, circa 1886. A blue bay, with blue hills on the horizon and a pale, scrubbed blue sky; a pier running into the blueness on the upper left, reaching (it seems) toward a white scarf of smoke coming from a chimney in the right foreground and binding the whole space between; below, the faceted blocks of houses and the lovely staccato rhythm of chimneys. It radiates peace and balance and, above all, easefulness--the sense of being united with a landscape of ancestral memory.

But anxiety is never far away; it breaks through time and again. It is the Thanatos to the Eros of Cezanne's Provencalism. The summation of both--along with his deep relation to his own pictorial gods, such as Poussin--is in the paintings of bathers that Cezanne worked on in the last decade of his life.

In the last of them, his unfinished The Large Bathers, 1906, one sees the characteristics that have always rendered these peculiar arcadian scenes difficult to love even as they compel admiration and even a certain awe. This group of 14 stock nudes gathered around what must have been a picnic basket is as resolutely antisensuous as an assembly of naked women could possibly be. Some of them look like seals stranded on rocks. Others are lumpish giantesses. None were painted from actual models because, as his friend the painter Emile Bernard recalled, "he was the slave of an extreme sense of decorum, and...this slavery had two causes: the one, that he didn't trust himself with women; the other, that he had religious scruples and a genuine feeling that such things could not be done in a small provincial town without provoking scandal." Instead, he recycled his old art-school drawings, a process which must have contributed to the strangely abstract look of the figures.

Cezanne's sublimation produces not flesh but a kind of architecture. Yet this architecture is incontrovertible. Its scale is increased by the overarching trees, which supply a Gothic vault, and by the high, cloud-laden sky. And the final effect is one of exhilaration at the sight of the old man in his last year of life winning from his turmoil an equilibrium that was truly classical, and yet hiding so little of the inner compulsions that drove its making.

Monday, Jun. 24, 1996

Was Winslow Homer the greatest American painter of the 19th century? Around 1900, many Americans would have said yes. The reputation of Thomas Eakins stood nowhere near its present zenith, and there was something flashy and slightly suspicious about John Singer Sargent, the other main candidate. And Homer was not only big with the public; he exerted a huge influence on younger painters. Robert Henri and the other realists of the Ashcan School embraced him as a role model--the virile eye, always staring at reality over the pencil. "The big strong thing," said Henri, thinking of Homer's seascapes, "can only be the result of big strong seeing."

Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper, George Bellows, John Marin, Marsden Hartley--they all owed Homer something. His images of men, sea and mountain, and especially of women, were asexual, but that only made them more American, and saved them from the whiff of scandal that clung to Eakins. His mastery and fluency--in oil and especially in watercolor, which he was largely responsible for establishing as a serious medium in America--were the envy and secret despair of many an artist. The triumph of modernism after the 1930s, however, put Homer's reputation on the downgrade; he looked like an illustrator, with his jumping trout and scudding catboats. Thirty years ago, anyone rash enough to suggest that he was at least as important an artist as Jackson Pollock would have been laughed to silence.

Not anymore. If there is any single lesson to be learned from the great Homer retrospective that was seen in past months at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and that opens this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, it's that Homer was not just a fine American painter but one of the great realist artists of the 19th century as a whole, comparable in achievement to Manet or Courbet, if not Degas. The show's curators, Nicolai Cikovsky Jr. and Franklin Kelly, have brought enormous scholarly energy to arguing this on the walls, winnowing Homer's 2,000 or so surviving works to some 180 paintings, watercolors and drawings. The condensation we see is one of the real glories of American art, a sustained celebration of that line of empirical vision that began with John Singleton Copley in the 18th century and passed through Audubon, Eakins and Homer into the early 20th. It also reveals a Homer more complicated, both in his ideas and his symbolism, than most people thought existed. Can you "rediscover" an artist who is this popular? If he's as good as Homer, emphatically yes.

Like Copley, Homer was from Boston and mainly self-taught. In the 1850s Boston had no art school, and his only training was in a lithography shop. This led to illustration work for magazines, and at 25 he went to cover the Civil War for Harper's Weekly. His Civil War paintings, as distinct from those illustrations, were mostly genre scenes in camp--soldiers relaxing or on punishment duty. His most popular early painting, and deservedly so, was Prisoners from the Front, 1866, which shows the Union's General Francis Barlow receiving three Confederate soldiers captured at the battle of Spotsylvania: a young, tough Virginian cavalryman, a grizzled old vet and a lumpish "poor white" boy. Though it has been praised for its evenhandedness, it's hard to see how, short of caricature, Homer could have come up with a more ideological image of the difference between the two sides of the war. Barlow looks frank and intelligent, contrasted with the mean-as-hell firebrand look of the Southern cavalier, the old man who is too old to change and the cracker kid who is too dumb to develop.

Not one of the Civil War paintings shows a dead body, but Homer did allegorize death in a painting done just after the war, The Veteran in a New Field, 1865. A man in a white shirt, whose face we don't see, has returned to his farm, and is scything its ripe wheat, which stretches to the blue band of the horizon. His blue Army jacket and water canteen, lying on the ground, identify him as a Union soldier. The composition is stark: one man, two planes of color--the stalks of wheat swiftly done in ocher with umber streaks of shadow rising through them from the earth--and the crooked diagonal of the scythe at the end of its swing. We are meant to think of Isaiah: "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

But why a new field? Here, as co-curator Cikovsky's brilliant catalog essay points out, a deeper level is seen. The new field of wheat recalls the soldier's "old" field--the ghastly killing grounds, some of which (like Antietam) were actually wheat fields, where the ripe youth of America was mowed down. And so an image that ostensibly speaks of sunlit peace and reconciliation remains a harsh and troubling one and presages the symbolic note that will flicker in and out of Homer's art for the next 40 years, making it very much more than a celebration of America the Beautiful.

After the war, however, Homer--like all other American artists except the sculptor Saint-Gaudens--worked as though the trauma was best forgotten. He turned to an ideal but real subject matter as far from death as possible. This was childhood. Homer painted the life of American children as a distinct state, an enclosure: adults hardly touch their lives, but you know they are secure. His farmers' and fishers' children are, on one level, part of the wide idealization of childhood that took hold in 1870s America as a reaction against the war. They are potential America, the stock from which renewal will spring: young, strong, practical and without pretense, and bathed in Homer's candid, crystalline light.

Homer shows them learning skills (sailing, fishing, farm work) and getting their education in the schoolhouse. Henry James found Homer's "barefoot urchins and little girls in calico sun-bonnets...almost barbarously simple" and "horribly ugly," but conceded that they won you over: Homer "has resolutely treated them as if they were pictorial, as if they were every inch as good as Capri or Tangier...he has incontestably succeeded." Homer was one of the key figures in whose work Americanness ceased to be an embarrassment. The cultural cringe before Europe vanishes and is replaced by a robust confidence in American experience.

Which is not to say he hadn't learned from Europe. His paintings of children sometimes reach for a rough kind of classical energy. The frieze-line of kids running parallel to the picture plane in Snap the Whip, 1872, brings to mind the dancing putti on Donatello's Cantoria in Florence. He had a knack for inserting distant echoes of the classical into the forms of common life, and doing it so subtly that you're scarcely aware of them at first. Homer went to London in 1881 and then settled in the village of Cullercoats on the coast, near Newcastle. He painted the fisherfolk: the men, massive in their rain-slicked oilskins, and the women mending nets and waiting on shore. The distended shapes of windblown clothes give these already robust female figures a sculptural air: you feel the gale blowing their aprons into spinnakers. Homer had to have been looking at the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum, with their fluent drapery rippling across limbs and torso. Sometimes these shawled women, silhouetted against the scudding gray, have the presence of Greek mourners. At Cullercoats he found a basic image: man (or woman) against the sea, the self in the enormous, indifferent context of nature.

In the spring of 1883, Homer shut down his New York studio and moved to Prout's Neck, a narrow strip of rock on the Maine coast. There he found himself a cottage overlooking the sea--a good place for a man whose four favorite words, a friend recalled, were "Mind your own business." He spent 27 years at Prout's Neck, relieved by excursions to New York and fishing trips to the Caribbean, Florida and the Adirondacks. Its steep, sea-gnawed granite ledges became the emblematic landscape of his finest work. No artist since Turner had painted the sea with such lyric concentration, from the beaming blue transparency of the Caribbean, captured in masterly watercolors, to the sullen beat and topple of gray combers driven by an Atlantic gale on the Maine rocks. Cannon Rock, 1895, with its high horizon line and broad V of incoming waves framed by dark rocks, exactly captures the sensation of standing on an exposed promontory with the sea coming straight at you, like a wall.

Yet Homer did not simply view the sea as a danger. His sea pieces, even when the weather is bad, are seductive. The paint is of great richness, beautifully manipulated, running the gamut from thin, subtle glazes to expansive slathers of opaque pigment. And there is often a character of apparition: things are stranger than you imagine, though you believe he saw what he saw--witness the heads of the Gloucester fishermen appearing from the wave that hides their dory in Kissing the Moon, 1904, or the breaking wave on the rocks in West Point, Prout's Neck, 1900, that flings up an S curve of foam that might be a sinuous white torso: the ghost of a female presence, a water witch.

Such works remind you that the view of Homer that was current 20 years ago, and that this show corrects--that he was a realist in a simple and straightforward way--was wrong. It reckons without the deep strand of existential pessimism that runs in Homer's work and that creates its own symbolic structures. For Homer, as for another great and underrated artist, his contemporary Rudyard Kipling, man is at constant war with his surroundings in a world that cares nothing about him and gives him no natural allies. The moment you step from the social path, where security is an illusion, all becomes wild and strange, and Homer's work abounds in metaphors of this. One of the most piercing is Fox Hunt, 1893, which portrays the animal as existential hero. A starving red fox, set with Japanese simplicity and directness against a field of white snow, is harried by sinister crows that, though they cannot kill him, are harassing him toward his death.

Six years later, he painted The Gulf Stream, moving this apprehension from animal to man. A black sailor lies on the afterdeck of a dismasted sloop, adrift and rudderless in the deep Caribbean blue. Enormous sharks circle the boat. Their ominousness is reinforced by the zone of black water from which they rise. (The catalog, rather absurdly, suggests that celibate Homer was invoking that hoary phantom of the Freudian couch, the vagina dentata. This could make sense only to an art historian who has never been near a live shark.) On the horizon, a square-rigger sails indifferently by, and we see the waterspout of a coming tornado. There will be no rescue. The painting refers back to other images of marine disaster, notably Turner's Slave Ship and Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, in an image of total pessimism. This, Homer says, is what the voyage of life comes down to: hanging on and facing down your death when all hope is gone and there are no witnesses. It is a grim and hard-won vision, but in it, as in his descriptive powers, Homer remained supremely a realist.

Monday, Nov. 04, 1996

Anyone who thinks electronic data storage is going to render print obsolete in the near future should consider Grove's Dictionary of Art, a 5-ft.-long shelf of 34 dark green-bound bricks of scholarship with a 720,000-item index, just published at the rebarbative price of $8,800 and worth every penny. This is, of course, the sister publication to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which, almost since its publication in 1878, has reigned unchallengeably as the authoritative work in its field. After the relentless barrage of propaganda about information that has been growing in recent years, such a project may seem a noble but obsolete gesture, like the last cavalry charge of World War I--print doing what it does best against overwhelming odds. But it's nothing of the kind. For several reasons, a work like this cannot be done online or on a CD-ROM at present. Analytical knowledge of this order only runs through the pages of books.

It is hard to resist superlatives about the new Dictionary of Art, the idea for which was approved in 1980 by Harold Macmillan, the former Prime Minister of Britain and owner of the family firm of Macmillan Publishers Ltd., just after the 20-volume sixth edition of the music dictionary was published. (Macmillan, which no longer has ties to the U.S. publisher of the same name, is the parent of Grove's Dictionaries.) If Macmillan had not been a privately owned company, it's unlikely that the Dictionary of Art would have gone ahead. The shareholders of a public company in these days of quick publishing fixes would almost certainly have got cold feet at the thought of so ambitious a venture.

If this isn't the most important art-publishing event of the 20th century, coming right at its end, one would like to know what its plausible competitors are. In fact there aren't any. In 1969 McGraw-Hill brought out its five-volume Dictionary of Art, still useful but a mere dinghy in comparison with this dreadnought. The ur-art dictionary was begun in 1907 by two German scholars, Ulrich Thieme and Felix Becker, but since the publication of its 37th volume in 1950, it has tried to do no more than issue occasional volumes of updates. Even that is a task comparable to repainting the Brooklyn Bridge with a nail-polish brush. Thieme-Becker is not, in any case, translated into English.

The big problem for art-dictionary compilers is simple in its essence but in fact appallingly complex: the explosion of art-historical information in the past half-century. If you graphed its quantity, the line would run almost flat from Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century to John Ruskin in the mid-19th. But in the 20th century, and especially in the past 40 years, the line has gone almost vertical.

The discipline of art history itself is an artifact of the past 100 years. The arts of whole continents--Asia, Africa, South America--became the subject of detailed study. Museums and their collections grew exponentially, and a vast specialized literature cascaded from universities. Questions of race, gender and politics came into the study of art history, along with the more familiar ones of iconography, style, subject matter and patronage. The old division between "high" and "decorative" arts ceased to hold. The once "merely" ornamental object came to be as full of meaning as a nude or ducal portrait. The more that was known about the world's art, the more there was to know. An obvious example, which suggests the kind of shifting sands on which "definitive" edifices of art history are built, has been the ongoing reattribution of once accepted Rembrandts by a team of Dutch scholars since 1982.

How to make an epitome of all this? The overseer of the vast Grove project, editor and curator Jane Shoaf Turner, embraced its complexities and contradictions, and has done an astonishing job of marshaling the talents of some 6,700 contributors. The Dictionary of Art contains more than 41,000 entries, ranging from a few lines to near books in themselves; the section on frames, for instance, runs 128 pages. Spot checks reveal none of the awful jargon that disfigures so much academic writing; all seems clear and readable, and sometimes even dryly witty. And as you browse it, you realize what an unprecedented effort of distilled and integrated scholarship it represents. Every country in the United Nations has its entry, from Afghanistan (27 pages) to Zimbabwe (3); the overview of the cultures of Africa extends to more than 200 pages.

No more complete guide to the world's art exists; this is especially true of the range of cultures outside the West, both old and modern, such as Aboriginal Australia, Oceania or ancient Egypt. The discussion of Japanese art, from its earliest beginnings to the 20th century, extends to 431 pages, and it is a brilliant feat of compression even at that length, without a wasted word. Moreover, every major subject has multiple entry points: individual artists, schools, national origin, techniques and so on. There's no art publication in existence that gives the reader such richness of detail and coherence of organization.

Nor have the editors shirked areas of controversy. It will not, for instance, make Greek nationalists happy to find that the dictionary accepts the antitraditional view that ancient Helladic culture was not created by Greek indigenes but by people who emigrated from what is now Turkey.

Will the dictionary turn into a CD-ROM or arrive on the Internet? Little chance at present. Current search engines are not sophisticated enough to work properly with so vast a project on the Internet. And the big software companies with a foot in encyclopedic publishing are not currently interested in risky and expensive ventures on the scale of this project. For instance, Microsoft's CD-ROM on the collection of Britain's National Gallery is a once-over-lightly affair, with some useful student-level cross-references but no real scholarly depth; the same company's Encarta encyclopedia is done with sound-and-image-bite superficiality, with few entries longer than 500 words.

Moreover, no existing CD-ROM disc has the capacity to hold the dictionary's vast content--26 million words and all those images. It would take two or possibly three discs to accommodate such a mass of information; under such conditions one of the great merits of a single disc--its enormous power of cross-referencing--would be reduced. Thus what the Grove dictionary represents, now and for the immediate future, is the superiority of the printed page over the virtual image when it comes to delivering high-density, accessible, well-written information on the visual arts.

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Monday, Nov. 11, 1996

Is there, or has there ever been, a modern American artist with a more peculiarly sacrosanct reputation than Jasper Johns? If so, none spring to mind. Johns' current retrospective of 225 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures at New York City's Museum of Modern Art has all the air of a cult event. This is not the fault of the curator, Kirk Varnedoe, who has done an exemplary job of hanging the show and, without resorting to the usual pseudo-philosophical guff that attends critical discussion of Johns, describing and analyzing his work in the catalog. Rather, it seems immovably built into the penumbra--glowing, and yet after all these years possessing the consistency of solid concrete--that surrounds the work.

We are so used by now to being told that Johns is an artist of the utmost profundity and difficulty that we assume, on peering into the well of his talent, that the fault for not recognizing masterpieces in it lies with ourselves. It's like the familiar Barnett Newman problem: having for so long been told that the famous "Zip" in Newman's canvases contains the unnameable name of God or the tragic condition of humankind, one must make an almost perverse effort of will to look past all the midrash and see a vertical stripe.

Varnedoe's show does an immense service to Johns by trying to see him whole, as a painter with a continuous 40-year oeuvre, rather than as a hinge figure between movements--Abstract Expressionism and Pop, Minimalism and process art, or whatever. Johns has been thrust rather too easily into this role by his great influence on other artists. The deadpan stripes of his Flag, 1954-55, become the pinstripes of Frank Stella's black paintings in 1959, and his deliberateness, making the picture up in advance instead of discovering it in the act of painting, lies behind much process art. As Bruce Nauman put it, "Johns was the first artist"--well, in New York in the 1950s, anyway--"to put some intellectual distance between himself and his physical activity of making paintings." His work has always spoken of planning, not spontaneity; of the recycled image (his own included), not the unwilled apparition.

And yet the picture that launched his career came to this then unknown, 24-year-old Southerner in a dream. One night in 1954, by his own account, Johns dreamed of painting a large American flag, and the next morning he got up and began to do so. He would play with the flag motif for several decades more, rendering the Stars and Stripes in wax encaustic paint on newspaper collage, in oil on canvas, in bronze, pencil and lithography. His fascination with it came, in part, from his very nuanced and ironic feelings about the function of art, particularly in America and especially after Abstract Expressionism.

AbEx, in its transcendentalist ambitions, shunned the specifics of contemporary American culture; its followers created a veritable academy of "authenticity," sign of the hot, tragic and inventive sensibility. Johns wanted to work with something not invented, something so well known, as he put it, that it was not well seen. Hence the flag. In real life, after Johns, it continued to be the common property of all Americans, the climax of their stock of public symbols. But in the art world, it became Johns' own sign. Other artists would use the Stars and Stripes in a spirit of provocation. Not Johns; his flags had a beautiful and troubling muteness. They were cooler than the culture wanted them to be, in the midst of the cold war.

Was Johns' Flag, 1955, a flag or a painting? The American flag is the best-known abstraction in the world; is a painting of an abstraction a representation? The questions twist back to Rene Magritte's famous brainteaser, the painting of a pipe with "This is not a pipe" written above it (of course not, dummy; it's a painting). Flag is designed like a flag, but it's made of paint, not cloth, and it cannot "fly"; it is static, stretched, rigid. You are meant to pay attention to its surface, which never happens with a real flag. This surface is discreetly sumptuous and full of energy, with marks and dribbles of wax encaustic over a ground of glued-on newspaper. On one hand, Johns seemed devoted to the flag--but his devotion was esthetic, not patriotic. On the other, by treating its sacred form as mutable, he undermined it as a conventional symbol. And since he did so without any visible aggression or skepticism, you couldn't tell where he stood in the American frame of the '50s.

Something akin to this game of hide-and-seek with public symbols happened with his target paintings. Everyone "knows" what a target is--a test of a marksman's skill. But beneath its muteness a target is supercharged with an imagery of aggression: every target implies a weapon and someone aiming. This had an inescapable point in the mid-'50s, when politicians and all the American media were pounding into the collective imagination, like a 10-in. spike, the message that the whole nation was a target for Russian thermonuclear weapons.

This is part of the background to Johns' targets, and a little further back is another form of "targeting"--the virulent hatred and distrust of homosexuals as deviants and possible spies that the right encouraged. Johns was a reserved, closeted gay, and a work like Target with Four Faces, 1955, is all about threat and concealment. Its impassive, identical plaster casts of faces are contained in a box with a hinged door, a "closet" above the ominous target. Your gaze, in looking at them, is assimilated to the eye of the inquisitor, hunting out what is concealed. It is a pessimistic and, above all, defensive image.

From then on, almost the whole of Johns' work would be cast in terms of an increasing indirection--an oeuvre of blockages, shifts and frustrations: the drawer that won't open, the map of America whose descriptive use is more or less annulled by the flurries of brush marks, the word red rendered in blue or yellow paint, the dead flashlight that can't light because it's solid metal. Now and again he would come up with an enduring joke of a Duchampian sort. It's practically impossible now to think of the fabled existential machismo of AbEx without remembering Johns' 1960 satire on it: a horizontally split canvas covered with ardent AbEx strokes with two small spheres jammed in the crack, titled Painting with Two Balls. And then there was his standing warning to those who write about him, or any other artist: The Critic Sees II, 1964, a metal brick with spectacles, behind whose (absent) lenses are two open mouths, jabbering away, instantly metabolizing sight into opinion, seeing nothing.

As the critic Brian O'Doherty remarked, Johns' work, with its cool, cerebral language games, contained everything desired by the higher New York criticism in the 1960s and '70s to requite its own narcissism. Such a tall hedge of exegesis sprang up that it seemed impertinent to dare to look at a Johns if you hadn't read Wittgenstein's Tractatus. The work could offer intense visual pleasures; that was undeniable. The accumulations of silvery marks in his drawings could be almost as beautiful as Seurat, and as a lithographer (particularly when working with Tatyana Grosman) he was the supreme technician of his time. The pelt of parallel creamy gray hatchmarks in a painting like Usuyuki, 1977-78, is about as gorgeous as abstract art gets.

Yet at the same time there was something costive about Johns, in sharp contrast to the effusive generosity of Robert Rauschenberg's vision. He didn't want to give anything away. His later work is suffused with traces of violence (the dismembered casts of body parts, for instance, in According to What, 1964), but it never lets you in on why they're there, what emotions are fossilized in them. Moreover, Johns' continuous recycling of his own imagery without much indication of why it should matter so much to him, or why we should care about it, becomes claustrophobic in the end.

You can't traverse this show without getting a sense of decline, of gradual burnout. It begins with the Seasons series, started in 1985, vastly overpraised by Johns' fans as a turning point in his work, in which he let his guard down a little and painted something more or less autobiographical. A repeated, faceless shadow-silhouette (the artist's own) falls across a clutter of objects and images familiar from his earlier work--flags, crosshatches, perceptual puzzles--with, weaving through them, allusions to a famous Picasso of a minotaur moving out of house with a ladder on his back (suggesting the artist carting his own stock of imagery around). But what we see isn't at all commanding as painting. Given those inert surfaces, the jumbled palimpsest of composition, the general dullness of color, the fact that Johns lets an extra inch of himself show--as though appearing briefly on the balcony of his own reputation, with an enigmatic wave--is of small interest.

Time and again, after the late '80s, one comes up against Johnses that seem to have no raison d'etre, and are valued merely because Johns did them. What is the point of those tracings done from a reproduction of Cezanne's Bathers? As homages they're trivial; as formal studies they're as uninteresting as his tracings done from a motif of his old idol Marcel Duchamp. Perhaps it is true that, as his admirers believe, a sublimely arcane and complex intentionality lies behind the fragmented and mingily internalized imagery of late Johns, tying all its scattered hints together. But one does not have to be altogether a philistine to doubt it.

Monday, Dec. 16, 1996

He was a bull or a bear of a man, with a slightly shambling gait and a dented cannonball of a head on which a hard derby hat was jammed like a secondary dome. His solidity and doubt come across in Self-Portrait with a Horn, painted in 1938, the second year of his exile from Nazi Germany. Max Beckmann holds a bugle, which he has just blown. His eyes don't meet yours; he looks away, listening for an answering note. It's a piercing image of the artist deprived of his context, hoping to connect, uncertain that he can. European man, signaling from a collapsing world.

The show of this and 19 other Beckmann paintings at the downtown branch of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City is--no other word for it--a revelation. Beckmann, who died in 1950, was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, but he remains comparatively underknown in Manhattan. Thirty-one years have passed since a New York museum devoted a show to his work. Why this should be, one can only guess. Presumably it has something to do with the belief that purely abstract painting was the climax of modernism, so that a painter whose entire sensibility was bound up with the desire to narrate large themes of love, death, myth and memory through allegories enacted by human figures went against some of the most cherished, indurated dogmas of the American art world.

This seems likely even though Beckmann himself believed that "every form of significant art from Bellini to Henri Rousseau has ultimately been abstract." But Beckmann was always a contradictor, a towering imagination that made no concessions to the fashions or political pressures of his time. And in the Guggenheim's show one sees the very peak of his work: seven of the nine triptychs (three-panel paintings, based on the format of church altarpieces) that he painted immediately before and during his exile.

Part of Hitler's cultural program was the extirpation of what he called degenerate art--essentially, the kind of modernism of which Beckmann, in the early 1930s, was an acknowledged leader. Thus, soon after Hitler came to power in 1933, an entire apparatus of state censorship rolled over on Beckmann. His work was systematically removed from German museums; within five years, 600 of his paintings had been confiscated. After he and his wife fled, he lived and painted in Amsterdam for 10 years, using an old tobacco storeroom for a studio, and then in 1947 went to the U.S., where he died three years later at age 66.

Throughout his exile Beckmann carried monumental ambitions with him, and these were fully realized in his triptychs. They represent one of the greatest efforts of the symbolic imagination in all 20th century art, a sort of theatrum mundi, or world theater, in which the follies and tragedies of Europe, along with its pining for a utopian order on the very brink of its collapse, were given an unrelentingly vivid allegorical form.

Although Beckmann had to bear the burden of politics in full measure, there are no specific political references in his triptychs because as a painter he wasn't interested in the subject. He wanted his art to go beyond that, relying on what he called "the uninterrupted labor of the eyes" to realize experience in sensation, translating it into form, color and space.

The means toward making such an art came in part, as it must, from a sense of continuity with both past and present. Beckmann's paintings draw, for instance, on German Gothic woodcarvings, in which the task of scooping space from a thin panel causes the figures to stand stiffly as though in fright. Equally, his work was influenced by Matisse, whose daring, expressive color and use of black translate, in Beckmann, into a stylistic effect similar to stained glass, with burning patches of green or flesh color emphasized by a webwork of heavy black outlines.

But behind the structure of his unique style--forming it, giving it meaning--was the "wonderful chaos" of nature, opposed in its plenitude to the merely superficial attractions of what we would now call media culture. "Take long walks and take them often," he advised a young painter, "and try your utmost to avoid the stultifying motor car, which robs you of your vision, just as the movies do, or the numerous motley newspapers. Learn the forms of nature by heart so that you can use them like the musical notes in a composition."

That sense of the specific form undergirds Beckmann's invented symbols of a world in which ancient prototypes are jammed together with blatantly up-to-date images drawn from city life in the 1930s and '40s: the masked warriors with spears and cuirasses along with the blond cigarette girls, the sexy shackled women in modern negligees and the awful birds with staring eyes that were one of Beckmann's prime images of fear and persecution. "Have you never thought," he wrote to a young woman artist, "that in the hellish heat of intoxication amongst princes, harlots and gangsters, there is the glamour of life?" That heat is everywhere in his paintings. If their forms weren't so fully and emphatically realized, if the bodies of men and women in his art were less dense and sensuously present, such dreams and visions would not have the same power.

Beckmann's exile seems prefigured in the first of his triptychs, Departure, 1932-33. Its left and right panels contain scenes of horror, torment and dislocation: a man with amputated hands tied to a pillar, a woman in bondage about to be axed by a headsman, another woman with a lamp (perhaps a muse or a guide) to whom the upside-down corpse of her partner is bound. One cannot decode these too literally, but they presumably represent the chaos overtaking Beckmann's homeland. The center panel portrays the artist's dream of escape. The blue horizon (the color of peace) beckons; the king in the boat makes a calm gesture of benediction with his right hand while his left releases a school of small fish from a net trailing in the sea; and a Madonna figure with a child looks on. The painting pulls together a string of images: Christ on the Sea of Galilee, the Fisher King, Beckmann himself. Its relative serenity would not reappear in the triptychs to come.

Some of the narratives embedded in the triptychs are more straightforward than others. Beginning, 1946-49, is perhaps the most explicit of them all, a summing-up of childhood memory. The small boy in the nursery, dressed in a hussar's uniform and riding furiously on a rocking horse with drawn sword, is plainly Beckmann himself; a Puss-in-Boots hangs upside down from the ceiling; a languid carrot-haired odalisque on the sofa in the foreground blows iridescent soap bubbles of reverie and future desire; and a schoolmasterly figure holds up his hand in a gesture of censoriousness. On the right is a schoolroom scene with a teacher conducting a lesson in geography that doesn't impress young Beckmann, who holds out a drawing he has surreptitiously made.

The left panel depicts a moment of revelation, the epiphany of a young career. The youth crowned like a king gazes through the thick black mullions of a window into a vision outside, of a blind organ-grinder making celestial music for a choir of angels. It is a version of the dream of unmediated childhood vision in the work of William Blake, "the noble English genius," as Beckmann called him, "a superterrestrial patriarch." It also represents the starting point of Beckmann's lifelong quest as a painter, his quest for the self, "the great veiled mystery of the world."

Monday, Jan. 27, 1997

Yesterday's aggro and shock, today's museum relic. "Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York," curated by Francis Naumann and Beth Venn and now running at New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art, is an interesting show of what is, ultimately, a spiky but fairly thin subject. Dadaism--its name made of baby-talk syllables, its intent to disorient bourgeois expectations of culture by any means possible--was a short-lived but fecund movement born and raised in Europe in the century's teens. It was more like a tiny religion than an art event, with a proselytizing spirit, a code of behavior, a core of the faithful, and a hope of transforming existence. It relied on irrationality, negation, sarcastic humor. Its most durable legacy lay in French Surrealism (the Surrealist fascination with the unconscious was largely inherited from Dada, and several artists, most notably Max Ernst, began as Dadas and drafted themselves into the Surrealist movement).

Dada left its traces in America, but never struck deep roots there. It never acquired the criticality, the indignation or the longing for social subversion that marked it in Europe. It devolved into amusing in-jokes and tended to preciosity and quirkiness. This grew out of the tiny clique of self-professed illuminati that sustained it. Its sense of humor never grew as robust as the work of the professional funny guys who helped inspire it, like Rube Goldberg or the Marx Brothers. In America the Dadas were plagued by the thought that American popular culture was more Dada than Dada could be. And in fact they were right.

The movement, such as it was, had only one (relatively) heavyweight American in its membership, the painter, photographer and objectmaker Man Ray. Its spirit was best exemplified by two foreign artists who enriched the New York scene by visiting it--the Frenchman Marcel Duchamp and the French-Cuban Francis Picabia. Their impact goes back to the far-famed Armory Show of modern art, held in 1913, which first gave a mass American audience a chance to see modernism.

In the fire storm of ridicule and puzzlement set off by the Armory Show, which 300,000 people saw during the course of its run, Duchamp in particular benefited, on the basis of a single picture: Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912. It became the star freak of the show--its bearded lady, its dog-faced boy. People compared it to a Navajo rug, a cyclone in a shingle factory, an earthquake in the subway. A dull brown painting in a Cubist idiom, its overlapping planes were partly derived from the motion-analysis photos of Etienne-Jules Marey. Its very title was ironic, almost insupportable. Nudes, in art, were not supposed to move, let alone walk downstairs. They were meant to stand or lie as still as statues. Movement suggested indecency, even though this nude had no detectable sexual traits.

As a picture, the Nude is neither poor nor great, but its fame today is the fossil of the huge notoriety it acquired as a puzzle-picture in 1913. It is lodged in history because it embodied the belief that the new, revolutionary work of art has to be scorned and stoned like a prophet by the uncomprehending crowd. In the cult of the problematic, as distinct from the enjoyable, Duchamp rapidly became a saint, and the Nude is one of his prime relics. So are his "readymades"--a snow shovel or a ceramic urinal designated as works of art, sardonic jokes that have been done seven-eighths to death by decades of critical interpretation, but that nonetheless are the ancestors of every piece of "appropriation" art done by Americans from early Jasper Johns down to the present day.

The Nude is not in this show, and neither is Duchamp's even more famous The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (Large Glass), which is too frail to move from its abode in the Philadelphia Museum and is represented by a Swedish-made replica. Begun in 1915, the Large Glass is, as its title suggests, an elaborate sexual metaphor seeded with puns and techno-images. In the lower panel the nine sad little bachelors, mere tin soldiers in the game of sexual strategy, signal their desire through intervening bits of machinery to the floating "bride" above. As Freud said in The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900: "The imposing mechanism of the male sexual apparatus lends itself to symbolization by every sort of indescribably complicated machinery."

This was chapter and verse for Picabia too, whose work also caused some scandal at the Armory Show. Picabia returned to New York in 1915, prophesying that the city would soon become the center of modernist effort because its reality had made it the modernist site to beat all others. "Your New York," he told the press, "is the cubist, the futurist city. It expresses modern thinking in its architecture, its life, its spirit"--everything but its art, which Dada would supply. This image of the city as social compressor also comes out in Man Ray's neatly epigrammatic New York, 1917--a bunch of slats, stacked to mimic the setbacks of skyscrapers, held together by a C clamp.

Picabia saw machinery as the prime metaphor of modern society and, particularly, of love. His most telling machine images were about sex. They present the act of love as a ballet of soulless machines, pistons inside cylinders, valves opening and closing, cogs driving other cogs. Though parts of his erotic gizmos are identifiable, their functions, beyond pushing, sliding and transmitting fluids, are not.

There wasn't much social criticism in New York Dada, though some of its members were clearly ticked off by the conservative character of the American art world. Picabia even satirized Alfred Stieglitz--whose 291 gallery was the main rallying point for modernist artists like Constantin Brancusi, Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley--as an impotent figure, a camera with a collapsed bellows. Dove himself had a prod at the reviewing establishment in The Critic, 1925--a figure meant to represent Royal Cortissoz, the much feared conservative who had dubbed modernism "Ellis Island art." It is a paper doll cut from one of Cortissoz's own reviews, mounted on a pair of roller skates for fast passage through the galleries, and holding a vacuum cleaner to dispose of modernist trash.

Manhattan Dada also contained an element (though a very small one, compared with French Surrealism) of blasphemy. Its main relic is God, 1917, once attributed to a machine-painting follower of Picabia named Morton Schamberg, but more likely by their friend the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. It consists of a cast-iron plumbing trap turned upside down and mounted on a wooden miter box. An angry little object, an American parallel to Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q., the mustache on the Mona Lisa.

God pales, however, beside the Dada artifact that the Baroness (ne Elsa Plotz in Germany in 1874) became after moving to New York. Slender, long-backed, penniless and as mad as a March hare, she survived as an artists' model. She would be seen visiting the salon of Walter and Louise Arensberg, the city's first Dada collectors, or stalking through Greenwich Village in black lipstick with postage stamps stuck to her cheeks, her head shaved and stained purple, and dozens of metal toys and lead soldiers sewn to her skirts. She was New York's first punk persona 60 years before their time. Some of her delicate, wacky, homemade jewelry survives and is in the Whitney show. The Baroness seems vivid today because of the interest in gender play and "acting out" in the '90s art world, as though she were a very distant great-aunt of feminist performance art. But she remains an irrecuperable figure, faint and weird, like much of the Dada spirit itself.

Monday, Feb. 03, 1997

Anyone who feels uncomfortable with the sheer artificiality of art is likely to have difficulties with Giambattista Tiepolo, the greatest Italian painter--and one of the three or four chief European ones--of the 18th century. Though based on intensive study of the human body, his work is about as realistic as grand opera. Enter it, and you're inducted into a majestic yet unpredictable fantasy land. It is full of soaring and twisting space, transparency and delicious shot-silk color--a place dedicated to the imagination and filled with idealized personages from history, myth and fable. It is by turns sublime, witty and slightly preposterous in its self-delighting rhetoric.

Tiepolo's world is best experienced in his native Venice, because so many of his large-scale murals and ceiling paintings are there. But this month New York City museums have a veritable festa of Tiepolo's movable work, commemorating the 300th anniversary of his birth. Drawings by him and his disciples--including his sons Domenico and Lorenzo--are on view at the Pierpont Morgan Library, while the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a show of 80 of his paintings and oil sketches and 33 of his mysterious and brilliantly inventive etchings, the Capricci and the Scherzi di Fantasia.

These shows make it clear that the once accepted view of Tiepolo was wrong. It said, in effect, that he was a slightly suspect virtuoso--the last of what had been, a fizzing Catherine wheel of talent at the end of the long display of Venetian genius that ran from the Bellinis to Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. Disapproval of Tiepolo was high-toned; his work did not accord with the moralizing grandeur of a later Neoclassicism, still less with the assumptions of Realism. It was rococo, compliant, theatrical and somehow frivolous. It celebrated a city in deep decline and praised a whole string of sometimes pretentious and reactionary patrons. And so forth.

Much of this was true, and none of it matters in the least today. One has to take Tiepolo on his own terms. He wanted, he said, to "please noble, rich people." So did every artist in Europe until the late 19th century. He was working in a tradition and adding to it. His borrowings from the past were inspired, not passive or academic. His great model was Veronese--indeed, his contemporaries called him "Veronese reborn"--and other artists influenced him too. He was acutely style-conscious, and as alert as a magpie. But the effect of his work ran on into the future.

Though Tiepolo worked nearly all his life in Venice, he spent his last eight years in Madrid, at the court of the enlightened, relatively liberal monarch Carlos III, who would later be Goya's first royal patron. Tiepolo's influence completely pervades Goya's early work, particularly the tapestry designs in the Prado, and it continues in the late work. The title page of Goya's Caprichos, that famous image of a dreaming man around whose head owls and bats and other monsters of the unconscious are flitting, is clearly derived from the frontispiece to Tiepolo's Scherzi di Fantasia, a gravestone infested with owls. The terrible figure of the red-capped torturer looming behind the mutilated saint in Tiepolo's Martyrdom of Saint Agatha, c. 1755, seems to predict the primal energy of Goya's giants.

This image, in all its pathos and intensity (it is, after all, one of the most sadistic moments in Catholic iconography: a woman's breasts have just been cut off and are seen on the dish held by the androgynous youth on her left), asserts something that has often been downplayed in assessments of Tiepolo--his power as a painter of sacred experience. Keith Christiansen, the Met's curator, has rightly set out to correct this by giving over a whole gallery of the Met to the religious paintings. He has revealed a deeper Tiepolo than we're used to.

Not that the decorative and allegorical paintings are shallow either. Their themes weren't original; their handling became increasingly so. Over his working life--roughly 50 years--Tiepolo didn't use any narratives in his painting that weren't already familiar. There are the figures from antiquity (Achilles, Dido, Alexander, Scipio), the heroes and heroines out of Renaissance literature (Rinaldo and Armida from Tasso's epic Gerusalemme liberata), the biblical patriarchs and Madonnas and martyrs, the allegorical figures of Virtue or Envy or the Four Continents, the flocks of putti as dense as pigeons in the piazza. All these had swarmed across every painted surface in Venice for generations before Tiepolo. But he reinvented them in terms of a spiraling, light-filled exuberance that was unparalleled in its time. No cliche or received idea, once Tiepolo was through with it, failed to come out looking newly minted.

There wasn't a mode he couldn't handle, from the sacred to the sentimental, from the epic to the pastoral, from the mythic to the slyly humorous. As with Bernini or Titian, one stands in awe of his sheer fecundity. And he could be very witty--in a discreet way. His early Apelles Painting Campaspe, c. 1726-27, shows a familiar story from Pliny: the Greek artist Apelles made a portrait of Campaspe, the mistress of Alexander the Great, which so pleased Alexander that when it was finished, he kept the painting and gave Campaspe herself to the artist. In the painting Tiepolo is Apelles, at the easel; the woman posing as Campaspe is Tiepolo's wife, Cecilia Guardi; Alexander is just an extra, a studio model. Apelles looks at her, his black servant looks at him, Alexander studies them both, and a little dog glares out at us: a circle of self-referential glances in lighthearted parody of the Antique.

Campaspe is homelier than Tiepolo's "official" women, who appear in paintings like Time Uncovering Truth, c. 1743. These, one is inclined to think, are among the first "modern" beauties in painting. Not wardrobes of flesh like Rubens' goddesses, not pneumatic dolls like Boucher's nymphs, they are (relatively) slender, blond to redhead, and have the minxy arrogance and perfectly toned skin of runway models, inaccessible, gazing down from their nests of vapor in the blue-rinsed sky above. In Tiepolo, the women always seem to be running the show; his emblematic heroes like Rinaldo, by comparison, look almost effeminate.

Tiepolo loved such ironies and reversals; they were part of the code of his imagination. Out of the traditions of Venetian painting, he taught himself to be one of the most audacious space composers in the history of art, capable of dissolving a solid ceiling into light and vapor. But the distanced, self-aware theatrics of his style--his parade of visual language as a source of delight--make him look modern, even though there isn't an artist today who could begin to rival that virtuosity.

Monday, Feb. 24, 1997

For a few years now, "outsider art"--meaning the work of amateur artists with no access to the art world as a system--has been a rising vogue in America. Each winter a whole fair is dedicated to it in New York City, and there isn't a scribbling schizophrenic, crotcheting aunt or suburban obsessive constructing replicas of the Eiffel Tower from wooden toothpicks in his New Jersey basement who can be deemed altogether immune to discovery by dealers. There's no mystery about why this should be so, since a) the art market has run out of new "movements," while b) there has been a slight backlash against the star system of the art world and the excesses of its market, causing a new ripple of pseudo-penitential interest in the anonymous, the amateurish, the "naive" or "incorrupt" artist. Having run out of external primitives, America must find internal ones, and there are plenty to go around.

One of them--now become one of the stars of an anti-star system--lived and died in Chicago. Reclusive, poor and harmlessly mad, Henry Darger (1892-1973) was one of the legion of those who fall through the cracks in American life, never to emerge again. Brought up from age eight in the miseries of Catholic boys' homes (and later in an asylum for feebleminded children, from which he managed to escape at 16), he supported himself for decades doing menial work in several Catholic hospitals. Intensely, not to say neurotically, pious, he went to Mass as often as five times a day. For the last 40 years of his life he dwelled in a small rented room on Chicago's North Side, from which he would timorously sally forth to collect street trash. After his pauper's death, hundreds of empty Pepto-Bismol bottles and nearly a thousand balls of string were found in his room. He had no friends and talked to himself incessantly in various voices. He did, however, have a secret life of disconcerting size and visionary intensity. Its traces were found after his death by his landlord, a photographer named Nathan Lerner, who preserved them. Some of them--63 watercolors--are on view through April 27 in a show curated by Stephen Prokopoff at the Museum of American Folk Art in Manhattan.

The work of Darger's life was a saga titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnean War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. He wrote it in longhand, and then typed it out; the typescript ran to more than 15,000 pages. It is a seemingly endless, repetitious and obsessively detailed narrative of child martyrdom, massacre and Edenic innocence set on an imaginary planet largely populated by moppets of six to 10.

One of its nations, Glandelinia, is villainously cruel and built on child slavery. The good country of Abbiennia, on the other hand, is pious, Catholic and freedom loving, and it goes to war against the Glandelinians to liberate the tots. In its struggles it is led by seven little princesses called the Vivian sisters (shades of Enid Blyton and Ethel M. Dell!). They are aided by benign dragonlike beasts called Blengins. Virtue triumphs in the end--over whole landscapes of child corpses. Since Darger probably began writing the work between 1910 and 1912, it's likely that his unreadable Iliad of two nations contending over slavery was a delayed response to the great trauma affecting his father's generation, the American Civil War.

He illustrated it--copiously. All of Darger's paintings served this obsessive narrative, beginning with small portraits of imaginary generals and developing into 12-ft.-long scrolls, done in watercolor and collage on joined sheets of paper. Darger had no formal training, and as far as is known he never visited a museum, although there are faint signs that he might have seen reproductions of Gauguin. He made it all up as he went along, according to the dictates of his compulsion. Since he couldn't draw the human body, he traced his muffin heroines and victims from children's books, comic strips and advertisements. He would then give the naked ones tiny penises and sometimes, even more puzzling, horns.

Bizarre obsessions don't make interesting art in themselves, but Darger had genuine talent beyond them, particularly in his power of formal arrangement and his sense of color. At their best, his friezes of androgynous Shirley Temploids hold the long scroll format beautifully, with a fine sense of interval and grouping. With the big, delicate flowers and butterflies alternating with weird, cavernous landscapes, searchlight rays and puffs of rifle smoke, they are like a skewed version of Kate Greenaway's Victorian illustrations. The pale, blooming color is rarely less than inventive, and it can break out into a startling decorative richness--as in Two Spangled Blengins, showing a pair of dragons with striped and polka-dotted wings hovering protectively around a cutout of a little girl.

It would be easy in these prurient days to think of Darger merely as a compulsive old pervert--a sort of Poussin of pedophilia. (One art-historian-cum-psychiatrist opined in the New York Times that "psychologically, Darger was undoubtedly a serial killer," a wildly irresponsible judgment, since practically nothing is known about his character, and in any case, he never harmed a fly; much the same--and on the same evidence--could be said about the authors of the Old Testament.)

It makes more sense to relate his work, in all its extreme, inward-directed fantasies of evil and innocence, to Darger's main lifeline, the Catholic faith. Catholic iconography, as anyone knows who is even briefly exposed to it (and Darger was marinated in its kitsch forms for 70 years), is suffused with Massacres of the Innocents, scenes of the roasting, flaying and disemboweling of idealized martyrs, sinners in hellfire and visions of a countervailing Paradise. Rummaging back through his fantasies for redemption of his own wretchedly maimed childhood, Darger was able to bind up his wounds with his religious fixations. This, in the end, is what gave his art a power that did not exist in his life.

Monday, Mar. 24, 1997

Exiles and Emigres," the exhibition running through May 11 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is a fine example of a genre that often and easily goes wrong: the politically didactic art show. Its curator, Stephanie Barron, in 1991 created a survey named "Degenerate Art." Her subject then was the censorship, repression and persecution of modern artists in Hitler's Germany, culminating in the infamous "Entartete Kunst" ("Degenerate Art") show of 1937, in which hundreds of works by artists from Oskar Kokoschka to Henri Matisse were pilloried with insulting wall labels. "Exiles and Emigres" is the sequel to Barron's earlier exhibition. With her associate, the German scholar Sabine Eckmann, Barron sets out to describe the exodus of European modernist artists (and architects, musicians, scholars, photographers and writers) from Germany and France to refuge in England and America.

They were, of course, the lucky ones. Between 1933 and 1944, America's record in admitting refugees from Nazism was dismal, a moral blot. Less than half the already stingy immigrant quotas were filled because of the timidity of Franklin Roosevelt and the pigheaded xenophobia of his Under Secretary of State Breckinridge Long. Those in the arts had no special exemptions, of course; but by a combination of stubbornness, string pulling, blind luck and the help of a tiny number of devotees and friends in the U.S., some did get through, settling for the most part in Manhattan and Los Angeles. Among them, from Paris, were Fernand Leger, Marc Chagall, Piet Mondrian, Jacques Lipchitz and the core group of Surrealists who went to New York City: Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Yves Tanguy, Andre Masson and Roberto Matta. From Germany, Kokoschka, Kurt Schwitters and the Dada collagist John Heartfield reached London, while Max Beckmann, Josef Albers and George Grosz made it to America.

Hitler, one might say, had presented the Allies with an immense cultural gift, not that everyone appreciated it. And it wasn't just painters and sculptors. After the Bauhaus, the leading experimental visual-arts school in Germany, was suppressed, some of its leading lights--Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy--moved to America, where their example and teaching changed its architecture, making New York City and Chicago the epicenters of the postwar International Style. And the academic study of art history in America, which had been fairly larval before the 1930s, was transformed by German-Jewish and Austrian-Jewish refugees like Erwin Panofsky and Richard Krautheimer--despite the endemic anti-Semitism of many American universities.

This was a remarkable chapter in American cultural history, and one worth recalling today, as the air grows thicker with politically opportunistic denunciations of the immigrant--as though America was ever anything but an immigrant society. Barron's timing is impeccable, but this is not the kind of show that offers a continuous visual feast or a crescendo of visual achievement. It is heavy (and has to be) with information, pamphlets, books, press clippings, old exhibition catalogs. It comes up with some intensely interesting and little-known figures, such as Varian Fry, the Scarlet Pimpernel of cultural rescue, who after 1940 ran an emergency committee whose task, as he put it, was "to bring the political and intellectual refugees out of France before the Gestapo got them...I had no experience in refugee work, and none in underground work. But I accepted the assignment because...I believed in the importance of democratic solidarity."

Given the subsequent fame that many of the artists enjoyed, one is apt to suppose that their emigre life (especially in America) was secure, but actually it depended on stipends, teaching jobs and ad hoc support arranged by dealers--many of them emigres themselves, like Curt Valentin--and by a few museum officials, notably Alfred Barr Jr. of Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art. Visas, stamps and bureaucratic routines took on a disproportionate significance, as they always do for the marginal. After the U.S. entered the war in 1941, the foreignness of some artists counted against them even more: the Hungarian photographer Andre Kertesz fell under suspicion of being a spy, and Max Ernst was briefly declared an enemy alien. It wasn't easy to keep a group together in exile: the Surrealists found this in New York City, which had none of the informal meetingplaces they were used to in Paris.

It is idle to expect that artists and writers, torn from their context and milieu and dropped by the fortunes of war into a strange society, would easily continue to produce their best work. One who did was Mondrian, whose years in New York culminated in the wonderful Broadway Boogie-Woogie paintings, which couldn't be borrowed for this show. Beckmann painted some of his greatest allegories after 1937, when he fled to Amsterdam. Among them: Birds' Hell, 1938, his one clearly political work, a lurid scene of martyrdom with a bird-headed torturer carving parallel stripes on the back of a sacrificial prisoner (Beckmann himself?) while figures in the background throw up their arms in a collective Nazi salute. Some painters, like Andre Masson, were essentially unchanged (at least in their work) by American refuge--although the iconic, "primitive" violence and sexuality of Massons like The Seeded Earth, 1942, had a considerable effect on American painters, especially the young Jackson Pollock.

Other artists, however, were already a little past their prime. Ernst's paintings in America, with their ambiguous figures emerging like dream images from runny, blotted, metamorphic landscapes, hardly compare with his work in the 1920s. And though Chagall's Yellow Crucifixion, 1943, swarms with images of contemporary loss and persecution--the burning shtetl, the fleeing refugees, the sinking torpedoed ship--its formal softness indicates the turn his work would take after the war toward pious ethno-kitsch.

For some the new context of exile provided a degree of artistic stimulus. In London, Kokoschka got to know--largely through his Marxist friend the refugee German art historian Francis Klingender--the tradition of English caricature, the mordant images of Hogarth and Gillray; they are reflected in such paintings as Anschluss--Alice in Wonderland, 1942, with its trio of figures, the appeaser Neville Chamberlain, a German soldier and an Austrian Catholic bishop, imitating the Chinese monkeys that see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. And the ever alert Salvador Dali managed to include a number of proto-Pop American images in his pictures when working in the U.S. Painted just after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, his Melancholy Atomic and Uranic Idyll, 1945, has a bomber in it as well as the first Yank baseball player to turn up in a Surrealist picture.

The exiles most deeply affected by American culture were not painters at all but writers, musicians and directors, from Bertolt Brecht to Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Lubitsch and Thomas Mann, who gravitated to Los Angeles, worked fitfully but sometimes successfully for the movies and for a while between the Anschluss and the McCarthy years made that palmy city into an extension of the Berlin, the Vienna they had lost. "It is wonderful here on the Pacific, and life is a thousand times better here than in New York," wrote the great director Max Reinhardt to his son. "But I grew up on the fourth balcony of the Burgtheater..."

That was the problem: so often, the natives didn't know who these people really were, or treat them with the deference they felt they had earned. In one of the excellent catalog essays for "Exiles and Emigres," the writer Lawrence Weschler compares their idea of themselves to "Roman nobility in the rustic stubbornly patronizing and aloof as the locals were sometimes naive and gauche." The dachshund story sums them up--as it does the situation of most exiles in America in the late 1930s and '40s. Two dachshunds meet on the palisade in Santa Monica, California, and schmooze about their fortunes. "Here, it's true, I'm a dachshund," says one to the other. "But in the old country I was a Saint Bernard!"

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Monday, Mar. 31, 1997

When Willem de Kooning died last week at the age of 92, it did not come as a surprise; he had succumbed to senile dementia years before, and a sort of deathwatch had settled over the art world as it observed, at a distance, the slow sinking of the last Abstract Expressionist. Now they were all definitively gone, the artists who put American art on the world map after 1945: Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and the transplanted Dutchman who jumped ship into the New World in 1926 and settled in New York as an illegal alien. Fortunately for American art, the immigration officials never caught up with de Kooning.

He was born and raised in Rotterdam, where his father Leendert de Kooning was a liquor distributor and his mother Cornelia Nobel--reputedly a woman of fearsome toughness--ran a sailors' bar on the waterfront. He studied at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts in the 1920s. It often used to be said that de Kooning got an extensive training in classical draftsmanship there. This wasn't true. What he wanted to be was a commercial artist, an illustrator--to do the kinds of illustrations he had seen in American magazines.

This early background helps explain the irrepressible fondness for popular culture--cigarette ads, Marilyns and so forth--that kept surfacing in his work in the 1950s, to the annoyance of some American critics. De Kooning was never a "pure" artist, partly because he was not trained to be one. But that was what enabled him to connect with America in a way few avant-garde painters had. He loved the lushness, the grittiness, the obtrusive weirdness of American cultural vernaculars. Though by the end of the '50s, laden with celebrity, he had become the man for younger artists to beat, it is impossible to imagine Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and some of the younger Pop artists developing their visions except in response to his, or to disentangle their revolt against his gestural, richly inflected touch from their homage to it.

All art builds on earlier art, de Kooning's no less than most. Part of its strength was in its rootedness. The big senior influences on his early American work were Ingres, Miro and Picasso--and among his contemporaries, the tragically fated Gorky, who would kill himself in 1948. "I am glad that it is about impossible to get away from his powerful influence," de Kooning wrote soon af-ter Gorky's death, and the Armenian painter's recurved, taut line, describing edge and implying volume in a single gesture, was preserved in the Dutchman's work. In fact, de Kooning's filial relation to Gorky resembled one played out in American art a century before: that of Frederic Church, the great landscapist, to his teacher Thomas Cole.

De Kooning, however, was inherently a corporeal artist. His best work had a wonderful libidinousness, a way of using the body of paint to access and encompass the body of the world. To call it abstract, even when it was most so, is to ignore this. In what was probably his finest painting, Excavation, 1950, one sees desire at full stretch: every form carries its physical freight--elbow, groin, folded belly, thigh, slipping and jostling in the paint as though mud wrestling in pigment. De Kooning could find metaphors of energy that none of his contemporaries could rival. And when he carried his "impurity" beyond the decorum of abstraction, as in the great women of the early to mid-'50s, he produced some extraordinarily intense images--funny, monstrous and laden with anxiety, rendered with a kind of desperate verve. "I find I can paint pretty young girls," he remarked, "yet when it is finished I always find they are not there, only their mothers"--more likely his own mother Cornelia, that coarse dockland sibyl.

It would be hard to pretend that de Kooning's output in the '60s and '70s, after he moved to East Hampton, on Long Island, measured up to the qualities of this earlier work, although his reputation by then had grown to near mythic proportions. (So did his prices: in 1989, just before the great art-market bubble burst, $20.1 million was paid at auction for a 1955 painting, Interchange.) De Kooning was a tough bird, but no talent could have been unaffected by the scale of his alcoholic bouts, and the suds-and-mayonnaise color and scatty marking of his later work are in sharp contrast to the fierce, free concision of the earlier. Most problematic of all, naturally, are the paintings--currently on view at New York City's Museum of Modern Art--that were done in the '80s, after his mind was completely gone and he had to rely on assistants to do everything but move his arm across the canvas. These spectral, vacuous confections of ribbony paint are among the saddest things ever made by a once major artist.

Still, not even they can detract from the brilliant achievements of de Kooning's earlier years. An American Picasso? Surely not. But there was no European de Kooning either.

Wednesday, May. 21, 1997
By Christopher Porterfield

To set out to produce an entire special issue of TIME with a writing staff of one would seem the sheerest folly. But if the focus of the issue is American art and the writer is Robert Hughes, then it begins to look like wisdom. For nobody comes to the subject better primed than Hughes. He has observed the U.S. art scene firsthand since becoming TIME's art critic in 1970. Three years ago, he embarked on a historical, eight-part TV series about it, also called American Visions, which is airing on pbs from May 28 to June 18. In conjunction with the series, he turned out a copiously illustrated, 250,000-word book under the same title, which has just been published by Knopf.

As an Australian, Hughes enjoys a special vantage point on America's visual culture. "You need to be an alien to do this sort of semi-anthropology," he says. "You need to be both inside and outside the subject." Knowledgeable as he was when he started, Hughes still found that his years of working on American Visions taught him a few things about our art--and our country. One lesson, learned while shooting the TV series: "The rarest thing in the Great American Outdoors is a moment of silence. Every time we turned on a camera in some national park or other, a chain saw began howling a mile away, or children in beanies appeared over a nearby rock asking what we were up to."

Hughes' remarkable capacity to balance his reviewing for TIME with ambitious outside projects is nothing new. American Visions, the book, follows such Hughes best sellers as Culture of Complaint and The Fatal Shore; the TV series takes its place with his 1981 series (and companion volume) The Shock of the New. Now that he has brought off the feat of writing a whole magazine, what does Hughes have in mind for the future? Well, he's thinking about a book on Goya--but he's in no hurry to get to it. "The donkey," he says, "needs to graze a while after dragging such a load up such a hill." All of us who have worked with him on this issue know that the climb has been steep and hard. But we're sure you'll agree that the view from the top is splendid.

Wednesday, May. 21, 1997

I think it of very great importance," wrote Gouverneur Morris to George Washington in 1790, advising him on how to furnish the presidential mansion, "to fix the taste of our country properly...everything about you should be substantially good and majestically plain, made to endure." Modern Americans are taught to love luxury, to think of it as a reward for success. Those of the late 18th century were more apt to distrust it as a vice. They associated it with frivolity, decadence--colonial rule. Virtue showed itself in plainness, explicitness, pragmatism, "making do," an unfussed directness of craftsmanship. There was, as the phrase went, an "American grain."

Plainness ran deeper than taste. It sometimes grew out of religious conviction--formal severity was built into the Puritan creed, for instance. But it also sprang from the social necessities of American life: the need to make and mend things for oneself, to fit and adapt to local materials. And it acquired a political dimension as metaphor.

This godly plainness, the desire for which was embedded so deep in early American identity, runs through much folk art. It is in the fiercely conservative center-square and diamond-in-the-square Lancaster Amish quilts, with their magnificent sobriety of color--a soft, swaddling minimalism, America's first major abstract art. And then, of course, there are the Shakers, who reached America in 1774 but whose celebrated furniture attained its apogee of design between 1820 and 1850. "Hands to work," said a Shaker motto, "hearts to God." Work was prayer, and nothing "worldly," meaning ostentatious or decorative, was allowed, beyond a discreet molding to the top of a cabinet or an elegant taper to a turned leg.

The first really significant American portraitist, John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), appealed to these values. The hard, uningratiating realism of his portraits of Boston's notables--not just the prosperous Tories but dissenters like Samuel Adams and Paul Revere--was more like some French neoclassical painting than like English portraiture of the time. His clients liked Copley in part because everything in his work, from a nailhead in a chair to the exact gleam on red mahogany, was earnestly weighed and measured. In his candor and curiosity, he refused to edit out the warts and wens, the pinched New England lips or even (as several portraits show) the pockmarks that were a common disfigurement in an age before vaccination. Eighteenth century America did not have today's obsession with the cosmetic.

Copley's sense of empirical realism would be carried forward by other painters. It wasn't so long ago that people thought of John James Audubon (1785-1851) as a gifted illustrator, an "ornithological artist"--but he was far more than that. He was a great formal painter with (almost literally, one might say) an eagle eye. To create his great work The Birds of America, four volumes showing 497 species, life-size and engraved in full color on the largest sheets of paper then available, he would shoot each bird and wire up its corpse on a board in an attitude that seemed both aesthetically pleasing and full of information: the bird became a sketch for its own monument.

This steady passion for description and enumeration was shared by other artists very unlike Audubon. The Luminist painter Fitz Hugh Lane, for instance, put great effort into his homages to that complex machine the American ship--as in Boston Harbor, 1855-58. It continued in the uncompromising realism of Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), whose art was built on pragmatic rigor and whose pictures--especially the studies of rowers on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia--are marvels of perspective construction, down to the last ripple and reflection in the water. "A boat," he remarked, "is the hardest thing I know to put into perspective. It is so much like the human figure, there is something alive about it. It requires a heap of thinking and calculating to build a boat." Or to paint one, the act of painting being a sort of building.

Under the stress of industrialization and the movement of the center of American life from the country to the city, the presence of the American grain began to fade. It would reappear in art in two ways: as an object of nostalgia or by incorporation into the language of Modernism. The classic example of the first is one of the few pictures that practically every American knows, at least in reproduction: American Gothic, 1930, by the Regionalist painter Grant Wood (1892-1941).

As for the second, the ideal of spareness and plainness as representing something peculiarly American is reflected in some of the exquisitely poetic boxes made by Joseph Cornell (1903-73), such as The Hotel Eden, 1945--whose tiny strict architecture of white compartments suggests an unsullied purity, the spirit of an idealized New England. It exists strongly in some of the work of America's greatest Modernist sculptor, David Smith (1906-65), particularly in his series of Cubi--welded stainless-steel boxes. One may see it very clearly in the work of a contemporary artist like Martin Puryear, created, at a very high level of craft, in wood.

But the most forceful recapitulation of the Shaker spirit of radical plainness is in the work of the sculptor Donald Judd (1928-94), particularly the polished-aluminum boxes he made in his last years. Judd was the doyen of "high" American Minimalism: inorganic materials, geometric rigidity, a don't-touch address to the eye alone. His work's denial of the sensuous is deeply American. Except that in its utter secularity, it represents only the husk of the impulses that lay behind earlier forms of American plainness.

Wednesday, May. 21, 1997

The U.S. is in many ways the most pious and morally obsessed of nations outside the Islamic world. Recent polls suggest that 96% of Americans believe in a personal God and that 78% of them think their consciousness will survive death and go, after judgment, to heaven or hell. Its earliest colonists in the Northeast--Pilgrims, Puritans, Quakers, "Pennsylvania Dutch"--were all seeking to flee European persecution and corruption (as they saw it) and trying to set up various kinds of religious Utopias. The main tool of Catholic Spain's colonization in the Southwest was the Franciscan mission. And yet the paradoxical fact is that the U.S. has never produced a substantial body of formal religious art: many churches, many sects, many cults, but pitifully few images of enduring aesthetic value.

Puritanism produced nothing in the way of religious art except some tombstones and a few peculiar carvings, known as spirit stones, meant to repel devils. This wasn't because the Puritans hated art in principle--they didn't, as their portraiture, decorated furniture and other artifacts show--but because they disapproved of images of God and the prophets as "popish," too close to the idolatry they associated with the hated religion of Rome. They were, after all, the direct descendants of the iconoclasts who had destroyed nearly all the medieval art of England. The early New Englanders were people of the Word, not the Image. Truth lived in the Word, but the Image could betray and deceive. Hence, no religious art. There would be religious folk art--of a muted kind. But it is practically impossible to find the face of God the Father anywhere in Anglo-American painting or sculpture before 1900. So the American tendency was for transcendental urges to appear in nondoctrinal ways, linked not to iconography or biblical narrative but to individual visions--which were, of course, often steeped in religious imagery.

The Puritans weren't alone in their suspicion of the icon. The next wave of settlers in the Northeast, the Quakers, led by William Penn, despised most arts. Music was a distraction, poetry (beyond the simplest hymns) a snare. So the lack of Quaker painting is hardly a surprise, though some artists--most conspicuously Benjamin West--came from Quaker families and left the faith. The only painter who lived and died a Quaker was the Philadelphia "primitive" Edward Hicks (1780-1849), and he felt moral qualms about it.

Folk art, outsider art, call it what you will, has always been one of the traditional American homes of the visionary. Perhaps its single most intense expression in American sculpture--or environment making--was the three-dimensional work assembled between 1950 and 1964 by a Washington janitor named James Hampton, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly. The visionary urge appeared less often in professional art, until Modernism arrived. There are elements of it in the work of Thomas Cole and in the dark, brooding landscapes of Ralph Blakelock (1847-1919), who was to suffer a depressive breakdown and spend the last 20 years of his life in a mental hospital. But the exemplar of the visionary state was Blakelock's exact contemporary, Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917).

Ryder was an erratic painter, and his reputation rests on perhaps a dozen works, most of which are his famous "marines"--dark, concentrated images of the fishing smacks of his New England coastal youth, pitted against wind and wave. They concentrate the Romantic terrors of seascape; in them Ryder showed he was the Samuel Palmer of Ishmael's "watery part of the world." Some of his work, particularly the figure paintings, verged on kitsch, but that only made him seem more like another American visionary, Edgar Allan Poe--so overwrought, yet so influential. Though Ryder was never (in his own view) a Modernist, a succession of American artists from Marsden Hartley to Jackson Pollock and beyond would look up to him as an emblem of aesthetic purity, a holy sage.

Other early American Modernists, like Arthur Dove, explored this landscape mysticism too. This is not surprising, since one of the great influences on Dove, Hartley and others was the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, whose tract Concerning the Spiritual in Art was published in 1912.

Abstract Expressionism, the movement that set American art on the world map after World War II, was to a large extent the product of this deeply implanted instinct for the spiritual and the visionary. Sometimes it was drenched in a yearning for nature as a source of metaphor, as in the pantheistic paintings of Arshile Gorky; sometimes its sources lay hidden in the unconscious, as with Pollock. Except for de Kooning and Franz Kline, most of the Abexers--Gorky, Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb, Clyfford Still--saw the socially grounded activist art of the 1930s, whether Nativist like the Regionalism of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton or left-wing Social Realist, as provincial, shallow and irrelevant. "Poor art for poor people," sniffed Gorky. They wanted to dive deeper. They valued the primordial, the spiritual, the primitive and the archetypal as sources of inspiration.

"I can call spirits from the vasty deep," boasts Glendower in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I, to which Hotspur sensibly replies, "Why, so can I, or so can any man: But will they come when you do call for them?" Not always, certainly. But often enough to endow American art with the means of expressing something that lies deep under the traditional materialism of American life.

Wednesday, May. 21, 1997

Around 1715 a German immigrant artist named Justus Kuhn painted one of the young sons of the Maryland oligarchy, Henry Darnall III: a 10-year-old baroque doll, gazed at by an adoring slave boy in a silver collar. The balustrade behind him and the formal gardens and pavilions behind that are complete fictions. No properties in America looked like this. Kuhn was meeting the illusory desire of Colonial gentry to seem like important extensions of European culture. It would be a recurrent fantasy. Fifty years later, in Boston, one sees John Singleton Copley doing much the same in some of his portraits. But in another hundred years, with the growth of American wealth, grandeur began to get real.

The American appetite for it reached its apogee in the three decades from the mid-1870s to the early 1900s. This has since been christened, with every reason, the Gilded Age: the time of huge, unfettered industrial expansion; of unassailable and mutually interlocking trusts, combines and cartels; of rampant money acting under laws it wrote for itself. "Get rich," wrote Mark Twain sardonically, "dishonestly if we can, honestly if we must." From this culture of greed arose the primal names of American business: Rockefeller (oil), Carnegie and Frick (steel), Vanderbilt (railroads), the Goulds, Astors, Fisks and, towering over them all, the magister ludi of saber-toothed capitalism, J. Pierpont Morgan. After 1870, America lost all its Puritan inhibitions about the gratuitous display of surplus wealth.

The superrich built themselves palaces on New York City's Fifth and Park avenues, which were much satirized. But the red-hot site of Gilded Age extravagance was Newport, Rhode Island, where the very rich congregated in the summer. Here, in what they called with false modesty their "cottages," they engaged in rituals of consumption and display that were so extreme, competitive and self-referential that they eclipsed anything done in private American building before or since. Newport confirms the piercing insight of Henry Adams, lamenting the crassness of his time: "The American wasted more money more recklessly than anyone ever did before; he spent more to less purpose than any extravagant court-aristocracy; he had no sense of relative values."

The Bernini of the swells was Richard Morris Hunt (1827-95), the most influential American architect of the 19th century. The poor have always wondered how the rich live. But more to the point in America, the rich have always wondered too. Wealth on the scale of the 1880s in the U.S. was still uncharted territory. Its signs could get crossed. So the plutocrat needed an architect to create a seamless etiquette of shared ostentation, with variants, and that was what Hunt did with Newport.

There was, however, a more positive and socially responsible side to this. The "American Renaissance" also produced some of the finest public buildings of the 19th century. There had been noble churches in the U.S. before, but none as boldly resplendent in space and decor as Henry Hobson Richardson's Trinity Church (1872-97) in Boston. There had been libraries too, but none as ambitious as the great Boston Public Library (1887-95), designed by McKim, Mead & White. The library was the first major public building in the neo-Italian Renaissance style that was to become de rigueur in formal architecture. It expressed the praiseworthy idea that the citizen is the reason for the state; that public architecture should be generous, bold and finely built.

Patrons, architects and artists didn't just want to imitate the Renaissance; they hoped to outdo it. Americans could take the trophies of high European culture and make them their own. Above all, they connected to the Renaissance by buying it. The Gilded Age began the process whereby the museum began to supplant the church as the emblematic focus of American cities. The suction of American capital was turned on the old collections of Europe. Out of it came some of the greatest museums in the world, from the encyclopedic Metropolitan in New York to the choice Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

This epoch of self-assertion through the arts, especially architecture, flourished until the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Indeed, it continued thereafter, for the New Deal conceived of the vast public work as an expression of shared potential, communal will and can-do. Its epitome, though, was the skyscraper, that uniquely American form. As a symbol of Promethean energy, the skyscraper has never been surpassed. It is the architecture of smooth-flowing congestion, an American ideal, and it took ever more glorious forms in such designs as the Empire State Building and the great, self-sufficient urban complex of Rockefeller Center.

After World War II, nothing of such magnitude would be tried in America; the triumph of the glass-box International Style meant the death of ornament and a recoil from "fine" material. Nor, in the '70s and '80s, was the cheap pasteboard revivalism of Postmodernist historical quotation going to revive a sense of grandeur. Moreover, with the exception of various memorials, and of such projects as Richard Meier's six-building Getty Center in Los Angeles (to be completed later this year), the level of grand commissions for public benefit flattened out.

What had gone wrong? Perhaps the confidence of patronage, in a time when it was increasingly difficult to create public art because of the erosion of shared public values; perhaps the privacy and obscurity of so much of the art itself; perhaps the shift of social discourse toward the moving image and away from the static one. More likely a mixture of all three. In the '80s and '90s, things would get big and expensive, but no longer grand.

Wednesday, May. 21, 1997

The energies of cultural periods don't last forever. The Italian Renaissance came to an end--not suddenly, like a snapping rope, but gradually, through fraying, mutation, replacement. And one would need to be an extreme optimist--some would say, a willfully blind one as well--to think that the big energies of American Modernism are still with us. Which is not to say that there are not plenty of gifted and interesting visual artists in America, doing valuable work at the end of the 20th century. But cultures do decay and run out of steam; and the visual culture of late American Modernism, once so strong, buoyant and inventive, and now so harassed by its own sense of defeated expectations, may be no exception to that fact. Modern art was institutionalized almost as soon as it arrived in America; it got its first dedicated museum in 1929, a mere 16 years after the unholy fuss caused by the Armory Show. Americans, more than any other people, came to believe that art progresses, that its value to human consciousness lies in renovation, seen as therapeutic in itself. In the arts at present, this cherished belief is falling apart.

One can view this with a degree of calm, if not with complacency. It seems unnatural or disappointing only to those whose expectations have been formed by vanguardism. Over the sourness generated by the much advertised "culture wars" of the early '90s hang the famous lines from Yeats: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity." But one should also recall the equally durable words of that all-American girl Scarlett O'Hara: After all, tomorrow is another day.

Wednesday, May. 21, 1997

In American art, social memory can surface in odd, oblique ways. There is no big commemorative painting--or none of any merit--that shows a battle from the worst trauma in the country's history, the Civil War. In fact, the best Civil War painting doesn't show a war and has only one figure in it. It is The Veteran in a New Field, 1865, by Winslow Homer (1836-1910). In an earlier America, there wasn't even much past to remember; there are no Puritan monuments, for instance, except for individual gravestones. Memory had to be imported. This was very much the point of the style that became the official architectural language of the Revolution: neoclassicism, based on ancient Roman models.

The man who brought it in was Thomas Jefferson, in his role as architect. Educated in Williamsburg, Virginia, he despised its provincial-English buildings as "rude, mis-shapen piles." Jefferson found his model for a new American architecture in the south of France: a Roman temple, the so-called Maison Carree, or Square House, which he felt exemplified the candid virtues of the old Roman state. It became the basis of his design for the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, completed in 1799. It was the first temple-form state building to be erected anywhere in 1,500 years--new because it was old, commemorating the past in the interest of the future, a model for architecture in the new democracy. And he followed it with the greatest of his designs, the rotunda and pavilions of the University of Virginia, his "academical village" (1817-26).

The American Revolution gave artists a new subject: now that America had a history with its own large repercussions on the world, and a cast of heroes and Founding Fathers to match, it needed icons of both. The test case was George Washington, who died in 1799. Paintings of him were in fairly abundant supply. The record for Washingtons, however, was set by the gifted and profligate Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) after the President first sat for him in Philadelphia in 1795. Stuart painted at least 114 of them, 111 of them replicas of three originals that he made from life.

By the end of the 1820s the interest in commemorating political heroes had largely dried up, and there was no enthusiasm for history painting. Landscape held center stage. Then as now, Americans were incurious about their own history; they were fixated on the future. The sense of commemoration would hardly revive until after the murder of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Lincoln's death seems to mark the point at which Americans began to feel a public emotion that, in their pride at their newness and possibility, they had not felt before. It was nostalgia, a sense of irretrievable loss. Some writers and painters, at least, began to sense a fault line in American history--the way in which America's eager anticipation of the future might turn into a more doubt-ridden view of progress, after the fratricidal horrors of the Civil War. To Henry Adams, writing in the early 1900s, the assassination seemed to have thrown Americans into a state of mind without connection to the past; it was a secular analogy to the death of God.

Perhaps the most interesting painter to reflect this mood was John Frederick Peto (1854-1907), who specialized in eye-fooling, hypernaturalistic still life. In his work, the image of the martyred Lincoln recurs frequently, to the point of obsession, usually taking the form of a daguerreotype pinned to the board or pushed under a tape. Peto was praised for what Americans traditionally liked, skill and illusionistic power (How the hell did he do that?). But his deeper anxiety and the hints of an imperiled social order, reflected in the entropy of his objects, were lost on viewers.

The great 19th century commemorator in sculpture was the Irish-born Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907). His deepest memorial was dedicated to the Union Army's Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who led the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, made up entirely of black volunteers, in a death charge on the ramparts of Fort Wagner in South Carolina. It is an extraordinary work, not only because of its sculptural mastery and its integration of Renaissance motifs into a modern matrix, but also for its content: one of the very few 19th century American treatments of blacks in art that neither mocks nor condescends but treats them as fellow human beings in their own full vitality and presence.

Later American art contains elegies of a more personal kind, right down to the various works of art that reflect the grief of the AIDS epidemic. Among the most moving utterances of personal loss, though the most heavily coded, is Portrait of a German Officer, 1914, by Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), evoking his homosexual lover, who was killed at the start of World War I. By contrast, Andy Warhol's Gold Marilyn Monroe, 1962, illustrates America's yearning for the sainthood of remote, unknowable celebrity.

But what of formal commemoration--of heroes, wars, political events? Many would concur that the one completely successful U.S. memorial in the past quarter-century is in Washington and commemorates the American dead of the Vietnam War. It was designed by a then unknown 21-year-old architecture student named Maya Lin, and when it was chosen in 1981, it was met by a barrage of criticism from those on the right who felt that because it didn't have bronze figures in it, it somehow dishonored the dead. It consisted of nothing but the names of the 58,000 dead, engraved on continuous black granite walls. But it has proved to be the most respected, the most socially used war memorial in America, where people come to leave flowers, kiss the names of the dead, make rubbings of the names: an almost purely conceptual sculpture, transcending the bitterness over the most divisive conflict in U.S. history since the Civil War, a century earlier.

Wednesday, May. 21, 1997

An appetite for the real, the pragmatic and the scientifically verifiable had long been resident in 19th century America. But it was brought to a peak in the wake of the Civil War. The journalistic eye was equal, as a transmitter of (sometimes unbearable) reality, to that of the novelist or poet; the camera replaced the draftsman in reportage. This was new. American public culture was now driven by technique--the skills that built bridges and docks and railroads, the scientific laws that underwrote Americans' conquest of their environment. There was no ghost in the machine, only the machine itself.

As the index of social reality shifted from the farm and the village to the impacted, simmering cities, a distinct visual aesthetic was bound to rise from American utilitarianism. It showed itself earliest--and most dramatically--in the art where science, material and common social needs intersected: architecture. Its great expression was the iron grid, which begat the skyscraper. The technology of cast-iron joists and columns as the skeleton of a multistory building had come from Europe, but it mutated and ramified in the U.S., especially in New York City. There early architects like Daniel Badger (1806-84) popularized it and crossed it with mass production.

The master image of America's industrial potential, however, was the Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883. Designed by John Roebling and his son Washington Roebling, built by thousands of workers laboring under perilous and sacrificial conditions on the high cables or underwater in the caissons, it was the greatest engineering feat of 19th century America and, with a central span of 1,595 ft., by far the longest suspension bridge in the world. Its soaring Gothic-arched towers also predicted the vertical city, whose chief element--the high, steel-framed palazzo block--had been adumbrated by Badger but reached its first maturity outside New York in the 1890s, in the buildings of Louis Sullivan and others.

Sullivan (1856-1924) was America's first great modern architect. It's a curious twist of fate that, having written hundreds of thousands of words about architecture, he should be known to most people today by one phrase: "Form follows function." It became the motto of all functionalist designers, but it doesn't represent Sullivan's own ideas at all. He wasn't antidecoration. He was, rather, one of the greatest designers of decorative detail, in an age that excelled in it. But he insisted on the primacy of the main masses. Both this and the love of inventive detail would form the youthful imagination of his protege, the cranky, overbearing genius who remains the outstanding American architect of the 20th century, Frank Lloyd Wright.

The art of painting does not go in tandem with those of architecture and engineering. Yet when painting aspires to a "scientific" analysis of things in sight, when the ego of the artist recedes behind the task of examination, one can at least speak of parallels. The American Realist generation of the turn of the century would not have disagreed. One of them was Thomas Anshutz (1851-1912), best known for his small factory scene, The Ironworkers' Noontime, 1880. It's a piercing image of American youth and strength, feeling its new muscle (literally) in the post-Civil War industrial surge.

This emphasis on the masculine reacted to what many Americans from the 1880s on saw as a crisis in their culture. America's business environment was abundant, booming and young. But to Realist artists and writers, its art and literature looked pious, neurasthenic and "feminized." Younger artists such as Robert Henri, John Sloan and George Luks sought vitality in what had once been called the "lower depths" of New York City. They were nicknamed the Ashcan School, and the most bravura performer among them, for a time, was George Bellows (1882-1925). Bellows' most memorable images were his fiercely macho boxing scenes, which for brutal energy outstripped anything else in American art in the 1900s.

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was the quintessential Realist painter of 20th century America, and although not all his work was based on the city--some of the most beautiful Hoppers are of rural and coastal scenes--he "got" a particular city mood as no other painter has. He liked painting seediness and abandonment. He saw it as a peculiarly American condition, the downside of excessive hope. More abstract than the Ashcan painters, he made his apartments, lobbies and cafes into space frames: abstraction was a sign for not belonging. Probably the most dystopian American images of modernity, though, were painted by a man who meant no criticism of it: Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), with his "Precisionist" industrial scenes. Culture, for Sheeler, had colonized all the space in the imagination that nature once claimed. The world of Thomas Cole was finally concreted over.

Apart from Hopper, the outstanding American painter of urban experience in the 1930s and '40s was a journalist's son and (like Hopper) a pupil of Robert Henri's: Stuart Davis (1894-1964). He defined the role of the artist as "a cool Spectator-Reporter at an Arena of Hot Events." Davis found visual equivalents to that greatest of American musical forms--which was also the greatest of African-American cultural achievements--jazz. Another artist who achieved such a synthesis was Romare Bearden (1912-88), who did it from within and delineated a kind of city-within-a-city, Harlem. Bearden tried to "establish a world through art in which the validity of my Negro experience could live and make its own logic." He was no cultural separatist--African masks and Matisse odalisques were of equal value to him--and his collages have the same direct beauty and inventive toughness as the writings of Ralph Ellison, in their common task of figuring and narrating the black experience of the American city.

Wednesday, May. 21, 1997

There are several ways in which the Puritan legacy has formed all modern Americans, no matter what the color of their skin or their ancestors' place of origin. The Puritans implanted the American work ethic and the tenacious primacy of religion. They also invented American newness--the idea of newness as the prime creator of culture. They lived in expectation of something new and very big arising: Christ's reign on earth, the Millennium. This newness (with ancient precedents that lay in the Old Testament) would bring about a new phase of world history. Newness was to Americans what antiquity was to Europeans--a sign of integrity, the mark of a special relationship to history and to God. It affirmed the idea of American exceptionalism. Puritanism, in this sense, underwrote the American Revolution with its promise of political renewal.

The arts in America did not bring forth anything much new at first, except for mid- to late-18th century furniture--and one work by Benjamin West. When he was 12, West (1738-1820) announced that his talent would make him the "companion of kings and emperors." And as a matter of fact, it did: after he settled in England in 1763, he became George III's favorite artist. His definitive work was The Death of General Wolfe, 1770. It was a history painting but recent history, recounting a British victory over the French at the Battle of Quebec only a decade earlier. And it was in "modern," late-18th century dress. It changed the English sense of decorum in heroic commemoration, the idea of what history painting could do.

Nineteenth century Americans reveled in the twin myths of "discovery" and "progress," which had been so vastly strengthened by the physical conquest of North America and the expansion of technology. Americans could make anything, solve any problem, produce a cataract of inventions. This applied everywhere but the visual arts, where taste was generally conservative. In art, people wanted visible links to the past, to established traditions that would redress the ebullient rawness of their culture. Hence the fierce objections they raised against their own more inventive artists, like Thomas Eakins. Eakins advised his students to "peer deeper into the heart of American life." No American painter worked harder to make the human clay palpable and expose it to scrutiny. He identified with scientists, many of whom he knew, and in a portrait of a surgeon, he produced what many regard as America's greatest 19th century painting, The Gross Clinic, 1875.

The big split in American taste revealed itself with the first impact of Modernist art--Cubist, Fauvist, Dada--at the scandalous Armory Show in New York in 1913. Conservatives decried Modernism as un-American, an imported madness, and connected it to the paranoia many Americans felt at the rapid change of their society under the pressure of immigration--"Ellis Island art." But early American Modernists were concerned, sometimes obsessed, with rendering peculiarly American experience. Charles Demuth (1883-1935) was fascinated by the blaring contrasts of signs and numbers on the new urban surface; John Marin (1870-1953) believed that "you cannot create a work of art unless the things you behold respond to something within you...Thus the whole city is alive." Of course, the greatest Modernist work of art in New York was the city itself: its impaction, strangeness, clamorous variety and scary dynamism--and rising from these, its magic. No Manhattan tower expressed all that better than the Chrysler Building, 1929, designed by William van Alen and, at more than 1,000 ft., briefly the tallest structure on earth.

The most radical departure in postwar American art was undoubtedly Jackson Pollock's drip painting--those skeins and lashes of pigment falling on the canvas with uncanny grace and energy. But his fellow Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning (1904-97) brought into painting a new sense of the contradictions of American culture and made erotic poetry out of them. De Kooning, the "slipping glimpser," as he called himself, was open to a constant stream of momentary impressions: smiles from Camel ads, shoulders from Ingres, pinups and Raphael--high and low, everywhere. In this way he became a bridge to a younger generation of painters, chiefly Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who carried forward his exploration of the American vernacular.

Like it or not, by 1965 Manhattan was the center of Western contemporary art in terms of collecting power, museum clout, promotional and dealing skills and, not least, the amount of talent stacked up in it. The old, genteel American suspicion of the new had vanished. The circuit with the worship of newness in the larger culture had closed. The first beneficiary of this situation was Pop Art, the first wholly accessible style of international Modernism--an art about consumption that sat up and begged to be consumed. Its epitome was Roy Lichtenstein, who emerged in the '60s with his enormously stylish renderings of the least arty art within reach--romance and adventure comic strips.

After Pop and side by side with it came impersonality--Minimalism, conceptual art and a vanguardist belief in the death of painting. But the artist who did most to break the mold of late-Modernist formalism in the '70s was a former Abstract Expressionist, Philip Guston (1913-80). His work over that decade redefined the terms of painting for a whole generation of young Americans, opening up the possibilities of the painted figure once more. In their time, Guston's paintings seemed like a kind of treason to the high-minded refusals of late Modernism, but therein lay their newness--and their influence. They confirmed that in American art refutations exist to be themselves refuted.

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Monday, Aug. 18, 1997

The National Gallery in Washington has a marvelous show this summer--"Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia: Millennium of Glory." It is by no means a rerun of a familiar subject. Most of the world's major sculptural traditions are abundantly represented in American museums--Egyptian, ancient Greek, Gothic, Italian Renaissance, Indian and Maya. Cambodian sculpture is the exception. Yet there is no doubt that in the small Southeast Asian kingdom between the 6th century and 16th century A.D., some of the greatest stone carving and bronze work in human history was made.

Very little of it has been seen in the West--mere fragments mostly, especially if one bears in mind that most Cambodian sculpture was made as decoration for temples, a small part of a larger whole, its meaning lessened when removed. Because Cambodia was annexed as a French colony in 1863 and remained one until 1953, most of the sculpture that Europeans took from it ended up in France--notably at the Musee Guimet in Paris--rather than in England, Germany or America. But to deduce the scale, continuity and sheer aesthetic majesty of Cambodian art from such fragments is like trying to reconstruct a loaf from a single crumb.

The image of Cambodian culture that haunts the West is vague and almost ineffably romantic: the royal city of Angkor, slowly abandoned under threat of Thai occupation after 1431 but still the chief symbol of Cambodian identity, one of the largest archaeological sites in the world, with its colonnades and giant water reservoirs; its huge, impassive stone faces split by tree roots; its temple mountains and crumbling pine-cone spires. Spreading over some 150 sq. mi., it has excited dithyrambs from visitors ever since the French started going there in the 19th century. "I looked up at those towers rising above me, overgrown with greenery," wrote the novelist Pierre Loti in 1912, "and I suddenly shivered with fear as I saw a giant frozen smile looming down at me.. and then another smile, over there on another tower...and then three, and then five, and then ten."

You can't put Angkor Wat in a box and ship it to Washington, but the organizers of the National Gallery's show have done the next best thing. With the cooperation of the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh and the Musee Guimet, under the general curatorial direction of the art historians Helen Jessup and Thierry Zephir, they have assembled the first full-scale traveling exhibition of classic Cambodian sculpture in more than 50 years. (A smaller show, a dress rehearsal for this one, was seen in Australia in 1992.)

The show is a dignified call for help as well as an assertion of past cultural achievement. After 30 years of civil war and the genocidal madness of the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot, Cambodia's very name reeks of slaughter. The West needs to be reminded of its immense cultural heritage, and of the struggle--against all odds--to preserve it. Only a handful of Western historians and curators, mainly in France and America, are experts in ancient Cambodian art, and its fate within Cambodia for the past few decades has skirted catastrophe. Much of it has been looted from unguarded sites for the voracious Western art market.

The civil war all but destroyed Cambodia's frail, poorly funded cultural infrastructure; French-trained Khmer curators were murdered; the National Museum was reduced to a bat-infested wreck, its roof caving in, and abandoned for four years after 1975. (It has since been partially repaired by the Australian government, but, as one of the contributors to the show's excellent catalog bluntly observes, "The museum staff lacks the expertise and resources to repair and conserve the sculpture, or to catalogue the collection. [This] can only be rectified with international help.") As if this weren't enough, a major problem around the monuments of Angkor is the land mines and other explosives sown by both the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese; some 21,000 of these have been found and defused by a French-led international task force since 1993, but plenty are left.

So there is something almost surreal in the contrast between the detachment and formal purity of Khmer sculpture and the circumstances under which so much of it precariously survives. To walk into this show is to shift gears; to be immersed in an extremely slow-moving tradition to which the idea of innovation, beloved in the West, means little or nothing. Compared with Indian sculpture, from which it ultimately derives, Cambodian art is quite restricted in its range of subject: there isn't the same bewildering pullulation of different gods. In Cambodia the same cast recurs again and again: the Buddha in his various forms; the main Hindu deities: Shiva, Vishnu, the elephant god Ganesha and so forth. And there is very little of the eroticism of Indian sculpture: bare breasts and torsos, but no full nudes, and no copulation.

Art historians divide Khmer sculpture into three long periods, starting in the 6th century to 8th century A.D., when its forms and imagery arose from Indian roots. These early images appear fully formed, without any of the archaic crudity that normally attends the birth of a style. They can be marvelously refined, like the 7th century to 8th century standing figure of the Buddha of the afterlife, the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. There is a perfect balance between the abstraction of the limbs, the rich linear detail of the costume and the benign, almost feminine roundness of this Buddha's torso.

The second period begins in 802, when the royal capital of the Khmer was established at Angkor, beside the sacred river--the "Khmer Ganges"--of Siem Reap. It was to last six centuries. The sculpture of high Angkor tends to be more severe, hieratical and augustly withdrawn than the earlier work. The face of the great 9th century Vishnu figure from the town of Siem Reap bears an imperious expression, and the god's four hands, grasping his symbolic attributes--a club for knowledge, a ball signifying the earth, a chakra or disc symbolizing power and a conch betokening water and the origins of existence--are the embodiment of serene control. Yet there is immense physical energy contained in some Khmer pieces, like the 10th century pediment from Banteay Srei, a marvel of crisp carving and design in which the epic hero Bhima is seen leaping into the air to strike down his enemy.

The grandeur of high Angkor sculpture can be sensed from the biggest fragment in the show, the head and shoulders of a colossal bronze dating from the 11th century. When complete, the figure must have been 20 ft. long: Vishnu Anantasayin, the god Vishnu in cosmic sleep, reclining on the back of the serpent Ananta, afloat on the primordial ocean. It was found by French archaeologists 60 years ago in the western baray (reservoir) of Angkor--a man-made lake five miles long--and despite its corroded and battered state, its missing eyebrows and moustache (which would have been gold), its empty eyes, it radiates an extraordinary sculptural power amounting to magnetism.

The same authority could extend to portraits of historical figures--Khmer kings. Portrait is a relative term here. There is no knowing whether the last great Angkor king, Jayavarman VII, actually looked like the stone effigy made of him in the late 12th century, and it is most unlikely that he ever sat for its sculptor. (No social prestige attached to being a Khmer sculptor, and not a single artist's name in all the 1,000 years of Cambodian art has been recorded.) Which hardly matters, since the subject of this dense, exquisitely carved image is less a man than a conception of kingship: full of presence but withdrawn in meditation, centered, and plain to the point of humility. As pure as any Brancusi, it is one of the most touching icons in all Asian sculpture. As you scan it, the remoteness of the time and the society in which it was made ceases to matter.

Monday, Oct. 13, 1997

Roy Lichtenstein, who died at 73 last week of complications arising from pneumonia, was not quite the most famous of the American Pop artists. That honor belonged to Andy Warhol, who made it somewhat dubious. Lichtenstein was always lower-key as a person, reserved, wryly courteous and not a great believer in the virtues of publicity. He neither sought nor avoided the limelight.

Born in New York City in 1923, Lichtenstein served a stint in the Air Force during World War II--which must have laid the ground of his later comic-strip images of gung-ho pilots blasting their enemies from the sky--and then, after studying art at Ohio State University, moved back East. He was a slender, elegant man who, with his beaky nose and long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, acquired in his later years an odd physical resemblance to Georgia O'Keeffe. He lived for his work, assiduously producing it on a near industrial scale--sculpture, prints, big murals, even a hull decoration for an America's Cup yacht--never making inflated claims for it, never posing as a maestro. The humor of his art came from a natural sweetness of temperament.

His breakthrough came with his first show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1962. Before long his work, as distinct from his personal "image," was the most popular of any Pop artist's. You could pick out his style underwater or a mile away, and it had none of the morbid undercurrent of Warhol's. It was its own logo. It fairly crackled with assertion and impersonality, both at once. Those Benday dots, that studied neutrality of surface, that not-so-simple love of a vernacular (romance and action comics of the '50s) that was already receding into nostalgia when Lichtenstein took it up in the '60s--whom else could it have belonged to?

Lichtenstein became known to an enormous public as "the guy who paints comics," but in fact the comic-strip phase of his work was quite brief: it lasted from 1961 to 1965, after which he moved on to other subjects and themes. The motif caused considerable offense, to the point where LIFE magazine nominated him as the worst artist in the world. But it enabled him to play with all manner of saucy ironies and In jokes, and in any case he never copied anything; each image underwent fastidious tweaking, reshaping and restyling. "Why, Brad darling, this painting is a masterpiece!" a blond woman exclaims to a clean-cut young painter in Masterpiece, 1962. "My, soon you'll have all of New York clamoring for your work!" Neither she nor Lichtenstein, at the time, knew how right she was.

What was he into? A game of displacement, often deeper than it seemed. At the time when Lichtenstein and his co-conspirators arrived on the scene, a sort of academy of spontaneity had formed in New York. Painters all over America had deduced from Abstract Expressionism that art, to be sincere, must be thick and splashy, so that the galleries were full of conventional signs for unconvention. A postmodernist before the term got going, Lichtenstein realized that in art, though style may not be everything, everything is style: every kind of image comes to us packaged in terms that inexorably turn into conventions. He was antinuance, antiheroism, antiexistentialist. With good humor and icy elegance, coupled with a genuine liking for his low-art or no-art sources in American vernacular, Lichtenstein was able to construct an art that approached real monumentality on the foundation of images that bien pensant taste regarded as trash.

That art could be beautiful when dealing with neutral subjects, such as in the Mirror series, 1969-72. When he turned to high-art ones (his pastiches of Picasso, Cezanne, Balla, Matisse and so on), he could wittily run variations on art-history classics without mocking the seriousness of his sources. He brought them down a bit, without malice, just as he raised the comics a bit, without condescension. He looked vulgar 35 years ago; today you see his dandy's taste almost before you see the painting.

Monday, Oct. 27, 1997

The retrospective show of the work of Robert Rauschenberg, which fills the uptown and SoHo branches of New York City's Guggenheim Museum and, as if that were not enough, the Ace Gallery in SoHo as well, is too big, too profuse, too sprawling--too damned much all round--to take in with any sort of ease. Curated by Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson, its bulk (some 400 works in all media) creates the fatigued impression that everything in Rauschenberg's vast and uneven output has been dumped into the hopper and left for the individual viewer to sort out. Which is fine if you've followed the artist's work over the decades, but it must be intimidating if you're new to it; and the younger part of its audience will be.

Yet it's invigorating too, in the end. "Energy," wrote William Blake, "is eternal delight," and there has never been anything in American art to match the effusive, unconstrained energy of Rauschenberg's generous imagination. Compared with the more pursed, hermetic and self-reflexive Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg is and always has been a gusher. He loves the sound, smell, grunge and look of the street. He doesn't look at his sources in American vernacular--photos, movies, and junk of all kinds--with anything resembling irony or distance. He is in it up to the neck and wants you to be too.

Hopps compares him in a catalog essay to Charles Willson Peale, the artist of the Revolutionary War period who created the first American museum, a highly personal wunderkammer of his own portraits of American heroes mixed with natural-history specimens. When you think of Rauschenberg giving new life to a stuffed angora goat in Monogram, 1955, or repeatedly silk-screening the effigy of John F. Kennedy, there's some truth to this. But his closer affinity is with an equally polymorphous ancestor, Walt Whitman, the entranced celebrant of American variety.

Rauschenberg became to American art in the 1950s and '60s what Whitman was to American poetry in the 1880s--the Great Permitter, with his declared hope to "act in the gap between art and life." This, one wants to say, is the artist of American democracy, yearningly faithful to its clamor, its contradictions, its hope and its enormous demotic freedom, all of which find shape in his work. Other American artists have had this ambition--one thinks of Robert Henri and the Ashcan painters at the turn of the century--but none fulfilled it so well.

Rauschenberg was a Texas boy, two parts Anglo, one part German, one part Cherokee. He was born in 1925 in one of the most art-free zones of America, Port Arthur, a bayou oil-refinery town on the Gulf of Mexico. His parents were Fundamentalist Christians, and as a teenager he thought of becoming a preacher. Luckily for American art, and perhaps for the ministry too, he ditched the notion on realizing that the Church of Christ forbade dancing. He did a stint in the Navy, as a male psychiatric nurse--which confirmed him as a lifelong pacifist. He dabbled in painting, then (after his discharge from the Navy) began to study it, first in Kansas City and then, having saved up some money for the trip, in Paris in 1948.

His first serious contact with modernism, however, came at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, under the abrasive tutelage of the former Bauhaus instructor Josef Albers. The friendships he formed at Black Mountain--with painters Franz Kline and Cy Twombly, composer John Cage, dancer Merce Cunningham--continued when he settled in New York City. Rauschenberg has always had the strongest possible sense of creative community; his generosity with ideas, resources, support and money became an art-world legend, growing over the years.

He is also, without living peer, the artist of free association. Within the languages of art, Rauschenberg started more hares than he could possibly chase, including performance. His work with Cunningham and Cage, always under the influence of Marcel Duchamp, made artistic collaboration seem feasible, after the image of the artist had been monopolized by the go-it-alone individualists of the New York School. Younger artists of every kind latched on to his work, which meant that, particularly from the '50s to the '70s, there was hardly an area of "advanced" American art that didn't contain some of his DNA.

But his main achievement was undoubtedly in the realm of collage, which he picked up where Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Cornell had taken it. Rauschenberg's Combines, as he called them, were made of large-scale junk, his "palette of objects," linked or partly effaced by slathers of paint and often provoked by a single key find. In Canyon, 1959, it was a stuffed eagle that had belonged to an old veteran of the Spanish-American War, an emblem of flight and power that Rauschenberg combined with a photo of a small child gesturing upward and another of distant galaxies. Considerately, he supplied the bird with a pillow hanging on a string, in case it crashed. Canyon was the first of a series of allusions to space exploration--the NASA program in the '60s became one of Rauschenberg's main themes.

By then, Rauschenberg had stopped making his work from actual objects and was using overlays of silk-screened photos, an idea he got from Andy Warhol. The paintings--like Estate, 1963--that won him the grand prize at the 1964 Venice Biennale, with their high, bright color and rapid shuttle of images, conveyed an extraordinary impression of the electronic image glut that comes from TV. Through silk screen, Rauschenberg could now compress fragments of events as well as things into his work, giving it a heightened, broken-up documentary flavor--history painting for channel surfers.

He also had an exquisite sense of nuance. It comes out in his complex prints; his Zen-simple paper objects, Pages and Fuses, from the '70s; and in the shimmering veils of printed translucent fabric of the Hoarfrost series, image floating over image, as in Emerald (Hoarfrost), 1975, with its diver's body vanishing into the deep blue-green.

Twenty years ago, asked why he had so many assistants in his studio--by that time he had left New York for Captiva Island in Florida--Rauschenberg replied, "Because it takes away the egotistical loneliness of creation." Then he wryly added, "But the downside is that you have to wake up with an idea that will keep eight people busy for eight hours." It was true enough to be a difficulty: the basis of Rauschenberg's genius as an artist, despite his love of collaboration, has always been his autographic touch, the sense that one sensibility was at work on the world, picking up and discarding things, fine-tuning personal responses. In some of the later work the collective effort shades over into an almost corporate look--not slick, exactly, but overelaborated, as though done partly on autopilot.

The subtlety of his recent series of prints and paintings using vegetable-dye transfer on paper, however, suggests that Rauschenberg, at 72, is on his way out of that. Can this protean figure keep reinventing himself? Don't bet against it.

Monday, Nov. 03, 1997
ARCHITECTURE: Getty Center and Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao:
By ROBERT HUGHES;Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles

A Benedictine chronicler once wrote of a "white mantle of churches" stretched across medieval France. In a related way, America in the past century has mantled itself with museums, as the temple of art gradually replaced the church as the emblematic focus of civic self-esteem. Now, two grand projects by leading American architects, utterly different from each other in purpose, appearance and design philosophy, may be said to mark the climax of the age of American museum expansion. One is in Los Angeles and opens officially in December--though small flotillas of previewing VIPS have been trawling through it for the past few months. The other, already open, is under American management but is set in Bilbao, in the Basque region of northern Spain. Neither is likely to have any architectural rivals in what is left of the 20th century, or for a good slice of the early 21st.

In Los Angeles, after 14 years, the Leviathan surfaces at last: Moby Museum, a.k.a. the Getty Center, sheathed in light tan aluminum and elegantly rugged honey-colored Italian travertine, nearly 1 million sq. ft. of it at roughly $1,000 per sq. ft., designed by Richard Meier and perched on a 710-acre hilltop above the San Diego Freeway in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. The Getty is the most expensive arts complex and by some calculations the most expensive building in American history. Large expectations ride on it as both a cultural institution and an emblematic focus for Los Angeles itself. Meanwhile, Frank Gehry's $100 million Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao opened two weeks ago. Built and financed by the Basque regional government, it is essentially a franchise: a major step in the effort by Thomas Krens, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York City, to parlay his museum into an international network of satellites exhibiting art from a common pool--an innovative idea that is still viewed with a good deal of skepticism by more traditional museum officials.

The Getty is not "a building." There are moments, both off site and on, when its collection of six separate units on a ridge linked by plazas and terraces resembles a very honed and buffed Modernist version of an Italian hill town. Architect Meier himself has grown wary of the hill-town analogy. "Think of it," he says, "as a small college campus with different departments, some more visible than others--not a museum but an institution in which art predominates."

Meier, 63, has come up with a superb piece of place making. When the Epcot-style tram delivers you from the parking garage at the bottom to the plaza at the top of the ridge, you step out into a space that seems both amiable and Utopian, dignified but, despite its acreage of travertine, not authoritarian: a respite from the visual chaos of Los Angeles, but offering the best views a public could have of the city spread below.

The six units gathered in this stunning setting are devoted to an art collection, ambitious archival facilities, high-tech conservation, broad research and educational programs, all intended to serve as a sort of cultural condenser for the humanities in Los Angeles and beyond. There is the Getty Grant Program, which has given out some $63 million since 1984 to support worldwide research in the history and conservation of art--projects ranging from computer-aided studies and reconstructions of half-effaced 8th century Mayan murals to the conservation of monastery temples in Nepal.

Its work intersects with that of the Getty Conservation Institute, which promotes and underwrites techniques for preserving the world's cultural heritage, working only in partnership with other governments and foreign institutions. Then there is the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, which at any given time will have a dozen scholars-in-residence working on their specialties, backed up by an 800,000-volume library. The plan is for scholars to work around themes, the first of which is "Perspectives on Los Angeles: Narratives, Images, History," covering a wide range of subjects from urban growth to street art and vandalism. Other institutes apply themselves to arts education and to creating a vast database of humanities texts and art images, whose L.A. Culture Net Website at present reaches 14 million people who speak 90 different languages, cross-linking the city's mosaic of cultural organizations online.

The museum will inevitably be the Getty's main focus of public attention. Its director is John Walsh, 59, formerly of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, who was hired in 1983. He is a patrician, dryly witty scholar and administrator whose specialty is 17th century Dutch painting but whose eye and expertise are remarkably broad ranging. Given an enormous acquisitions fund, Walsh has bought prudently and selectively. The art world's fear that the Getty would crash the Old Masters market like an 800-lb. gorilla has proved largely groundless. The collection's focus is fairly narrow; it was never, Walsh points out, meant to be a "Western Met," an encyclopedic museum. Its collection of painting and sculpture, entirely European, stops at the threshold of the 20th century--the most recent picture in it is James Ensor's huge, pullulating satire, The Entry of Christ into Brussels, 1888.

The collection moves with ease between fine works by major masters--Rembrandt, Pontormo, Rubens, Mantegna, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Turner--and illuminatingly good ones by less famous figures, such as Franz Xavier Winterhalter's coolly sumptuous portrait of a 19th century princess on the terrace of her villa in the Crimea, or a small, haunting study of a young girl by the Belgian Symbolist painter Fernand Khnopff. It is already a deeply serious and discriminating collection and may turn into a great one.

Walsh and Meier had their disagreements about its display--Walsh liked sober, richly colored walls as a background for the art and insisted on "period room" effects for the furniture, whereas Meier wanted neither. The period decor, which was handled by the New York City architect-decorator Thierry Despont, is a flop. But Meier served the art very well, with a series of generously proportioned, plain, high-ceilinged and top-lighted galleries that don't clamor for attention and do create a feeling of undistracted serenity. They recall the enfilade effects of older museums, but Meier has cunningly provided the links between them with unexpected openings, panoramic glimpses of the radiant townscape through glass walls, views of the museum's own light-struck exterior. It is a walker's museum, full of variegated spaces, points of rest, vistas, curves and a continual respiration between inside and outside.

The Getty began in the mind and pocket of the man whose name it bears: J. Paul Getty, the oil billionaire who in 1974 had installed his collection of Roman and Greek antiquities, French furniture and medium-level European paintings in a preposterous $17 million replica of the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, overlooking the Pacific at Malibu. Those who sneered at this as the Disneyism of a crackpot Scrooge McDuck were staggered when, after Getty died in 1976, it turned out that he left his museum almost $700 million--the largest endowment ever given to a cultural institution, in or out of the U.S.

The money was all in Getty Oil stock, and its sheer bulk was obviously going to force the trustees of the J. Paul Getty Trust to revise their ideas of a cultural mission. The man mainly responsible for this reshaping was Harold Williams, former head of the Securities and Exchange Commission in the Carter Administration and dean of UCLA's Graduate School of Management. In 1981 the Getty Trust hired Williams to manage the money and figure out what the new institution should do.

The first item on his agenda was to diversify the trust's money. "It wasn't prudent," says Williams, "for an institution to have such a large portion of its endowment subject to the vicissitudes of a single stock." After some years of litigation, he and the board managed to clear the way to sell, in 1984, its Getty Oil stock to Texaco for $10 billion. In the end, this gave Williams $2.3 billion to play with in creating the Getty Center. With shrewd management, this endowment has since grown to $4.3 billion--four times that of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Because the Getty Trust is obliged to spend 4.25% of its endowment on its own programs every year, it has as much as $225 million to spend on itself annually--which means roughly $40 million a year for buying art, a budget to make any other museum green with envy.

The diversified Getty envisioned by Williams and the trust had to be, in every conceivable way, a class act. After the original list of 33 architects had been whittled down to three finalists, the committee in 1984 settled on the New York City-based Meier, America's chief exponent of "late Modernist" classicism. He was the one who, it was believed, could deliver an impeccable and thoughtful level of planning and detailing. One of the factors in Meier's favor was that even then he was an experienced museum designer (the Frankfort Museum for Decorative Arts, 1979-85; the High Museum in Atlanta, 1980-83).

Now the hard stuff began. With Walsh, Williams and other members of the building committee, Meier went all over the world studying museums and monuments, from the Certosa near Florence to the Glyptothek in Munich, from the Villa Lante in Bagnaia (a distant memory of whose watercourse is preserved in one of the Getty's gardens, designed by the California artist Robert Irwin) to key American museums, such as the National Gallery in Washington and the Yale Center for British Art. "This," says Meier dryly in his memoir Building the Getty, to be published next month by Random House, "generated a great deal of discussion about what we ought to avoid."

Most intractable of all was the task that faced Meier and Stephen Rountree, the director of the building program, in getting a conditional-use permit from the city of Los Angeles. This entailed dealing with scores of regulations; no excavated earth, for instance, could be moved off the site. It also meant interminable meetings, sometimes verging on the rancorous, with associations of homeowners in the surrounding areas of Bel Air and Brentwood.

The list of conditions met to get the permit to break ground eventually ran to 107 items. Some were major design considerations. The neighbors didn't want Meier's signature white surfaces glaring at them in the Pacific sun, and the metal cladding panels were accordingly colored a pale tan. They insisted on, and got, strict limits to the height of the buildings. And they hated the idea of culture-curious hoi polloi, 1.3 million of them expected each year, looking down into their backyards. One woman feared that visitors to the Getty would look across the valley from a spur on the site and see her sunbathing by her pool. Meier took her up to this promontory and asked her to point out her house. She gazed about. "I can't see it right now," she said, "but I know it's out there somewhere." The vantage point was turned into a cactus garden whose spines would discourage the feet of the prurient.

"Richard wanted the freedom to play with heights," says Rountree. "He doesn't like having to fight over issues of what color things are. He was driven nuts by the process, and it took time." Time and, by Meier's count, some 300 round-trip flights between New York and Los Angeles--plus living off and on in a "dark, rat-infested, Raymond Chandlery house on the Getty site." During those 14 years "my children grew up, my hair turned whiter, and many friends lost touch with me. In Los Angeles I was forced to develop an entirely new approach in my work. I was picked for the Getty on my record--but on the condition that I broke with my past." Still, what architect will have such a commission again?

If the Getty is a clear, benign and somewhat remote presence in coastal Los Angeles, the Guggenheim Museum has hit Bilbao with the force of an architectural meteorite. No question that it's there. You are walking through the pleasantly undistinguished, mainly 19th century streets of its quarter; you turn a corner, and--pow!--an apparition appears in glass and half-shiny silver (titanium, actually), massively undulating, something that seems at first glance to have been dropped from another cultural world between the gray townscape and the green hills that rise behind it. Not since Joern Utzon's 1973 design for the Sydney Opera House has a building so dramatically imposed itself on a city. On the river edge of a town planned in terms of axial Beaux Arts order, architect Gehry, 68, has inserted a startlingly irregular building that defies every convention of axiality, including the right angle, of which there doesn't appear to be one, either inside his structure or out.

The structure is huge--at some 250,000 sq. ft., with 112,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space, twice as big as the uptown and downtown New York Guggenheims put together. And it is by far the most completely realized of Gehry's public buildings. On his native ground, this most original of American architects has had terrible luck: witness the endless and (to Los Angeles, in a civic sense) humiliating delays involved in the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

But the Basque regional government in Bilbao really wanted the Guggenheim there; it backed Gehry's design to the hilt and poured money into the venture. It provided a free 249,000-sq.-ft. site on a bend in the Nervion, the river that passes through Bilbao; the basic construction cost of $100 million; $50 million more for new acquisitions; a $20 million advisory fee to the Guggenheim; and $12 million a year in operating costs. Hands up, anyone who can imagine an American city doing that entirely with public money.

Here was a rust-belt city, once a capital of Spanish industry, still rich but now decaying and plagued by the murderous Basque-separatist terrorism of the E.T.A. It was eager to remake itself as a tourist center. It needed a solid emblem of peace and cultural openness. So the Guggenheim deal, though costly, was very attractive.

But Gehry was astute in framing his design. He didn't want it to defer to the town architecture, but he did want it to chime with other aspects of Bilbao, particularly its industrial landscape: to commemorate its former power and presence. All along the Nervion are shipbuilding yards, loading docks, cranes, massive obsolete warehouses--the kind of context that not only Gehry but also some of the artists he is closest to, like the sculptor Richard Serra, love. Disregarded, blue-collar beauty. The rusty pecs of Basque industrial capitalism. Seen from the far side of the river, the museum does indeed evoke a vast metal ship, full of compound curves, run aground--a sort of art-ark. "To be at the bend of a working river intersected by a large bridge," Gehry wrote at an early stage of the design, "and connecting the urban fabric of a fairly dense city to the river's edge with a place for modern art is my idea of heaven."

But there was another structure Gehry wanted to refer to--the mother ship, as it were: Frank Lloyd Wright's original Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue, with its great empty center wound about by the spiral of exhibition ramp. Obviously that couldn't be repeated (it is, in any case, a curator's nightmare), but like the Bilbaino industrial metaphor, it could be evoked.

One walks down a long flight of steps into the museum, and then the atrium rises--or rather, soars: a large ceremonial space with catwalks and walkways, branching off into galleries at its several levels. In it, the three surface types of the museum's construction can be taken in: white Sheetrock, plate glass hung on steel members with exaggerated joints and flanges, and titanium skin. (The titanium sounds like an extravagance, but wasn't. Gehry was able to lock up enough of it to cover the museum when the Russians, in 1993, started dumping their stocks of the normally ultraexpensive metal on the market.) Their forms swelling and deflating in a strongly rhythmical way, large trunks of glass, plaster and titanium rise to the top of the five-story structure; they house utilities, a stair and an elevator.

The intensity Gehry can give to a vertical space also transfers to the horizontal ones. The biggest gallery, known as "the Boat," is 1 1/4 times the length of a football field (450 ft.), but with its curved walls and round ceiling trusses, it hasn't a foot of dull space in it. There are a few things in the design that seem arbitrary or merely rhetorical. The towering "parasol" that Gehry put over the river entrance is pointless except as a visual element--its roof is too high to give any protection from the weather. And the twin stone-veneer towers that rise downstream of the La Salve bridge are just a costly logo.

These are quibbles compared with Gehry's achievement in this museum. It's a building that spells the end of the smarty-boots, smirkingly facile historicism on which so much Postmodernist building was based--a quoted capital here, an ironic reference there. It isn't afraid of metaphor, but it insists that the essence of building is structure and placemaking. It confronts the rethinking of structure and the formation of space with an impetuous, eccentric confidence. No "school of Gehry" will come out of it, any more than there could have been a "school" of Barcelona's Antonio Gaudi. His work is imitation-proof, but liberating.

Warts and all, Gehry's Bilbao is the most exciting public building put up in a long time, and, unlike Wright's canonical spiral in New York, it shows every sign of working well as a place in which to show works of art. There are, of course, difficulties here, because the size of some of Gehry's galleries and their eccentricity of shape is bound to tell against the smaller paintings. Moreover, as a work of art in its own right, the museum is far more interesting than many of its contents--the dull, inflated conceptual art and late minimalism that appeals to the taste of the Guggenheim's Krens. There is a whole gallery of messages from Jenny Holzer; a fatuous "work" by Laurence Weiner in the form of the word reduced written in huge block letters on the wall of its main gallery; another gallery devoted to a single drawing by Sol Lewitt; some huge and utterly banal sculpture by Jim Dine; and so on. And, of course, that one-shot icon of the conformity of late-Modernist official taste, Jeff Koons' Puppy, 1992, sitting outside the museum.

Krens seems to have a fixed belief that bigger is necessarily better and that the significant art of the past 30 years is necessarily huge. Some of it is, of course--like Robert Rauschenberg's enormous Barge, 1963, which the Guggenheim recently bought. But a great deal of late-American Modernism is just arbitrarily big. It's as though the larger spaces of Gehry's design caused the art to inflate by suction. Still, some very big pieces work very well here, notably Claes Oldenburg's soft shuttlecock drooping from a balcony of the atrium, and the curving steel sheets of Serra's 104-ft.-long Snake. It would be a tremendous pity if Bilbao ended up with a great building stuffed with heavy-metal, late-imperial American cultural landfill. What broad public is really interested in such art? For the present, however, people will come for the building.

The interesting thing, of course, will be to see how both the Guggenheim and the Getty "break in"--how these ambitious projects will be used, how they will function in (and benefit) the social matrices of their cities. And that will be as much up to the public as it ever was to their architects.

--With reporting by Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles

Monday, Nov. 24, 1997

In today's art market, million-dollar prices are as common as bugs on a bayou pickup's windshield. You need eight figures to make news, and even then it may not work. The early results of the fall auction season--which began last week and will continue through this week--confirm this: one big bang, and not much else. The bang was afforded by the collection of works by Picasso (plus some by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and other American artists) put together over 50 years, on a fairly modest budget, by Victor and Sally Ganz. It was one of the more famous American private collections, and it contained some works--especially the Picassos--of very high quality.

Christie's promoted the Ganz sale with the determination of a Panzer division hitting the French border. To woo the heirs, Christie's, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, struck a complicated guarantee deal whereby the four Ganz children would get a total of $120 million, no matter what the pictures realized on the block. Then came a thick calendar of promotional dinner parties (catered in a town house hung with the Ganz artworks), symposiums on Picasso and the collection, private and public viewings, and a general media blitz.

For once, all the elements meshed. The sale totaled $206.5 million, the largest return ever on a private collection sold at auction. The $48.4 million bid by an undisclosed buyer for Picasso's The Dream, a lyrically erotic 1932 portrait of his mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, was the second highest sum ever paid for a Picasso.

Did such heavy fiscal lifting presage, as some hoped, a return to the market boom of the '80s, when squillionaires competed for favored artworks like mountain rams in rut clashing horns over a crag or a mate, and when new money would pay just about anything for just about anything? Obviously not. For instance, at the Ganz sale someone paid $7.9 million for a good Jasper Johns--a far cry from the $17 million paid for a comparable picture at Sotheby's nine years ago.

The success of the Ganz sale lay partly in the excellence of some of its contents, but largely in the adroitness of Christie's promotion. If there were any doubts about this, they were dispelled by the results of other sales last week, which were mediocre. Two nights after the Ganz sale, the Evelyn Sharp collection of modern art went on the block at Sotheby's. It was a second-rate affair at best, chopped liver compared with the Ganz foie gras. The auction house had given the Sharp estate a guarantee, undisclosed but somewhere near the low aggregate-sales estimate, which was $59 million. But the whole sale made only $41.2 million, which left the house with a net loss of $10 million to $15 million. Even its star picture--a 1916 Modigliani nude whose rosy skin and cute pubic patch would, one might have thought, rouse the cupidity of any redblooded conglomerateur--failed to reach its $10 million estimate.

That's how presale guarantees have turned the auction business more and more into a casino. The enduring mystery is why people rich and presumably smart enough to have $20 million or $30 million to spend on a painting can be so easily led by the obvious strategies of auction-house promotion. Surely no diner intime in the boardroom is worth that. But the game must perforce go on: Sotheby's, faced by the task later this month of selling a collection of medieval enamels, has even hired the avant-garde director Robert Wilson to stage a show in which the limbs of his actors may emerge from behind drapes, reminding the (presumably) entranced customers that the reliquaries once held the remains of saints.

Behind the hoopla, there is a harder story to the continuous slugfest between the two big auction firms. Through the '80s and early '90s, Sotheby's ruled the roost in sales and aggressive publicity. But last year, for the first time, Christie's took the lead. Sotheby's 1996 sales were $336.5 million, an increase of 7.5% over its '95 results; Christie's sold $389.1 million worth of art and trinkets, for a 31% growth. Art-world insiders attribute some of Sotheby's woes to a loss of top personnel irked, it is alleged, by its abrasive chief executive officer, Diana Brooks. European chairman and top auctioneer Simon de Pury resigned in September to start his own art-investment firm. Before him, the house lost its able duo of contemporary-art specialists, David Nash and Lucy Mitchell-Innes. All three were at the sales last week, buying for their own clients.

Before the sales started, Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's head of contemporary art, confidently asserted that the market was full of new players, younger buyers who "don't even remember the bad days of 1991" when the art market crashed. They should try to. As Santayana said, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Monday, Dec. 08, 1997

Foot for square foot, the current retrospective of Richard Diebenkorn's paintings at New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art offers more aesthetic pleasure than any other show--at least of contemporary art--in town. Which isn't to say the Whitney has done the subject full justice. Its heart being where it is, the museum needed lots and lots of space to present a mass of trivia and threadbare junk from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pa., pointlessly documenting the pallid maestro's effect on advertising and fashion, under the title "The Warhol Look/Glamour Style Fashion." So the Whitney's out-of-house curator, Jane Livingston, found the space for Diebenkorn whittled down to one floor and a small entry gallery of the museum, which is nothing like enough for a just overview of the man's pictorial achievement.

Except for an excellent show of his drawings curated by John Elderfield at the Museum of Modern Art in 1988, Diebenkorn, who died in 1993, never had a fair deal from New York museums. The city's cultural establishment viewed him as, well, a California artist--a bit of an outsider, a bit marginal, insufficiently difficult or radical, too easy on the eye, whatever. Diebenkorn, one of the most flintily self-critical artists who ever lived in America, took this in his stride, and his oeuvre (closed, alas, too early) handily answers his detractors. Nobody who cares about painting as an art--as distinct from propaganda, complaint or "cutting edge" ephemera--could be indifferent to Diebenkorn's work or to the long, intense and fascinating dialogue with the modernist past it embodies.

Born in Portland, Ore., in 1922, Diebenkorn was raised in San Francisco and got his first art education there--a process interrupted by his enlistment in the Marine Corps. This, however, turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since he was posted to Quantico, Va., and while there was able regularly to visit Washington museums, especially the Phillips Collection. One painting there, in particular, got to him: Matisse's Studio, Quai St. Michel, 1916. Though Diebenkorn would continue to meditate on other works by Matisse (and Mondrian, and Cezanne, and Bonnard, and so on through a wide classical-modernist pantheon) for the rest of his working life, this particular Matisse, with its simultaneous inside-outside view, thrilled and inspired him: "I noticed its spatial amplitude; one saw a marvelous hollow or room yet the surface is right there...right up front."

Discharged from the military in 1945, Diebenkorn enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts. Over the next several years, he moved between the East and West coasts. His work from the late '40s to the early '50s was essentially abstract, though with strong overtones of landscape space and color. A considerable influence of Willem de Kooning bore on it. De Kooning, Diebenkorn felt, "had it all, could outpaint anybody, at least until the mid-'60s, when he began to lose it." But Diebenkorn's friendship with the Bay Area painter David Park, who bravely refused to accept the reigning dictum in the American avant-garde that radicalism had to mean abstraction, pointed him still closer toward the figurative.

By 1957, Diebenkorn's figurative phase was well and truly under way, all its parts integrated, in landscape, figure painting and still life. But it's necessary to realize, and the show makes this quite clear, that for all his shifts between degrees of abstraction and figuration, Diebenkorn remained essentially the same artist; he wasn't someone trying on different suits to see which ones fit.

In hindsight one can see the components of his culminating achievement, the Ocean Park series, forming in a small, early landscape like Seawall, 1957. First, the clear marine light that seems to bathe all the forms, whether sharply cut (the tawny beach and wedges of black shadow on the left) or vaguer (the tract of scribbled green grass on the right). Second, Diebenkorn's decisiveness about tonal structure and the way sharp contrast can be used both to hollow out the space of the painting and to create a firm, flat pattern. And third, a breezy lyricism of feeling that was especially Diebenkorn's, an exhilaration at the material fullness of the world, translated into terms of pigment.

Edward Hopper was one of Diebenkorn's inner jury of admired masters--no other American painter except de Kooning influenced him as much. What he liked in Hopper, Diebenkorn once laconically said, was "the diagonals." Not the mood: you can't extract a Hopperish melancholy from Woman in a Window, 1957, though her face is averted. What she might be thinking doesn't count; she's a model, not a narrative. What does count is the confluence of vectors--the square window with its two planes of blue sea and sky, the tabletop rushing away to the right at a shallow angle, the triangle of the arm propping the head, and the woman's left hand drooping over the upper arm, its slack spiky fingers echoed in the red-and-blue stripes of a cloth draped over the chair arm. All these angles, beautifully integrated, give the image an architecture that solidifies the passing moment, a firmness to which Hopper's diagonals pointed the way.

This virile structure enabled Diebenkorn to explore all manner of nuances, shifts of tone, transparencies and textural quirks in the areas of color it defined. It let the picture bear provisional or openly corrected passages, without degenerating into niggle, mess and muddle. Structure was the key, not just to Diebenkorn's forthrightness as a painter but to his delicacy as well. And it survives even in the little still lifes, which are hardly more than visual nouns--a glass of water on a gray cloth, with orange poppies in it; a knife in another glass, bent by refraction--rendered with the immediacy and verve one associates with Manet's asparagus and peonies.

The precondition of his structure, in turn, was drawing. Diebenkorn drew incessantly. It wasn't only that he belonged to the last generation of American artists to be raised in a culture of drawing. He loved the act. Drawing was sifting the world's disorder. It was making sense of random agglomerations of things, unconscious postures of the body. (In all his drawings and paintings of his wife Phyllis, you only rarely get the sense that she was actually posing.) Every painter has favorite shapes and gestures, which, unless they encounter some resistance, can turn into mannerisms. Diebenkorn's style certainly grew some mannerisms, but drawing--the continuous friction against obdurate motifs--prevented them from getting ingrown, turning into tics.

The climax of Diebenkorn's work was, by general consent, the Ocean Park series, which he began in 1967. Ocean Park is part of Santa Monica, the beachside suburb of Los Angeles where he had his studio. From its high crystalline light, its big calm planes of sea and sky, its cuts and interlacings of highway divider and curb and gable and yellow sand, Diebenkorn produced a marvelous synthesis that, though prolonged through more than 140 large canvases, had very few weak moments.

In the Ocean Parks, with their pentimenti and layering left exposed to view, one sees the summation of Diebenkorn's admiration for Matisse's way of leaving the picture with the traces of its own making. This reworking leaves an impression of curiosity, not indecision. The paintings are broadly brushed and then "tuned" by passages of fine, but not fidgety, detail. The color, glazed or discreetly scumbled, is luminous--now diffuse like sea fog, now hard and bright as direct sun. The Ocean Parks radiate an Apollonian calm, an uncoercive authority. They are the creations of a man with a fully integrated temperament, candid but not showy. There is nothing else quite like them in modern painting, in America or the world.

Monday, Dec. 22, 1997

If there was ever an artist in the American grain, it was Arthur Dove (1880-1946), with his obstinate home-made lyricism, his complete authenticity and his desire to be modern on local--not Euro-imitative--terms. In the beautiful Dove retrospective now at the Phillips Collection in Washington--which will move on to New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art in January--one sees all this and more. It has been a long time since the last museum survey of Dove's work, and Debra Bricker Balken, who curated this one, has done an exceptional artist full justice. And of course the Phillips Collection is the right place to start it, since Duncan Phillips was the only steady collector Dove had in his whole career and the relationship between the two men was one of the finer examples of mutual nurturing in the annals of American patronage. Phillips kept the wolf from Dove's door, but Dove opened Phillips to what was exclusively visual, not literary, in art.

Dove, along with Marsden Hartley, was one of the finest talents of the early years of American modernism, part of the circle of painters whose hearth was the little 291 gallery in New York City and whose tireless promoter, supporter and voice in the desert was Alfred Stieglitz. Dove's father, a well-off Geneva, N.Y., brick manufacturer, expected his son to be a lawyer and never wholly forgave him for becoming an artist. To Dove, as to the more conflicted Hartley, Stieglitz was mentor, friend and (virtually) a second father. Starting before World War I, Dove's slow-maturing, thoughtful and deeply felt art gathered up the strands of American nature worship and braided them in a way that linked back to Emerson and, through abstraction, sideways to European artists like Wassily Kandinsky.

Dove was the first American, and possibly the first artist of any nationality, to paint a nonrepresentational picture. He did a set of five tiny Abstractions in 1910-11, perhaps a little before Kandinsky's first abstract compositions. Daringly radical for their time, today some of these look not so abstract after all: Abstraction No. 1 reads like a landscape, with sky at top, hills and what appears to be a tower pierced by a window. When Dove talked and wrote about abstraction, what did he mean? Not pure abstract form, certainly. Nature was of absolutely paramount importance to him: in hills, rocks, sea, sky, trees, moon and sun, he saw a richness and variety of shape that inspired him throughout his working life. His project was to "liberate" forms from them, losing or blurring their descriptive qualities while trying to keep the sense of energy and continuous change--of life itself--that animated them.

His painting always had an organic basis. Sometimes he called it extraction rather than abstraction. He described the process to a friend in 1913: "The first step was to choose from nature a motif in color, and with that motif to paint from nature, the form still being objective. The second step was to apply this same principle to form, the actual dependence on the object... disappearing, and the means of expression becoming purely subjective. After working for some time in this way, I no longer observed in the old way, remember certain sensations purely through their form and color, that is, by certain shapes, planes of light, or character lines determined by the meeting of such planes."

The sense of this rather convoluted explanation becomes clear when one sees the paintings, or rather large pastels, on which Dove worked in the early 1910s. Done in rapid, stippled strokes that evoke what Dove called the "condition of light" in objects, they are both abstract and not. There are no recognizable nags in Team of Horses, 1911-12, but the dark, serrated curves suggest the animals' manes, and the heavy rhythmical movement heading right to left across the surface conveys muscular effort, a flow of energy in a dense world. And this act of symbolizing rhythm and force was, essentially, what the word abstraction meant to Dove.

He couldn't disengage it from its natural context, landscape, nor would he have wanted to. Dove felt happiest and his images flowed best when he was embedded in nature, whether rural or marine. He did have a jokey and urban side, which occasionally connected him to New York Dadaism. An example of this is The Critic, 1925, a sardonic portrait of the archconservative writer Royal Cortissoz, nemesis of the Armory Show and of modernism in general, seen as a faceless newspaper doll with a monocle for staring at art, a vacuum for purifying culture and a pair of rollerskates for getting quickly around the galleries. But the real ground of Dove's imagination lay outside Manhattan. He tried to survive as a farmer in Connecticut but failed; and for some years in the 1920s, having left his wife for a fellow artist named Helen Torr, he lived on a yawl, the Mona, in the waters of Long Island Sound.

Despite his continuous money problems--for the 1920s and '30s were not, to put it mildly, a time in which an avant-garde artist could get rich in suspicious America--Dove was able, through continuous immersion in nature, to forge a style that was both idiosyncratic and grand: abstract but (as Duncan Phillips wrote to him in 1935) "thoroughly alive, robust, close to the soil...not atrophied with the slow death of faddism and insincerity." The idiosyncrasies belonged to the drawing, which was full of quirks and crotchets (just like naturally occurring things in the real world, Dove would have argued), the grandeur to the color, which for expressiveness and sonority had no equal in American painting at the time.

Dove believed in the long reach of painting. It could encompass cosmic events, as in the exquisite Golden Storm, 1925, his rendition of the turning vortices of a cyclone. The master image of Dove's later work, in fact, is the sun, giver of light and life, guarantor of fertility and energy. The problem is that to paint the solar disk, even 50 years ago, was to risk utter banality. What image, since Van Gogh painted its flakes of fire shed as from a pinwheel onto the earth of Provence, has been so overworked? Yet Dove was able to go at it straight, with unforced intensity.

The summation of his sun images was a late work, done in 1944, two years before his death, and laconically titled That Red One. Its architecture is majestic: two pillars of red, whose origin is in a view of trees near his studio at Mill Pond on Long Island, N.Y., with the sun rising through them--an ocher sun haloed in black. Behind this motif are clear-cut zones of ultramarine blue, lemon yellow and orange. Clear and ringing with color, it's an extraordinarily predictive painting, full of proleptic traces of artists who would come later, in the 1950s and '60s, and who have never been thought to be much in debt to Dove: Robert Motherwell, for instance, and color-field painters like Kenneth Noland.

Influence or coincidence? It hardly matters. In the end, an artist is to be judged by his work, not by its effect on others. And, as this show makes clear, Dove's visionary abstraction was of such strength, originality and integrity that it deserves its special place in the history of American art.

Monday, Jan. 19, 1998
Art: Hold Those Paintings!
By Robert Hughes With Reporting By Massimo Calabresi/Vienna And Daniel S. Levy/New York

For the past couple of weeks the international museum world has been getting an increasing attack of the jitters over two works by the Austrian Expressionist artist Egon Schiele (1890-1918). Portrait of Wally, 1912, and Dead City III, 1911, were part of a large fall show of Schiele's drawings and paintings at Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art, all on loan from the government-financed Leopold Foundation in Vienna. The two paintings have long been claimed by descendants of Viennese Jewish families from whom the Nazis stole them in the 1930s. Right at the end of the show--in fact only hours before the works were to be crated for return to Vienna--Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau took the unusual and high-handed step of hitting MOMA with a subpoena that froze the disputed Schieles in New York City until a criminal investigation had determined whose property they are.

This was greeted with outrage in Austria and dismay in the U.S. Austrian Culture Minister Elizabeth Gehrer called Morgenthau's intervention a "heavy blow to the international exchange of art" that "shakes the foundations of trust." It seemed particularly insulting that Morgenthau's office had behaved as though the present Austrian government, whose conduct in the restitution of art stolen by Nazis after the Anschluss has been impeccable, would stoop to the sort of cover-up deployed by Swiss bankers over their stocks of stolen Jewish gold.

The chief claimants to the paintings are Henry Bondi, 76, a biochemical engineer in Princeton, N.J., and Rita Reif, a semiretired arts reporter for the New York Times. Wally had belonged to Bondi's aunt, a Viennese art dealer named Lea Bondi Jaray. Shortly before she fled to London in 1938, it was seized from her by a Nazi art dealer; eventually it passed through the hands of the Austrian Gallery and ended up in the collection of Dr. Rudolf Leopold, an ophthalmologist and self-styled art historian and restorer whose Schiele collection is institutionalized today as the Leopold Foundation. Dead City was owned by a relative of Reif's, a Viennese writer-comedian named Fritz Grunbaum. Nazis confiscated it before sending him to die in Dachau. Its passage through the art market before Leopold bought it from a dealer is not fully clear.

Bondi and Reif had asked MOMA to keep the works in New York until the legal title to the pictures was clarified. "The museum," said Reif, "must make a moral determination on this." Exactly wrong: the museum's responsibility for moral issues stops with the works in its own collection. MOMA had a loan contract with the Leopold Foundation to return the works to Vienna as soon as the show closed. Such contracts are, of course, vital to the arrangement of institutional art loans. The free circulation of works of art among museums depends on them. "If we can't honor our contracts, it will have the iciest chilling effect on loans," MOMA's legal counsel, Stephen Clark, told the New York Times. "Who would lend, knowing that the pictures might not come back?"

The Holocaust Art Restitution Project, a group set up last fall in Washington to document Jewish cultural losses under Nazism, got into the act and started urging MOMA and its chairman, Ronald Lauder, not to return the paintings. (As it happens, Lauder was ambassador to Austria from 1986 to 1987 and is a notable Schiele collector.) In response the Leopold Foundation proposed that an international tribunal be set up to examine the Schieles' true ownership, and it pledged to comply with the tribunal's findings. Constance Lowenthal, director of the World Jewish Congress's Commission for Art Recovery (whose chairman is Lauder), said the foundation's offer was unique in her experience, since few owners of art with clouded title are apt to be so cooperative.

So why did Morgenthau step in? Dr. Klaus Schroder, the Leopold Museum's managing director, suspects that behind the D.A.'s subpoena lies the hand of New York's Republican Senator Alfonse D'Amato, who is seeking support during this election year for his bill on property restitution to the heirs of the Holocaust, which passed the Senate in November and awaits House action. "It is of course political," said Schroder. He dismisses the Reif and Bondi claims as invalid, as the statute of limitations has expired, and vehemently defends Rudolf Leopold as a good-faith purchaser.

Whether anything but rhetorical heat and resentment will come out of this whole debacle remains to be seen. At worst it could do severe damage to the loan system on which museums depend, while adding very little to the principles of restitution of stolen property. But that's what can happen when grandstanding pols and D.A.s get in on emotionally supercharged issues that ought to be resolved with tact and studious neutrality.

--With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Vienna and Daniel S. Levy/New York

Monday, Feb. 02, 1998
Art: An Enchanting Strangeness

It seems improbable that, by now, there could be such a creature as a great but little-known 16th century Italian painter, but so it is--at least in America--with Lorenzo Lotto (circa 1480-1556). The current show of 51 of his paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, co-curated by art historians David Alan Brown, Peter Humfrey and Mauro Lucco, is actually the first ever held in the U.S. It can't pretend to give a full view of Lotto, the bulk of whose work consisted of some 40 altarpieces in various towns in northern Italy--Bergamo, Recanati, Jesi. Neither these nor the masterpiece of his religious work, the powerful, almost neurotically emotive Lamentation, circa 1530, in Monte San Giusto, could be lent, and the result is a view of Lotto more skewed to his secular paintings--portraits, allegories and so on--than one might ideally have wished.

But never mind. It's a delicious and intelligently presented exhibition, almost perfect of its kind, and completely free of the depressing curatorial gimmickry that American museums so often go in for these days. It sets before you a sparsely documented man of whom enough will never be known: a devout religious painter who lived through a time of doctrinal crisis in the church, which left visible marks on his already self-reproachful and even morbid personality; a link between the exaggerated graces of Botticelli (who died when Lotto was around 30) and the learned artificialities of Mannerism; an Italian who saw the point of Netherlandish art and Hieronymus Bosch along with Germans like Altdorfer and, especially, Durer, not long after Durer himself was being changed by Venice.

Because Lotto was away from Venice in the first 20 years of the 16th century, he missed the "painterly" pictorial revolution that was going on there, which is why his work can look a bit liny and (relatively) old-fashioned, closer to Giovanni Bellini than to young Titian. Drawing creates more of his pictorial structure than color does; yet he was a marvelous colorist, suave, moody at times, and capable of a mysterious lyricism that reminds you of Giorgione, his senior by only a few years. Except that the color goes to extremes: icing-green, purple, sky blue and orange, oddly predicting the dissonant colors of Mannerism.

Today it is Lotto's strangeness that enchants--or, more precisely, the way he assimilates strangeness into naturalism. The show includes what must surely be the most peculiar image of the Annunciation ever painted. We're looking into the Virgin's chamber. She is in the foreground, looking girlish and distraught, facing you and throwing up her hands as though she were appealing for help. And why not? The angel, bearing the news that God has just impregnated her (you can see God in the background, as invasive and patriarchal as could be), seems to have fairly burst into the room. A cat, scared witless by the angel's irruption, bounds away, back arched--you can almost hear it hiss. The painting is funny and reverent, gawky and vernacular and dreamlike, all at the same time. Hence its modern appeal.

Lotto liked to inject unexpected naturalist details into religious scenes, but once there, they don't rupture the sacred moment; they enhance it. Thus in his Adoration of the Shepherds, circa 1534, one of the shepherds is showing the baby Christ a lamb, whose head the child grabs at, nearly sticking his thumb in its eye, with infantile curiosity. This looks like the most natural of gestures, but it makes a fluent symbolic point as well, since one is expected to read it as Christ embracing the image of his future self-sacrifice, the Paschal Lamb.

Lotto was born in Venice, and he lived there intermittently through the last 24 years of his life, but most of his work was done in the "provinces"--not necessarily a bad thing for a painter in the early 16th century, since the competition in Venice was so intense and intelligent patronage was plentiful in smaller towns. Lotto seems to have been diligent rather than aggressive: hypersensitive, a loner and ill-adapted to the scramble for commissions. "Old, alone, without anyone faithful to manage things for me, and very anxious in my mind"--so he described himself in his will.

It was not easy to forge a career in the same city, at the same time, as a man of Titian's stature. Titian used up all the air in the room; you couldn't compete with him. But Lotto wasn't trying to be Titian (which was just as well), and this, in the stacked deck of hierarchical opinion, which didn't take account of the fact that different artists had different aims and temperaments, told against his reputation. After he died, it went into decline. Lotto didn't drop out of sight, like Vermeer, and have to be completely rediscovered. But he wasn't highly valued in the later 16th century or after. Giorgio Vasari, whose Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550) was the cornerstone of Western art history, paid him little attention, and later art chroniclers were apt to assign his work to other artists. And--just as bad--other artists' work was assigned to him.

Serious Lotto scholarship, based on newly unearthed documents (including Lotto's studio journal), didn't begin until the late 19th century. When Bernard Berenson wrote the monograph that defined Lotto's oeuvre in 1895, he caused a scandal by throwing out scores of pseudo-Lottos. Collectors, particularly ducal ones in Britain, were enraged by the high-handedness with which this young, upstart American Jew downgraded their swans to ducks, but the fact was that Berenson was 90% right in his Lotto reattributions. From this point the critical overhaul of Lotto slowly began.

His psychological complexity and the deep-running poetic current that came out of it seem (as they seemed to the young Berenson a century ago) peculiarly congenial to modern eyes. His work is sown with recondite allegories, complicated quirks, unexpected twists of meaning. Despite its often ravishing formal beauty, it is full of unease. Apart from Durer's famous etching Melancholia, Renaissance art can show no more poignant portrayal of the way depression freezes both action and curiosity in its sufferers than Lotto's Portrait of a Young Man, circa 1530. It depicts its subject with sallow face, deep dark eyes and Hamlet-black clothes, idly toying with the pages of an unread book; drying rose petals are scattered on the table next to a watching lizard, emblem of cold-bloodedness.

We are apt to think of Renaissance portraiture as straightforward: here's Duke X, the man to the life, speaking through his realistic effigy; that's the armor he wore when he did the Turk in--and so forth. Lotto's portraits tend to be more complicated than that. Take, for instance, his magnificently assured portrait of Andrea Odoni, 1527. Odoni, a rich Venetian, collected Greco-Roman antiquities, and the clue to this painting is the statuette he shows in his hand--an image of Artemis, goddess of the Ephesians, denounced by St. Paul. But his other hand clasps a crucifix to his breast, declaring that despite his passion for the antique, he believes in Christ, not pagan idols.

Lotto's taste for allegory and emblems is catnip to art historians who go for obscurities in the text, but coming as messages across a cultural gap of nearly half a millennium, they can be maddeningly difficult to read. Portrait of a Married Couple, 1523-24, looks like an ordinary marriage portrait, painted with exquisite fluency and respect: an upper-class man with a squarish, brown-bearded face (he looks oddly like the late Gianni Versace) sitting at a table with an equally patrician woman, Venetian evidently, from the white lapdog she is holding. Her right hand rests devotedly on her husband's upper arm. Marital concord.

Yes, but: the catalog, having identified him as Gian Maria Cassotti, and his wife as Laura Assonica from Bergamo, makes the surprising point that when Lotto painted their likeness, she was dead, so that Cassotti is sitting down with her ghost. One of his hands points to a squirrel, curled up in sleep. Squirrels had an emblematic reputation for sleeping through the worst of storms, and indeed a high wind is bending the trees seen through the window behind. Cassotti, one sees on closer inspection, is red-eyed and weeping. He holds up a paper, the center of Lotto's composition, on which are written the words HOMO NUMQUAM: "A man, never." In sum, a good widower will never find release from turmoil and grief in sleep: he will always remember his Laura.

Monday, Mar. 02, 1998
Art: Master of Visual Slang

Fernand Leger (1881-1955) is the only one of the great early 20th century French Modernists who hasn't had a major museum show in America in nearly half a century. Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Duchamp and others, yes; but not Leger--a fact that is doubly odd, since no French painter, indeed, no French cultural figure of any kind, was more fascinated and stimulated by American culture, or did more to make a bridge between Paris and New York. Now, with an excellent and tightly focused show at Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art, this has happily changed. Curated by Carolyn Lanchner, the show is not exhaustingly large: it consists of only 56 paintings and 24 drawings. But it makes you realize that if you thought you already knew Leger backward and forward, you were probably wrong.

One is apt to think of him as a somewhat stolid, ruminative artist compared with a virtuoso like Picasso. It's true that there's no erotic content in his work, and little manifest lyricism or spontaneity. He painted with the steady determination, from form to closed form, of a silkworm chewing its way across a mulberry leaf. Much of his work is not Cubist at all, if Cubism means fragmentation. It was massively built and integrated, and it buried all traces of its construction process. But it could also be very surprising, and in its insistent reduction of the human form to mechanics, extremely weird--particularly when Leger's obsession with modernity coexisted with a sense of form and construction that went straight back to those archetypal figures of French classicism, Nicolas Poussin in the 17th century and Jacques-Louis David in the 18th. And what a draftsman Leger turns out to have been! Some of the drawings in this show are among the finest of the 20th century, and this too will come as a surprise.

One also thinks of Leger finding a typical style early and sticking to it. But this, as the show reveals, is not altogether true. He was a consistent artist but a very eclectic one as well, and one of the things that endears him to the Postmodernist temper is the way that traces of practically all the early 20th century movements, from Fauvism and Orphism to Cubism and even Surrealism, turn up in his work--not as a mishmash of quotes but as integrated elements. There's even a bow to Dada in a peculiar picture from 1930 in which the Mona Lisa shares billing with a can of sardines and a large bunch of keys.

In middle age Leger looked like a big Norman ox, square-headed, strong-nosed, an homme du peuple. And indeed his father was, by trade, a cattle breeder. But the son studied architecture, and this began a lifetime's fascination with structure. His art training was, in fact, classical. His main teacher was Jean-Leon Gerome, academic par excellence, and it's not much of a stretch to suppose that the Geromes and Bouguereaus he saw, with their pale, continuously rounded flesh (tubular, in a way) and their meticulous highlights, influenced the "Tubism" of his maturing style. The manikins in his Contrast of Form paintings, such as Exit the Ballets Russes, 1914, project a strange mixture of nervousness and solidity--sexless tin men bustling about in a narrow, overcrowded space.

But for Leger the crucial and formative experience of his youth was World War I. He enlisted in the French army and in the ghastly environment of the trenches found visual epiphanies in machinery--"the breech of a 75-mm gun in the sunlight, the magic of light on white metal." Compared with what those magic guns were doing to human bodies, Cubist "fragmentation" was a mere impertinence. He applied the forms of mechanized warfare to a deeply felt painting, The Card Game, 1917--French poilus in their characteristic melon helmets gambling at a table. With their clawlike hands they resemble predatory metal lobsters mutated by aggression. Yet it was among these fierce automatons that Leger, as he wrote, "discovered the French people...I found them poets, inventors of everyday poetic images--I am thinking of their colorful and adaptable use of slang. Once I had got my teeth into that sort of reality, I never let go of objects again."

He wanted to find an argot, a visual slang, that could encompass modern experience. Only the workers had it because they were hard up against the central fact of modern life: fabrication, teamwork, the design and use of machinery, and the mutuality--meaning class consciousness, expressed in strong trade unions--that came out of it all. The visual argot to describe this would have to come from the machine, "an offensive weapon to intimidate tradition." So from the end of the war through the '20s he set out to imagine the city as a machine--the metropolis clanking, shining, shifting and manufacturing reality. This produced some of his masterpieces, such as the enormous The City, 1919, or the yet more abstract The Typographer, 1918.

Leger was the only major Cubist, moreover, who had strong affiliations with American culture. Popular culture, that is: billboards, advertising, window displays, the glittering and chaotic face of Manhattan, endless in its growth and demolition, pumping imperative messages from its towers--the century's archetypal culture of vertigo and congestion. "The most colossal spectacle in the world," he wrote after going there for the first time in 1931. "Neither cinema nor photography, nor reporting, have been able to contain the astounding event that is New York seen at night from 40 floors up. It resists all vulgarization. It keeps its freshness."

He spent the Second World War in exile in America, fascinated by the color glow of neons ("I could never have invented it, I am not capable of such fantasies") and by the "romantic atmosphere in the good sense of the word" of "its vitality, its litter and its waste." It made him dream of colossal populist murals, which he never painted. But Leger's monumental paintings of construction workers on high steel are directly derived from New York.

Nevertheless, the tone of the big late work is distinctly French, not American. It becomes so by its mixture of socialist convictions with a high-art classical tradition. His paintings were, above all, about connectedness: figures harmonizing with one another, in locked and self-reinforcing compositions--metaphors of the banishment of social doubt, of fear and imbalance. "Free the masses of the people, give them the possibility of thinking, of seeing, of self-cultivation--that is all we ask."

Leger was as much of a Utopian as--and more of a socialist than--his friend the architect Le Corbusier. He believed in a world of working-class pleasure where, under the sign of central planning, people could issue from their tower blocks into green space on bicycles, and be a family. Such is the import of one of his big compositions, Leisure, Homage to David, 1948-49. Jacques-Louis David had painted some of the propaganda icons of the French Revolution, and Leger hoped to do the same for the next, socialist one. (He remained, in effect, the painter laureate of the French Communist Party, right up to his death in 1955.)

Leisure belongs to a very distant world of belief, one where Frenchmen could still believe in Stalin, but Leger had never wavered in his faith in the goodness of le peuple. He was, after all, the man who had found Monet's garden of rose bowers and water lilies at Giverny elitist and escapist, "too Impressionist." "A vegetable garden," he had harrumphed after his visit there in 1918, "is better constructed than a flower garden and is quite brightly colored."

Monday, Mar. 09, 1998
1923-1929 Exuberance: A Passion For The New

It's no exaggeration to say that the 1920s formed modern America in ways so vast and far-reaching that we take them for granted today--particularly in the field of culture but no less in America's consciousness of itself as a society and of the place it might have in the world. World War I had destroyed the Old Order in Europe and made a superpower of democratic, industrial America. It seemed obvious to many Americans that they were poised, collectively, to lead the world. And the future American, wrote a Jewish dramatist named Israel Zangwill in a play famously titled The Melting Pot, would be the supreme alloy of obstructive difference: "the fusion of all races, perhaps the coming superman."

In the '20s, American painters, sculptors and architects still defined themselves largely in terms of European models, whether of "traditional" art or of Modernism. But the decade also saw the emergence of a genius of American design who was perhaps the greatest architect of the century: Frank Lloyd Wright. The decade's supreme collective artifact, in steel and stone, was, of course, Manhattan itself, with its immense towers--Chrysler, Empire State and the rest--rising like blasts of congealed and shining energy from the bedrock, a spectacle of Promethean ambition and daring.

Institutional novelty was the American way, and the '20s created institutions that would have seemed contradictions in terms in Paris or London: a Museum of Modern Art, for instance, which opened in 1929. New York City was turning into an international culture, which would make it a natural haven for artists and intellectuals displaced by Nazism in the '30s--whose presence, in turn, would help make the city into Modernism's center of gravity in the '50s. New York was the world's "shock city," and would remain so for decades to come--not least because it harbored such cultural variety. Another sign of this was the Harlem Renaissance, permeated by America's greatest indigenous American musical forms, jazz and the blues.

But the biggest change was the rise of American popular culture: not only jazz and its innumerable variants but also what happened onstage, across the airwaves and on the movie screen. America took the European operetta, fused it with burlesque and jazz and created--through the genius of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and others--a broad, unique musical form. The '20s saw the rise of the Hollywood studio system, which had grown from its humble origins among (mostly immigrant Jewish) nickelodeon proprietors into the most powerful industry for the invention and spread of dreams in human history, at least until the advent of TV. Walt Disney invented a little mouse, no larger than a man's thumb, that would become a behemoth.

Americans discovered their insatiable hunger for the electronic, which would create huge communal audiences: some 60,000 households had radio sets in 1922; more than 10 million had sets in 1929. The country began to turn itself into an image-saturated, stimulus-bombarded factory of desire. By the '70s and '80s, with the explosion of electronic communications, U.S. popular and kitsch culture would dominate the globe as no other had, with no limit in sight. So it was in the '20s that America's cultural fantasies started to become, for good or ill, the world's.

Monday, Mar. 09, 1998
1973-1980 Limits: Art: Picasso at MOMA

In imaginative force and outright terribilita, it is quite possibly the most crushing and exhilarating exhibition of work by a 20th century artist ever held in the U.S. Over the next four months a million people will queue outside New York City's Museum of Modern Art to get a glimpse of it. Pablo Picasso, who died in 1973, is being honored in a show of nearly 1,000 of his works, some never exhibited before, drawn from collections the world over.

What gives the exhibit its overwhelming character is the range and fecundity of Picasso's talent--the flashes of demonic restlessness, the heights of confidence and depths of insecurity, the relationships to the art of the past, the sustained intensity of feeling. "Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective" contains good paintings and bad, some so weak that they look like forgeries, as well as works of art for which the word masterpiece--exiled for the crime of elitism over the past decade--must now be reinstated.

--BY ROBERT HUGHES May 26, 1980

Monday, Apr. 13, 1998
Art: Close Encounters

The great 19th century French realist Gustave Courbet once said that an artist ought to be able to render something--a distant pile of sticks, say, in a field--without actually knowing what it was. The hyperrealist Chuck Close has gone one better than that. In 1971 he painted the face of his father-in-law Nat Rose. The huge, minutely detailed likeness was bought by a Maryland collector who lent it to the Whitney Museum in New York City. There it was seen by an ophthalmologist who, not sure whether he was intruding or not, got a message to Close. Did he know that one eye of the man in the painting showed signs of carcinoma? No, Close didn't, but his father-in-law had a checkup, and it turned out to be true. People always hope their lives will be enhanced by works of art, but this was the only time an American's sight was saved by one.

It's unlikely that Close's current retrospective at New York City's Museum of Modern Art will produce any further medical revelations, but Close emerges from it as a remarkable artist all the same, and well served by a couple of excellent interpretative essays by curators Robert Storr and Kirk Varnedoe. Close's reputation as a stick-to-it, intensely focused, all-round-good-guy of the American art world has been gathering strength for years; and since 1989, when he was paralyzed from the neck down by a catastrophic stroke and had to learn to paint all over again from a wheelchair, he has become something of a legend. None of this bears on the quality of his art, of course. But you can't help reflecting, as you look at his infinitely laborious portraits in which one vastly enlarged face after another is elaborated into a moonscape of pores, wrinkles, blackheads, stubble and multiple highlights, that sheer determination is the common factor of both Close's art and his life.

Chuck Close has to be the most methodical artist that ever lived in America. He goes at the canvas with all the afflatus of a silkworm eating its phlegmatic way across a mulberry leaf. His way of painting, once set up, becomes an effort of pure transcription that relocates the acts of imagination way back in the roots of its system, and spends months on it. Essentially, what he does is copy faces large from small photographs. "Large" means enormous--canvases 8 ft. or 9 ft. high, filled with the staring face of someone you probably don't know and who has no special public existence. (All Close's sitters were his friends, mostly artists such as the sculptor Richard Serra or the painter Joe Zucker, none of them well known at the time. He has never done a commissioned portrait.) He began his big faces in the late 1960s, working directly from black-and-white photographs he took himself. The results were very strange. The images weren't "expressive." Their obsession is with fact, an overload of fact--not in the least with character. Their eyes don't contact the viewer: they look right through you. They were as anticosmetic as mug shots (some disconcertingly so: young Richard Serra looks like a dockland thug; his wife, artist Nancy Graves, like a snaggle-toothed nut). And it's interesting that Close's heads, then and later, work best when they are either strictly frontal or in profile; any turn or tilt of the head, suggesting that the sitter has noticed you, weakens the image.

Close's take-it-or-leave-it approach to the human face was deeply related to the growing interest among his Minimalist peers in sculptural materials set forth as they were: strips of rubber or felt on the floor, cinder blocks, polystyrene or slabs of rusty steel propped together. The paint Close applied was molecule-thin, spritzed on the painstakingly prepared gesso surface with an airbrush, in strict accordance with the grid to which Close enlarged the original photo. It suggested an obsessive involvement on the artist's part, but kept the viewer distant, with nothing sensuous to hook onto--unless you had a thing about freckles and wens. This idea of deadpan, photo-derived "objectivity" was much in the air at the time--a small movement, Photo-Realism, was one of the spin-offs from Pop Art--but nobody took it as far as Close, or with such riveting effects. These are lost in reproduction--the image shrinks back to being just another photo, and its command on your attention (huge, august, frontal, like the head of a Pantocrator from a Byzantine apse) vanishes. Only from the originals can one grasp what Close means when he says, in a catalog interview with curator Storr, that "I wanted to make something that was impersonal and personal, arm's-length and intimate, minimal and maximal, using the least amount of paint possible but providing the greatest amount of information possible."

From black-and-white, Close moved to color, but again in a system-dominated way. Color printing is done with three colors: cyan (a greenish blue), magenta (a purplish red) and yellow. Close took his photo, had color separations made, and then proceeded to render each square of the canvas with each of the colors, successively, exquisitely controlling the amount of each hue per pixel. There was a yellow face, then a blue overlay, and then with the magenta one--presto, full exact color. No room for deviation or correction. Paint-by-numbers raised to the nth degree. It goes so far out in the direction of illusion that it hits abstraction coming back.

At what point does an array of colored squares in a regular grid begin to turn into a recognizable image? The question touches on the mystery of Realist painting--how it is, for instance, that when looking close up at a Velasquez you see a flurry of gray-and-pink spots and streaks, and when you move back a couple of feet, that same patch has become a glistening silver embroidery on rose velvet. All of Close's art recalls his fixation on this effect, the brain seeking illusion in pattern, questing for clues: Close will break a face down into round dabs of oil paint (as in Self-Portrait, 1986), or spots of pastel, or even thickly textured platelets of papier-mache glued on top of one another, looking to extend the ways in which repetitive, grid-organized painting turns into the irresistible semblance of a face. All the time, the surface gets richer and more baroque, a far cry from the uninviting air of the early work.

Close, when a student at Yale, was enraptured by the work of the Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning: he loved his color and luscious paint surface, while realizing that they couldn't possibly be imitated. Imitating de Kooning was the bane of student existence: no originality could come of it. But Close, in his ruminative way, hankered after the paradise of the senses that de Kooning's touch represented, and it surfaces in the work that he had begun to do just before his paralysis in 1989 and was able to develop after his partial recovery. The dots and pixels become thick-painted squares, with highly colored microforms--lozenges, doughnuts, figure-eights--tossing around in them. The image of the head coarsens and blurs, breaks off at some edges, acquires a mysterious density. It's like looking at someone through ripple glass, and it produces striking results--as in Roy II, 1994, a portrait of the painter Roy Lichtenstein, whose profile (owing to the constraints of Close's grid) hardens into the likeness of Dick Tracy while keeping a beautiful fluidity of surface. Finally, Close has been able to get some vibrancy into the results of his system: the work of the imagination has been moved up from background to foreground, from the planning of the image to its actual execution. Some artists get stuck in their style as they age. Others get wilder; they are among the lucky ones, and this show makes it clear that Close is one of them.

Monday, Apr. 27, 1998
Art: Sublime Windbag

When he died in 1885 at age 83, Victor Hugo was beyond question the most famous man of letters in France, and perhaps the world--his only rival being Charles Dickens. The English put up plaques to show where their literary celebrities lived or were born, and sometimes grant them burial in Westminster Abbey. Hugo, however, is the only writer to have a stone mark his place of conception. His parents' epochal embrace took place in a forest 3,000 ft. up on the flank of Mount Donon, overlooking the Rhineland, in May 1801, though it's typical of Hugo's own mythomania that in adult life he claimed it happened 3,000 ft. higher still, and on Mont Blanc.

In his life he was compared (often by himself) to an eagle, a titan, an ogre, a monster; to Homer, Shakespeare, Dante and Cervantes. He wrote enormous, turbulent, dark novels, two of which (Les Miserables and Notre-Dame de Paris, known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in our own day have been turned, respectively, into a kitsch-book musical and a saccharine Disney film. Few read the originals, at least in English, though they are of course more disturbing and entertaining than their modern clones. He wrote 21 plays, which transformed the French theater, hoicking it out of the noble stasis of Corneille and Racine. One of them, Hernani, was the emblematic starting point of the Romantic movement in France and is sometimes credited with helping provoke the 1830 revolution.

With his voluminous poetry reckoned in, Hugo's effect on French literature exceeded anything short of the Bible itself. Flaubert, Baudelaire, Gautier all stood in his shadow, along with foreigners like Dostoyevsky and Conrad. In the words of English scholar Graham Robb, whose brilliant new biography, Victor Hugo (Norton; 682 pages; $39.95), does for this sublime windbag what George Painter did for Proust 30 years ago, Hugo was "a one-man education system through which every writer had to pass...The story of Hugo's influence after death is the story of a river after it reaches the sea. It was so pervasive that he was sometimes thought not to have had an influence at all."

At the peak of his fame several streets in Paris were named after him. He lived besieged by infatuated women. "Imagination," he said in one of his more phallocratic moments, "is intelligence with an erection." Aged nearly 70, in the hectic relief that followed the lifting of the siege of Paris, he averaged one sexual encounter a day--40 different women in five months, competing for the touch of what Hugo called his "lyre." Larger than life, he was almost larger than death: half a million people, the biggest funeral attendance since the death of Napoleon, followed his cortege to the freshly deconsecrated Pantheon, a building he detested and compared to a sponge cake. There he still lies. "Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo," bitched Jean Cocteau some decades later. So might a chihuahua fix its tiny fangs in the ankle of a bull elephant.

Hugo also drew, incessantly. This is the least-known aspect of his work, even in France; in the U.S. it will come as a complete surprise, even to art lovers. It is not known how many drawings Hugo made. About 3,000 survive, shared among various French state collections and a few private ones. From this mass, a distillation of some 100 images has been made for the Drawing Center in downtown New York City by curators Ann Philbin and Florian Rodari. It went on view last week, and it is an amazing show, a splendid (if unscheduled) complement to Robb's biography.

Leonardo da Vinci once advised painters to draw inspiration from random blots and stains on walls, in which the drifting imagination could see landscapes and battle pieces. Most of Hugo's drawn work was dedicated to this idea. From puddled stains and splotches he would summon up the primary images of his imagination--storms, cliffs, caves, brooding castle towers, desolate landscapes, monsters, shipwrecks, Gothic fantasies of every kind. They were provoked, as he put it, by "hours of almost unconscious daydreaming." Together, Hugo's drawings make up one of the most striking testimonies to the image-forming power of the unconscious in all Western art. They don't describe a predetermined image; they allow visions to surface through spontaneous play.

"Any means would do for him," wrote one of his friends, "the dregs of a cup of coffee tossed on old laid paper, the dregs of an inkwell tossed on notepaper, spread with his fingers, sponged up, dried, then taken up with a thick brush or a fine one... Sometimes the ink would bleed through the notepaper, and so on the reverse another vague drawing was born." He would also, when the impulse struck him, use stencils, fingerprints, soot, imprints from ink-soaked lace, stones and fingernails. He would fold the sheets of paper to make Rorschach blots in the wet ink. He worked like an omnipotent child, in a sort of haptic delirium of free association.

The drawings are scratchy, messy, dark and sometimes as fecal as the under-Paris of sewers that he had created in Les Miserables. They are full of the fustian of Romanticism, but one must remember that it was a fustian that he himself had largely created through his own writings, years before. And in many respects, it, and what he said about it, seems almost incredibly forward-looking. Sometimes this is due to the apocalyptic subject matter, seen nearly 150 years later through late 20th century eyes. Hugo's Mushroom, circa 1850, a gigantic fungus looming irrationally up against a dim and devastated-looking landscape, can't help reminding you of atomic disaster, though not even Hugo could have imagined that.

The really new element in Hugo's work was the condition of its making. "Great artists," Hugo wrote, "have an element of chance in their talent, and there is also talent in their chance." Chapter and verse for many a 20th century painter, from the Surrealists to Jackson Pollock. Some of Hugo's taches ("blots" or "stains"), like the undated Abstract Composition, are hauntingly beautiful. It is his surrender to process, to the way in which the nature of the medium is allowed to form the image with the minimum of conscious control, that makes him seem prophetically modern.

When Hugo sets off on a string of imagery, the associations never seem to stop: they grow and replicate, spawning variations--a fractal imagination with no final term. The components keep interfusing. Thus, although Hugo never seems to have drawn a nude, he could invest even typography with sex, as in the strange drawing known as Marine Terrace with Initials, 1855. Marine Terrace was the house on the Channel Island of Jersey where Hugo lived with his family during some of his period of political exile (1851-70). He disliked the place--"brick-laid Methodism," he called its white square architecture, so unlike the dirty, suggestive, intricate Gothic he was crazy about. Here it shines with cold pallor under a gray sky, but over it flies a clawed, gnarled, vinelike object that on close inspection turns out to be a monogram, the interlaced initials of Victor Hugo and his mistress Juliette Drouet, the stems and serifs furiously grappling in the sky above the house of virtue. In Hugo's world, nothing--least of all himself and his desires--was safe from apotheosis.

Monday, May. 04, 1998
Art: The Merry Modernist

Alexander Calder (1898-1976) may not have been the most profound sculptor of the 20th century, but he was certainly the most enjoyable of modernists--the man who delighted a public several generations long by making sculpture move. This year marks the centenary of his birth. Accordingly, the National Gallery of Art in Washington has put on a Calder retrospective. Admirably curated by Marla Prather, the show (199 sculptures plus other works) will move to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in September.

The Philadelphia-born Calder was a fluent and effusively industrious artist who made thousands of works, and Prather has done a fine job of winnowing the wheat from the chaff, of which, truth to tell, there is a great deal. Calder never seems to have had the smallest inhibition about his chosen career. Both his parents were artists, and he made his own toys, "always a junkman of bits of wire and all the prettiest stuff in the garbage can." Growing up, he studied mechanical engineering, took painting classes at the Art Students League in New York City, and in 1926 moved to Paris, which, he laconically explained, "seemed the place to go, on all accounts of practically everyone who had been there."

In Paris he made more toys and, before long, a whole circus: lions and their tamers, an elephant, acrobats, trapeze artists, clowns, all made of wire and wood and cloth and cork, with himself as their enormous ringmaster manipulating them to music. To judge from the surviving film made of the circus in action, it was quite a show, and it appealed to the latent kid in every avant-gardist. It was le cirque Calder that got the young American full entry to the Parisian art world. This charming piece of performance art was one of the small sights of Paris between 1926 and 1930; it was seen and enjoyed by a whole roster of artists, designers and architects--Joan Miro and Fernand Leger, Le Corbusier and Isamu Noguchi and, most important for the eventual direction of Calder's own work, Piet Mondrian.

In 1927, Calder began making sculptures out of wire alone--just a line springing in air, curving back on itself, joining with others in a frazzle of twists, hanging from a string and responsive to the lightest touch of a finger or breath of air. Most of them were portraits--some of fellow artists (Miro, the composer Edgard Varese), others of show-biz celebrities like Josephine Baker or the great honky-tonk comedian Jimmy Durante, whose famed nose, translated into wire profile, becomes a fearsome proboscis. They were witty, vital (the faint quivering of the wire from room vibration gave them an odd subliminal life) and completely without pretension. They were also, clearly, sculpture and not toys. Yet they would hardly be more than footnotes in the modernist story but for what happened later.

Calder's jump into originality as a sculptor is one of those flash-bang conversion tales in which the legends of early modern art abound. It seems that in 1930 he went to visit Mondrian, the great Dutch abstractionist, in his Paris studio. He already admired Mondrian's work, but he had never seen its environment before--that fanatically judged, ordered workplace of white and primary colors where even the Victrola was painted red. Rectangles of painted cardboard were pinned around the walls, and Calder was seized with the desire to see them move. They should oscillate at different speeds, he told Mondrian, who replied, "No, it is not necessary, my painting is already very fast."

But from then on the idea of literal movement in art kept growing on Calder. He experimented from time to time with sculpture whose abstract elements were driven by motors, acting on them through more-or-less hidden bands and pulleys. These were the works that Marcel Duchamp, when he saw them in 1931, christened "mobiles"--the word by which Calder is known. But these motorized pieces were too predictable. Calder's genius was for the unprogrammed--natural, as distinct from mechanical and repetitious motion. What he did best was present metaphors of natural movement in the simplest technical terms. He worked intuitively, balancing things on his finger, manually and without calculation, and above all without power tools.

He came up with the idea of sculpture as something for the lightest air currents to change: arrays of delicately balanced wire arms with colored leaves and fins and fans on the end, orbiting eccentrically and never coming back to exactly the same position. They respond to your presence. They are supremely friendly sculpture, even in the distance of abstraction. Their severity of line and form is always tempered by a certain rhythmic sweetness, as in one of the masterpieces of Calder's middle years, The Spider, 1940. Later, as he got famous and "monumental" commissions were pressed on him, he would defeat this quality of his own work by building huge sluggish mobiles--one of which, 76 ft. wide, hangs permanently over the atrium of the National Gallery--that would need a hurricane to budge them and are parodies of his original, lyrical insight. He was always best on the small-to-medium scale. And compared with his best mobiles, his "stabiles"--big-profile metal sculptures that didn't move and were a fixture of half the corporate plazas in America from the '60s until his death--are mostly boring; perhaps they were more interesting to make than to look at.

Bringing metaphors of nature back into abstraction (or rather, perhaps, using abstraction to distill natural processes) lay at the core of his finest work. This he shared with Miro, whose sense of nature never deserted him and who scarcely ever painted a pure abstraction. Miro's moons and planets and bean and caca shapes, his fine whiskery black lines, find their sculptural brethren in Calder's spheres and stalks of wire, his trembling disks.

And they have a common root in cosmic imagery. Calder never forgot a sight he had at dawn from the deck of a freighter going through the Panama Canal in 1921--the sun rising in the east, the still silver moon setting in the west. Cosmic clockwork displaying itself. No wonder many of his sculptures of the '30s resemble planetary models, abstract orreries. Another idea he seems to have got from Miro was that of the work halfway between painting and sculpture, hung on the wall, declaring itself to be pictorial but with three-dimensional elements. Calder's version of this was Cadre Rouge (Red Frame), 1932, whose ochre, blue and black disks, together with a small white ball, float out of their frame as though escaping from the bonds of picturehood.

He had a sense of the grotesque too, but he used it with more restraint than Miro and other surrealists--an exception being one of his finest sculptures, Apple Monster, 1938. This fierce apparition was made from a broken apple branch that Calder turned upside down and painted, its only moving element being its wooden genitals, which rise and fall languidly on the end of a long, weak spring.

One of Calder's most brilliantly surreal works, Wooden Bottle with Hairs, 1943, almost out-Miros Miro--a shmoo-like form that might be a bottle or a body, with black tadpole-like "hairs" of wood sprouting from it on wires; these wiggle frantically, as though in absurd erotic excitation, if you blow on them, which the National Gallery forbids you to do. One of the limitations of this show is that the viewer can't do anything to make the mobiles move, and there's no breeze in the galleries, so that things look more inert than they should. What would Calder have felt about that? Disappointed, no doubt. But probably he would have written it off to the fate of fragile, intimate objects in the face of a mass audience.

Monday, Jun. 08, 1998

To say that Pablo Picasso dominated Western art in the 20th century is, by now, the merest commonplace. Before his 50th birthday, the little Spaniard from Malaga had become the very prototype of the modern artist as public figure. No painter before him had had a mass audience in his own lifetime. The total public for Titian in the 16th century or Velazquez in the 17th was probably no more than a few thousand people--though that included most of the crowned heads, nobility and intelligentsia of Europe. Picasso's audience--meaning people who had heard of him and seen his work, at least in reproduction--was in the tens, possibly hundreds, of millions. He and his work were the subjects of unending analysis, gossip, dislike, adoration and rumor.

He was a superstitious, sarcastic man, sometimes rotten to his children, often beastly to his women. He had contempt for women artists. His famous remark about women being "goddesses or doormats" has rendered him odious to feminists, but women tended to walk into both roles open-eyed and eagerly, for his charm was legendary. Whole cultural industries derived from his much mythologized virility. He was the Minotaur in a canvas-and-paper labyrinth of his own construction.

He was also politically lucky. Though to Nazis his work was the epitome of "degenerate art," his fame protected him during the German occupation of Paris, where he lived; and after the war, when artists and writers were thought disgraced by the slightest affiliation with Nazism or fascism, Picasso gave enthusiastic endorsement to Joseph Stalin, a mass murderer on a scale far beyond Hitler's, and scarcely received a word of criticism for it, even in cold war America.

No painter or sculptor, not even Michelangelo, had been as famous as this in his own lifetime. And it is quite possible that none ever will be again, now that the mandate to set forth social meaning, to articulate myth and generate widely memorable images has been so largely transferred from painting and sculpture to other media: photography, movies, television. Though Marcel Duchamp, that cunning old fox of conceptual irony, has certainly had more influence on nominally vanguard art over the past 30 years than Picasso, the Spaniard was the last great beneficiary of the belief that the language of painting and sculpture really mattered to people other than their devotees. And he was the first artist to enjoy the obsessive attention of mass media. He stood at the intersection of these two worlds. If that had not been so, his restless changes of style, his constant pushing of the envelope, would not have created such controversy--and thus such celebrity.

In today's art world, a place without living culture heroes, you can't even imagine such a protean monster arising. His output was vast. This is not a virtue in itself--only a few paintings by Vermeer survive, and fewer still by the brothers Van Eyck, but they are as firmly lodged in history as Picasso ever was or will be. Still, Picasso's oeuvre filled the world, and he left permanent marks on every discipline he entered. His work expanded fractally, one image breeding new clusters of others, right up to his death.

Moreover, he was the artist with whom virtually every other artist had to reckon, and there was scarcely a 20th century movement that he didn't inspire, contribute to or--in the case of Cubism, which, in one of art history's great collaborations, he co-invented with Georges Braque--beget. The exception, since Picasso never painted an abstract picture in his life, was abstract art; but even there his handprints lay everywhere--one obvious example being his effect on the early work of American Abstract Expressionist painters, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, among others.

Much of the story of modern sculpture is bound up with welding and assembling images from sheet metal, rather than modeling in clay, casting in bronze or carving in wood; and this tradition of the open constructed form rather than solid mass arose from one small guitar that Picasso snipped and joined out of tin in 1912. If collage--the gluing of previously unrelated things and images on a flat surface--became a basic mode of modern art, that too was due to Picasso's Cubist collaboration with Braque. He was never a member of the Surrealist group, but in the 1920s and '30s he produced some of the scariest distortions of the human body and the most violently irrational, erotic images of Eros and Thanatos ever committed to canvas. He was not a realist painter/reporter, still less anyone's official muralist, and yet Guernica remains the most powerful political image in modern art, rivaled only by some of the Mexican work of Diego Rivera.

Picasso was regarded as a boy genius, but if he had died before 1906, his 25th year, his mark on 20th century art would have been slight. The so-called Blue and Rose periods, with their wistful etiolated figures of beggars and circus folk, are not, despite their great popularity, much more than pendants to late 19th century Symbolism. It was the experience of modernity that created his modernism, and that happened in Paris. There, mass production and reproduction had come to the forefront of ordinary life: newspapers, printed labels, the overlay of posters on walls--the dizzily intense public life of signs, simultaneous, high-speed and layered. This was the cityscape of Cubism.

Picasso was not a philosopher or a mathematician (there is no "geometry" in Cubism), but the work he and Braque did between 1911 and 1918 was intuitively bound to the perceptions of thinkers like Einstein and Alfred North Whitehead: that reality is not figure and void, it is all relationships, a twinkling field of interdependent events. Long before any Pop artists were born, Picasso latched on to the magnetism of mass culture and how high art could refresh itself through common vernaculars. Cubism was hard to read, willfully ambiguous, and yet demotic too. It remains the most influential art dialect of the early 20th century. As if to distance himself from his imitators, Picasso then went to the opposite extreme of embracing the classical past, with his paintings of huge dropsical women dreaming Mediterranean dreams in homage to Corot and Ingres.

His "classical" mode, which he would revert to for decades to come, can also be seen as a gesture of independence. After his collaboration with Braque ended with his comment that "Braque is my wife"--words that were as disparaging to women as to Braque--Picasso remained a loner for the rest of his career. But a loner with a court and maitresses en titre. He didn't even form a friendship with Matisse until both artists were old. His close relationships tended to be with poets and writers.

Though the public saw him as the archetypal modernist, he was disconnected from much modern art. Some of the greatest modern painters--Kandinsky, for instance, or Mondrian--saw their work as an instrument of evolution and human development. But Picasso had no more of a Utopian streak than did his Spanish idol, Goya. The idea that art evolved, or had any kind of historical mission, struck him as ridiculous. "All I have ever made," he once said, "was made for the present and in the hope that it will always remain in the present. When I have found something to express, I have done it without thinking of the past or the future." Interestingly, he also stood against the Expressionist belief that the work of art gains value by disclosing the truth, the inner being, of its author. "How can anyone enter into my dreams, my instincts, my desires, my thoughts...and above all grasp from them what I have been about--perhaps against my own will?" he exclaimed.

To make art was to achieve a tyrannous freedom from self-explanation. The artist's work was mediumistic ("Painting is stronger than me, it makes me do what it wants"), solipsistic even. To Picasso, the idea that painting did itself through him meant that it wasn't subject to cultural etiquette. None of the other fathers of Modernism felt it so strongly--not Matisse, not Mondrian, certainly not Braque.

In his work, everything is staked on sensation and desire. His aim was not to argue coherence but to go for the strongest level of feeling. He conveyed it with tremendous plastic force, making you feel the weight of forms and the tension of their relationships mainly by drawing and tonal structure. He was never a great colorist, like Matisse or Pierre Bonnard. But through metaphor, he crammed layers of meaning together to produce flashes of revelation. In the process, he reversed one of the currents of modern art. Modernism had rejected storytelling: what mattered was formal relationships. But Picasso brought it back in a disguised form, as a psychic narrative, told through metaphors, puns and equivalences.

The most powerful element in the story--at least after Cubism--was sex. The female nude was his obsessive subject. Everything in his pictorial universe, especially after 1920, seemed related to the naked bodies of women. Picasso imposed on them a load of feeling, ranging from dreamy eroticism (as in some of his paintings of his mistress Marie-Therese Walter in the '30s) to a sardonic but frenzied hostility, that no Western artist had made them carry before. He did this through metamorphosis, recomposing the body as the shape of his fantasies of possession and of his sexual terrors. Now the hidden and comparatively decorous puns of Cubism (the sound holes of a mandolin, for instance, becoming the mask of Pierrot) came out of their closet. "To displace," as Picasso described the process, "to put eyes between the legs, or sex organs on the face. To contradict. Nature does many things the way I do, but she hides them! My painting is a series of cock-and-bull stories."

There seems little doubt that the greatest of Picasso's work came in the 30 years between Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) and Guernica (1937). But of course he didn't decline into triviality. Consistently through the war years and the '50s, and even now and then in the '60s and '70s, he would produce paintings and prints of considerable power. Sometimes they would be folded into series of variations on the old masters and 19th century painters he needed to measure himself against, such as Velazquez and Goya, or Poussin, Delacroix, Manet and Courbet. In his last years particularly, his production took on a manic and obsessive quality, as though the creative act (however repetitious) could forestall death. Which it could not. His death left the public with a nostalgia for genius that no talent today, in the field of painting, can satisfy.

TIME art critic Robert Hughes is the author of The Fatal Shore and American Visions

Monday, Jun. 08, 1998
Myriad Visions

The 20th century saw more restless experimentation with style and content in art than any other in history. Never before had there been so many ideas about what art could be or how it could be made; never had new art been the subject of such impassioned controversy or reached so large an audience. Museums, especially in the U.S., had to embrace newness or look retro. The century didn't see the birth of the avant-garde--that had happened earlier--but it did bring its death, after experiment and eccentricity became the norm. Inevitably, all that had seemed startling or threatening came to look normal, even classical, within a few decades. In the end, the new lost its power to shock.

Monday, Jun. 15, 1998
Art: An Escapist's Dreamworld

Forty years ago, if any right-thinking Modernist art critic had been asked to list a few FFAs (formerly famous artists) who had not a prayer of return from the elephants' graveyard of reputation, who were buried forever without the least chance of a joyous resurrection or even a polite exhumation, the name of Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones would surely have come up. The most eminent of Victorians: by the 1880s, an absolute pillar of the British cultural establishment, admired by every connoisseur from John Ruskin on down. The leader of the second wave of that peculiarly English art movement, Pre-Raphaelitism. The man who defined the ideals of pictorial sentiment for an exceedingly pious age; whose angels and Blessed Damozels, Arthurian knights and shrinking, somewhat cataleptic virgins were the very essence of escapist painting. What could this industrious and backward-dreaming fabulist have to say to the 20th century?

Something, to its closing years at least. The fortunes of the Pre-Raphaelites, which went down the tubes after World War I, began to revive in the 1960s and were ratified by a big and hugely popular survey show at London's Tate Gallery in 1984. But the show that opened last week at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer," marks the centenary of his death and is by far the most lavish treatment that any Pre-Raphaelite has received from an American museum. It is large (more than 170 works), indeed exhaustive, and fairly glutted with scholarly detail. It is also spectacular, beautiful in patches and coldly, provokingly weird in others, sometimes both at once.

The foreword to the catalog claims that it is "possible to admire Edward Burne-Jones as the greatest British artist of the 19th century, after Turner and perhaps John Constable." One may demur at this, but the show is bound to be a smash hit with the American public, not just because it is full of the yearning sentimentality that has flooded into real life today--for there is a connection between Burne-Jones' semisacrificial English virgins, each one a Flower Beneath the Foot, and the emetically mawkish victim-cult of the late Princess Diana--but because its artfulness evokes intense nostalgia.

Burne-Jones was an amazingly proficient craftsman, a one-man guild, fecund in painting, book design, tapestry, embroidery, stained glass, tiles, mosaic. He had little formal art training and always felt insecure about his figure drawing. What fired him as an artist was his early, deep and long-lasting friendship with William Morris, whom he met at Oxford in the 1850s, when both were new undergraduates. They had meant to go into the Anglican Church, but in 1855 they resolved to dedicate their lives to art and design.

It was, on the face of it, a curious partnership--Burne-Jones the dreaming aesthete who cared only about Beauty with a capital B and didn't give a straw for politics, teamed with the man who, next to Karl Marx, was the most passionate socialist thinker in 19th century England. But Burne-Jones hungered for large ecclesiastical commissions: "I want big things to do and vast spaces," he declared, "and for common people to see them and say 'Oh!'--only 'Oh!'" With their scores of stained-glass windows, he and Morris transformed the visual impact of Anglican churchgoing in their time, banishing from newly built places of worship the prim and severe look that Puritanism had foisted on the reformed church, bringing back the emotional splendors of Rome. And when it came to large-scale tapestry and embroidery, at whose collaborative design Morris & Co. excelled, they gave back to these arts a decorative complexity and clarity of design that had scarcely been seen since the late Middle Ages, the period that both men so extravagantly admired.

In doing so, Burne-Jones shepherded the English aesthetic movement into existence. Like his admirer Oscar Wilde, Burne-Jones believed the whole point of art was its artificiality. His work was the antithesis of Realism, and Impressionism struck him as boring in its attachment to mere visual fact. "Realism? Direct transcript from nature? What has that to do with art?" he demanded. Painting, he thought, was "better in a prison than in the open air always."

The growing abstraction of his work made for disagreements with his mentor, John Ruskin. Aestheticism was amoral; it didn't hew to Ruskinian axioms of morally perfect realistic truth. Yet Ruskin had presided over Burne-Jones' education as an artist, accompanying him to Italy, getting him to copy paintings. "I was born in a little city of the Apennines," Burne-Jones said archly, years later, to one of his young women friends, "and my name was Eduardo della Francesca." But the Italian artists who most influenced his roving eye were not Piero della Francesca but rather Botticelli, Michelangelo and the Venetians--Carpaccio and Crivelli for their stiff, almost heraldic execution, and Giorgione for his mellow, elusive lyricism. Le Chant d'Amour, 1868-77, is the most Giorgionesque of his paintings, a parallel to Walter Pater's famous dictum that art aspires to the condition of music; the lovesick young knight in black armor gazing at his porcelain-skinned maiden, who gazes past you with a thousand-yard stare while blind Cupid works the bellows of her organ is, for sheer formal grace, unsurpassed in English 19th century art.

The strongest early-Renaissance influence on Burne-Jones, though, was Botticelli--especially Botticelli in his later years, when religious anxiety seeps into his work from the ideas of Savonarola and expresses itself in twisting, mannered poses and a rushing intensity of line. These go undiluted into Burne-Jones' tapestries and, in a much odder way, into such images as The Doom Fulfilled, circa 1884-85, from his cycle of paintings on the myth of Perseus and Andromeda, in which the hero in his impossibly chic armor does battle with the sea monster, a whipping linear colophon of a beast, a Victorian precursor of the creature in Alien, whose skin seems to be made of black vulcanized rubber.

Burne-Jones' girls have often been ridiculed for their insipid and standardized look, but they have a way of breaking out into an obsessional character--as La Belle Dame Sans Merci. One of his best friends was Algernon Charles Swinburne, the English poet who was a votary of sadomasochism; and time and again, Burne-Jones' haughty damsels with their downturned mouths and leonine manes suggest the imperious sex goddesses of Swinburne's imagination, such as Dolores, with her "cruel/ Red mouth like a venomous flower":

Could you hurt me, sweet lips, though I hurt you? ... O splendid and sterile Dolores, Our Lady of Pain

Burne-Jones' marital life was blameless except for one intense affair in the 1860s with a young Greek woman named Maria Zambaco, daughter of one of his London patrons. He cast her as a full-blown Medusan charmer, snakes twisting in her hair, and himself as the weakened magician under her spell, in The Beguiling of Merlin, 1873-74--King Arthur's court sorcerer reduced to hollow-eyed impotence by a magic fiercer than his own. "Now isn't that very funny," he wrote to a friend 20 years after finishing it, "as [Zambaco] was born at the foot of Olympus and looked and was primaeval and that's [her] head and [her] way of standing and turning, and I was being turned into a hawthorn bush."

Sleep, vegetative unconsciousness, surrender of the will--Burne-Jones' art was largely about passivity, and his knights look a tad sluggish even when they are skewering dragons. He idolized Michelangelo--the year 1871 found Burne-Jones flat on his back on a traveling rug in the Sistine Chapel, minutely scrutinizing the ceiling with opera glasses--and comatose versions of the Slaves and Captives abound in his work. The dream-suffused character of the art of Burne-Jones won him a following on the other side of the Channel by connecting him to painters in the stream of French and Belgian Symbolism: Gustave Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes, Fernand Khnopff. Burne-Jones' morbid hypersensitivity was what made him a genuinely advanced figure in Symbolist eyes, and it is the trait that is bringing him back into popularity today, now that "heroic," confrontational Modernism is losing its mandate in our fin de siecle.

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Monday, Jun. 29, 1998
Art: Sculptural One-Liners

It's compensation: as the water drains out of the pond of contemporary art, as the belief in everlasting invention that was hard-wired into American expectations during the 1960s dwindles, small bass and medium carp are treated as potential Moby Dicks. Witness the California artist Charles Ray, 45, whose mid-career retrospective, curated by Paul Schimmel of Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, recently opened at New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art.

The catalog is somewhat hyperbolic--at one point Schimmel actually manages to compare a sculpture of eight naked effigies of Ray sprawling around in a masturbatory group grope to Rodin's Burghers of Calais--but Ray comes out of this show looking clever and sometimes more than that. His sculpture Fall '91, 1992, is a figure of a woman, 8 ft. high, in a red suit, done with slightly more detail and verisimilitude than a window dummy but with much less than complete lifelikeness. Its effect is to wrench your sense of scale out of kilter: far away, with no real humans near it, it seems close to you; then you realize how big it is, and it takes on the threatening and remote aspect of Big Momma, as though you, the viewer, were no longer an adult but a child.

A similar contradiction underlies Ray's big piece blandly titled Unpainted Sculpture, 1997. He found a Pontiac Grand Am that had been totaled in a crash that killed the driver, and then proceeded to dissect out each of its hundreds of distorted parts, make fiberglass copies of them, paint them a uniform light gray and reassemble them as a ghost wreck: maximum violence contradicted by a sort of plodding cool.

Ray's work is a series of one-liners, and these depend for their effect on what all one-liners need: a punch, a certain concision. Without that, they straggle. Told in outline, the plot--if you can call it that--of his short film Fashions sounds at least notionally amusing. A fixed camera stares at a rather mannish-looking model standing on a turntable, wearing an outfit of Ray's design. She revolves once, and then we cut to the same model wearing a different dress. There are about a hundred of these changes in the course of the 12 minutes the film lasts, and every outfit is as banal as the last. It's meant (one presumes) to satirize the cultural pretensions of the upper reaches of the rag trade: Warhol with the glamour taken out. It makes for a very long 12 minutes.

This side of Ray's activity is cognate with the spirit of '70s conceptual art--its fondness for solemnly carrying out small, meaningless activities, for loading with importance gestures that didn't mean beans so as to criticize the "importance" assigned to artmaking itself. His earliest work was, in fact, done in the '70s, and it produced a number of hybrids of minimal and performance art. Often they involved the prototypical Minimalist cube, with Ray inside it and some parts of him sticking out--a box with a clockface, for example, its hands moved by the artist, whose legs hang out of two holes in the bottom like a pendulum. Inside, in the darkness, Ray would try to guess what time it was and move the clock hands accordingly.

Even in the '80s and '90s, much of Ray's work came down to a worthy but not particularly stimulating kind of cutting-edge activity, which hit the buttons of insecurity (sharply, sometimes) without generating much in the way of aesthetic pleasure. This is especially true of his sculpture involving generic store-mannequin figures. The blankness and not-quite-humanness of shop-window mannequins, and their eerie reference to the real human body, have been among the standard tropes of modern art since Surrealism in the '20s. When Ray takes one, models his own face on it and then dresses it in his sailing clothes--or takes another and grafts a replica of his own genitals and pubic bush onto it--he doesn't seem to be doing much, despite the catalog's claim that the results are "profoundly disconcerting."

More effective--and genuinely disconcerting--is Ray's more abstract work. In Rotating Circle, 1988, a disk the same color as the gallery wall is set flush with the wall. You'd hardly notice it except for the hum that issues from it. This, it turns out, is made by an invisible motor: the disk is spinning so fast that you can't see the motion, and it would burn your hand if you touched it.

The sharpest piece of sculpture as frustrated interaction, however, is Ink Box, 1986, a big black cube that sits on the gallery floor doing absolutely nothing--minimal, gloss-lacquered and inert. Except that the top of the cube is the surface of 200 gal. of black printer's ink, which would muck you up thoroughly if you so much as touched it. This is one of the few times that Ray's work seems almost as nasty as Bruce Nauman's. It sums up the smart, nerdy, passive-aggressive character of Ray's imagination. Sometimes a minor artist will produce a truly unforgettable image, just one. Meret Oppenheim's Surrealist fur cup and spoon, for instance, or Jeff Koons' stainless-steel rabbit. Ink Box is one of those.

Monday, Aug. 17, 1998
Art: Going Out On The Edge

The fact that the great spiral of New York City's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is at present full of motorcycles has annoyed some critics. Not this one. If the Museum of Modern Art can hang a helicopter from its ceiling, why can't the Guggenheim show bikes? "The Art of the Motorcycle" may seem an opportunistic title until you actually see the things. Design is design, a fit subject for museum consideration, and in any case I'd rather look at a rampful of glittering dream machines than any number of tasteful Scandinavian vases or floppy fiber art. My only regret is that the show doesn't (so to speak) go the whole hog: with the exception of the iconic chopped Harley that Captain America rode in Easy Rider, everything in it is stock, so that it ignores the creative ingenuity that has gone into making the custom bike one of the distinctive forms of American folk art.

No matter. For personal reasons I probably couldn't dislike this show if I tried. I have owned four large-bore bikes in my time, two of which (a Norton Commando and the great, purring, canonical 1970 Honda CB750) are in this show; and although I gave up riding after totaling a Kawasaki, and nearly myself, on a highway in Southern California some 25 years ago, I still rarely see a bike I don't like and can't suppress a twinge of envy when some yuppie on a postmodernist Japanese burner splits the lanes of the Long Island Expressway and goes blasting past my sedate Volvo. Divided, I am reminded of a Japanese saying about the poisonous fugu blowfish, which, when prepared under license, becomes a gastronomic delicacy: "I want to eat fugu, but I want to live."

Bikes mean a lot of things, but the main one is raw, unprotected speed, and there is little point in owning one unless you are prepared to go somewhat out on the edge. Biking requires a special degree of both abandonment and focus, an unscrolling story line of concentration on intersecting factors that your average car driver is muffled from: road surface, camber, radius of curve, angle of attack, lean. It connotes a unique mixture of aggression and vulnerability, and to have owned a fast bike is, in some degree, to be inoculated against the bloated status envy that goes with the plushier forms of American motoring. Bike manufacturers have gone to inordinate lengths to make bikes seem respectable. "You meet the nicest people on a Honda" was the message of a brilliantly devised advertising campaign in the 1950s designed to counter the undoubted truth that you met some of the nastiest ones on a Harley or (as in The Wild One) a Triumph 650. But in essence, bikes aren't respectable; and at heart, you wouldn't want them if they were.

The proto-form of the motorcycle was simply a velocipede with a steam-engine jammed in it, made in France in 1868. The first true serial production bike, with which the Guggenheim show begins, was made in 1894 by the German firm of Hildebrand & Wolfmuller; its enormous engine--1,489 cc, the biggest that would be fitted to a production machine until the 1980s--chugged it along at 30 m.p.h. Motorcycle technology advanced so quickly under the spell of the fin-de-siecle obsession with heroic speed that only 13 years later, in 1907, the future aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss was able to put an eight-cylinder engine in a truss frame of metal tubes and go rocketing through a measured mile in Florida at 136 m.p.h.

The first unambiguously beautiful bike design represented in this show was the 1915 Iver Johnson, with its arched frame and sculpted fuel tank (a feature that would become a near obsession with bike designers 75 years later). By the '20s and '30s, bike design was part of larger design fields. The 1923 BMW R32, with its clear, lean triangular geometry, is one of the most perfect expressions of Bauhaus sensibility ever devised. There were Art Deco machines too, with swooping exaggerated fenders, such as the early (1922) Megola Sport or the mighty, lumbering 1948 Indian Chief. The BMW and the Indian are, in fact, the poles of motorcycle design: one stripped down, the other elaborately faired.

The chopped "outlaw" bike of the '60s represents, among other things, the desire to return to the raw purity of the early, "primitive" machine. On the other hand, motorcycle design in the '80s and '90s--especially in Japan--tended to enclose the machinery in baroque, forward-raked shells, bodywork that "floats" above the wheels and is loaded with sexual suggestion. Hence the argot for them: crotch rockets. What began as a proletarian vehicle (cheap transport for folks who couldn't afford a car) has turned into an expensive, deliberate body metaphor. The car may be your wife/husband, but the bike is your Fatal Lover, and there's no way around that: if it weren't true, there would be no market for it.

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Monday, Aug. 31, 1998
Art: Bonnard: A Shimmer Of Hints

We are looking into a sort of sea cave, shining with internal color. Its walls are covered with a wobbly grid of large tiles: yellow, viridian, mauve-flecked with rose madder. The floor is all sea-green and turquoise speckles, but it's hard to say exactly what color any patch of the gelatinous mosaic is because each is so modified by contrasting touches within its small boundaries. The biggest shape in this aquarium light rises diagonally across the picture: a bath, like an immense open oyster, in which floats the body of a woman, all legs, shining indistinctly in the water. She seems in a trance--her face can't be read as a face but more as a spongy clump of jeweled paint. She is as indifferent as coral, not posing but tenderly spied on.

Pierre Bonnard is looking at his wife in the bath for the zillionth time. He will finish the picture in 1946, the year before his death at age 80. By then his wife Marthe, who was only two years younger than he, will have been dead for four years. But he is still imagining and painting her with the body of a 30-year-old. No wonder the bath in which she floats, or is embalmed, has reminded writers of a coffin.

The current Bonnard show at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, which includes this painting and some 80 others, is a compressed version of a larger affair organized last year by art historian Sarah Whitfield at the Tate Gallery in London, and although it suffers somewhat from the absence of some paintings and omits his drawings and early poster designs altogether, the absence is tolerable. What matters is to have Bonnard in view again. He's one of those modernist masters who seem to keep slipping in and out of focus, not unlike some of the objects in his paintings. He doesn't have the commanding presence in modern art history that Picasso or Matisse has, though in some ways he was as great a painter. Each generation has to discover him for itself, and each time he's a surprise.

Bonnard's critics--including Picasso, who dismissed his art as "a potpourri of indecision"--have often made the mistake of treating Bonnard as a mere hedonist, with his beautiful color and apparent lack of conceptual underpinning. In this they have been wrong. There was nothing stupid or foolishly pleasurable about Bonnard's work. But Whitfield is right to see Bonnard as an elegiac artist: "He is not a painter of pleasure. He is a painter of the effervescence of pleasure and the disappearance of pleasure."

Bonnard began his career as a member of a young dissident group called the Nabis, or Prophets, that had formed in 1889 in Paris. They believed in taking art down to its essential flat patches of color, strong boundaries, tapestry-like abutments of form and a general emphasis on the decorative. Their prototypes came from Japanese prints and the influence of Paul Gauguin. And they had close ties to Symbolism. Their literary god was the poet Stephane Mallarme, who had conceived of poetry as a structure of words and absences: "To conjure up the negated object, with the help of allusive and always indirect words, which constantly efface themselves in a complementary silence." This was very close to the effect of Bonnard's still lifes and interiors, with their incessant qualification of color within color; their exquisite play of large, vague shapes and smaller, intensely worked ones; and their sense of the instability of perception.

Like his artistic ancestor Chardin or his fellow Nabi Edouard Vuillard, Bonnard was an Intimist. He cared nothing for heroic or historical themes. He had no public life, and his diary was filled not with reflections on art, life or politics but with pencil sketches and occasional notes on the weather. Nor did art theory, avidly debated among some of his painter friends, interest him much.

His subject was private life, its coziness and order, its covert gestures, its moments of deep-rooted habit and occasionally fragile intimacy, in which the artist is both agent and voyeur. He took this domestic introversion to an extreme--the world of work, for instance, is so thoroughly excluded from his paintings that he didn't even depict his own studio. His world was bounded by the bathroom, the breakfast room, the bedroom and the overgrown garden, its disorder of jasmine, honeysuckle and wisteria as exotically suffused with color as Fiji, though glimpsed through French windows.

There is nothing slack about the apparent softness of his interiors and still lifes, like the great Dining Room Overlooking the Garden, 1930-31. The light shifts and shimmers, and some of the objects on the table are drowned in it. Here is a jug, there a cup, there a brioche--but what is that oval yellowish object on the right of the tabletop? Forms sink against the light, and at first you hardly even see the ailing Marthe in her housecoat at the left edge of the painting, timidly holding her cup. Yet, as so often happens with Bonnard, under the ambiguous surface lies a rigorous structure. He jotted in his diary a reminder to seek "big forms, even in small formats." His still lifes, in particular, are marvels of marking and disposition, suffused with a beaming warmth that was the signature of Bonnard's memory at work.

He said he liked having all his subjects to hand. Among these, in the 1890s, were members of his family: his father (a civil servant in the Ministry of War), his maternal grandmother, his sister and her husband, their children. The main presence in his work, however, was the woman he lived with for almost 30 years before they wed in 1925, Maria Boursin, who called herself Marthe de Meligny. She appears in some 380 of his paintings, naked or clothed. His pictures don't narrate their relationship, but they do plot it as a series of presences and apparitions and hints.

At first she is very naked indeed. Even today, a century later, his image of Indolence, 1898, carries a terrific sexual charge--young Marthe sprawled on her side of the big bed, a coarse grin of satisfaction on her round face, her left foot scratching the inside of her right thigh like a cat. Sometimes she poses like an orthodox model--The Bathroom, 1908, where she seems transfigured by the wormy quivering of light and transparency that prevails in the room, is such an image. Sometimes Bonnard unobtrusively reuses the pose of a classical sculpture in rendering her body: the Medici Venus in Large Yellow Nude, 1931, or the Louvre's Hermaphrodite in Siesta, 1900. Quite often you have to look for her; she is on the margin of the painting or sunk in the background, as though half glimpsed, less immediately present to the eye than the blaze of light on a tablecloth. Intimacy, to Bonnard, also meant distance.

The rumpled emptiness of the rest of the bed in Indolence declares that "Bonnard was here," but in the future Bonnard's presence in his own work would be elusive. You can see his hands sticking into the foreground of Large Yellow Nude, holding something unidentifiable--perhaps a crumpled sheet of paper. He appears reflected in mirrors across the room a few times. There are some anxious-looking self-portraits, the artist seeing himself in the bathroom in the morning, scrawny and sad; they are as piercing as the best of Giacometti. The most mysterious of them is Self-Portrait in the Bathroom Mirror, finished in 1946, the year before his death: a mild, bald creature of completely indeterminable age, who might be a shorn 30-year-old human or a space alien. What he is thinking, one cannot even begin to guess.

Monday, Sep. 07, 1998
Art: Down-Home Populist

It's doubtful whether anyone is ever going to look back on William Sidney Mount (1807-68) as a great American painter; the charm of his work is too modest, its range of feeling too circumscribed, for that. And yet, as the show of his paintings, drawings and prints at the New York Historical Society in Manhattan (before traveling to Pittsburgh, Pa., and Fort Worth, Texas) makes clear, there were reasons for his popularity, and he has a special place, very much his own, in the making of American art. Why? Because, with the slightly younger George Caleb Bingham, he was the first real genre painter the country had.

Genre means, broadly speaking, the depiction of manners, work, morals--of men and women as social creatures. It's inherently a modest art, unlike the other model to which painters aspired when Mount was growing up: the Grand Manner, the elevated form of historical or mythic narrative, full of heroes and demigods, pagan or biblical. The trouble was that the Grand Manner was scarcely attainable in 1830s America. Not even Thomas Cole, a considerably more gifted artist than Mount, had managed to do it without bathos. Benjamin West, the prodigy from Philadelphia, had brought it off--but by going to London and soaking himself in its prototypes. In America would-be artists had to rely on an erratic supply of prints for their clues to elevated diction, but there was hardly any local market for history painting. John Trumbull, president of the American Academy of Fine Arts, whose lifelong ambition was to commemorate the American Revolution in paint on an official scale, died a bitterly disappointed man.

So it isn't surprising that Mount, whose art education began when he apprenticed himself to his brother, a sign painter, should have made a few early stabs at the Grand Manner; and even less so that he was wholly inept at it. Greece, Rome and Israel were very far from bustling, nouveau-riche young America. Mount, a farmer's boy from Setauket, Long Island (a suburb today, deep country then), was very much part of that America, a country inventor who made his own boats and believed that a "hollow-backed" violin he had designed was better than anything from Cremona. Sensibly, he set out to record (and idealize) what he knew: the everyday rural life that was the protein of Jacksonian democracy at the dawn of the Age of the Common Man. He got an assist from Hogarth, whose prints he had seen, and from 17th century Dutch genre painting, with its flirtatious girls and grinning yokels. His first public success came in 1830, with Rustic Dance After a Sleigh Ride, plagiarized from a German genre painter named John Krimmel, who had worked briefly in America. Its stock types, from the grinning black fiddler to the bucolic suitors, chimed exactly with American taste in popular writing and theater.

Mount's preferred tone was down-home and nationalist: he was the first artist to paint the Yankee as a type. He painted barn dances, parlor courtships, farmers husking corn, truant children and jolly drunks. "Never paint for the few but for the many," he reminded himself in one of the numerous notebooks he kept, and the manifesto of this belief (not, alas, in this show) is The Painter's Triumph, 1838. It depicts Mount himself in a mood of exaltation, flourishing his palette and brushes and pointing out a detail of a painting to his ideal viewer--not a New York "conosher" but a farmer in a straw hat who still holds the buggy whip with which he has, presumably, driven in from Long Island. On the wall behind, a drawing of the head of Apollo is looking haughtily away from this populist scene.

What his clients liked best was amusing anecdote with moral overtones, but Mount liked to go a little further than that, embedding political messages in his work. These, naturally, have become catnip to recent American scholars striving to excavate social issues from art. It may be, as art historian Elizabeth Johns argues in the catalog, that Mount's best-known picture--Farmers Nooning, 1836, with its strongly, even nobly, realized figure of a black laborer taking his siesta on a pile of hay while a boy in a tam-o'-shanter mischievously tickles his ear with a grass stalk--is an allegory of the delusive promises made by abolitionists to slaves. Or it may not; little is known about Mount's racial views. It is clear, though, that the life of children--mainly small boys--was his core image of America, and that it provided the subject for many of his best paintings.

Of these, the most intriguing is Eel Spearing at Setauket, 1845. It is a painting not of Mount's own childhood memory but of someone else's. A New York attorney named Strong commissioned it from him; the little boy in the back of the boat is Strong, and the imposing black woman wielding her eel gig in the bow was his father's servant, Rachel Hart. With its strong diagonals of paddle and spear shaft, and the magical stillness of the water in which the figures, the landscape and the boat are doubled, this is the most resolved picture of Mount's career. Though Winslow Homer probably didn't know Mount's work, it seems to anticipate by 30 years two of that great artist's central themes: the dignity and autonomy of black Americans, and the child--white or black--as promise of the American future.

Monday, Oct. 19, 1998
A Celestial Architect?

Heaven, at least in theory, is open to everyone, but nobody knows how full it is, or how long the waiting list in Club Purgatory. Relatively few people are acknowledged by the Roman Catholic Church as having made it through the pearly gates. Those who are, and have been canonized, are designated as saints. They have God's ear; they can intercede with him on behalf of the living: if you have lost your car keys, you can say a prayer to St. Anthony of Padua, patron saint of lost objects. The saints are distinguished by their virtue and piety, and it is remarkable how few practitioners of the arts there are among them. The only painter ever canonized was St. Luke, but he was one of the four Evangelists. No novelist or dramatist has ever been elevated to sainthood. Nobody, in the eyes of the church, ever tap-danced his or her way up the stairway to paradise. And the celestial city does not seem to have needed architects, since (one presumes) God designed all of it.

It is just possible, however, that this last situation may change. In Barcelona a movement is stirring among the city's Catholic hierarchy to push for the beatification and eventual canonization of Antoni Gaudi I Cornet (1852-1926), designer of the unfinished church of the Sagrada Famolia and the greatest architect that Barcelona, or Spain itself, has ever produced. Back in 1992, the auxiliary bishop of Barcelona, Joan Carrera, called the beatification move "a legitimate and reasonable proposal." In a pastoral letter last Aug. 23, Ricard Maria Cardinal Carles declared his intent to begin the long and labyrinthine process toward beatifying "the universal Catalan architect." There is even an Association for the Beatification of Antoni Gaudi, headed by an architect named Jose Manuel Almuzara.

Gaudi was obsessively pious, especially in his old age. He used to shuffle around the streets of his city nibbling on crusts of bread and seeking alms for the building of the Sagrada Famolia. He hated liberalism and was devoted to everything most penitential and reactionary in Spanish Catholicism. He was gloomy, short-fused, arrogant--the Christian virtue of humility was never his forte--and so misogynistic that he never married and probably died a virgin. Of course, such traits have never disqualified anyone from sainthood, and nobody would doubt that Gaudi was in a general way a more saintly character than, say, Frank Lloyd Wright or Philip Johnson. But there is a deeper problem: the absence of miracles, which the Vatican authorities need as "verification of godliness." Mere piety is not enough for sainthood. No worker, so far, has fallen from the Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Famolia and been caught by an angel; no Japanese tourist has burst out with stigmata in the ticket line. The best that Almuzara and his devotees have been able to come up with is a student who thinks Gaudi helped her pass her exams and a woman who claimed that after praying to Gaudi, she was cured of a kidney stone. But on such mini-events you could probably also mount a campaign for St. Francis Gehry or St. Norman Foster.

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Monday, Oct. 19, 1998
Art: Steel-Drivin' Man

Now pushing 60, Richard Serra is the John Henry, the steel-drivin' man, of American sculpture at the century's end. There are a few other sculptors of comparable distinction around--Martin Puryear comes to mind--but in the handling of heavy metal Serra has no peer; there, he is the most original figure since David Smith, who died more than three decades ago. It was Serra, with his ability to involve the human body as a participant in his work--demanding something more from a spectator than the sole act of looking, and yet harshly rewarding the eye as well--who began in the 1960s to rescue sculpture from the dematerializing effects of Minimalism. His work has always demanded reaction. In the past it has occasionally got more than it bargained for: Tilted Arc, 1981, a 120-ft. steel wall running across Federal Plaza in New York City, was taken down after its intrusiveness provoked a hailstorm of public controversy.

Since then Serra has had few public commissions in America, and much of his major work has been done in Europe--for example, Exchange, 1996, a soaring array of seven trapezoidal slabs, 65 ft. high, propped together over a highway traffic circle outside Luxembourg City. The chance to see any number of his large pieces together is rare. They tend to be too big for museums, too heavy for their floors, and their installation is brutally costly. And so the current show of seven new pieces, the Torqued Ellipses, in the Geffen Contemporary building at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, is--to put it mildly--quite an event.

Picture an ellipse drawn on the floor. Now take that ellipse and hoist it up, rotating it as it goes. Stop it 13 ft. or so in the air, when it's at an angle to its floor position. Its perimeter, in rising, will have generated a curving shape, an extremely twisted or "torqued" elliptical cylinder. Not a section of a cone (the cone diminishes towards its vertex) but something else, a curvature whose radius does not alter but whose walls constantly change their angle. Then make it out of steel plates, 2 in. thick. You will end up with a shape that has not been used in sculpture before, and that has no precedents in other arts like pottery (it can't be thrown on a wheel) or architecture (it is inherently weak in compression and can't bear large loads, though if made in a rigid material like steel it can support itself).

Its nearest relation, though, is architecture. Through a gap in the wall, you can walk into each of Serra's Torqued Ellipses and contemplate its interior space. Serra got the idea from a Baroque church in Rome: Francesco Borromini's San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, whose plan is a quatrefoil stretched to a near ellipse. Standing in it, Serra wondered, "What if I turn this form on itself?" But the closest architectural sibling of these new sculptures is the work of Serra's friend Frank Gehry, the designer of the spectacular Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, with its freely twisted and flowing curves sheathed in metal. To calculate the full-scale enlargements of the Torqued Ellipses from their sheet-lead models, Serra had recourse to CATIA, the same computer program Gehry used for Bilbao.

"They are vessels that you walk into," says Serra. Well, yes, if vessel means ship rather than pot. They hark back to, and in a sense make concrete, a vivid childhood memory that is quoted in the show's catalog. Serra's father worked in a California shipyard, and the son got to see large new craft being launched. "It was a moment of tremendous anxiety," Serra wrote in 1988, "as the oiler rattled, swayed, tipped and bounced into the sea, half submerged, to then raise and lift itself and find its balance. The ship went through a transformation from an enormous obdurate weight to a buoyant structure, free, afloat and adrift. All the raw material that I needed is contained in the reserve of this memory, which has become a recurrent dream." His "awe and wonder" at this sight is recapitulated, more strongly than ever before in his work, in the Torqued Ellipses.

Making them required tanker technology. Each of the plates weighs between 15 and 20 tons, and few steel-mill machines existed that could bend them. Serra eventually found one in Maryland. All that tonnage (literally: the aggregate weight of the seven Torqued Ellipses comes to nearly 400 tons, giving this a claim to be the most ponderous one-man show in history) had to be shipped to Los Angeles via the Panama Canal and set up inside the Geffen Contemporary. The plates couldn't be craned in through its doors, and so, recalls the museum's director, Richard Koshalek, "we took the direct way. We just cut a big hole in the back wall and had the trucks drive straight in." Then, with the help of a compact but powerful lifting crane whose last major job had been to jack up the concrete slabs of Los Angeles' freeways after they pancaked in the 1994 earthquake, the curved metal slabs were fitted together: seven sculptures, each the size of a house, each open at the top but defining a strange and inordinately powerful space inside.

It's not the size of Serra's pieces that holds you, though that is in itself impressive; rather, it's their blunt originality, a drama of spatial conception that seems quite new but is presented matter-of-factly. In Serra's view the most important change in 20th-century sculpture occurred when it ceased to be statuary, when it came down off its pedestal, the plinth that isolated it from the rest of the world, and entered the space, public or private, in which its audience lived and moved. Walking through these works--from outside to inside and back again, and in the case of the double ellipses, which have one "room" inside another, moving along the narrow corridor between the skins and experiencing its ever changing tilt--is crucial to their effect.

They are not mazes; you cannot actually get lost in them. Yet they are not so easy to read. The change of curvature is continuous, and it destabilizes you. In some sculptures the difficulty of knowing what sort of space you are in almost amounts to queasiness; you misjudge your distance from the wall and bump into it; you have to look up through the open top to orient yourself again. The physical experience of the piece can't be predicted from its geometry. Those slabs of steel, leaning together and held in place solely by their own weight, play upon your body's sense of weight and induce an acute awareness of gravity. They testify to the world's density, and a degree of threat is included in that.

Serra is more interested in truth than beauty. Particularly the truth of materials. The Russian Constructivists had a term, faktura, meaning the straightforward, logical use of substances--wood, tin, steel, rope, wire--to produce expressive effects on their own material terms. Serra is and always has been fanatical about this. He doesn't paint, polish, grind or otherwise fiddle about with his metal. It rusts naturally and bears the marks of its making, the scrapes, even the claw marks of the grabs that hoisted the plates. And yet these traces, which one might think would be brutal, acquire--given the enormous scale of the pieces--a beauty that almost amounts to delicacy. The run and layering of red oxidation reminds you of Abstract Expressionist painting. More than that, it recalls nature itself: there are moments, particularly in the double-ellipse pieces, when walking between the rusty walls is almost like being in a red-rock gorge.

Grandeur is not a word you would think you would need in discussing the art of the late '90s in America, amid its tinkle of postmodernist styles and the chitchat of a depleted conceptualism. But in the presence of these new Serras, you have no choice but to use it--and to be glad that there's someone to whose work it can honestly apply.

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Monday, Oct. 26, 1998
Las Vegas--Over The Top: Wynn Win?

There it is, on a billboard outside Steve Wynn's Mirage Hotel, on the Las Vegas Strip--the triumph of culture as American spectacle:

COMING SOON Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir and Cezanne

WITH SPECIAL GUESTS Picasso and Matisse

Thus, high in the air, where the names of Frank Sinatra, Henny Youngman and Engelbert Humperdinck once flaunted their charisma above the throngs of tourists, where the mysterioso and much lifted faces of Siegfried and Roy stared down from between the white tigers whose diminutive, fluffy clonelets fill a whole shop on the ground floor of the Mirage, high art has descended on the desert with a palpable clang. It had to come. It has come. Art abhors a vacuum, and if Las Vegas hasn't earned a name for being culturally underoxygenated, what place in America has? If the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City can hang banners advertising Tiepolo or Goya from its Fifth Avenue facade without having fingers wagged in its face, why shouldn't Steve Wynn, the modern-day Mike Todd or P.T. Barnum of Vegas, the man with more clout in the gambling-and-hotel business than anyone alive with the possible exception of Donald Trump, run Van Gogh and Picasso on the billboard for his new flagship hotel, the Bellagio, which cost $1.6 capital-B billion to build and decorate and opens to the public this week?

Economic meltdown in Asia, collapsing hedge funds in Connecticut, mass layoffs at the brokerage houses, a falling market for expensive cigars and Ferraris--yet there goes the Bellagio, sailing into the teeth of the gathering global gale, with 3,000 of the highest-priced rooms in Vegas and something like $300 million worth of works of art nailed to its mast. All bought, over a little more than two years, by Stephen A. Wynn, 56, who had never collected anything except casino real estate and golf courses before--and who is, moreover, gradually losing his sight to retinitis pigmentosa, an irreversible, degenerative eye disease.

Wynn is a showman in the classic, big-ticket American tradition. He fantasizes about turning Las Vegas around, taking the capital of American kitsch and transforming it into a full-scale class act, with high-cultural overtones. Whether he will succeed in this is anyone's guess, but no one can accuse him of not putting his (and his shareholders') money where his mouth is, in a town where "Art" is normally the name of someone's limo driver.

He began, like most neophyte collectors who have a bundle to spend, with the easy, lovable stuff: Impressionism, and specifically Renoir. But rather than dive in at the deep end of the art market on his own--a certain prelude to drowning--Wynn found himself a guide in William Acquavella, 60, a closemouthed and formidably well-connected New York private dealer whose stockroom is one of the best in the U.S. Acquavella impressed on Wynn that in the art market, there are no bargains: he would have to pay top dollar for top works. The big test of this came with buying the first of two Van Goghs, Peasant Woman Against a Background of Wheat, painted a few weeks before the artist's suicide at Auvers-sur-Oise in 1890. This exceptional portrait had been hanging on loan in the Metropolitan Museum, and it cost Wynn a nonnegotiable $47.5 million of his own money, not the Bellagio's. (So far, Wynn's Mirage Resorts Inc. has picked up $160 million of the tab for the collection, and Wynn himself the rest.)

Some things came by luck and were grabbed on the wing. Wynn relishes describing how he and Acquavella were in London to conclude the deal on a Tahitian Gauguin, Bathers. With time to kill, they dropped in on the small upstairs gallery of Thomas Gibson, a private dealer in Old Bond Street. And there, on an easel, was a painting that had just come in on consignment a few hours before: Degas's pastel Dancer Taking a Bow, 1887, one of the finest of his ballet scenes, which had been in one of the collections of the Rothschild family for the past 80 years and had not been exhibited publicly in a half-century. "It just shone," Wynn recalls. "It knocked me flat. I knew I had to have it. And if Bill and I had delayed, it would probably have been gone the next day. So there was no choice."

Buy in haste, repent at leisure, is one of the usual mottoes of collecting. But despite the breakneck speed at which Wynn has so far put his collection together, there are some works in it that any museum would envy. They include a late Cezanne, a portrait of his housekeeper painted around 1900, her brown dress as massively articulated as the side of a mountain; and one of the best Joan Miros in existence, Dialogue of the Insects, 1924-25, its precise forms buzzing and chirruping with strange lepidopteral life in a bare dream landscape.

The painting that turned Wynn away from the 19th century into the 20th--and, as he puts it, "got me off my training wheels"--was a portrait by Picasso of his long-suffering mistress Dora Maar, done in 1942. This riveting image is one of a woman in disequilibrium, not as fiercely torn apart as she is in the Weeping Women of those years, but out of kilter all the same, with staring eyes, figure-eight nostrils flared as though in suppressed fright, and strange asymmetries of form around the nose and brow. Compared with it, Impressionism began to look somewhat easy and even insipid to the fast-learning Wynn, and he started to buy more modern work--Picassos especially. He also began to cast a covetous eye on American art, scooping up (among other things) a great and gritty De Kooning, Police Gazette, 1955, along with several later De Koonings, a fine and rare early Flag painting by Jasper Johns, a Pollock and a beautiful Rauschenberg combine from 1954, Small Red Painting.

Gradually, Wynn's collection is moving toward the mass it needs to define its own shape and establish its own gravitational field. It isn't there yet, and all talk of a "private museum" is beside the point, but you have the sense of a collector with real moxie. This isn't the Getty of Las Vegas, and it isn't meant to be, but Wynn has already nailed a few things that the Getty, with its comparably huge buying budget, ought not to have missed. He has also taken on some sound advisers, led by Edmund Pillsbury, for many years the director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. And anyone who looks down his nose at the whole enterprise as a piece of splashy Vegas promotion ought to remember the origins of American museums in the late 19th century, built up from nothing by self-taught meat packers and railroad kings who got good advice, took deep breaths and opened their checkbooks.

But of course, it is promotion--in part. Why should the idea of starting an art collection in Vegas seem so odd? Basically because Las Vegas--the Disney World of terminal public greed--is a city in which every cultural citation is fake, so that the real thing feels out of place. The city is built on simulation, quotation, weird unconvincing displacements, in which cultural icons are endlessly but never convincingly quoted. Here is the Luxor Hotel, that huge silly pyramid with its plaster Anubises and fiber-glass Amon-Ras, its cavernous interior housing a facsimile of the Manhattan skyline. Here, under construction, is a casino in the form of the Doges Palace in Venice, complete with a small-scale version of the Campanile bearing a replica of the original's gilded angel on its vertex. Here too is Caesars Palace, looking like the architectural dream of an illiterate Mussolini; and alongside it are the Forum Shops at Caesars, a sort of baroque moon colony completely sealed off from the outside world, with computer-controlled sky effects that cycle from rosy-fingered dawn to purple dusk on the roof vaults above, and pastiche Roman statuary, and outlets for every brand name you ever heard of: Gap, DKNY, Gucci, Sharper Image, Banana Republic, Calvin Klein...

In a city of such overripe simulacra, whose most characteristic museum is dedicated to the memory of Liberace, what room is there for the clean, piercing, complex presence of real works of art? Not much, you'd think. Any public work of art is apt to pale to invisibility beside those neon signs and huge, crass, mock-Hellenistic sculptures. Nothing a mere environmental sculptor could make would have much luck in drawing the eye away from, say, the outside of the Mirage, with its foaming waterfalls and its artificial volcano that erupts on a regular schedule after dusk, except when (a sign informs you) the weather is "inclement," a condition that will be signaled by a red warning light in case you didn't feel the rain on your head.

Absent a real museum, or the civic will to build and endow one, perhaps the only way to habituate fine art to Las Vegas--and vice versa--is to do what Wynn has done in the Bellagio: build a sort of treasure box in the core of the hotel, to which limited numbers of the public will be admitted at $10 a head, hotel guests and high rollers preferred, so that the art itself becomes a spectacle with overtones of privilege and thus matches up with the imagery of the rest of the city. It recalls Marianne Moore's famous description of the poet's task: creating "imaginary gardens with real toads in them."

You don't fully realize how much water matters in Vegas until you see the works of Kublai Wynn, the Bellagio especially. Never was a city built and embellished in such opposition to its own environment. The Mormons tried settling this parched valley, nothing but dust, rocks and Gila monsters, in the 1850s; they failed. In 1905 it was set up as a dry-gulch railroad town handling transshipments of fruits and vegetables from California to the Midwest. Labor strikes all but destroyed the railroad, and with it Las Vegas, in the 1920s. And then, in the '30s, three things made the place possible. Nevada legalized gambling and quickie divorce, and the New Deal created the Hoover Dam. Now people not only had reasons to go to this unpromising valley, but they could do it without dying of thirst.

So the growth of Vegas began, totally unregulated, all but unzoned, producing a monotonous checkerboard of shopping centers, low-rise apartment buildings, trailer parks and (of late) fenced and gated pseudo communities--with, in the middle, the glitz palaces devoted to gambling, or, as Nevada officialdom prefers to call it, "gaming," which sounds a little tonier.

The key to all this is water, whose conspicuous display and consumption is as important a sign of luxury, of control over Nature, to Vegas entrepreneurs as it was to the Umayyad caliphs who began building the fountains of the Alhambra on a dry hillside near Granada 12 centuries ago. Nobody grasps this better than Wynn. To install performing dolphins in huge saltwater tanks in a hotel in the Nevada desert seems, on the face of it, about as rational as filling a cruise ship with sand and camels, but it has its own value as spectacle. And nowhere in Vegas is water as spectacular as at the Bellagio, which rises 36 stories, clean and shiny as a new toy freshly unpacked, from the shore of an eight-acre artificial lake symbolizing Lake Como, complete with hundreds of fountains shooting their jets 200 ft. into the air to the accompaniment of operatic arias.

Along the building's side, nestled amid real and artificial rocks and perfectly genuine umbrella pines, are a series of pavilions containing restaurants franchised from celebrated ones in New York, Boston and San Francisco, including two clones of Sirio Maccioni's operations, Le Cirque 2000 and Osteria del Circo. You drive up the side of the Lago di Comovegas and arrive at a gigantic porte cochere, patinated copper and glass, inspired by the vaults of Milan's Galleria. Beyond that stretches the foyer, acres of marble and mosaic floor. And the ceiling chandelier, the largest glass sculpture ever made, 30 ft. by 70 ft. of writhing, billowing trumpets and petals by the glass artist Dale Chihuly. And more acres of slot machines. And the conservatory, whose plants come from a 90,000-sq.-ft. nursery somewhere out of sight. And a prodigious wicker cornucopia, three stories high. "On opening night I'm going to fill it with pumpkins," Wynn promises, and you know there won't be a pumpkin, or not a perfect one, left in New England for Halloween.

We are off on a preopening tour of the restaurants. At this late stage, Wynn is still seeing things that bother him. You get the impression that not a tile or a tessera has been laid, not a square inch of valance put in place, without the boss's scrutinizing it. We are in the branch of Le Cirque 2000, with its circus murals and its billowing masses of peachy silk coming off the ceiling. In the middle of it is a singularly incongruous Art Deco-revival light fixture, all sharp angles and etched glass. Wynn recoils. "What's this thing?" he demands, fixing the chandelier with a cold eye. "This looks like hell. It's totally out of place. I wouldn't want to see it in a toilet. I need it the way I need asthma. I don't want it to be here when I come back. Send it back to [designer Adam] Tihany, COD."

The decorators make notes and exchange harried glances, but Wynn is already off, heading for his pride and joy, the Picasso restaurant. Today the Picassos--nine paintings, plus several dozen of the thousands of plates that the old demon gouged and scribbled into existence--are to be hung. The room is an expansive stage designer's version of a renovated Provencal farmhouse, only brand-new, and with touches not found on the Cote d'Azur, such as a carpet by Claude Picasso and a ceiling in the entrance hall thickly lined with broken amphorae brought in from Mexico. The paintings--still lifes from the '40s, and a lush little jewel of a head of his mistress Marie-Therese Walter--actually look terrific in here, with the bright desert light streaming through the high windows.

It's almost enough to make you want to spend a weekend in Vegas, just to see how the new machine works. But what is the view across the lake going to look like, once Hilton has finished its own contribution to the urban mix, the Paris Las Vegas, with a half-size replica of the Eiffel Tower right across from the shores of Bellagio? Don't ask. Never mind. For sure, it won't have any Picassos in it.

Monday, Nov. 02, 1998
Art: Visions of Two Raw Continents

Suppose you started digging a hole on the bank of the Hudson River, the cradle of American 19th century landscape as painted by Thomas Cole, Frederic Church and others. Suppose you kept digging straight down through the center of the earth and came out on the other side. The hole would open up just off Tasmania, the island state of Australia, painted in the 19th century by, among others, John Glover and W.C. Piguenit. There wasn't a single artist in Australia in, say, 1870 who had heard of the Hudson River School. Nor was there one in America who had the smallest notion that landscapes were even being painted in the remote Antipodes, let alone of what they might be. Never, one may confidently say, have two groups of Western landscape artists influenced each other less or known less about each other. Not just less. Zero, zip, nada. So why the exhibition now on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., "New Worlds from Old: 19th Century Australian & American Landscapes"?

In brief, because of the value of comparison. Australia was the last, and North America the second to last, of the habitable continents to be colonized by Europeans sharing what was essentially a common art tradition. Both continents in the 19th century were still largely wilderness. So how did the painting of wilderness, and of its ordering, play out in both places? What kinds of values were assigned to landscape by the respective artists? What images arose from the colonists' desire to claim the land, to "humanize" it, to put their stamp on it? How did the white invaders see the native peoples--American Indians on one continent, Aborigines on the other--and what did they feel about their destruction?

Such are the questions explored by the show, and an intelligently curated and truly absorbing show it is. But then, this Australian-born critic has a bias. Americans, to the extent that they think about Australia at all, tend to imagine it as the Wild West they began to lose a century ago, but with koalas. Australian culture, except for some of its pop music and literature, is wretchedly underreported in the U.S. In fact, this is the first effort ever made by an American museum even to show any images made in Australia in the 19th century, let alone give them context and historical placement.

The great difference between Australian and American landscape experience in the early 19th century was that Americans tended to see their wilderness as God's promise, whereas Australians emphatically didn't. Northeastern America had been settled by free, self-exiled Puritans, convinced of their sacred mission to convert "the Lord's waste," the forests of New England, into a place fit for God's elect. In the 17th century the Wild West was in the East, but by the early 19th the frontier had moved thousands of miles westward, taking with it the same optimistic, sacramental fantasy, translating it into the pompous and morally corrosive idea of Manifest Destiny. The farther west you went, the freer you became.

Australia wasn't like that. It began not as a place for self-appointed saints carrying out their radical notions of God's design, but as a jail, a receptacle for the convict outcasts of England. It had no rhetoric of God and Country, and mercifully still doesn't. It was born in sin, not in virtue. The walls of the prison were not brick and stone but space itself. Australia had no Mississippi or Missouri, no fertile center; explorers went out into it, found little but desert, and died. The literary myth of its landscape, created by writers from the 1850s on, was at best hardscrabble survival--not America's lavish reward to the pioneer. Australia didn't rhyme with many words, but "failure" was one.

Still, in early Australia as in America, what artists' clients wanted was the imagery of success and progress in claiming and settling the land. Early 19th century Australian painters, like their counterparts in America, thus showed little interest in painting the wild--until it became a tourist sight. They did farms, villages, settled acres--images that would attract new settlement.

The first artist to develop fully the landscape-as-property theme in Australia was John Glover (1767-1849), who settled in Tasmania at the ripe age of 64. He was a mediocre professional who knew, and sedulously imitated, the work of Claude Lorrain. But in Australia he did the best work of his life, celebrating the pastoral delights of land ownership and commemorating the Aborigines, whose way of life was being inexorably destroyed by white farmers like him. No painter in Australia ever committed himself as wholeheartedly to recording the life of Aborigines as, say, American artist George Catlin did to that of Indians. But Glover clearly meant The Last Muster of the Aborigines at Risdon, 1836, to be a muted elegy: those black figures, dwarfed by the huge and almost artificially sinuous gum trees, were in fact about to be removed to an offshore island.

Australia, like America, had grand spectacles of nature: gorges, waterfalls, rain forests, mountains. It also had disasters, one of which was recorded by Piguenit (1836-1914) in the most striking of his paintings, The Flood in the Darling 1890, 1895, with its biblical waste of waters spreading beneath a leaden but vivaciously painted sky.

If there's a similarity between an American painter of sublime, theatrical Western scenery like Albert Bierstadt and an Australian one like the more modest Eugene von Guerard, it isn't accidental. Both received the same training at the Dusseldorf Academy and acquired skill at the tight, glossy, detailed rendering of grandiose scenes. Von Guerard joined the gold rush to Australia in 1852 but failed as a prospector, and made a career for 30 years painting two kinds of scenery: portraits of the settled acres of the well-to-do pastoralists; and views of more exotic wildness, from the bizarrely sculpted sea cliffs of Cape Schanck to the Australian Alps. These mountains are low in comparison to Bierstadt's Rockies, but Von Guerard memorably recorded what he saw from the 7,000-ft. summit of the tallest of them, in North-East View from the Northern Top of Mount Kosciusko, 1863. It is not, as Bierstadt's mountains tended to be, a made-up scene, and those smooth palomino flanks of brown grass and summer snowdrift between the granite outcrops are strikingly true to life.

The last step in the creation of 19th century Australian landscape was taken by the group known as the Australian Impressionists, whose most gifted members were Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts. Between them they created a landscape idiom that would last for decades and is still enormously popular there today: the blue-and-gold bush, with its clear light and exquisite transparencies. They weren't Impressionists in the orthodox, French sense--their work had nothing to do with Monet, for instance; their sources lay in late 19th century French realism and, above all, in the work of Whistler.

Roberts aspired to paint vigorous narratives of national identity, of hard, challenging work in the bush: A Break Away!, 1891, his rendering of young jackeroos (Australian for cowboys) galloping furiously to head off a stampeding mob of sheep, remains a national icon a century later. Streeton painted not wilderness but settled pastoral land, framed by vast space. In The Purple Noon's Transparent Might, 1896 (the title is from Shelley: culturally, England still bore strongly on these highly nationalist artists), the high-keyed light and crisp, decisive brushwork create a broad, deep and coherent space brimming with heat.

Such paintings are among the best landscapes of the late 19th century, not just in Australia but anywhere. They realize the ambition Streeton described in a letter to Roberts, his painting buddy: "I fancy large canvases all glowing and moving in the happy light, and others bright decorative and chalky and expressive of the hot trying winds and the slow immense summer." But the immensity doesn't dwarf or trivialize the works of man, and this skill at conveying what is pleasurable in landscape is part of the key to Streeton's unfading popularity in his own country.

Monday, Nov. 09, 1998
Art: Dappled Glories

The most eagerly awaited show of the U.S. art season opens this week at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City: the retrospective of Jackson Pollock's work, organized by MOMA's senior curator of painting and sculpture, Kirk Varnedoe, in tandem with co-curator Pepe Carmel. The two have done a brilliant job, producing, along the way, one of the very few museum catalogs that can be read for pleasure as well as instruction. Amazingly enough, the American audience hasn't had a chance to see Pollock's work whole in more than 30 years. The last comprehensive show in a U.S. museum was in 1967, also at MOMA. (A limited retrospective was mounted in Paris in 1982.) How will a new generation of museumgoers take to his work?

With delight and gratitude, one hopes. Pollock was a great painter; at least he painted some great pictures, which changed the face of American art, and look as fresh and strong today as they must have 50 years ago, when they emerged from his shack of a studio on New York's Long Island. But how great is "great"? Meaning has drained out of the idea of greatness because today it is so inextricably confused with fame, and fame with celebrity, all on the dumb level of publicity--and Pollock is the most publicized and celebrated artist in American history.

A Goya he wasn't, nor a Velazquez, nor a Titian. An American Picasso, maybe? No: the oeuvre lacks that vast span. For someone who had the impact on international art that he did, Pollock had a bafflingly short career. He didn't attain any degree of originality until after his 30th birthday. The arc of the career rises from 1943, when the collector and gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim commissioned him to paint a mural for her Manhattan apartment, to the early '50s--no more than 10 years. The final four years of his life brought a string of pictorial failures and, at best, semi-successes: no talent could survive the alcoholic battering Pollock gave his. And then at age 44, a fatal car crash, after which the rest is the kind of pop hagiology that America reserves for its culture heroes.

American actors and baseball players had been this famous before and would be more so; Ernest Hemingway was, but no painter was or would be again--not even Andy Warhol. Eager to curate his own reputation, Pollock let photographers in and performed for them. Hans Namuth, Rudy Burckhardt and Arnold Newman saw a drama in Pollock's mating dance around the canvas on the floor that normally isn't present in a painter's address to his work. It was solipsistic and histrionic at the same time--broody like Brando, vulnerable like James Dean. Pollock's fate was pure stardom, granted by the media and then riveted in place by early violent death and by the posthumous market for his work.

But what of the work? Varnedoe's catalog essay bears the title "Comet: Jackson Pollock's Life and Work," which fits the eclat and brevity of Pollock's appearance. But comets eventually swing back on their orbit and return, whereas Pollock was a singular and not a cyclic event, more like a meteor that plows into the earth and wreaks havoc on its climate, filling art's air with fallout. Artists have been defining themselves and their work against Pollock ever since. Yet most of his influence was indirect. Pollock's mature style--based on dripping and flinging skeins of paint onto a canvas flat on the floor, building a web of interaction among line, surface and color from above--was so much his own that to imitate it was self-evidently absurd. Willem de Kooning had shoals of imitators, because his work was grounded in a long European tradition of figure painting. Not Pollock; his central insights were too decisively new.

Rather, Pollock became an exemplar of risk and openness. It wasn't just that, as de Kooning said, he "broke the ice" and forced American art onto an international stage, where it had never had a place before. It was that the freedom implied in his work challenged and provoked other artists to claim an equal freedom in theirs--not only in painting but also in sculpture, performance art, dance and music.

Pollock was born in Cody, Wyo., in 1912 but grew up in California. Much ink has been spilled on the question of how Western an artist he was, how affected by the vast and epic landscapes he may or may not have noticed when he was two years old, but the point seems necessarily moot. In any case, he was not, as Europeans like to imagine, at home on the range, especially since Cody in 1912 was a new tract-housing development, not an Old West town. His father was a dud and a drifter who had little to do with his son. His ineffectual mother spoiled him. Mainly he was raised by older brothers, the eldest of whom, Charles, was a painter. At 16, Pollock was studying art in Los Angeles; two years later, he followed Charles to New York, where he found a serious teacher in Thomas Hart Benton, choleric dean of the American Regionalist movement.

Benton became a surrogate big daddy to replace Pollock's own woundingly absent father. Thus the future avant-gardist had for a mentor a man who hated abstract art. But when Pollock came under Benton's tutelage, he wasn't aiming at abstraction. Benton's way of composing, with its heftily twisting figures and buckling, scoop-and-bump space, was based on 16th century Mannerism--Midwestern El Greco and Tintoretto; he even adapted the Mannerist device of reducing the figures to geometrical dolls, sometimes modeling them in clay. This vehemence, locked up as a system, appealed to Pollock as a container for his own emotional flailing. Though some painters show early signs of genius, or at least of facility, Pollock showed none. After you've seen his early drawings in this show, it seems barely credible that so ham-fisted a young draftsman could have become such an exponent of visual grace.

Other influences besides Benton converged on him as well: the Mexican muralists of the '30s, especially Siquieros and Orozco; Picasso; Surrealism; Kandinsky; tribal art. As Varnedoe points out in his admirable catalog essay, if the notion that Pollock was some sort of cowboy isn't true, neither was he any kind of Indian. He'd seen Native American ceremonies and pictographs as a kid in Arizona, but his attachment to Indian art as a source of "primitive" authenticity came from museums and exhibitions in New York and was confirmed by other mentors he was acquiring, such as the painter John Graham. Even the sight of Hopi painters running colored sand through their hands to create a pattern on the ground below, so often proposed as the starting point of Pollock's drip painting, came to him not on a Southwestern mountaintop but inside MOMA, which had brought some Hopis to perform in Manhattan.

In art, hyperconsciousness of the tribal is one of the functions of city life. Certainly it was for Pollock, and from it stemmed his abiding interest in the "totemic"--in mythic images that were either lost to modern, Euro-American culture or buried so far back in its origins that they seemed mysterious and exotic. Pollock in the late 1930s was a boy in deep emotional trouble, drinking like a fish and undergoing Jungian analysis. Like other Abstract Expressionists-to-be (Mark Rothko, for instance), he was on the lookout for archetypes and dark, unconsulted levels of feeling, in the hope that art could release his inner shaman, antlers, rattle and all. Hence the portentous "mythic" subjects of his pictures (The Moon Woman Cuts the Circle, Pasiphae and so on) and their general ooga-wooga atmosphere. As Varnedoe writes, "The godsend, liberating idea for him was the one he got simultaneously from looking at modern art and listening to his therapists: the principle that art could ultimately depend not on acquired talents but on inner resources, no matter how disturbed that inner life was." But could you make major art based largely on pent-up mythic fictions from outside your own cultural frame?

Such was Pollock's problem. The picture in which he broke free from it--and, it now seems, took American art into a larger freedom with him--was the 20-ft.-wide mural he did for Peggy Guggenheim. He painted it in one outpouring rush, in a day and a night. Mural isn't by any means an abstract painting. It retains the essence of subject matter shared by most "classical" murals, from Giotto to Matisse--the projection of human figures on a large plane surface. But the movement isn't suave. The figures are arabesques, coiling, jammed together, recognizable as figures because of their verticality but lacking most identifiable signs of the human body. They seem to repeat one another, but in fact they don't. The painting is a frieze of Dionysiac energy in which Pollock was at last able to get movement into his figures instead of confining it to the blurts and squiggles of paint around them.

The ability to get the whole surface moving would have deep results for his later work, and afterimages of Mural would keep reappearing right up to the slanting "poles" in his last great canvas, Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952. The two pictures have something else in common: they remind you how Pollock, whom we tend to think of as a web-weaving, linear artist, was also a real colorist, idiosyncratic and original. There is something vulgar about the palette of Blue Poles, with its giddy dance of aluminum paint and hot orange, but it is the kind of vulgarity that fairly seethes with life.

It is an amazing experience to walk through the central galleries of this show where the masterpieces of his career are hung, the huge all-over paintings of 1948-50. How did an artist who looked so unpromising at first attain this clarity, strength and command of scale? Not easily, and it is very much to the show's credit that it includes failures and partial successes along with the works that incontestably come off. It makes you more alert to the risks Pollock took. There were no rules for what he was doing; the besetting danger was always overcongestion of the surface, so that no air was left between the marks and the energy he strove to transmit clogged up.

You do not need to be with these works very long before realizing how feeble a term "drip" is for the ways--the numberless, subtle and improvised ways--Pollock's paint got on the canvas. His public notoriety came in part from public resentment. Real artists lay watercolor washes or put glazes over body color, but this one just spilled liquids incontinently, as though painting were no more demanding than knocking over a cup of coffee or taking a pee. But when you look at these pictures, it isn't so. Pollock was a consummate aesthete. (The fact that he could also be a mean, drunken galoot doesn't gainsay that.)

He would walk around the canvas, throwing paint on it from the edges, and the loops and lashes that resulted have a grace and energy that his labored hand drawing never reached. Then there was the pouring, the overlay, one color bleeding into another, producing marbled effects, mists, separations, spots and speckles, each with its element of chance, but all controlled by the prepared mind that chance favors. And the retouching and linkages, done with a brush. "Glory be to God for dappled things!" the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once exclaimed, and that's what crosses one's mind in front of such works as One, 1950, or Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950.

Hopkins was apostrophizing nature in all its ceaseless variety, and that is what Pollock seems to have been doing too. "I want to be nature," he declared, and the paintings attest to that. These tiny incidents pullulating in a large field may evoke the experience of looking into a dense thicket close up, or the wider one of staring at the Milky Way, but in either case Pollock's imagination seems organically bound to the natural world without actually depicting it. The contrast between the great size of the canvases (One is more than 17 ft. across) and the intricacy of their microforms plays its part too. There is no ideal viewing distance; you must step back to grasp their size and overall energy, but you must also put your nose in them to appreciate their details. Just like the real world, one is tempted to say.

Monday, Nov. 23, 1998
Art: Flittering in the Dells

Could you think of a dottier notion for an exhibition than the one now in the lower rooms of the Frick Collection in New York City: "Victorian Fairy Painting"? All those little homunculi and chaste, pocket-size cuties with gauzy wings, flittering about the mossy dells and twiggy bowers of the sentimental English imagination--aargh, spare us. We are so much smarter now, anyway: instead of fairies we believe in close encounters of the third kind, with aliens sticking shiny probes into overweight housewives whisked from the parking lot of the 7-Eleven. And yet, even granting that the show (which was a big hit at the Royal Academy in London, and has since been seen in Iowa City and Toronto) is very much cut down from its original form, it is still a worthwhile curiosity and has interesting things to say about the peculiarities of Victorian culture--with implications for our own.

Fairies, as Stella Beddoe makes clear in a beguiling catalog essay, are so much a fixture of English literature that it's no surprise they infiltrated English painting as well. In the 14th century Chaucer, via the Wife of Bath, was already pointing out that the elf queen and her company had retreated from human contact "manye hundred yeres ago," but their popular life continued to be irrepressible. Shakespeare is full of them--A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest. They pullulate as sylphs in Pope's Rape of the Lock; they appear in the verses of Drayton, Herrick, Milton, Spenser, Coleridge, Shelley and Blake. Indeed, whenever national origins were celebrated under the aegis of the Romantic movement, with its passion for the primitive and antiquarian, there the fairies (a.k.a. trolls, elves, pixies, leprechauns, peris) would be.

They colonized the English stage, floating across it on (hopefully) invisible wires as actor-managers put their casts through ever more ethereal effects of movement and stage lighting; their defiance of gravity was to popular theater what the computer generation of dinosaurs and space oddities is to movies today. Arthur Conan Doyle was the son of a fairy painter, Charles Altamont Doyle, who died mad, but the creator of Sherlock Holmes was so gullible himself that as late as 1917 he defended some fake photos of fairies made by an enterprising pair of teenage English schoolgirls. You'd almost suppose that the national emblem of England was neither the lion nor the unicorn nor even John Bull, but the fairy.

But the dingly dells of Titania and Queen Mab bordered on the badlands of sex, drugs and hallucination. The last two, especially, were never far away, and all three pervade Christina Rossetti's extraordinary narrative poem of the symbolic rape of a girl by the "Little People," Goblin Market. In painting the action was milder, but fairies were shown appearing in dreams to maidens whose sleep, as the phials by the bedside make clear, was induced by opiates. Then there were the magic mushrooms, which famously appear in Sir John Tenniel's illustration for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland--the stoned-out caterpillar sitting on one, puffing at his hookah--and more obscurely in Thomas Heatherley's Fairy Seated on a Mushroom, circa 1860.

Heatherley's odd pastiche, which is in the Frick show, derives equally from Ingres (the nude back) and Hieronymus Bosch (the queer goblin figures). Fairy painters had constant recourse to Bosch and his various 16th century imitators and copyists, including Pieter Bruegel, whose fantasies they could get from prints. A very minor artist, John Anster Fitzgerald (1823-1906), copied some of his elfin sprites directly from Bosch--witness the pair of legs protruding from an egg in Fairies in a Bird's Nest, circa 1860. The oddest thing about the painting, though, is not its somewhat routine little monsters but its frame, a bizarre curiosity of gilded twigs.

Some of England's best 19th century artists painted fairies, though not regularly; J.M.W. Turner did a Queen Mab's Cave, and Sir Edwin Landseer produced a scene of Titania enthralled by the donkey-headed Bottom. But these were spin-offs. By far the best of the fairy painters, and by an equally long way the weirdest, was Richard Dadd (1817-86). A gene of madness ran in his family. Two of Dadd's brothers and one sister were to die insane. Dadd himself, after a mildly promising early career as a landscape and narrative painter, began in his late 20s to suffer acute and agonizing delusions of persecution by devils and to believe he was under the power of the Egyptian god Osiris. In 1843, in the throes of his mania, he stabbed his father, an apothecary, to death and fled to France; he was caught, brought back, certified insane and condemned to life in Bedlam, the English state lunatic asylum.

Like an earlier, literary figure, the English poet Christopher Smart, Dadd produced his best work in the madhouse. His masterpiece was a small but incredibly detailed canvas called The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke. Left not quite finished in 1864, it took him nine years to do. He wrote a detailed explanation of the swarming figures in it, which bear no relation to any other painting or existing literary work. This is not an illustration; it was spun gradually out of the artist's head, in accordance with a process of free association that the Surrealists would have recognized and that Leonardo da Vinci had prefigured when he advised the artist to imagine forms from random blots of rain, mildew or spittle.

We are looking into a tiny clear space in the grass. Stems of grass weave across the view. Dozens of figures--some are tiny, recognizable English types, others exotic--are watching the Fairy Feller, or woodsman, with his ax raised to split a hazelnut. There is nothing cute about these figures. They are all human in form yet obsessively "other." They're not demonic exactly, but they have a scary presence. One might not be wrong to infer Dadd's own terror of sex, for instance, from the implacably swollen breasts and hamlike legs of the servingwomen--if that's what they are--on the left. The paint is meticulous, low toned, and seems stitched like tapestry. Every detail, from the petals of the daisies to the last button on the costumes, gets the same weight of scrutiny. The light is dim and dense, like the strange no-color light that accompanies a solar eclipse. Of all the artists in this show, Dadd is the only one who convinces you that he saw what he painted and painted what he saw--suffering and alone, there in his cell in Bedlam.

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Monday, Dec. 14, 1998
Art: Style Was Key

Half the population of Washington may still be lining up to see the Van Gogh show, but the exhibition that Vincent himself, as an obsessed lover of Japanese art, would most likely be heading for hangs in another part of the National Gallery of Art. It is "Edo: Art in Japan 1615-1868," a magnificent selection of nearly 300 works in every medium, from woodblock prints to lacquerware, from tiny netsuke to eight-fold painted screens, assembled by the American scholar Robert Singer and mostly lent by Japanese institutions. It is replete with objects listed in Japan as "National Treasures" and "Important Cultural Properties," many of which have never been seen outside Japan until now. No Edo show of such range or quality has been attempted in the U.S. before, and this one succeeds brilliantly.

"Edo" was both a place and a time frame. It was the old name of the city we call Tokyo, and "Edo period" denotes the 2 1/2 centuries during which an absolute regime, founded there in the early 17th century by the military lord, or shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, ruled over all Japan through 15 generations of his descendants. The symbolic moment at which the period began to close was 1853, when Commodore Perry's black ships, crewed by their blue-eyed, spindle-nosed, strange-smelling gaijin, the Americans, sailed into lower Edo Bay and broke the seal of isolation from the West that the Tokugawa dynasty had imposed on Japan for so long.

It is not true, however, that Japan had been culturally static until then. Japan's ancient imperial capital Kyoto represented the classic division of old Japanese power: court, samurai, priests. It continued to exert a great influence on the country's art. But in Edo, a more secular and even demotic imagination began to assert itself--marked, writes Singer, by "bold, sometimes brash expression...and a playful outlook on life in general." This happened because Japanese society, in the new capital, became somewhat more open to change. Not very much, but a little, and then a little more. The once despised merchants and entrepreneurs, and other commoners too, were developing their own tastes. They became an important cultural force. So did a kind of city mentality. Edo Japan saw a great expansion of popular culture in its new capital, from the "high" forms of No and Bunraku theater to every sort of comedy and mime and burlesque as well.

These, like the doings of sumo wrestlers and high-class prostitutes, gave a rich subject matter to 18th century graphic artists like Suzuki Harunobu, Kitagawa Utamaro and the theater caricaturist Toshusai Sharaku, whose image of the actor Otani Oniji III playing a samurai's manservant, all red-rimmed eyes and stylish snarl, is a deliciously succinct expression of fictive bloody-mindedness. Through the medium of prints, the range of things that could be depicted widened to take in all Japan. Katsushika Hokusai's Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji and Ando Hiroshige's Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido are both travelogues and social listings, in which every sort of occupation, from pit sawing to innkeeping, gets its allotted description. This scrutiny of lower-class life would never have held so much interest to an earlier Japan. Manga, images of common life, are the direct ancestors of the modern Japanese comic strip.

What's more, a sense of humor--even of irreverence--began to seep into religious imagery. Witness a marvelous ink painting of vegetables by Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800). You can read it, with pleasure, as a supremely assured market still life (Jakuchu was, in fact, a vegetable wholesaler before he turned to painting full time). Gourds, melons, turnips, ears of corn and a shiitake mushroom surround an enormous forked white radish, lying as if in state on a basket. But as Singer points out, an educated 18th century Japanese would have recognized this as a parody of a familiar religious image--the parinirvana, or scene of the dead Buddha encircled by a crowd of his mourning disciples. You only need to try to imagine a Western equivalent to this--a deposition from the cross, say, with Christ as a carrot--to realize what a gulf lay between Buddhist and Christian attitudes. Part of Jakuchu's point is that his image is not merely blasphemous, and was not thought to be: radishes, like all other living things, have their Buddha nature. And yet it's funny--as much of a joke as one of the Zen classics in the show: Sengai Gibon's beatifically smiling frog in meditation.

During the Edo period, traders, moneylenders and shopkeepers were getting richer--the Tokugawas sealed Japan off from Western contacts but emphatically not from trade with other parts of Asia. They wanted conspicuous works of art and had the money to commission them. The demand for superfine objects, in which ordinary things like writing boxes or game boards were raised to the condition of art by means of exquisite decoration, was underwritten by the Japanese convention of giving gifts--as tribute, tokens of loyalty, signs of gratitude. The gift was a much more important social symbol in Japan than in the West, and the circulation of luxury objects fostered a level of design and craftsmanship that was, by modern Western standards, almost unimaginably high.

Meanwhile, the upper samurai class, now that Japan was politically unified, had less butchery to do and more time to spend on matters of high culture, especially the observance of form in such areas as calligraphy, the "way" of tea and the artifacts that were tied into it, ceremonial dress, and brush painting linked to the imported cult of Zen Buddhism. Some of the most memorable samurai objects in this show could not have had much military use; they are kawari kabuto, spectacular parade helmets--the ancestors of Darth Vader's mask--worn to impress the living daylights out of commoners. The variety of shapes the helmets came in was mind-boggling. Some of them referred to family crests, but many seem to be sheer fantasy in the form of carps' tails, clamshells, whirlpools, morning glories, fans, bats' ears or crabs. A great example in this show purports to represent a mountain with two valleys, its surface covered with silver leaf, now blackened with age: pure sculpture for the head.

The helmet's role as a sign of authority was backed up by other samurai artifacts: body armor, which turned its wearer into a bizarrely plated red lobster, and, of course, the weapons, the long sword known as a katana and the shorter wakizashi, together with their elaborate hilts, scabbards and other fittings, to which a large body of lore and connoisseurship attached. The figure who most vividly expressed the relation between culture and the samurai ethos remained a legend long after his death. He was Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), who wrote a famous text on swordplay (A Book of Five Rings) and reputedly killed 60 swordsmen before his 30th birthday; he then gave up killing in favor of painting and calligraphy. One of his ink paintings is in the show, a swiftly brushed image of a shrike balanced on a branch above a caterpillar that is crawling upward, presumably to its doom. It is a graphic masterpiece. You feel the tension in the body of the bird as it balances before striking, and every flick of the brush bespeaks alertness.

It may be that no civilization, East or West, attained a greater refinement in the decorative arts than Edo Japan. Ceramics, lacquer and textiles were brought to an extraordinary pitch of aesthetic concentration by a large body of artisans whose collective skills have never been surpassed, in Japan or anywhere else. And skill was key. Edo artists and patrons loved virtuosity within a given medium, but they didn't have a hierarchy of art and craft. To them, the work of the lacquerer or the papermaker was no less worthy than that of the screen painter, and in any case so many media could converge in a single work that art hierarchy became meaningless.

Which is not to say that the Edo period lacked individual artists who were seen, then and now, as stars. Its core achievement, in painting, was the allusive and delicate work of the so-called Rimpa artists: Tawaraya Sotatsu and Hon'ami Koetsu in the 17th century, and later the brothers Ogata Korin and Ogata Kenzan, Sakai Hoitsu and others. The show abounds in their work, especially the large folding screens that were Japan's closest equivalent to Western murals. Hoitsu (1761-1828) is represented by one of his finest screens, Flowers and Grasses of Summer and Autumn, in which you can almost feel the wind bending the rhythmical pattern of stems and leaves against their silver ground.

Some works of art celebrated others. There was a whole category, for instance, known as tagasode ("whose sleeves?") or sometimes kosode (small sleeves): screen paintings that depicted women's robes draped casually over a hanging frame, their emptiness carrying a light but distinct erotic flavor. Sometimes their elaborate designs were replicated in paint, but in one screen in this show the fragments of the robes themselves were glued to the gold-leaf surface in a supremely elegant, early form of collage.

Skill, once demonstrated, could be elegantly volatilized. Edo taste valued the unfinished, the rough. One of the masters of the pictorial throwaway line was Ogata Kenzan, best known as a potter. He and his more famous brother Ogata Korin--whose paintings mark the apotheosis of lyrical, erudite Edo painting--left an indelible mark on Edo style. Nothing could seem more offhand than Kenzan's scroll The Eight-Fold Bridge, an illustration of a poem with the poem itself written into it--the planks of the bridge brusquely indicated, the calligraphy mingling with the broadly brushed leaves of water iris as if it too were part of the reed growth of the pond. And yet the whole image has an iron control within its spontaneity. This casual rightness of design cannot be feigned. It was rooted in the desire to understand nature by becoming part of nature. And Edo art, at its best, was all about that: the fusion of nature and culture, at a level of craft that is now lost to the world, East or West.

Monday, Feb. 01, 1999
Art: Puzzles of A Courtier

The 16th century Italian painter Dosso Dossi (1486?-1542) isn't a big name in America, unlike his contemporaries Titian, Raphael and Michelangelo. In fact, the show of his work that has just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City--it was shown late last year in his home city of Ferrara, and will go to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in April--is the first retrospective he has ever had. It comes on the 400th anniversary of the dispersal of most of his work, which was taken from Ferrara by papal edict and split up among various collectors, most of them Roman. His output has never been seen whole since. A team of scholars, headed by curators Peter Humfrey and Mauro Lucco, has done an impressive job of reassembling what remains of it. Dosso emerges from this show as an idiosyncratic, uneven court artist--not remotely an equal to Titian, but stronger and more complex than he'd seemed.

Practically nothing is known of Dosso's life, except for a few dates and contracts. But it was protected: he spent almost all of it working for two rulers of Ferrara, first for Alfonso I d'Este and then, after Alfonso's death in 1534, for his son Ercole II. Dosso was not, of course, painting for a wide public. At the court in Ferrara his audience consisted of the duke and his entourage, including whatever humanists, poets and assorted hangers-on happened to be on the payroll. All courts tend to be self-referential and mannered, and that of Alfonso I d'Este was no exception. The duke was considered fairly eccentric. He had a passion for do-it-yourself projects: in his own workshop he made tables, chessmen and elaborate boxes; he created ambitious ceramics as well, and even artillery.

By those in the court, some of Dosso's images must have been read as comments on the duke's relaxations. Jupiter, Mercury, and Virtue, circa 1523-24, is Dosso's praise of painting. He translates it to Parnassus, where the god Jupiter sits before a canvas, his administrative thunderbolt laid aside at his feet. Jupiter is painting butterflies--a divine hobbyist. On the right is a figure of Virtue, who has come to complain about the indignities she has had to suffer in the world below. Between them sits Mercury, a finger to his lips, telling her, in effect, to shut up and back off: Jupiter is too busy painting to worry, for the time being, about moral issues.

Dosso's job was hardly simple. A 16th century court painter was expected to turn out anything and everything, from ceremonial portraits to painted coach panels, from large allegorical paintings to banners for tourneys, costumes for masques, sets for the theater (which Alfonso delighted in) and perhaps the occasional crucifix or emblem of chastity for the ducal mistress's bedroom. Dosso had to second-guess the veering tastes of his boss--flatter him, keep him interested. And then there were the courtiers to deal with.

The more educated the patron, the more difficult life could get for the artist. Alfonso's elder sister Isabella, the Marquesa of Mantua, was always cooking up complicated literary programs for potential paintings with the help of her court poet; she would then pass the ideas on to Perugino, one of her court artists, with instructions not to invent anything of his own. Something of this kind may have happened at Alfonso's court, whose star poet was none other than Ludovico Ariosto, author of the enormously successful epic Orlando Furioso. Dosso did some paintings that were illustrations of episodes from Ariosto, and is known to have designed sets--long since vanished--for Ariosto's plays.

But the hothouse atmosphere of the Este court shows in Dosso's major works: they tend to be playful, elaborately poetic and almost impossible to connect to the usual literary sources, as though they were suggested by highly sophisticated people dreaming up ever more obscure secular concetti. In a word, the paintings are totally mannerist; even today scholars don't agree on what they're actually about. Their oddity is deepened by the fact that Dosso made them up as he went along, adding figures and painting them out as the whim took him, rather than sticking to a preset program of images.

Thus we still don't know, and perhaps never will, what is going on in Dosso's Allegory with Pan, circa 1529-32. Maybe the lascivious goat god (if it really is Pan, and not just an ordinary faun) is lusting after the beautiful Titianesque nymph asleep on the ground--who has been variously argued to be Antiope, Pomona, Echo, Canens and Syrinx, among other nymphs with literary pedigrees. But who is the old woman, and what is she doing? If her outstretched palms are protecting the girl, she's facing the wrong direction--away from Pan. Who is the woman in the green dress and the gold armor? Virtue? Chastity? What are the bound music manuscripts doing on the ground, and the overturned lapis lazuli pitcher? And why are the lemons on the tree so big and out of scale?

Few Titians ever gave posterity that kind of trouble, but another Venetian painter always has--Giorgione, creator of the lyrical and utterly mysterious The Tempest. Dosso's work appealed to tastes fostered by Giorgione. And Giorgione certainly influenced Dosso, particularly in his treatment of landscape. From him Dosso learned how to unify his figures and the details of landscape around them--lush, wild, tinged with ominousness--in a comprehensive atmosphere instead of going from one sharp detail to another; and the weather effects of Dosso's paintings--storms, lightning bolts, sunsets, blue distances--are Giorgionesque.

All this comes through at a high pitch of both invention and homage in the centerpiece of the show, Dosso's Melissa, circa 1515-16. In Ariosto's epic, Melissa was a benign sorceress--a kind of white witch who cast counterspells to rescue Christian knights from the enchantments of the evil Circe. Dosso painted her as a creature of Oriental fantasy in a gold turban and a richly embroidered costume, sitting within a mock-cabalistic circle and holding what seems to be an astrological chart. (Astrology and fortune telling were high on the list of court amusements, and Ferrara was notable for its production of tarot cards.) She is lighting a torch from a brazier, and--a slightly sinister touch--the tree behind her is festooned with little effigies, like voodoo dolls. It's not hard to imagine what enjoyment this exotic fable of an image would have provoked in a court so given to stylishness for its own sake.

If it contained only paintings like Melissa, this would be an uninterruptedly enjoyable show. But Dosso was a very uneven artist, and the effort to present all his surviving work (other than murals) has dredged up quite a number of, to put it charitably, routine pictures, mainly of a devotional sort. He was also capable of dreadful clunkers when sandbagged by a new influence. His series of half-naked "Learned Men," painted for one of the Este houses, is among the most awkward homages to Michelangelo ever painted--posturing coal heavers with strained gestures and goofy expressions. And if you want to see how flabby a Renaissance nude can be, try the suety ladies and the porky Vulcan in Allegory of Music. But the magic of Dosso's best paintings was uniquely his, and it makes this show--in part, at least--irresistible, conundrums and all.

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Monday, Feb. 22, 1999
Art: Pieter de Hooch: Visionary Homebody

Some artists get their museum retrospectives at 35, some at 60, most never. Pieter de Hooch is having his at 370, and it was worth waiting for. The display of 41 of De Hooch's paintings at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. (through March 14), is his first exhibition. Organized by Peter Sutton, the Atheneum's director, who wrote the De Hooch catalogue raisonnee back in 1980, it is an absolute delight. Unless you've seen it, you've hardly seen De Hooch at all.

Next only to Vermeer, De Hooch (rhymes with broke, not pooch) was the greatest Dutch genre artist of the 17th century. Very little is known about his life. He was born in Rotterdam in 1629. He learned painting by apprenticeship there, probably to Nicolaes Berchem. By 1655 his name shows up on the rolls of the artists' guild in Delft. There he must have known the slightly younger Johannes Vermeer. Five years later, he was working in Amsterdam. He married and had seven children. None of his letters survive, and no drawings either. In 1684 he died in a madhouse. Whatever his affliction may have been, it left no interpretable mark on his work. Nothing is known about his personality, and it doesn't matter. And that's about it, except for the fact that his critical fortunes rose steeply in the 19th century--and the much odder fact that until now, no museum in or out of Holland has ever bothered to mount a show of his work, even though his pictures have been eagerly sought by collectors the world over.

He was a visionary homebody, less mysterious and abstract than Vermeer but vastly more refined than his predecessors, those Dutch painters of grinning drunks, gamblers and bottom pinchers in brown taverns. De Hooch worked in this mode for a while, but his maturity as an artist began with rejecting it. Instead, he focused on home and hearth, sometimes with a bit of boozing--in Holland beer was held to be good even for small children--but always warmly idealized. What he idealized was domesticity and nurture, set in precise constructions of space, bathed in subtle transitions of light.

To the extent that De Hooch made allegories of virtue at all, he certainly didn't try to shove them down the viewer's throat. His morality was all sympathy; he wasn't in any direct way a preacher. But in a time and place that put the strongest emphasis on the idea of the ordered, tranquil family as the basis of a just society, his visions of domesticity had a distinct symbolic point. Disorder, in the real world outside or the formal one inside his paintings, repelled him. Everything in his interiors is swept, garnished. De Hooch epitomizes the Dutch obsession with cleanliness, which at the time was unique in Europe: compared with these frugal bourgeois, 17th century Englishmen, Italians or Spaniards lived like pigs, with the sour reek of sweat always coming from behind the silks and leathers.

Dutch wives and servants were forever sweeping, swabbing, scouring and polishing, re-enacting through drudgery the holiness of Martha in the house of Mary. Practices of hygiene got raised to the level of devotional acts. A marvelous example in De Hooch is A Mother and Child with Its Head in Her Lap, circa 1658-60. The child kneels submissively with her face down. The mother, absorbed in her task, is picking lice from her hair. From this ordinary domestic event, De Hooch creates an extraordinarily tender image of care and even sanctity.

Yet this narrative isn't the whole of the picture by any means. De Hooch was a master of spatial composition. In his pictures you are never entirely inside or wholly outside. His rooms aren't closed, artificially lit boxes but part of a continuity between the inner and outer worlds, revealing the truth of both under the benison of natural light. In this painting the rectangles of the brown room with its wide wallboards and alcove bed open backward into stages of increasing light. The window casts a bright lozenge of sun on the worn tiles of the floor beyond. The light slants, giving De Hooch an opportunity to complicate his verticals and horizontals with a diagonal bar of shadow cast by the window transom on the half-open shutter. Some surfaces receive the light directly, others obliquely, thus enabling him to render subtle variations, gleams and sparkles of light on edges and irregularities.

None of this is intrusive, but there is something intense about the discreet effort that has gone into it--analysis raised to poetry. It demands close looking--and gets it, from the little dog in the foreground with its back to us, transfixed by the sight. And things are complicated a little further by a second window, on the right, that lights up the mother and child and leaves a brilliant splash of gold on the brass bed warmer hanging above the mother's head, like a displaced halo.

Until De Hooch goes to Amsterdam, the work is all plain, in surface, substance and gesture. There's scarcely a hint of theatricality in the way his Delft models look. The figures in A Woman Drinking with Two Men, and a Serving Woman, circa 1658, are circumspect and static. True, the man on the left seems to be mimicking a violin player with two clay pipes, but it would be hard to imagine a more decorous drinking party, and the glass of wine the woman raises is more like a chalice than an attribute of Bacchus, let alone Venus. Their presence is vivid, but it's subordinated to the even stronger formal matrix of the painting, sandwiched between the perspective run of the ceiling beams and the imperious grid of the tiled floor. Everything in De Hooch's paintings, including the sometimes rather wooden figures, is a space marker. The most reliably expressive creatures there are the dogs.

But how much of a realist was he? In De Hooch's world every brick is in place--he was, as a matter of fact, the son of a master bricklayer--but that place may not have been in a real structure. The show contains two paintings of the "same" scene, a courtyard in Delft, from 1658, featuring a brick archway with an inscribed tablet and a round window above it, and a little arbor to the right. Except that in the second version the arbor isn't an arbor but a shed; and the slice of street seen through the archway is different; and the pattern of paving on the ground is different too. It's like a child's puzzle: "What's wrong with the second picture?" Which bit of Delft is invented? The first or the second or (just as likely) both?

De Hooch's painting changed after his move to Amsterdam. He was working for a richer and posher clientele--not that they made him rich. The plain stuff of his interiors gives way to more sumptuous surfaces: marble, Turkish carpets and gilded walls of embossed leather, all of which he painted with virtuosity. The people are dressed to the nines. The idea that De Hooch sold out to them, and to their way of life, thus sending his art into decadence, was widespread once. It isn't borne out by the pictures themselves. A strangely moody image from 1677, of a couple eating oysters in a shadowed courtyard while a black servant plays the viola, is one of the best of all his paintings. But the earlier, inward, reflective De Hoochs seem closer to his own life, and so they affect us more.

Monday, Mar. 08, 1999
Art: The Faces of an Epoch

You can't look at great portraits today without a certain nostalgia. The painted portrait is a form that, like blank-verse drama in the theater or the caryatid in architecture, would seem to be on its last legs. Indeed, with few exceptions, it has no legs and seems unlikely to grow new ones. Photography took them away. But older portraits have hardly lost their magic and their grip on the imagination. This is why "Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch," which is on view (through April 25) at the National Gallery in London, and will be seen later this year at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, is such an invigorating show.

And the subtitle fits. Almost from the time they left the easel, the portraits of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) were seen as being more than personal likenesses. They had a defining character. Ingres's period has coalesced around his art. In the first half of his life, when he was in Italy, the Mecca of the aspiring French painter, his pencil drawings caught the upper crust of foreigners there--the milords Anglais and their families on the Grand Tour, the French officials who ran Napoleon's kingdom in Italy, his fellow expatriate artists--with stylish brio and steely exactness. It is fascinating to see him shifting through different levels of notation--for example, between the subtle, continuous modeling of the face of Mrs. Charles Badham (1816) and the brisker, more linear treatment of her shawl and clothes, and the subtle ghost traces of Roman architecture behind her. Nobody understood this medium better than Ingres, and the show contains some of the most exquisite pencil drawings ever made.

Back in France after 1824, Ingres created a gallery of the rich and the powerful (bankers, royalty, a newspaper owner, beautiful femmes du monde) that seems to define the high society of its day as fully as Felix Nadar's photographs recorded the artistic elites of the 1850s and '60s. Ingres loved doing portraits--and hated it. It was both hackwork and the vehicle of some of his highest instincts as an artist. It drove him crazy: "I don't know how to draw anymore," this greatest of 19th century draftsmen moaned to a friend. "I don't know anything anymore. A portrait of a woman! Nothing in the world is more difficult; it's not doable. I'm starting it over. It's enough to make a man cry." And he undoubtedly meant it.

"Pupil of David, history-painter." So he identified himself: heir to the Great Cham of French neoclassicism, Jacques-Louis David, and practitioner of the most exalted kind of art, the art that interpreted myth and history to an educated audience. (He never painted a still life and rarely did landscapes except as background to human figures.) But classicism means different things to different artists, and we need an idea of what it meant to him. It had very little to do with the rendition of abstractly idealized form, derived from Greco-Roman statuary. Other and lesser artists who had been through David's teaching studio believed it did, and had fine theories to support their belief. But Ingres had a horror of theory, and like his 17th century predecessor Nicolas Poussin, he was much more interested in flesh than in marble.

The idea of an "unemotional" Ingres derives from a shallow reading of his paintings' surfaces--that smooth, continuous modeling of fleshy form, without emphatic brushstrokes or vigorous contrasts of tone, so different from the work of his archrival, Eugene Delacroix. But intensity is not a matter of thick or thin paint, high or low contrast. The long battle between the Romantics, led by Delacroix, and the Classicists, whose exemplar was Ingres, entailed some caricature of both its generals. Delacroix was not all fire, nor Ingres all ice. Ingres was an extremely passionate painter. His temperament was riddled with anxiety; sometimes, beset with difficult pictorial problems, he would break out in boils and ulcers. He loved music and played the violin all his life--le violon d'Ingres became a French term for the creative hobby of a gifted person; it gave him solace from the strain of painting. "I need it as much as Saul needed to have it, for his healing," he pointedly said, referring to the mad King of the Jews to whom David played the harp.

Ingres was brusque, dogmatic, and could brook no argument, especially not from his students at the French Academy in Rome. With Ingres, you either agreed or got out. Compared with him, Delacroix was a model of suavity and balance. Ingres's creative life was a testament to sublimation. His classicism sprang from intense feeling for nature, distilled through innumerable preliminary drawings. His decades in Italy showed him a living classicism, not the dead one of the academic plaster cast. He copied incessantly from the masters, as later painters--Degas, for instance--would copy him. Copying and invention were parts of the same process: the search for exactness and visual truth--"nature without exaggeration, without forced brilliance," as he said of Titian. The miracle of Ingres's talent was that his preparatory labors clarified the impulse without using it up. "Make lines, young man, many lines, from memory or from nature. It's in this way that you will become a good artist," he told Degas.

Making portraits was, for Ingres, a trying battleground between reality and representation. He could fill his history paintings with ideal types of human form and expression; he could give his nudes an extra vertebra or two; but a portraitist had no such liberty. In his portrait of the expatriate Roman society figure Marie-Genevieve-Marguerite de Senonnes (1814), you see what a singular balance he could strike between sensuality and detachment--a balance worthy of his own beau ideal, Raphael. She leans forward a little. Her eyes sparkle. She is all attention. She is a sexy-looking lady, a full-breasted bird in a nest of extravagant velvets and silks, her plump fingers encrusted with rings; yet the whole image is put together with perfect formal concision.

Ingres never made his sitters conform to any type. He was too fascinated by the specific to do that. But some of his portraits have become stand-ins for classes of people, especially for the triumphant upper middle class of 19th century France. One example is his unforgettable image of Louis-Francois Bertin (1832), the anti-Jacobin journalist who had survived exile and the disapproval of Napoleon to become, during the reign of Louis-Philippe, a press lord--the owner of an influential newspaper, the Journal des debats. His belly strains against the confines of a wrinkled waistcoat; he leans slightly forward, fixing you with a sharply assessing stare; his hands are planted immovably on his knees. It is a pose of total self-confidence. He looks so massive that a cannonball wouldn't budge him, and yet a bit rumpled. Bertin's gray hair is disordered, and none of the smooth continuous curves Ingres favored are to be seen in the silhouette of his body, only in the enclosing chair back. Ingres probably had a Renaissance model in mind, the portrait of Baldassare Castiglione by his adored Raphael, yet the image is as immediate, as wholly of its own time, as a cast-iron bridge.

Part of the power of Ingres's art lay in his ability to invest figures with a dignity and a power that verged on the sacral. He was one of the last artists to whom the rhetoric of grandeur seemed not only possible but desirable. Of course it had to be for a myth painter doing an Apotheosis of Homer. But Ingres brought it into portraiture, most notoriously with his over-the-top portrait of Napoleon (1806) in his imperial coronation robes, as frontal and opulent as a Byzantine god. So weird was this attempt at deification that even David, Ingres's old teacher, found it "incomprehensible"--and it was so much mocked that the touchy Ingres refused to return to France until other paintings had earned him a better reception there, as they presently did.

He never lost his taste for the Olympian, however, or for conferring its aura on lesser mortals. One such was Madame Ines Moitessier, the wife of a rich cigar importer, whom he painted not once but twice, in the prime of her beauty. Ingres, though a happily married man, was considerably smitten by her, and rhapsodized about her "terrible and beautiful head...those beautiful eyes, that divine face."

Such invocations of Juno in the drawing room weren't empty tropes for him. The seated version of Madame Moitessier, finished in 1856 after years of frustrating labor and scores of preliminary studies, is Ingres's Mona Lisa. It's a wonderful blend of intelligibility and mysteriousness. On one hand it is an intensely material painting: the care Ingres took with every last detail of her costume and massive jewelry--the cascading rose-embroidered fabric, the tassels on the bodice--almost defies belief. On the other it harks back in time. Her pose is taken from that of the goddess of Arcadia in an antique mural from Herculaneum that Ingres saw in Naples; whence her bizarre hand, that pampered starfish of flesh. Then there is the profile reflection of her face in the mirror, one of the most discreetly enigmatic "presences" in all painting.

Looking at Madame Moitessier and her double, one can see why Ingres had such an obsessional hold on Picasso. All the dropsical women of his so-called classic period, the early 1920s, are peasant cousins of this goddess of the salon, and the rhythmic curves of Ingres's drawing would continue to serve Picasso as emblems of peace and sexual satisfaction.

How would Ingres have liked this show, the first ever dedicated to his portraits? Impossible to guess. He might have objected to seeing what he considered the lesser part of his work isolated from the greater part, the paintings of history and myth. A modern viewer couldn't care less, and shouldn't. For with the passage of time, Ingres's portraits have become history paintings in their own right.

Monday, Mar. 29, 1999
Art: A True Visual Sensualist

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was the last great society portraitist--the Van Dyck of his time, as Auguste Rodin was the first to say. Twenty years ago, to confess an admiration (however sneaking) for his work was to invite incredulity. Sargent? That flatterer of the Edwardian rich? That fat-cat holdover, that facile topographer of the social Alps, that living irrelevance to the concerns of modernism? But what goes around comes around. Sargent's reputation is back as though it had never gone away. Once again, if one can judge from the attendance at the Sargent show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington (through May 31, and then through the summer at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston), he has a big public. Are its crowded galleries just another symptom of the explosion in the size of the public for U.S. museums? Or is there a new audience out there for the pictorial virtuosity Sargent represents? The latter, one hopes, but it's hard to tell.

The show bills itself as the first "complete" Sargent retrospective, which in a way it is--the Whitney Museum of American Art's attempt at one in 1986 was smaller and less intelligently planned, and this one does full justice to Sargent's watercolors, an essential side of his work. In fact there probably can never be a complete Sargent show, because his enormous early masterpiece, El Jaleo, 1882, cannot leave the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. But this is the best look at him in living memory.

Sargent was an American artist. With his older contemporary James Whistler, he was the first American painter since Benjamin West to become famous in England--and in France too. But he never set foot in the U.S. until his 21st year, and only rarely thereafter. The skeptic might say he hardly even qualified as an expatriate. As a boy he had no patria beyond the rented flat and the hotel room, and thus was unencumbered by the tension of nostalgia for early belonging that affects the real expat.

He was born in Florence, the son of intensely Europhile parents (his father was a New England doctor, his mother a clinging neurasthenic who couldn't bear the crude culture of her birthplace). The Sargents were not rich, but they moved from one roost to another--Rome, Paris, Nice, Munich, Venice, the Austrian Tyrol--for the first 18 years of their son's life. All he retained of America was his passport and some traces of accent; yet he held onto both until his death. Sargent's relation to America was neither resentful nor yearning, as it is with so many expatriates. He was a cosmopolitan, with the perfect adaptability of that type. His homeland was his talent.

It was fostered by training in Paris in the 1870s, at the teaching atelier of Emile Carolus-Duran. Very much the maestro and dandy, Carolus-Duran focused his method on a near monomaniac attention to direct tonal painting, almost the opposite of color-based Impressionism. "Velazquez, Velazquez, Velazquez," he intoned, "ceaselessly study Velazquez." And from that study, Sargent got three of the major traits of his style. The first was a consummate skill in rendering objects and people bathed in space and low light. The second was its apparent straightforwardness--its ability to make a gesture count, to "knock in" the folds of a black dress or the petals of a white rose with the utmost economy. And the third was a sense of pictorial decorum, the artist's refusal to parade his feelings. With Velazquez, you always know what he was seeing; what he was feeling, never. So with Sargent.

The lessons of Velazquez's Las Meninas, which Sargent had copied in the Prado, sank very deep into his style and would produce curious effects tinged with melancholy, like the brilliant early portrait of the daughters of Edward Darley Boit--four slightly alienated-looking moppets, their white pinafores gleaming in a cavern of bourgeois shadow.

By the end of the 1870s Sargent was shaping up for a glittering Parisian career. It was not to last. The curators of the National Gallery show, Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, have wittily duplicated the hanging of two portraits that, seen at the Paris Salon of 1884, caused a ruckus that precipitated Sargent's departure from France to England. One is his image of a pushy American social locomotive, Virginie Gautreau, all twisting, mannered pose and lunar, greenish-white skin, identified only as Madame X. The French critics and public hated it--and her. The other is a painting of a fashionable gynecologist named Dr. Samuel Pozzi, renowned in Paris for his exquisite tastes and the breadth of his affairs, including one with Mme. Gautreau. He rises before one's eyes in a flaring crimson robe with a velvet curtain behind him, one hand on his breast, looking like some 16th-arrondissement Don Giovanni protesting the sincerity of his intentions. The pairing of the New Orleans siren and her reputed lover set off a frenzy of gossip, and Sargent, more than a little unnerved, presently decamped to London.

England made his fortune. He was what the English upper classes--both hereditary aristocrats and nouveau riche --had wanted but not found: a portraitist who could perform in the Grand Manner. There had been none since the death of Thomas Gainsborough a century before, and Sargent, with his tremendous fluency and genuine empathy for the social levels of his sitters, filled the gap to perfection. He had no interest in politics past or present, was completely without class resentment and seemed to be devoid of irony. As a biographer who knew him pointed out, "He would have been puzzled to answer if he had been asked how nine-tenths of the population lived; he would have been dumbfounded if asked how they were governed."

This gave him the best possible qualification for painting the great and the good. He simply took them at their own valuation, producing vivid epitomes of social standing as he did so. His portrait of Lord Ribblesdale, for instance, remains the definitive image of the late-Victorian equestrian male: superbly grave and self-contained, tall as a tree, and yet with a touch of carelessness in the flare of his buff hunting waistcoat and the dashing arabesque of paint with which, in a single loaded stroke, Sargent conveyed the fold of his breeches--a gesture as assured, in its way, as any brushstroke by de Kooning. With women Sargent was in his element, and icons of late-Victorian and Edwardian femininity rise from his work with wonderful directness: those all-time-champion Jewish princesses the Wertheimer sisters, zaftig and bursting with life, or the paler and more shadowed beauty of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw.

As far as anyone knows, Sargent never had--or was even rumored to have had--a sexual relationship in his whole life; nor did he ever do a painting of a nude. His sensuality was wholly visual and confined to the surface of things--the confused glitter of light on a Venetian canal, the rumplings of fabric, the porcelain skin of an upper-class face. The sexiest picture in this show is Two Girls in White Dresses, circa 1909-11. (It is actually one girl, his niece, painted twice, lying on an Alpine hillside.) Except for the faces, not an inch of skin is visible. They are completely swaddled in cotton and cashmere, but the agitation of the cloth into powerful folds and hollows, together with the passivity of the poses, gives the image a disconcerting sensuality--not striptease, but layer-tease.

Nevertheless, the incessant production of highly paid portraiture began to chafe on Sargent. Clients kept interfering, pestering him to take this out and paint that in. "It seems there is a little something wrong with the mouth!" he complained to one of his sitters, about the demands of another. "A portrait is a painting with a little something wrong about the mouth!" In 1907, at the age of only 51, Sargent decided to give up doing "paughtraits," as he disparagingly called them--except for those commissions he couldn't refuse, like a 1917 portrait of John D. Rockefeller. Sargent wanted to travel more and do landscapes, especially in watercolor--and next only to Winslow Homer, he was the finest American watercolorist of his time.

He also had ambitions as a monumental painter, which resulted in a set of weird murals--Pre-Raphaelite throwbacks with overtones of realist modeling--depicting The Triumph of Religion for the Boston Public Library. But Sargent the public artist was never much good. His big commissioned war painting, Gassed, 1919, is full of compassion and even nobility but is dead as mutton.

It's the smaller, more private works that really count, and in them it's Sargent's skill that gets you (almost) every time. True-blue modernists liked to call it "empty virtuosity"--in their book, virtuosity itself smelled of emptiness anyway; works of art had to be gritty and sincere and full of doubt, in homage to Papa Cezanne. But some kinds of virtuosity are deliciously full; they are self-delighting in their reluctance to turn every stroke of paint into the residue of a moral struggle that may not have really happened; they make difficult performance look easy, and give weight to casualness. Sargent was that kind of painter, and it seems pointless to rebuke him for it--especially at the end of a century whose art he did not for a moment aspire to change.

Monday, Apr. 19, 1999
Architecture: Norman Foster: Lifting The Spirit
By ROBERT HUGHES;Maria Cheng/Hong Kong

The annual Pritzker Prize--$100,000 plus a gold medal--is by far the most prestigious award in architecture today. It is like the Nobels for literature or for the promotion of peace, though not as hotly debated, there being no architectural equivalent to Dario Fo--still less to Rigoberta Menchu. It is given not for promise but to uphold the ideal of excellence. Twenty men (but no women) have received it since Philip Johnson got the first one in 1979; they range from Mexico's Luis Barragan to Italy's Renzo Piano, from Britain's James Stirling to America's Frank Gehry. This year's laureate, announced this week, is another Brit: England's Sir Norman Foster, 63. "Every award is special," says Foster, "but there's only one Pritzker. It's a recognition of the importance of architecture itself."

Foster, like his former partner Richard Rogers (who has a peerage, but no Pritzker as yet), is a pivotal figure in British architecture. But his buildings have risen all over the world, from Germany to China, and at present his practice employs some 500 people. His influence on the profession is enormous. His 1985 tower for the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank headquarters in Hong Kong, for instance, reversed the general dogma that a high-rise office block had to have a solid central core: it is not a "block" but a frame, a vertical web whose generous, open ground level has become a Sunday gathering spot for Hong Kong's Filipina maids. It has probably done more to change the way people think about what Foster calls "the culture of office buildings" and the relation of the corporate to the public domain in a city's matrix than any other 20th century structure.

"Sire, do not talk to me of small projects," said the Great Cham of baroque architecture, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, to Louis XIV after the Sun King lured him to Paris. Foster is too much of a democrat to echo that sentiment, but it's a fact that his imagination runs naturally on the epic scale and that, more surprisingly, large size doesn't diminish the humanistic and spiritual qualities of his buildings.

The most heartening and invigorating thing about Foster's design sense is its clarity, the insistence that the poetics of a building must grow out of its legible and fully expressed structure. Foster has never been even faintly tempted by the clutter of secondhand allusion and quotation that infested so much Post-Modernist building in America and elsewhere--the kind of stuck-on, boutique historicism represented by Philip Johnson's 1984 Chippendale-top skyscraper for AT&T in New York City or Robert Stern's recyclings of the Shingle Style. It may be that PoMo quotation, of which a gutful has been served up over the past 25 years, served a useful purpose in reminding architecture's public that, yes, there was indeed a vast repertory of form and ornament on which early, messianic Modernism had turned its back. But it was mostly skin deep, and it kept turning into a kind of false nostalgia--a parallel to the rash of "heritage" fetishism in the 1980s.

An accumulation of signs can carry architecture only so far, because architecture in its root and essence is very much more than sign language. Yesterday's ironies wrap today's garbage. Architecture has to go deeper, find real human needs and deal with those. Foster likes to list them in simple terms: the structure that holds a building up; the services that let it work; "the ecology of the building--whether it is naturally ventilated, whether you can open the windows, the quality of light"; the mass or lightness of its materials; its relationship to the site, the street and the landscape view; the symbolism of the form. All these, he argues, must be accounted for "whether you are creating a landmark or deferring to a historic setting."

Foster can handle both with equal aplomb. In 1993 he completed a cultural center for the French city of Nimes, in Provence. It is right next to the city's most famous Roman monument, the so-called Maison Carree--a Corinthian temple dedicated to Augustus' sons in the year A.D. 4. It was Thomas Jefferson's favorite classical building--in fact, Jefferson based his whole conception of Neo-Classical architecture on it--and one obviously had to approach such a historical object with caution. Would the solution be a pastiche historical arts center? Foster was sure not. "I went there incognito before the commission was announced," he recalls. "I walked the site for hours. The challenge was to do a contemporary building that could face the Roman temple directly but not be intimidated by it." The result, a crystalline rectangular structure with sun screens, does exactly that. Its transparent grid defers to the pillar-and-architrave opacity of the ancient stone building without mimicking it.

The same kind of thinking occurs in Foster's unfinished project for the British Museum. When its library moved to massive new premises a mile away, it left behind one of the great English spaces: the 1857 Round Reading Room designed by Sydney Smirke, with its shallow dome, surrounded by a two-acre internal court. To demolish this masterpiece would have been unthinkable. It had to be preserved, and Foster's scheme for so doing entailed sweeping away the clutter of now obsolete bookstack buildings from around it and covering the court with a light glass-and-steel roof, thus creating Europe's largest enclosed space, which will function as the access core of the museum.

Foster's genius--the word is hardly too strong--is most apparent in his structural thought. He has often been called a high-tech architect, but actually, despite the complexity of some of his designs, the buildings don't brandish their technological language as gee-whiz metaphor; they use it as an essential tool of spatial effects and structural needs, always seeking the most elegant and succinct solution. "The idea of high-tech is a bit misleading," Foster says. "Since Stonehenge, architects have always been at the cutting edge of technology. And you can't separate technology from the humanistic and spiritual content of a building."

Ever since his student years at Manchester University in the 1950s (a working-class boy, he paid his way through school with a variety of jobs, including a stint as a nightclub bouncer), Foster loved utilitarian buildings: barns, factories, windmills. He did measured drawings of them when other students were drawing buildings they had never seen: Greek temples, Palladian villas. Foster would learn from those too, but his immersion in common language and use translates into a feeling of rightness, which works as completely in small structures as in large. A fine example of the former is the entrances to the subway system he designed for Bilbao in northern Spain: hoods of glass, like segments of a nautilus shell ribbed with stainless steel that curve downward and carry the eye to the spaces underneath--by far the most elegant subway entrances since Hector Guimard's Art Nouveau designs for the Paris Metro a century ago.

He learned from other structures too. As a kid he built model aircraft, and as an adult he flies real ones, both fixed-wing and helicopters. He did his national service in the Royal Air Force and regards the time he spent working in a hangar as a big influence on his later designs. Way back in the genetic code of his buildings is a feeling for hangar-like lightness, strength and frugality of consumption that came out brilliantly in such projects as his 1981 design for the airport at Stansted in England. Earlier airports had massive concentrations of ductwork above their ceilings for air conditioning, lighting and electrical services; Foster rethought this completely and realized huge savings in structural mass and energy consumption could be made by shifting the utilities underground, leaving a floating roof and walls that could open to natural daylight. This changed architects' thinking about airport design worldwide, and every major airport built since--Hamburg, Stuttgart, Kuala Lumpur--has followed Foster's design insight.

He would reapply the lesson himself 11 years later in his $20 billion design for the world's largest airport, at Chek Lap Kok in Hong Kong--the last megastructure spawned by the floundering "tiger economies" of Asia. Foster envisaged it as a "horizontal cathedral," with its airy, Y-shaped passenger terminal under the great wing of its roof. It had teething troubles at first--there were cargo and passenger delays when it opened last July--but now, according to Wan Wai Lun, corporate affairs officer of the Hong Kong Airport Authority, "it's incredibly efficient and caters to the passengers' needs."

The ideal of humane efficiency, understood as social responsibility, undergirds all of Foster's work. No living architect has thought more closely about the ecological effects of his buildings. In his brilliant 1991 design for Frankfurt's Commerzbank, the tallest office building in Europe, he brought off the seemingly impossible feat of building a supertower that could use natural ventilation (as against fuel-gobbling air conditioning) during 60% of the year. "Anything that reduces energy consumption and cuts down on greenhouse gases is good news," he says. In his redesign of the Reichstag, the seat of German government in Berlin, Foster has carried this out to an extraordinary degree. He noted that the old Reichstag, heated and cooled by fossil fuels, produced 7,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year. Foster came up with a system of "driving the building" with renewable vegetable oils, such as rapeseed, for fuel. Its CO2 emissions have dropped 94%, to 440 tons a year. The waste heat is converted into cooling capacity, and the small heat surplus is dumped into aquifers 1,000 ft. below ground level, where it is stored and recovered in winter.

You can, of course, do a building that's eco-responsible but aesthetically worthless. The crux of Foster's achievement is to have designed megastructures that are at the forefront of eco-design as well as beautiful in their own right. He is a fine detailer--everything from the junctures of a beam to the cladding to the door handles comes out of the same relentless aesthetic concentration. But on the wider scale, Foster is also one of the great living manipulators of light and transparency. No other government building in the world, for instance, can boast anything as outright exhilarating as the great inverted cone sheathed in 360 mirrors that floods the Reichstag with daylight.

Light is part of the very subject matter of Foster's buildings, along with steel, glass and stone. When Foster speaks of "the spiritual dimension" of architecture, and its power to "lift the spirit," he's talking about the action of light in space. Anyone who supposes that technology, or the exacting use of modern materials, implies a break with the past should look at Foster's work--and learn.

--With reporting by Maria Cheng/Hong Kong

Monday, May. 03, 1999
Art: From Assisi's Treasury

The holy and frugal St. Francis believed that his order of monks ought to survive by begging. In a way, this pious tradition is preserved by a show that is now on view at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Treasury of Saint Francis of Assisi" comprises some 70 works of art--paintings, sculpture, textiles, manuscripts and metalwork--drawn in part from the 13th century tesoro, or museum, of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, Italy. Its main purpose is to draw attention to the disaster that struck the great pilgrimage center in September 1997, when an earthquake shook loose the vaults of its upper church, weakening the whole structure and bringing down some 2,000 sq. ft. of frescoes by Cimabue and Giotto in a ruin of colored plaster-dust and tens of thousands of jigsaw-puzzle fragments.

This was the worst catastrophe to afflict the fragile patrimony of Italian art history since the 1966 flood in Florence, but the Italian church and civil authorities rashly promised to have the basilica restored and open to the public again in time for Christmas 1999. The restoration cost was estimated at $60 million--the price, more or less, of a single Van Gogh, but not easy to raise. The aim of this show, then, is to remind the public of the Assisi disaster and of the urgency of its repair.

From the time it was founded in 1228, right after the canonization of St. Francis, the great basilica was showered with gifts of liturgical art. One may well ask how an order dedicated to holy poverty managed to raise the money to construct the basilica, fill it with frescoes and altarpieces by the most esteemed and expensive artists of the 13th century, and acquire the rich collection of chalices, reliquaries and the like that plumped out its treasure house--in sum, to turn the place into the biggest pilgrimage center in the late medieval world, after Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela.

It wasn't done by monks rattling tin cups on street corners. Gregory IX, the Pope who canonized St. Francis, wanted to establish San Francesco partly for religious reasons and partly for political ones--Assisi, which had been wrested from the Holy Roman Emperor only some 20 years before, was the major power base for the papacy in central Italy. He took the sanctuary under his ample wing, supplying the land and encouraging donations to it. Later Popes sometimes took up residence there.

San Francesco was, in effect, papal property, and this carried implications that the high and mighty of Europe could hardly ignore. Gifts to San Francesco were gifts to the papacy as well as to the memory of St. Francis, and they poured in from all over Christendom: vestments made by Arabic textile masters in Palermo and presented by the crusader King of Jerusalem; illuminated manuscripts from Louis IX, King of France (and later a saint himself); sumptuous tokens from the rulers of England, Germany and Spain, as well as the various lay and ecclesiastical bigwigs of Italy and the successive Popes themselves. The last person to leave a big gift of medieval Italian art to San Francesco was, oddly enough, a 20th century American who died in 1955--the collector-dealer Frederick Mason Perkins, a friend of Bernard Berenson's.

But things also went out. From the 14th to the 19th centuries, the tesoro was regularly pillaged--in riots, civil wars, revolutions and invasions. During the decline of the Franciscan order, the monks themselves were not above alleviating their holy poverty by doing a little de-accessioning. They were apparently following their founder's injunction by selling what they had and giving the proceeds to the poor (themselves). All in all, what remains of the basilican treasury is only a fragment of its earlier glories. So one should not, perhaps, expect too much from this show. In any case, it bears only the slightest proportional relation to the bewildering and dense variety of works of art that are to be seen in the whole fabric of San Francesco--about the same ratio, you might say, that a crumb of saint's bone in one of its reliquaries does to the whole body.

Nevertheless, the show--which will be at the Met through June 27 and then move to San Francisco, appropriately enough, for the summer--has some exceptional things in it. Perhaps the finest of its paintings, and the most exuberantly fresh in its coloring, is a portion of what must have been one of the great 13th century Italian altarpieces. It is the work of an unidentified Umbrian artist known only as the Master of St. Francis, and it shows a decided breakaway from Byzantine conventions in the modeling of its figures. In its scene of Christ's deposition from the Cross, the figure of the Saviour bends into an extraordinary U of anguish, pathetic but tense, as though he were about to spring back into life.

Of almost equal quality is a very early panel depicting a tonsured, hollow-cheeked and rather minatory St. Francis, holding a cross and an open New Testament and exhibiting the stigmata on his hands and feet, standing ramrod-straight and flanked by four scenes of his posthumous miracles. It was done by an unknown artist, either an Italian or a Byzantine Greek, in the second third of the 13th century. It looks stiff and archaic, yet the painter has infused a remarkable energy into some of its details, such as the calligraphic loops on the blue robe of a madwoman from whose mouth an exorcised devil is escaping.

There is a lot of work in precious metals--reliquaries, chalices and other kinds of liturgical equipment. The reliquaries were done at the highest pitch of craft, mostly by goldsmiths whose names have not survived. A modern eye is more apt to enjoy the spectacle of the concentrated, disciplined labor that went into building a tiny sarcophagus out of gold and rock crystal to house a brown bit of human tissue that may or may not have been part of St. Vitus, or a supposed rag off the "seamless robe" worn by Christ at his Crucifixion. Seven hundred years ago, of course, it was the relic itself that really counted, that was "precious" and "unique"; the roles of container and content have reversed.

The single most dazzling object in the show is neither a reliquary nor a painting, nor even a manuscript illumination. It is the chalice made by the Sienese goldsmith Guccio di Mannaia, presented to the Franciscans by Pope Nicholas IV in the late 13th century. In design and workmanship it is more than a masterpiece--it's one of the greatest monuments of medieval art, standing only a little more than nine inches high. Its base, stem and bulb are decorated with some 80 tiny and exquisitely made enamel-glass plaques, representing mythical beasts, evangelists, angels, prophets and apostles. The gold surface between them carries a rich linear ornamentation that never gets congested. The silver-gilt cup, borne up on the stem, is quite plain: it shifts visual gear from the "worldly" solidity of the base to an abstract purity that seems transcendent. If you wanted a container for the blood of Jesus, it would be impossible to imagine a more fitting one than this.

Monday, May. 10, 1999
Art: A Nation's Self-Image

It's an enormous, baggy subject--from the confidence of the gilded age to the imperial anxieties of the cold war; from a portrait by Thomas Eakins to a green humanoid by William Baziotes; from Stanford White's classicism to the democratic boxes of post- World War II Levittown; from Alfred Stieglitz's immigrants on shipboard to Robert Frank's visions of the underface of big-city America.

"The American Century," part one of which opened two weeks ago in New York City, is the biggest curatorial effort by the Whitney Museum of American Art in a long, long while--an ambitious and, for the most part, rewarding show. Its aim is to narrate the story of American art (mostly painting and photography, but some sculpture, design and architecture) over the past 100 years and to make sense--brief sense, inevitably--of the relations between that art and the changing society around it.

This first installment (on view through Aug. 22) takes us from 1900 to 1950, and the second (to open Sept. 26) will see the story through to the century's end. The show's curator is Barbara Haskell, the only reputable art historian the embattled Whitney had left on its staff when the scheme was launched three years ago, and she has produced a serviceable and often illuminating catalog, reinforced by scores of sidebars on dance, music, film and dozens of other subjects not amenable to gallery treatment, written by no fewer than 22 other contributors. Practically nowhere does this 400-page tome show a trace of the poxy French-colonial, theoretical jargon whose "discourse" has disfigured so many other museum publications (including the Whitney's) in the past 15 years, and that is a great mercy.

The theme is complicated somewhat by the fact that no century, and certainly not the 20th, starts or finishes neatly in culture or in politics when the zeroes click over. Ours, like Europe's, "began" among the slaughters of the trenches, say around 1914, and "finished" with the collapse of Soviet communism, say around 1989, thus becoming the shortest ever. The phrase the American Century comes, of course, from a wartime editorial written in LIFE by its founder, Henry Luce, expressing an updated view of the 19th century belief in Manifest Destiny: that it was the fate and duty of America to "lead the world" in all things--spiritual, political, cultural and economic.

This was plausible in 1941, with Nazism, Fascism and Japanese imperialism overrunning the world. Today its premise is expiring, with loud bangs and many whimpers, in a liar's presidency and on the ghastly fields of the former Yugoslavia. But it's almost impossible to exaggerate how deeply Americans felt this destiny in the period covered by this show, roughly from the Administration of Theodore Roosevelt to the outbreak of the cold war. And they had reason to believe it.

They did not, however, believe it about their own culture, especially in the field of "high" visual art. The American public, between 1900 and 1950, was distinctly timid about appreciating the work of American artists, and to modernist ones it could be quite hostile. What worked in favor of the art, in the end, was the insatiable appetite for the new that had been built into European America's social contract ever since the Puritans came to Massachusetts to create the New Jerusalem. To Americans between 1900 and 1950, however, the idea of an American Century in the arts--other than popular mass culture--would have made little sense.

Marvels have been created out of a sense of inferiority, as the history of American museums proves. But from the 1880s to the late 1950s, American museums--the Whitney itself being the lone exception--were less interested in fostering American artists than in acquiring, at warp speed, the cultural treasures of Europe. This applied to modernism as well as to the Renaissance, and it wouldn't change until the late '50s, when Abstract Expressionism began to be elevated into the Triumph of American Painting. Earlier 20th century American art took much longer to be appreciated by Americans (or anyone else). Names like John Marin, Marsden Hartley or Charles Demuth still mean nothing in Europe, and until quite recently the proposal that Stuart Davis was as fine a painter as Jackson Pollock would have struck most cognoscenti as barmy, even heretical.

The obsessive promotion of AbEx as the great American moment, the arrival of sudden maturity, is waning now (How could anyone keep it up?), but it has a slightly weird consequence for this show. The older works--the ones from the teens, '20s and '30s--look fresher than the younger ones. We are used to seeing endless reproductions of de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko--but not of Elie Nadelman, Arthur Dove or Joseph Stella. Because of this contrast, the top two floors of the show--it starts at the top and, taking advantage of gravity, goes downward--seem more interesting than the third. That's not the art's fault, but it goes a long way toward fixing the imbalance in Americans' views of their own past art--a bias summarized in the silly idea that American modernism was creeping around in larval form until after World War II, when Pollock, de Kooning et al. spread their redeeming wings.

The show is a straightforward trot through art and social history, aimed directly at a general, nonspecialist public--the kind of public the Whitney needs to reach if it is to recover from its long doldrums. Much is riding on the show's success or failure. Because it was underwritten by Intel, a great song and dance is made about the marvels of the websites and of getting people wired into art history. But it's the actual works of art, not their teensy digital clones, that count.

The exhibition itself is sober, clearly set out and--given some of the Whitney's embarrassing efforts in the past to swamp serious art with intrusive audiovisual aids like at the 1995 Edward Hopper show--fairly short on hoopla. It touches upon all the major American movements of the 20th century and does it with balance and care and, in general, a keen eye for the best examples. If you want a short account of the turn-of-the-century New York realist group known as the Ashcan School (Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Bellows and others), the selection here could hardly be bettered.

"The American Century" makes proper acknowledgments to minority artists without making excessive claims. There is, for instance, a small section on the art produced by the Harlem Renaissance in the '20s and '30s, but the show doesn't fall into the trap of pretending that the artists concerned have to be the equals, in their field, of great black writers like Langston Hughes. Nor does it indulge in the kind of sentimental feminism that would have you believe that Georgia O'Keeffe, say, was a sacrosanct culture heroine and as good a painter as others in the Stieglitz circle, such as Dove or Hartley.

In a country of immigrants, the question of who is and who is not an American artist is always a vexing one. In the early 20th century, modernism itself was attacked as an "alien," or immigrant, form. America has never been short of blood-in-the-eye nativists and cultural conservatives (not a few of them painters, like Thomas Hart Benton), who believed that the art of Jews, gays and anyone else they disliked couldn't be really American. Such primitivism is gone now--or, at any rate, nobody who cares about art would deploy it. Obviously, the question can't be answered by including everyone who lived for a time in the U.S. and influenced the art scene there, because that would make Max Ernst an American instead of a Franco-German surrealist and confer a sort of honorary American status on the Cuban Wilfredo Lam. It would also have made the show unmanageably large. Practically everyone in it, as it stands, was a U.S. citizen and resident, though expatriates like Patrick Henry Bruce (1881-1936), who left America early and came back only to commit suicide, are included.

Actually, the cultural xenophobes weren't entirely wrong. Modernism was an immigrant, and the anxiety that haunted American artists for most of the 50 years the show covers was that of provincialism. In some respects the moderns were less original than the great American figures of the 19th century: John James Audubon, Frederick Church, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer. You were likely to be running behind the tick of the big clocks in Paris and Berlin whether you were Childe Hassam doing Impressionist streetscapes 30 years after Monet or a New York abstractionist producing ideal geometries in the early 1940s. "We all steal," said Arshile Gorky to Ilya Bolotowsky. "You steal from Cahiers d'Art [a French art magazine of the '30s]; I steal from Cahiers d'Art. The only difference is I steal better than you, because I know French and you don't!" The very American twist on this story was that Gorky didn't actually know any more French than Bolotowsky.

Early American modernism is filled with European borrowings, from Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Picabia, Leger, etc., etc. Nothing characteristically American there, you might say. But the crux of the identity issue is not the stylistic sources the artists drew on but the experiences on which they used them. It was there that the American-ness of American art hove into view, and it showed itself in two enormous image fields.

The first of these was the idea of landscape as epic, spiritual and transcendental. The cluster of feelings surrounding American landscape had come directly into modern art from 19th century images of sacred wilderness--God's fingerprint, there in the Catskills or the Grand Canyon. This would be faithfully preserved by photographers, like Ansel Adams at Yosemite. But 20th century painters from Dove and Hartley through Pollock conveyed them into more modern idioms, often with great power and poignancy. Landscape, in fact, was the matrix in which most of the impulses of American abstract art, except for its weaker strand of purist geometry, unfolded. In no other country except England and Australia was the relation between abstraction and landscape so strong, but in America it had a special persistence because of its Transcendentalist roots and overtones of mysticism.

The second image field arose from a fascination with the power of the diametric opposite of nature--industrial imagery, seen as the essence of 20th century experience and as belonging more vividly to America than to any other place. If God was present in the mountain lake, he could also be uneasily satirized as a plumber's grease trap by the New York Dadaist Morton Schamberg; if sublimity was in the mountains, it was also in the skyscrapers of New York City and in the relentlessly massed geometric forms of the Ford auto plant at River Rouge, Mich., which Charles Sheeler, who painted and photographed them in 1927, saw as "our substitute for religious expression."

Some American artists and photographers were critical of Promethean technology. The image of the impersonal, overwhelming machine, successor to Blake's "satanic mills," flourished after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Others saw salvation in it. But certainly no culture responded so passionately to it as America's; and in doing so, it produced the complicated and morally fraught self-portrait whose outlines are traced in this exhibition. For once, the Whitney has come up with a show that nobody interested in America and its self-image can afford to miss.

Monday, May. 24, 1999
Fine, Indecipherable Flourishes: SAUL STEINBERG (1914-1999)

Everyone, no doubt, is unique; but some are more so than others, and Saul Steinberg, who died last week at 84, was very much so. There really was no one like him in the annals of American art. What was so remarkable about him was not his genius as a cartoonist or his qualities as a "fine" artist, but the way he combined both within the same body of work. He didn't flip between a serious and a funny side. Both were intrinsic to the same images, which entranced his audience for decades. But this also delayed his recognition as a major American artist. Even now it's not as generally accepted as it ought to be. His friend, the late critic Harold Rosenberg, claimed that "in linking art to the modern consciousness, no artist is more relevant than Steinberg. That he remains an art-world outsider is a problem that critical thinking in art must compel itself to confront." That problem is shrinking, but it still remains.

One magazine, the New Yorker, made him famous. His last cover appears on it this week. It is his 86th, apart from innumerable drawings and dinkuses. By far his best-known cover, a classic commentary on the provincialism of great cities, ended as a poster on tens of thousands of walls. It is the Manhattanite's view from New York City: Eighth and Ninth avenues wide in the foreground, a strip of Hudson River, a smaller strip of New Jersey, the rest of the U.S. missing, and in the far background some mere dots marking Los Angeles, Australia and Japan.

It's the kind of image that only an expatriate could have made, and Steinberg, before anything else, was an expatriate. When dictators in the 1930s ranted about rootless Jews, Steinberg was what they had in mind. Born near Bucharest, Romania, the son of a printer (hence an early fascination with type), he studied architecture in Milan in the early '30s. He never designed a real building, but he was to develop an exquisite sense of architectural convention, of stylistic parody, that shows in the dream skyscrapers and iron galleries of his later cityscapes. In 1941 he made his way to Lisbon and from there to the U.S. With difficulty, and with a "slightly fake" passport that he doctored with his own rubber stamp, he reached Miami in 1942, and his definitive expatriation began.

America fascinated him. In his work he turned it into a country as schematized, imaginative and compelling as the America of the Weill-Brecht opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny: flat horizons broken by buttes or movie palaces, bulbous baroque autos, all-leg girls and cowboys teetering on their high heels like stilts. Never vagrant or fussy, always economical, his line described conundrums that were at the heart of an artist's identity concerns: a little image, for instance, of a man with a pen whose drawn nib is drawing himself. To Steinberg, each drawing remade its author. It was both a mask and a card of identity, and a proof of existence as well. Never an expressionist, he liked, he said, "to make a parody of bravura. I wish to create a fiction of skill in the same sense that my writing is an imitation of calligraphy: fine flourishes that can't be deciphered, official stamps no one can read." What he didn't know about the semantics of style wasn't worth knowing.

An artist of immense detachment, he was also capable of the most cutting insights. His New York streets populated by freaks, stone-faced cops and ghastly youths of both sexes in Mickey Mouse hats are proof of that: the Mickey Mouse face, he told an interviewer, is "without character or age; for me it represents the junk-food people, the TV children, the spoilt young ones who have all their experiences, inferior as they are, handed to them on a plate." Nobody could say Steinberg was a particularly warm or approachable person. He loathed mediocrity and made no secret of it. He simply knew too much, and in his death he took that knowledge with him. He had no equals. Now he has no successors.

Monday, May. 31, 1999
Art: Mocker of All Styles

The show of early works on paper by the German artist Sigmar Polke, which runs through June 16 at New York City's Museum of Modern Art, is a bit of an anticlimax. Much has been expected of Polke. He is one of the two painters--the other being Anselm Kiefer--who rose to the top of the enormously promoted pack of "new" German artists in the 1980s and remained there when others dropped away or became, like Georg Baselitz, with his crude upside-down figures, formulaic bores.

The contrast between Kiefer and Polke couldn't be sharper, of course. Kiefer (whose drawings were recently shown at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art) is oratorical, Wagnerian; he is a flat-out mythomane, dedicated to the Sublime, the Enormous and the Ultra-German; a marvelous artist at his best and at his worst a Black Forest ham. Polke is thinner, weirder and more elusive. His work--whose basic nature developed during the period covered by this show, from 1963 to 1974--is a hard-to-read image haze formed by the overlay of Pop art on Germany's postwar consumer society and its emblems, refracted through a needling, ironic and sweetly anarchic temperament.

Polke depends not just heavily but entirely on the "appropriation" of visuals from all manner of sources, from comic books to ads, from news photos to William Blake. He skips and flitters like a frenetic troll through this forest of images without feeling the least impulse to make narrative sense. His work has the rambling, no-rules character of a dopehead's monologue. Indeed, just as Filippo Marinetti, leader of the Italian Futurists 90 years ago, called himself "the caffeine of Europe," so one of Polke's doodles, of a glass tube with powder spilling from it, is titled Polke as a Drug, 1968.

How high you get on him depends on your cultural expectations. Polke has influenced a slew of younger American painters, and been hailed as the man who set painting in the '80s free--as if it had been languishing in bondage before!--by reviving, once more, the spirit of Dada that breathed through such movements as the Fluxus group in the '60s. He's the arch-trickster, mocking all art styles, sending up the dreaded Canon. (The fact that no work of art by a famous artist these days can safely be considered really and truly outside the Canon seems not to have dawned on those inside the Museum of Modern Art.) His strategy, according to MOMA, is to subvert "the elitist mythologies of artistic creation and production." And so forth. Such claims are counters in a solemn Laputan game whose object is to ratify the countercultural status of a given artist and thereby justify his (or her) prompt entry into the cultural pantheon.

There are times when you feel that if you hear the words elitist or subvert just once more, you'll barf. So when MOMA's Margit Rowell, who in the past has curated some intelligent shows on Constructivist sculpture, Brancusi, Antonin Artaud's drawings and other topics, affirms that Polke's vernacular has "regenerate[d] the language and meaning of Western artistic experience," and suggests that he is the Hieronymus Bosch of our day, you sigh. Polke has never shown a smidgen of the aesthetic intensity, the absorption in religious and moral experience or the staggering completeness of Bosch's universe of images. This has to be the silliest comparison since Julian Schnabel last likened himself to Picasso.

Which is not to deny that Polke is an intriguing artist, and no respecter of pomposity. Sometimes his drawings have a deadly bite, solely as one-liners. One consists simply of an L, drawn in black ink on a page from a notebook. Its title, typed below, is Higher Beings Command: Paint an Angle! The date is 1968--a time when art circles in Germany, and the U.S. too, were still given to overheated "spiritual" rhetoric about the transcendent powers of all sorts of abstract art, from Kandinsky and Malevich through Barnett Newman. As an art joke, it gets close to the mustache on the Mona Lisa.

Still and all, Polke's smaller drawings get fairly monotonous en masse, though their edgy defiance of taste can be pleasurable, particularly in the earlier work. Drawn in ballpoint pen, the least aesthetic medium imaginable (no variation of line, just scribble-scribble and hatch-hatch), they take very ordinary objects--doughnuts, cheap shirts, cakes, vapidly smiling hausfraus and the omnipresent German sausage, which for Polke is the essence of what he called "Capitalist Realism"--and present them in full inanity as a comment on the ordinariness of objects of desire. Sometimes a touch of political comment comes in--at least that's what seems to be going on when he does Nixon and Khrushchev as potato heads--but it isn't a hard poke, more a distanced tweaking. As a satirist, Polke doesn't come close to 19th century Germans like Wilhelm Busch, whom he clearly admires.

The best things in the show are four enormous drawings on pasted-up sheets of paper, collectively titled The Ride on the Eight of Infinity, 1969-71. These are both obscure and curiously impressive: a yowling torrent of images that relates at one end to Polke's enjoyment of fast motorbikes and at the other to the German physicist Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which asserts--to put it in the simplest terms--that reality isn't stable but discloses itself only in shifting contexts. Some artists in the '60s doted on Heisenberg, particularly when stoned, and Polke more than most. These drawings inundate you with their turgid stream of consciousness; they have the character of trance utterances, but don't ask what they mean. (The catalog isn't a whole lot of help on that either.) But they carry a swarming and visceral conviction, their surfaces contain some beautiful passages, and at least they're not, as too many of the later small pieces are, just another Polke, like any other Polke.

Monday, Jun. 07, 1999
Art: An Impressionist Abroad

There are thousands of paintings by French Impressionists in American collections, public and private; America's infatuation with Impressionism, which began more than a century ago, has never stopped. Yet only one member of the Impressionist group ever visited America, and it wasn't for artistic reasons. Edgar Degas (1834-1917) had relatives in New Orleans. His father Auguste De Gas--who, despite the "De" he affected, was not of noble blood--had married a French-Creole woman from New Orleans, Celestine Musson. She produced three sons and two daughters, of whom Edgar was the oldest. They were all raised in Paris, but both of Edgar's younger brothers, Rene and Achille, emigrated to New Orleans and went into the Musson family business, the cotton trade. Rene went back to Paris on business and persuaded his artist brother to go on a visit to New Orleans.

And so, in 1872, off they went on the transatlantic packet Scotia, bound for New York City. Edgar Degas was then 38, a promising but not a well-known artist, and not at all the enormous figure in French art that he would become. But there was never a time in his life when he did not work, and he kept painting and drawing throughout his five-month sojourn among his brothers and cousins in New Orleans. Hence the shapely and interesting show on view through Aug. 29 at the New Orleans Museum of Art: "Degas and New Orleans." It consists only of some 40 paintings and drawings; it is, as curator Gail Feigenbaum puts it, a "cabinet exhibition," but one that's clearly focused and well worth seeing.

Hovering behind its presentation is the vaguely boosterish feeling that Degas felt some unusual affinity to New Orleans and to Louisiana in general. "Louisiana must be respected by all her children," he wrote to his friend Henri Rouart in Paris, "and I am almost one of them." Alas, it's Degas being ironic. The sentences before make this clear: speaking of New Orleans women, he wrote that "their heads are as weak as mine, which a deux would prove a strange guarantee for a new home."

But still, his family (or part of it) was there, and the look of the town and its people delighted the great realist. He wrote to James Tissot, a fellow painter, enthusiastically about "villas with columns in different styles...negroes in old clothes...rosy white children in black arms, charabancs or omnibuses drawn by mules, the tall funnels of the steamboats towering at the end of the main street... Everything is beautiful in this world of people." But, he typically added, one Paris laundress with bare arms "is worth it all for such a pronounced Parisian as I am." In any case the outdoor glare pained his weakening eyes, which is why all his paintings from New Orleans are either interiors or portraits. He never painted the black women whose appearance struck him so forcibly. He concentrated on his own relatives, especially Estelle Musson, Rene's blind wife, for whom he felt strong pity and sympathy--"She manages it in an unprecedented manner... And there is no hope!" Invalids, like the Woman with Bandage, figure largely in his New Orleans work, reminding you what a plague spot the delta city was.

The subject of his finest New Orleans painting was, however, what the French called le business--a cotton brokers' office at 63 Carondelet Street, belonging to the firm Musson, Prestidge, & Co., in which his own family was partners. (It looks like a commissioned work, but it wasn't: Degas hoped to sell it to one of the cotton magnates of Manchester, England, but he failed to.) Rene is there, smoking and reading a paper in the mid-foreground, and Achille leans idly on the windowsill at the left. It isn't exactly an image of American business dynamism: apart from the two men grading the cotton sample on the table and a pair of bookkeepers on the right, nobody seems to be doing much, and you can almost feel the languid Gulf heat in the room.

At the same time it's an extraordinary feat of composition--14 figures, full-length or nearly so, organized with perfect spatial coherence on a canvas only three feet wide, most of them identifiable and each a sharply characterized portrait. It is full of delicious details, down to the pattern and structure of the chair legs, and the beautiful still life of colored paper in the wastebasket.

No studies exist for any part of A Cotton Office in New Orleans, though it's inconceivable that Degas, who invariably worked up his compositions, would not have made them. The sketchbook must be lost. It may not be, as the catalog amiably suggests, a greater loss "than the missing links in Darwin's theory." But Degas is such a fascinating artist that one wants to know everything about him--which, not incidentally, is what makes this small show, dedicated to a brief episode in his life, such a pleasure to see.

Monday, Jul. 05, 1999
Fella Down a Hole

Returning to his native Australia last month, our art critic, Robert Hughes, began shooting a TV series titled Beyond the Fatal Shore for PBS, the BBC and Australia's ABC network. Along the way, Bob planned a series of letters/diaries to a close friend in New York City, chronicling his travels and observations. This account is the only one he completed before being seriously injured in a car crash, reported in our June 14 issue. Happily, Bob was to be released from intensive care this week and is making good progress on his recovery.

Coober Pedy, the Opal capital of Australia, is about 525 miles north-northwest of Adelaide. You fly there on a little 19-seater plane that stops first at a uranium-mining town called Olympic Dam, a cluster of machinery and huts in absolute flatness--red desert all around. As soon as you get out of the plane (which has to refuel), you are assailed by millions of flies. The fly biomass of central Australia must be 10 times the biomass of humans or kangaroos. You at once start doing the irritable wave of the hand known as the outback salute. The flies crawl into your nostrils, eyes and ears, and when you get back in the plane, they fly in clouds into the cabin, so that the pilot takes out a can of powerful insecticide--"Jeez, this is going to smell really putrid," he cheerfully announces--and sprays them down. Then you take off. Forty minutes later, you land in Coober Pedy, with dead flies in your lap.

Coober Pedy is Aboriginal for "white fella down a hole." Opals were discovered here, lying on the surface, by a 14-year-old boy back in 1915. He was looking for water but instead kept tripping over the "floaters," as surface opals are called. Few floaters are seen now; the opals are all underground, embedded in deep layers of soft sandstone. This whole area, millions of years ago, was ocean floor. So it is relatively easy to mine, and since opal mining is entirely an individual business, like California gold mining back in 1849, it has never been industrialized.

Indeed, it can't be. The big mining companies--which the opal miners hate, along with the government and the cops and the tourists--have never devised a profitable means of detecting or extracting opals. It's handwork. You just stake a claim and start digging. Sounds simple, but the trouble is that none of the conventional geological spotting techniques apply. Opals don't react chemically with the stone matrix around them, and they don't leave the "traces" that gold or diamonds do. So it is a matter of digging and digging and digging. One spot is as good as another; the chances are always essentially the same. You can drill or pick into one spot on the rock wall and find nothing or go in 6 in. away and hit a "pocket," or lode, of opals that could be worth $100,000.

Or--and the miners with whom I spent a night drinking in the clubhouse of the Coober Pedy Golf Club are full of stories like this--you can place an explosive charge, set it off and find that you've blown a quarter-million bucks' worth of opal to worthless dust, the texture of coarse sugar, because you didn't know it was there. Then you just go and have a drink. Or two.

Opal is a silicate fossil. It comes in "shells"--seashells originally, for this whole desert was once a vast inland sea--or more rarely in "pipes," or tubes, the fossilized backbones of archaic freshwater squid. The paradox of the stuff is that although it is so brilliantly colored, it has no color of its own. It's a solid diffraction grating, and the color you see is the light dispersed and reflecting through it. John Smart, the miner in whose mine we filmed, waxes reflective about this. "The opal's just a bloody illusion. It's as though you're spending your life down here digging for something that doesn't actually exist."

John is a short, wiry man of 47, with a red beard and red hair and fierce china-blue eyes. His father took him out of school when he was 14 to apprentice him to a butcher. He is self-educated, and he reads all the time when he's not drinking or down the shaft. His literary range is wider than that of most educated Americans I've met, and he talks beautifully. His father was a Stalinist union organizer, and though John is no longer a communist--few miners are; they're too solitary and anarchic by temperament--he movingly speaks of the kinship he and his mates feel with the labor traditions of Australian mining, which go back to the Eureka rebellion of the Victorian gold miners in 1854. "We have solidarity because we know all our chances are equal."

Do you ever feel jealous, I ask, when another miner makes the big strike? "Ah, no, Bob, it'd be pointless. You'd spend your whole life being jealous. I feel glad, actually. It keeps you believing that it could happen to you tomorrow. And if you go for six months without a strike, you've got to believe that. Otherwise you'd go crazy."

Coober Pedy is a small town but full of M-E-N. They'll argue all night, but God help you if you cross them. The cops aren't much use out here, and the men take justice into their own hands. Last month, a passing wannabe miner got into another man's mine and rifled a lode of opals that the owner had opened up but left unextracted. (He had taken off to the pub for a beer, committing the fatal error of letting on that he'd struck, and this was overheard by the thief.) His friends identified the thief from his boot prints, said nothing, came for him the next night, broke both his arms and threw him alive down one of the thousands of abandoned mineshafts that speckle the landscape. He was never found, and probably never will be. Word of such things gets around and keeps people honest.

In the old days all the tunnels and shafts had to be dug with pick, shovel and explosives--backbreaking work. Now there are circular drills mounted on caterpillar treads, which lurch forward chewing at the soft rock, making a hellish racket that changes to a shrill glass-crunching scream when the teeth hit a pocket of "potch" (the gray waste near opal that runs in veins through the matrix). These drills are 4 ft. in diameter, and they create vaults in the tunnel roofs--beautiful, arched Romanesque spaces cut in the creamy pink-veined stone. It is troglodyte architecture: dense, theatrical and intensely moving, infinitely better than anything built above ground. It has the same kind of weird beauty as the basement of Antoni Gaudi's Palau Guell. Here and there the lights pick up sparkles of quartz and waste opal crumbs embedded in the stone. You could imagine it as a set for a Wagner opera; you half expect to see Alberich and his dwarfs.

So after we shot some walk-and-talk through the tunnels, during which I was interviewing John about luck and hardship and the resemblance between opal mining and professional gambling (which is very strong), the director Chris Spencer asked John to go at a face with the air hammer. He obligingly did, talking meanwhile about how he hadn't found an opal in weeks. Then he asked me if I'd like to have a go. I took the air hammer and started ripping some sandstone off the wall. And then, suddenly, there was a shrill noise, somewhere between a crunch and a squeak. John dropped to his knees and started scrabbling with his hands at the cut I'd opened. Under the movie lights, to my astonishment, there was a brilliant green flash. I'd gone straight into a small seam of opal and fragmented it. He levered out the remains with a small pick, and everyone crowded around admiring the results.

The largest intact bit was about three-quarters of an inch long, a good gemstone (a fossilized and then opalized shell from the Pre-Cambrian period), worth perhaps $1,500 uncut and much more when cleaned up. It was an amazing moment, and I am sure that nobody who sees it on film will believe that it was anything but a set-up. But it wasn't a set-up. In that moment I believe I came to understand something of the lunatic, persistent optimism that keeps these miners going through good times and bad. It was an epiphany.

We also went out into the desert to film some sequences. The desert contains the longest fence ever built, more than twice the length of the Great Wall of China--3,307 miles of wire-and-post fencing, running dead straight to the horizon in both directions. It is known as the Dog Fence because it is meant to keep dingoes inside northern Australia and out of South Australia, so they won't massacre the sheep. If the wind blows your hat over the fence, it's gone forever. The Dog Fence has only one gate every 12 miles.

The big thrill, apart from the Dog Fence, was doing the sunrise over Mount Despair. This is where the desert sequences for The Road Warrior were filmed. Imagine standing in the predawn darkness on the rim of a cliff, 300 ft. above the desert floor. There are purply black mesas before and behind you. Exactly above the center of the largest one, you see Venus, the Morning Star, burning in a deep violet sky. Nothing moves. No wind, no sound, only bitter cold. As the light begins to glow on the eastern horizon, you see an immense desert plain, flat as water--it is, in fact, the bed of an ancient inland sea. And it stretches without interruption, without a building or any other sign of human habitation, 2,000 miles to the northeast until it reaches the Arafura Sea, between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

The silence is absolute. As the light gathers, it is sublime and scary. When the low, fretted bars of cloud on the eastern horizon go from gray to molten gold, seconds before the sun's rim peers over the desert, it's the closest thing I have ever experienced to being in outer space. Then, as the light floods the plain, its birds begin to move: the black crows, the white cockatoos uttering their first tentative dawn screams, the rainbow lorikeets. A hawk sails over, and a mob of kangaroos hop by. A new day, the merest crumb of eternity, has begun. To see this is to love Australia; it is to become more Australian, even in the act of sensing your own insignificance in the vast, indifferent timescale of the desert.

Monday, Oct. 11, 1999
In Death's Throat

The night I nearly died closed off one of the best days fishing I'd ever had. It was late last May, and I was shooting a TV series about Australia for PBS, the BBC and Australia's ABC network. The crew and I had a day off in the old pearling port of Broome, on the Indian Ocean. I decided to visit one of my favorite spots on earth: Eco Beach, two hours' drive south. On that unblemished coast I fished with a friend, Danny O'Sullivan, who had taken up guiding after a long stint in the SAS, the Australian commandos. With eight-weight fly rods and streamer flies, we went after the small bluefin tuna that boil up in schools less than a mile offshore, around 15 to 30 lbs. apiece. That day they were abundant in the sapphire water; I hooked five, boated three and kept one. Gutted, tailed and beheaded, it went into a cooler in the back of my rented car. The crew and I would eat it that night as sashimi. Whistling gaily, I shut the gate to Eco Beach behind me and turned left on the deserted, twilit Great Northern Highway.

And that's all I remember.

The accident happened very quickly, some two miles from the turn. What caused it isn't clear, and there were no outside witnesses. The police, who reached the scene later, claim I had drifted into the wrong lane (Australia drives on the left; the U.S. and Europe on the right), but this isn't settled. In any case, though I believe my lights were on, I didn't see the oncoming car, a Ford with three men in it.

What do you feel when you get whacked? In my case, nothing, and I remember nothing, which seems weirder still but is actually normal. Doctors speak of "post-traumatic amnesia," PTA for short, to denote this peculiar whiting out of violent episodes. The other car hit me head on but slightly off center; its impact was concentrated on the driver's side. It then spun off the road, though its occupants too, astonishingly, survived. Under such an impact, bones may not just break; they can explode, like a cookie hit by a hammer, and that's what happened to several of mine.

My catalog of trauma turned out to be a long one. Below the right knee, the tibia and fibula shattered into half a dozen pieces. The right femur broken, the ball joint at the hip damaged. The elbow of the right arm crushed. Several ribs snapped, their sharp ends driven into the lungs. Collarbone and sternum busted. What saved me was the merest fluke: apart from punctured lungs, a few picturesque cuts and some bruising to my liver and heart, the damage was all skeletal, not soft tissue. My brain was intact; ditto my eyes, spine, guts and genitals. It could so easily have been otherwise, and in the weeks since I have sometimes thought how wildly, irrationally lucky I was to be spared. But not at the time. With the remains of my rented Japanese car folded around me like crude origami, I was trapped, intermittently conscious but aware of no pain, and losing blood.

My life was saved by an Aborigine. His name was Charlie Fishhook. He was driving back toward Broome with his wife and teenage daughter when he saw my wreck on the blacktop. He stopped and checked that I was breathing. He couldn't get much out of me but figured that I must have been fishing at Eco Beach with Danny. So he peeled off and headed for the resort. Meanwhile, some Aborigines of the Bidyadanga people, who lived not far from the crash site, began to converge on the car. They tried gently to free me but couldn't. Later I was told that some of them formed a semicircle by the car and began to chant, trying to sing me back to life. A Filipina nurse from the Bidyadanga settlement presently joined them and (I afterward learned) wept as she heard me mechanically counting aloud. I thought I was trying to stay conscious; she thought I was counting off my last moments. For all I know, we were both right.


In the meantime, Danny was at home. He had a radio and a cell phone and, when roused, a foot on the accelerator of his jeep as heavy as a rhino's. He got straight through to the nearest medical unit, which was in Broome, 75 miles away. Then he tore up the road to the wreck, where he held my hand, swore that help was coming and listened to me begging him to shoot me if the gasoline, which was leaking copiously from the crumpled innards of the car, caught fire. Would he have actually done so? I don't know, but luckily for both of us there was no stray spark.

Instead I sat there, contemplating the tiny gap between life and death, not sure whether the growing darkness before my eyes was nightfall or my own consciousness shutting down, retracting into itself. Samuel Johnson once said the prospect of being hanged concentrates a man's mind wonderfully. I can testify that the prospect, extended over an hour or two, of dying in a gasoline fireball does much the same. It dissolves your more commonplace troubles--money, divorce--and shows you what you really want to live for.

At one point I saw Death. He made no gesture, but he opened his mouth and I looked right down his throat, which distended to become a tunnel. He expected me to yield, to go in. This filled me with abhorrence, a hatred of nonbeing. In that moment I realized that there is nothing, nothing whatsoever, outside of the life we have; that the "meaning of life" is nothing other than life itself, obstinately asserting itself against emptiness. Life was so powerful, so demanding, and in my concussion and delirium, even as my systems were shutting down, I wanted it so much.

When the police and medics got to the scene, I was only dimly aware of them. I have a confused memory of being cut from the twisted metal with a huge pair of yellow hydraulic shears, the so-called Jaws of Life, and laid on a stretcher. As they were loading me into the ambulance, Danny O'Sullivan's face swam into focus, looking down at me. "You'd have to be the toughest old bastard I know," he said encouragingly. Give me a break, I said. You used to be in the SAS; you know plenty tougher than me. "Well, toughest old art critic, anyway," he said. That'll do for me, I thought, and promptly fainted.


The ambulance rocketed me to Broome Hospital. The only medical team on the west coast that could deal with my injuries was more than 1,000 miles south, in Royal Perth Hospital, so the medics decided to fly me there. When I arrived, the doctors had me on the operating table for 13 hours straight. Several times they nearly lost me. I ended up in semistable condition, with tubes running in and out of me, and breathing through a ventilator. In effect, this machine was breathing for me, because my whole body, shattered as it was, couldn't make good on my will to survive. I was sunk in a coma, unaware of the huge efforts the doctors and nurses were making on my behalf. I was oblivious to the presence of relatives and friends. I didn't realize that the woman I love had flown all the way from New York City to be with me--only to find a speechless wreck. There was no getting through to me.

But to be in a coma is not to be without some kind of consciousness. Mine was intensely vivid and took the form of a series of hallucinations, from whose grip I could not awake. They were protracted and obsessive dreams that went on for several weeks. To take only one of them: for years I had been struggling with an unfinished book about Goya. Now I found myself in a late 18th century madhouse, clearly designed by Goya himself--I knew that from its gloomy architecture--outside Seville. I had tubes running into my lungs and stomach, which I would have torn out if the attendants had not bundled me into a straitjacket. (That part was real; under intensive care, I was still intubated, and the tubes were driving me cuckoo.)


Goya and his friends, who didn't like me much--in the long dream they were young, streetwise hustlers--had clamped an immobilizing device on my leg, which I couldn't shake off and which, to their vast amusement, prevented me from climbing over the madhouse wall to freedom. This too was real. The Perth surgeons had put my right leg, with its multiple fractures, in a fiendish-looking contraption called an Ilizarov frame: three concentric rings enclosed the leg, and from each of them sprouted an array of metal spikes that went through the flesh and screwed into the pieces of my tibia and fibula, holding them rigidly in position so they could reknit. I would be cursing this gadget for two months.

Such narratives, in all their bizarre confusion, seem a long way from the nice, uplifting sort of near-death experience that religious writers like to effuse about. But perhaps the simple truth is that near death, you have visions of what most preoccupies you in life. I am a skeptic to whom the idea that a benign God created us and watches over us is somewhere between a fairy story and a poor joke. People of a religious bent are apt, under such conditions, to see the familiar images of near-death experience--the tunnel of white light with Jesus beckoning at the end, as featured in the memoirs of a score of American K Mart mystics. Jesus must have been busy when my turn came: he didn't show. There was, as far as I could tell, absolutely nothing divine on the other side.

When I came out of the coma, a month after the accident, I looked at myself with amazement. I had lost 30 lbs. My smoking habit, a pack a day, had been broken. My skin bore graffiti--fine white scars from surgery--and the X rays showed an astonishing clutter of pins, screws, nails, spikes, plates and wires, as though the right side of my body were a reject costume design for RoboCop. My muscles had wasted away from inaction, and I could scarcely move without severe pain. I stank of sweat and urine. And I felt almost crazily happy--partly because of the outpouring of support and affection from friends and family, and partly because I knew I had been to the limit and made it back. Though diminished, I was alive. I had always taken that condition for granted before. I never will again. Blind luck had dealt me a whole new hand. From now on, I wouldn't waste a single card in it. Though, if possible, I wouldn't drive in Australia again either.

Monday, Dec. 27, 1999
Art: Spain's Conquistador

The theology of painting" is how one of Diego de Velazquez's 17th century admirers described his work. What did he mean? That the work was true; that it represented a truth about nature, as theology did about God; that this truth was conclusive, beyond further argument. In a culture ruled by King and church, where the arts were easily accused of frivolity and sensuality, this was a colossal claim. Very rarely, an artist gets to transform the conditions of his culture--not just add to them or jog their evolution, but alter them decisively. This is what Picasso did for America and Europe in the 20th century. Perhaps less obviously, Velazquez did the same for Spain in the 17th century. He showed that the nation's painting need not be provincial, that it could be open to Europe and, especially, to such Venetian masters as Titian. Titian had made masterpieces for Philip II of Spain; now Velazquez would work on the same scale for Philip IV, grandson of Titian's patron. With Velazquez at the court, Spain no longer needed to import its talent from abroad.

Through Jan. 16, the Frick Collection in New York City is marking the 400th anniversary of Velazquez's birth with a small but choice loan show--six paintings from New York museums. Some are well known, like the portrait of Juan de Pareja, Velazquez's Moorish slave and studio assistant. Others are less so, such as the fierce authoritarian portrait of Olivares, Philip IV's chief minister for finance and war. The show is an anti-blockbuster and not to be missed by anyone who cares about painting.

Velazquez couldn't have cared less about leaving a record of his own personality in his work. Confession (except to a priest) wasn't part of his culture. His objectivity formed itself around an almost punitively observed decorum. He must have felt he was a great painter, but his life's struggle was to establish himself as a great gentleman. No court was more hedged with exact signs and symbols of degree than that of the Spanish monarchy. Velazquez spent much of his adult life lobbying, campaigning, espaliering the family tree and sucking up to the noblesse in order to be granted the red cross of a Knight of Santiago; it meant more to him than any picture--whereas to us it means nothing, except as evidence of a great artist's hunger for social distinction. Yes, we would like to know more about Velazquez, but in front of the paintings it doesn't seem so bad that we don't.

Velazquez's achievement was unique in the Spain of his day. He soon grew out of painting religious pictures. Instead he created a secular and courtly art--mainly portraits--in which a meticulous realism was conjoined with an extraordinary sense of the mechanics of painting. Velazquez gives you the physical marks of the brush, declares in advance that they are special effects, and yet defies you to shake free from their illusion.

A marvelous example of this process at work is the so-called Fraga portrait of Philip IV, named for the town where it was painted, in a temporary studio, when the King was leading his armies against the rebellious Catalans in 1640. Velazquez finished it on the march, as it were; though known at court as a pintor flematico, a phlegmatic painter, he whipped it off in a few days. The head of the King, with its long and beautifully blended brushstrokes, looks very considered; less so his magnificent red outfit, which is pure Impressionism 200 years early--the broken touches of the silver brocade and their black shadings mix on the eye, producing a delectable liveliness, a scribbled spontaneity that no other 17th century artist could rival.

The exquisite little head of Philip IV's daughter, the Infanta Maria Teresa, is even more summary. Velazquez paints shapes that look so obsolete that they're almost abstract--the massive cornrowing of the brown wig, for instance, and the mysterious, icily translucent lace butterflies that adorn it. He paints paint, or, more exactly, cosmetics: that pale mask flushed with matte pink, a plain little girl--she was a teenager then--propelled onto the international market by Papa's political schemes. Such portraits were made to be sent abroad to the relevant ambassadors, in the hope of arranging a suitable marriage. In due course, in the year that Velazquez died, 1660, the infanta was betrothed to Louis XIV of France, and thus embarked on more than two decades of wretchedness with her faithless Sun King; perhaps this small, pictorially sublime icon helped seal her fate.

The odd thing is the long delay in Velazquez's influence. He hardly touched the next generation of Iberian artists, and the first unquestionably great Spanish painter to fall under his spell was Goya, more than 100 years after Velazquez's death. The reason was social. Most of his work was done for the King and the court, and was thus invisible to young artists. And practically none of it went abroad. Not until the museum age, when what had been private became public, did Velazquez become the intellectual property of mediocrity and genius alike. Numerically, this is a little show. But with Velazquez, a little goes a long way.

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Saturday, Jan. 01, 2000
Art: A Livable Treasure-House

There was a time when Americans were apt to connect the owning of art with the possession of virtue, but that is long gone. We know in our heart of hearts that the Rothko on the boardroom wall does not turn the saber-toothed CEO into Bambi and that some of the nastiest beasts in history, such as Hermann Goring, have been sincere and knowledgeable art lovers. Moreover, being an important collector doesn't even show that you have halfway decent manners, let alone morals. Witness the late Dr. Albert Barnes, who before World War I became a multimillionaire from selling a snake oil called Argyrol. He bought a huge collection--175 Renoirs, 66 Cezannes, 65 Matisses--and built a foundation around them, but Philadelphia still remembers him mainly as a geek and a bully, and his theories about art as the honkings of a crank.

Yet there are some American collectors--just a few--whose memory lives on in a distinct aura of sweetness and reason, and at the top of that list is Duncan Phillips (1886-1966). Phillips was the kind of man who gives Wasps a good name: modest, highly educated, public spirited and devoid of affectation. The Phillipses, though not as rich as the Carnegies, had made their fortune in Pittsburgh, Pa., in banking and steel, then moved to Washington. After graduating from Yale, young Duncan set himself the task of becoming an "interpreter and navigator" between the art world and the public. It was he who created one of Washington's most beloved institutions, the Phillips Collection. It is a museum, but not an encyclopedic one, containing slightly fewer than 2,400 works of art (including drawings and prints); a place dedicated to Modern art, but with a collection that ranges back to Goya and Corot; a public space that feels private.

"It is worthwhile," wrote Phillips some 80 years ago, when marble temples of culture were sprouting like didactic mushrooms from the American soil, "to reverse the usual process of popularizing an art gallery. Instead of the academic grandeur of marble halls and stairways and miles of chairless spaces, with low standards and popular attractions to draw the crowds, we plan to try the effect of domestic architecture, of rooms small or at least livable." In fact, Phillips and his artist wife Marjorie started the gallery in their own house, and although since its founding in 1921 it has grown some 19,000 sq. ft., the Phillips Collection still feels more "livable" than any other in America. It is a memorial, but without funerary overtones. It commemorates Phillips' brother James, who died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, and his father Major Duncan Clinch Phillips, who died the previous year. They were to be remembered not by the tomblike associations of the museum but by the vivacity of the art.

The Phillips Collection was the first U.S. museum to be devoted to Modern art (eight years before Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art opened its doors) and the first to take serious account of Modern American art (nine years before the Whitney Museum of American Art was founded). In the past, it has mounted a lot of distinguished shows by living artists. But in these closing days of the Modernist century, it has chosen to commemorate itself and its founder. Through Jan. 23, the whole winding building is filled with "Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips," the chronological story of its creation, and it's one of the great American cultural narratives.

Phillips wasn't a Modernist missionary like Alfred Stieglitz. He came to things gradually and took his time, feeling no embarrassment about changing his mind: to do so was a sign of authentic judgment. He was still in his 20s when he began writing art criticism, and his first reaction to "radical" Modernism, which hit him in the 1913 Armory Show, was one of utter horror--Cezanne and Van Gogh were "unbalanced fanatics," Cubism "simply ridiculous," Matisse "insanely, repulsively depraved."

His taste changed and developed; in due course he would acquire a number of Cezannes, including the mighty Self-Portrait of 1878-80, solid as a Provencal mountain, which he perceived to be a sort of midpoint between El Greco and Picasso. In the same way, his early dislike of Matisse didn't stop him from eventually buying one of the greatest and harshest of all Matisses, the Studio, Quai St.-Michel, 1916.

There was never a time when Phillips felt the need to approve of all Modernism. He was making a record of his own taste, not trying to reflect whatever was there. German Expressionism, or any other movement whose main aim was to record conflict and misery rather than celebrate a degree of Apollonian pleasure, was foreign to his nature. Dada and Surrealism hardly raise a blip on his radar. All efforts to "subvert" painting were beside the point. In his view, the Modernist impulse really began amid the sensuous delights of Renaissance Venice--Giorgione being the first "Modern" artist.

Phillips' thinking about art, his impulse to collect it and set it in order, was sponsored by two main beliefs. The first is that art is continuous. It is not--whatever the avant-gardists may crudely suppose--locked in an Oedipal battle with its past. Every masterpiece contains the genes of earlier masterpieces, as Manets and Daumiers do of Goyas, as Goyas do of Velasquezes. Second, art gives us access to a paradise of the intelligent senses that, once attained, justifies itself. Its aim is pleasure. Thus, Phillips had a fascinated respect for Picasso's anxiety but no great paintings by him, whereas Braque was wholly another matter. Braque's lucid and calm balance drew the American like a magnet, as a demonstration of the unbroken tradition of classical painting that ran forward from Chardin--tradition being, in Phillips' words, "the heritage of qualities which deserve not only to endure but to develop."

In America, where Picasso ruled supreme among Modernists, this must have seemed heretical. And even more so was Phillips' rapturous appreciation of Pierre Bonnard, whom he prized as much as he did Matisse, while most American pundits were dismissing him as a very delayed Impressionist. In the end, the Phillips Collection was to own the finest group of Bonnards in America, and one can easily see their influence pervading the American artists who saw them: how Bonnard's fierce but modulated color and his love of diagonal cuts in the scaffolding of his compositions affected young Richard Diebenkorn, for instance, when he was a Marine based at Quantico, Va.; how the purity of his color challenged Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, for whom visits to the Phillips were like Sunday attendance at church.

No such collection will ever be assembled again. The money doesn't exist. Nor will the museum's coverage of American painting ever be duplicated. Phillips was the first American museum director to go deep and seriously into U.S. Modernism. "I do not collect American paintings because they are American," he said, "but because they are good and often great." It was a declaration that few U.S. collectors, haunted as they were by the specter of provincialism, would have made. He began with those two heroes of realism, Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer. But Phillips' taste was more for the visionary, especially for the dark, light-mottled sea pieces of Albert Pinkham Ryder, and for the younger painters they inspired--Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and others. He was convinced that the defining characteristics of American art were more spiritual than stylistic and that they had been laid down in the 19th century.

In this he was right, and he was right too in his belief that if you scratched any American abstraction, you would find a landscape not far below the surface. This was part of the deep sympathy that ran between Phillips and Dove: a belief that "abstraction" was not autonomous, that it was a way of getting to the core of reality by jettisoning whatever might be incidental. Then, Phillips wrote, "abstract art ceases to be an amusement for the aesthete and becomes a divine activity." Phillips couldn't be Ryder's patron: the man was dead. But he was Dove's lifeline, acquiring some 55 works during the years of their friendship. "After fighting for an idea all your life, I realize that your backing has saved it for me, and I want to thank you with all my heart and soul for what you have done," Dove wrote to Phillips in 1946, just before Dove's death. And as this wonderful show reminds us, Phillips deserved every scrap of thanks he got.

Monday, Mar. 06, 2000
The Auction House Scandal
By ROBERT HUGHES;Daniel S. Levy and Aixa M. Pascual/New York

Maybe it was Oscar Wilde, the greatest Irishman since the blessed Brendan, who said it best: "One must have a heart of stone to read [Dickens' description of] the death of Little Nell without laughing." Much the same is true of the latest story to convulse the art world: the travails of the world's two biggest art-auction businesses, Sotheby's and Christie's, rivals that now stand accused by the U.S. Justice Department of colluding to rig the auction market by fixing their sales-commission rates. The art market, particularly in its auction form, has always been secretive, manipulative and repellently sanctimonious, preaching the "objectivity" of auction prices. Sotheby's and Christie's, dealers and collectors know, are all-powerful. "They are the auction market," says Howard Read of the New York City gallery Cheim & Read.

It had long been taken for granted that the art-auction business, like the art business generally, was immune to criminal investigation. Why? Because, you boring philistine, it was about noble and holy art. To stand on the podium and receive bids for a Rubens Crucifixion or a still life by Van Gogh, who died for our sins, was not like buying a vanload of AWOL television sets or a few vials of crack. But, of course, it is just another business. The auction market shifts more than $4 billion a year, and its two powerhouses, Sotheby's and Christie's, control 95% of that. For decades, rising to a climax just before the great art-market crash of 1989, Brits with pinstripe suits and faces like silver teapots have been flogging the benefits of art ownership to the rich on both shores of the Atlantic: art as investment, art as social elevation, art as confirmation of status, art as relic-hunting--the whole rigmarole that has actually done more to debase the real messages and values of art than anything else in our culture.

Sotheby's, with Christie's not far behind, has led the field in this enterprise of simoniac strip-mining. No excess, no necrophiliac vulgarity, was too great--the $54 million Van Gogh Irises that didn't really sell, the degraded spectacle of Americans hyped into bidding tens of thousands of dollars for gewgaws that once reposed in Jackie O.'s lavatory, the nitwits scrambling for sole and unimpeded possession of Marilyn Monroe's faded frillies. So for many, the idea that the mighty auction duumvirate should find itself humbled for any reason was almost too delicious to contemplate.

But that's what's on the table, in such plain view that Christie's last month ratted on Sotheby's by providing "information relevant" to the Justice Department, just weeks after Christie's chief executive, Christopher Davidge, abruptly resigned. Last week Davidge was followed by the two top officials of Sotheby's, A. Alfred Taubman, the chairman and largest individual stockholder who bought the firm in 1983 and took it public in 1988, and Diana ("Dede") Brooks, its chief executive. A replacement team was hastily assembled. Former Columbia University president Michael Sovern took Taubman's role as chairman, and William Ruprecht, managing director of Sotheby's North and South America, stepped in for Brooks.

The Christie's surrender of information bought it conditional amnesty, but Sotheby's, slower off the mark, will get none. "The idea of the program is to get the first guy to break," notes Albert A. Foer, president of the American Antitrust Institute in Washington. Although Christie's may be off the hook, "Sotheby's could be required to pay a penalty. Some people could go to jail."

The feds' investigation did not, in fact, begin with the auctioneers. In the early 1990s, the Justice Department turned its scrutiny on private dealers in an effort to nail the ones who indulged in "ring" bidding--the technique of defrauding sellers by agreeing not to bid against one another in the auction room so that the low-balled object could then be sold by the ring at a second, informal auction of dealers only. About a dozen dealers and collectors were convicted. But Justice decided that the paper trail compiled in those cases might lead further--to Sotheby's and Christie's. It subpoenaed truckloads of letters, documents, phone books and sales catalogs from both houses, and started to dig.

Auction houses charge two commissions on sales--one from the buyer, the other from the seller. It's perfectly legal to drop or raise your prices after a rival does; gas stations facing off across an intersection do it all the time. What's illegal is for two or more rivals to form a "cartel" by agreeing in advance to fix a price. One of the signs that this may be happening is a close, copycat pattern of changes--and this, the Justice Department claims, is what has been happening for years between Sotheby's and Christie's. In 1992 Sotheby's raised its buyer's fee from 10% to 15% on the first $50,000 (on higher amounts the buyer paid 10%). After just seven weeks, Christie's announced an identical fee rate. Three years later, Christie's took the lead by changing its seller's fee from 10% to a sliding scale of 2% to 20%. After a few weeks, Sotheby's did the same thing.

Whether the feds' charges stick or not, the auctioneers' legal headaches have only just begun. The case has invited civil suits by disgruntled collectors alleging that the commission-fixing has defrauded them as sellers and buyers. And indeed, some 38 suits have already been launched, and last week they were consolidated into a class action. Under class-action rules, theoretically anybody who bought or sold art at Sotheby's or Christie's during the period of the alleged conspiracy could become a party to a suit. This could run into thousands of people and tens of millions of dollars in claimed damages.

The damage to the auctioneers' reputation could be equally severe. Their woes fall at a time when they seemed to be growing ever richer and more powerful. The art market had rebounded; sales were up. Both firms had invested in glossy and expensive new Manhattan headquarters. Sotheby's fortunes, particularly, were expansive, as it opened outlets in Amsterdam and Zurich and spent more than $40 million to make itself a presence on the Internet, including a partnership with Accordingly, Sotheby's has taken the greater fall. Its stock, which was at 47 last April, closed last Friday at 19.5, after sinking as low as 14.5 earlier in the week. And its tarnished image prompted rumors that it might be a takeover target for French financier Bernard Arnault, head of the luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. If Arnault acquired Sotheby's, it would afford him yet another confrontation with his archrival, French investor Francois Pinault, who has owned Christie's since 1998.

What longer-term effect the scandal may have on the auction industry is far from clear. Christie's has already announced a new fee structure, raising the amount buyers must pay to 17.5% on the first $80,000 and 10% above that but reducing the seller's commission for customers who buy a lot of art. The art world awaits Sotheby's response. "We will not be underbid by Christie's," new chairman Sovern told TIME, "and we are reviewing our fee schedules to make sure that we are as competitive as we need to be."

Dealers of course hope that clients will buy more through them and less at auction. Collectors, says gallery owner Howard Read, prefer "a relationship with someone they know and can trust." Stephen Wirtz of San Francisco's Stephen Wirtz Gallery thinks the harm will be done by a free-floating unease. "Whenever there is some kind of seemingly blatant dishonesty, people will probably want to sell less at auction," he says.

But the houses are not without their defenders, like West Coast private dealer Aaron Shraybman, who says he is "saddened" by the affair and points out that "it's not like they tried to do something and cover it up. I don't think the Justice Department understands the breadth and scope of what the business is. They are just taking the law to its hardest form." Either way, the year 2000 opens a rocky time for art auctioneers, and it bids fair to let air out of, as well as into, their trade.

--With reporting by Daniel S. Levy and Aixa M. Pascual/New York

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Monday, Mar. 13, 2000
The Two Faces Of Dali

The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali--such was the title given to the 1997 book by Dali's most formidable biographer, Ian Gibson. It's a perfect title, because it drives home two nails at once. First, lovers of modernism have long regarded Dali (1904-1989), the obsessive and boasting narcissist from Catalonia, as a sort of mock-deranged but authentically disgraceful relative. Few could doubt the power and originality of his early work--up to, say, the Spanish Civil War. Equally, few would give the least credence to the recycling of old themes that he did, mainly for the American market, in the 1940s and '50s, or to the weird, pompous, huge and minutely detailed reflections on Baroque art, Spanish Catholicism and nuclear physics that filled his time later.

Second, Dali was disgraceful because he was so confessional--and so untrustworthy. Perhaps no artist in history has told his viewers more about his secret life; certainly none invented more about it. It still seems pretty weird, that inventory of impotence and aggression, of bizarre terrors and fetishes. But in the '20s and '30s it was beyond mere weirdness. Dali must have enjoyed the worst relations with his father of anyone else since little Oedipus. In 1930 his parent wrote a frantic letter to Dali's friend, film director Luis Bunuel, begging him to prevent the artist's coming anywhere near him: "My son has no right to embitter my life," and his mother's health "will be destroyed if my son sullies it with his foul conduct." And his mother? At one point Dali exhibited an image of the Sacred Heart across which he had written SOMETIMES I SPIT ON THE PORTRAIT OF MY MOTHER.

But he was an incorrigible fabulist, and his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, is stuffed with lies, inventions and embroideries. Did he really, as he claimed, have to be restrained from throwing himself out of a window on seeing a locust in the room? Did he actually sit in the bar of the Ritz in Madrid and make cocktails out of his own blood? Did he truly associate animal glue, death and dung with sex? And how to square the youthful Dali--whom his fellow students at the Madrid Academy remembered as "bashful," "morbidly shy" and "literally sick with timidity"--with the self-corrupted publicity stunter, who would do almost anything for a headline?

Both Dalis--the disruptive youthful genius and the pretentious, whorish old fanatic--are on full view at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., in a show of some 70 works titled "Dali's Optical Illusions." Its organizer, Dawn Ades, is one of the most distinguished historians of surrealism, the movement to which Dali's work was central. She has done an excellent job of showing and analyzing the ways in which illusion, the act of making marks that get read as "real," acts in his painting. No illusion, no Dali. This isn't true of other surrealists, or painters who went through a surrealist phase, like Joan Miro. But Dali's effort to make dreams concrete, to lead the viewer into a state of radical doubt about the supposedly fixed nature of reality, is the entire key to his art. And without the most obsessive and paralyzing exactness of detail, it couldn't have worked. Either you believe that the soft watches are real and that the skull on the beach is--to cite one of his titles--sodomizing a grand piano, or you don't.

Since a great deal of the effort of modernist painting was devoted to expelling illusion as a fraud, a lie and a cheat on the deeper impulses of art, one can easily see why Dali's illusionism was so bitterly attacked as mere trickery--an imposture made even worse by Dali's flagrant preference for Raphael and even the arch-academic Meissonier over Matisse or Mondrian, and by his impertinent way of calling true-believer modernists les cocus du vieil art moderne, the cuckolds of old modern art. Dali flew into such flak right from the beginning of his career: in 1929 the avant-gardist critic Efstratios Teriade complained that Dali's talent was "the precise opposite of those qualities which make a painter." But without the power granted by illusion to overturn our sense of the world's plain factuality, his contribution to 20th century culture would have been slight.

It is wrong to suppose that the curiosity about the irrational that pervaded European culture in the '20s was an offshoot of surrealism; this puts the cart before the horse. The French film director Jean Epstein put the matter succinctly when he wrote of how "a host of techniques, from psychoanalysis to micro-physics, has begun to describe a world where...reason no longer always seems right." Cinema "encourages us to think in a dreamlike way...[it] slowly but surely filters the most basic of doubts throughout society: that of questioning the value of absolutes." Dali collaborated with Bunuel on two of the underground classics of 20th century film, Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) and L'Age d'Or (The Golden Age); he was closer to cinema than any other painter of his day, partly because he was obsessed by the power of cinema to make dreams immediate.

When he achieved this in static pictorial terms, the results could be marvellous. The iconic example--The Persistence of Memory, 1929, with its everlastingly famous soft watches--is not in this show, but another and equally beautiful small picture is: Paranoiac-Astral Image, 1934. On a vast and otherwise empty plane of beach flat as a billiard table, four images are dispersed. A fragment of an amphora suggests "deep" time, the Greco-Roman past of the Catalan coast. A distant woman, perhaps the constantly remembered nurse of Dali's childhood, is almost bleached out by the sunlight. In a stranded boat, another woman, probably his muse and wife Gala, confronts a boy in a sailor suit who can be none other than Dali himself. And on the left, the hated figure of Dali's father strides along in a three-piece suit, casting a long shadow.

This show cannot be seen as a Dali retrospective, though it represents all phases of his career. In pursuit of all aspects of his illusionism, it contains a great deal of decidedly inferior work from his later years. However ingenious his pictorial puns, tropes and double meanings may be, they do not necessarily amount to much as painting. Nevertheless the show has some amazing pictures in it, and it contains what is certainly Dali's greatest and most frightening work: the Soft Construction with Boiled Beans--Premonition of Civil War, 1936.

With this single painting, Dali moved into the territory of Goya. This monstrous Titan in the act of tearing itself to pieces is the most powerful image of a country's anguish and dismemberment to issue from Spain (or anywhere else) since Goya's Desastres and Disparates. And every inch of it, from the sinister greenish clouds and electric-blue sky to the gnarled bone and putrescent flesh of the monster, is exquisitely painted. This, not Picasso's Guernica, is modern art's strongest testimony on the Spanish Civil War and on war in general. Not even the failures of Dali's later work can blur that fact.

Monday, Jun. 05, 2000
Art: The Stuff Modernism Overthrew

The sprawling show that opened this month at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, "1900: Art at the Crossroads," is sure to be a hit with the public. It was a smash in London. Organized by art historian Robert Rosenblum and consisting of 240 paintings and sculptures, it takes an ecumenical and almost judgment-free view of its task, which is to show what kinds of art were being made at the last turn of the century, when the idea of modernism in culture was just forming, and when some of the most admired artists bore names you'd hardly recognize today--not Cezanne, Mondrian, Picasso, but Boldini, Carolus-Duran, Zorn, Sorolla, Vrubel, Toorop and Pellizza da Volpedo.

It is an unsettling show for those of programmatic mind, just because it is so inclusive. It shows us the stuff that modernism overthrew, along with plenty of samples of modernism itself. It is, for this reason, fascinating. It is also unmethodical, a show with no ideology of taste. It will therefore be hated by all those who believe in the founding mission of the Guggenheim: to establish modernism, and in particular abstract art, as the ultimate and spiritually obligatory art of the 20th century, to render monumental the gap between past and present.

In the year 1900, the apparent history of art did not have the profile it possesses today. Different artists were considered important; different painters and sculptors exerted an influence on what was then the present. In some respects the art world was more tolerant, because the notion of an avant-garde was not yet all-encompassing. The ideal of high craft, of sheer manifest skill as a criterion of aesthetic success, had not yet been consigned to the trash can, and artists placed a value on drawing--however mistakenly they might sometimes have interpreted it--that was still very much alive.

The education of an artist was entirely different from what it is today. Indeed, it is unlikely that the students and teachers of 1900 would have recognized the woozy therapeutics and the rhetoric of personal expression that prevail in most art schools 100 years later (especially in America) as being education at all. Most of the art schools of a century ago produced bad art, but it was of a different kind from our bad art, with different expectations.

For these and other reasons, the Guggenheim show entails dramatic reversals of fortune. Certain artists had to be included for what they did long after 1900--not for what they were at the time. Picasso, for instance: Would he be remembered if he'd died at age 19, known only for his moderately promising pastiches of older artists? Unlikely. But the idea of Picasso's being unknown or not much good seems such a contradiction in terms that we have real difficulty imagining it.

On the other hand, consider an older Spaniard like Ignacio Zuloaga, long regarded as the discreditable essence of flashy, virtuoso academism. The picture he has in the show--a portrait of a sulky-looking, middle-aged dwarf holding a mirrored sphere the size of a soccer ball, in homage to that god of all Spanish realists, Velazquez--is a masterpiece of unsparing scrutiny and direct painting, and it brings you up with a jerk.

It's not surprising, 1900 being 1900, to see everywhere the imprint of the decorative style we call Art Nouveau, co-existing with the stern realism of Madrid, Munich and Thomas Eakins' Philadelphia. Its sources in great figures like Gauguin are not skimped; it's there in Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt and in a host of lesser figures across the world, including Australia--Sydney Long's Pan, 1898, with its fauns and sweetly sexless hippies cavorting discreetly by the evening billabong, takes great formal advantage of the serpentine shapes of native gum trees.

Was the division between retrograde, despised "academism" and noble, inventive "modernism" always as sharp as has been said? Were the black hats so black, and the white ones so white? Of course not. In fact there are moments when you can hardly tell them apart. A case in point is Optician, 1902. It's a shop sign stuffed with puns: a monocled terrier, with a pair of pince-nez above him and, below, the French word opticien, broken up to read O PTI CIEN--which, read aloud, translates as either "o little dog" or "at the sign of the little dog." This is exactly the sort of feeble punning that Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia went in for--a staple of Dada and Surrealism. But its author was the antimodernist par excellence Jean-Leon Gerome, sworn enemy of Manet, Monet and everyone since. Which perhaps only shows that academics can be just as funny as Dadaists.

Some paintings in the show are unutterable camp, but that was what the upper-middle classes liked in the Belle Epoque, and artists saw no reason to deprive them of it. Particularly strong was the appetite for historical works in which stern Antiquity framed the goddess Pornography. By far the hottest example of the genre here is a fabulous piece of kitsch by Paul Jamin, Brennus and his Loot, 1893, showing a barbarian Gallic chieftain gloating over his spoils from the sack of Rome. They include five naked, rosy-nippled girls, writhing on the floor in postures of submission and despair; all-conquering Brennus surveys them with the Bertie Wooster grin of a boulevardier entering a whorehouse. This is archaeology with zip.

The fin de siecle was also a great time for painters whose displaced religious yearnings and hunger for allegory induced them to do mock altarpieces, usually triptychs, whose format signaled the presence of a Big Statement. The most ludicrous of these is by the Belgian artist Leon Frederic, whom the spirit moved to paint, in the 1890s, an enormous three-parter called The Stream, an allegory of the Life-Force (Henri Bergson was a hot philosopher circa 1900) in the form of thousands, thousands, of pink, roly-poly babies cascading down Alpine waterfalls and through a forest glade. This condommaker's nightmare took 10 years to paint (no wonder, with all that dimpled piglet flesh) and was regarded not only as Frederic's masterpiece but also as an utterance of deep, deep depth.

The further lesson of this show is a fairly depressing one--or could be if you cling to a reflexive belief in the Latest Thing, abetted by the shaky fantasy that there's such a thing as progress in art. Looking back on 1900 from the year 2000, we see a lot of images and objects whose authors were long ago banished from right-thinking, modernist art history--corpses strewn behind the merciless juggernaut of avant-garde "progress." Some of these are stirring, and quite a few are weirdly interesting. Many can be experienced only as camp, raised by the artists' obsessions to a level of superheated conviction. But many more are just God-awful, period. They are turkeys, duds, complete stiffs.

Yet critics (not necessarily venal ones, either) and patrons (no more stupid than the ones we have today) lined up, jostling to kiss the artists' nether parts. The artists were laden with gold medals, garlands and titles of honor. They were seen as tradition incarnate, worthy successors to Rubens, Donatello and Titian. Powerful systems of taste enforcement--ministries of fine arts, academies, salons--underwrote the promise of their immortality.

And then, within a few short decades, these titans proved wholly ephemeral. Their achievement was wiped out by a couple of dozen scrags with names like Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Malevich, Beckmann, Rauschenberg, mouthing their bizarre and (at first) peculiar and unpopular visual dialects. Over their bones rose a new edifice of taste enforcement, even more coercive than the old--the transnational bureaucracy of late modernism, staffed by as pompous a set of dullards as ever infested the shorter corridors of cultural power in 1900, all bombing on about their radical credentials. "The accursed power based on privilege," as Hilaire Belloc wrote:

Which goes with women, and champagne, and bridge, Broke!--and Democracy resumed her reign, Which goes with bridge, and women, and champagne.

It's not as though Miro or Matisse is about to vanish into the oubliette--that isn't in the cards. The 20th century has seen great artists whose work and names, as the eulogists say, will live forever. But the Guggenheim's show makes you think of the impending fate of our present. It is a lead-pipe cinch that the year 2100 will see the absurdities of our taste, both private and official, and wonder how we could have been so comically wrong about such self-evident crap. A few score years from now, will Jeff Koons' porcelain confections be on view in the world's museums, or will they have become like garden gnomes, sociological testimony to the degenerate taste of collectors in the late 20th century? Will people still gawp at those stinking fragments, awash in their tank of formaldehyde, the relics of Damien Hirst's much-hyped dead shark?

In the end, the value of the "1900" show is bound to bring up such questions--although one cannot be sure that curator Robert Rosenblum was eager to raise them. Most of the fashionable art of our fin-de-siecle is just as lousy as the worst stuff here, and done at a far lower level of skill. Memento mori, and send not to know for whom the bell tolls: cracked though it is, it tolls for us.

Monday, Jul. 10, 2000
Art: Kissing a Grimy Princess

If ever there was a museum age in Europe and America, it happened in the last half of the 20th century as city after city, nation after nation, set out in pursuit of glory through the accumulation and display of works of art--their own and other people's. One might almost compare it to the sustained religious outpouring, construction as crusading, that covered medieval Europe with its "white mantle" of churches so many centuries ago.

In May a building opened to the London public that may be said to have written a dramatic coda to this narrative of building. It is one of the largest museums ever dedicated to 20th century art, possibly the best in terms of planning and general "feel."

It is not a glass Parthenon, like Mies van der Rohe's National Gallery in Berlin, or an elaborately "timeless" spatial event, like Louis Kahn's Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. It is not an operatic signature building, like Frank Gehry's titanium-sheathed meganautilus in Bilbao, Spain. Still less is it a feat of conspicuously externalized luxury, like Richard Meier's Getty Center, poised in marble aloofness above Los Angeles.

It takes advantage of a site that no one seems to have noticed before: the end of a great imagined axis across the Thames, with Wren's dome of St. Paul's at the opposite end. It is not an effort of heroic originality. It doesn't strut or blow or, like I.M. Pei's Louvre entrance, invoke the Pyramids of Egypt. It is not a rerun of noble history but an adaptation, a conversion job, of something very large but day-to-day.

Welcome to Tate Modern, once a power station built above the bomb wreckage of the blitz by a half-forgotten architect named Giles Gilbert Scott, now rebuilt by the Swiss-based firm of Herzog & De Meuron as London's first museum of modern art.

No proper-thinking modernist architect in the mid-1950s would have given London's Bankside Power Station much chance of making it into the canon of modern architecture. An enormous, darkly lowering hulk of brick, it dominated the south bank of the Thames like a factory, which in fact it was. But more valuable buildings have been lost to economic boom and proactive aesthetics than were ever ruined by decay and indifference. Nobody tore down the Bankside Power Station because none could agree on a use for its site. It just lay there, an unloved, comatose and grimy princess, waiting for someone to kiss it.

Fortunately for it, and for all central London, that person was the director of the Tate Gallery, Sir Nicholas Serota.

The Tate had long had its own problems. It was overstuffed: not enough walls to show the art on, not enough basement to store the submerged nine-tenths of the iceberg in. It was also, to no small degree, schizophrenic: beyond comparison, the greatest historical collection of British art that ever has been or will be assembled, but encased in a jacket of international-modernist works, the two pushing and puffing for wall space in a great city that, unlike New York, Paris, Berlin or almost any other major Western city, still had no "dedicated" museum of modern art. This was a huge Gordian knot in British culture, and Serota--a low-key man of striking tenacity, intelligence and charm--put Alexander's sword to it.

To survive and grow, this collection had to be slashed apart. The history of British art would stay at the old Tate on Millbank. The modern art (European, American but British too) would go elsewhere. And elsewhere would be the unused Bankside Power Station, which proved to have a yawning 133,500 sq. ft. of potential exhibition space but no cultural associations at all. The building became the site for another building. What Herzog & De Meuron did so brilliantly was to respect the merits of Gilbert Scott's disparaged and ignored design, a mere hole in urban-not-muchness, while inserting into it the attributes and functions of a great museum. Their work, and Serota's, was an achievement of Pharaonic tact, and so there is nothing else quite like it among the world's museums.

There was, of course, plenty to respect, starting with the Turbine Hall--a towering nave 115 ft. high and 500 ft. long, an indoor street running the length of the building. This vast space keys the museum but, alas, raises expectations of grandeur that the art cannot always fulfill. It's the Guggenheim problem--the museum as heroic bagel, with the hole in the middle and the art on the rim--but perhaps, some day, sculptural installations will be found worthy of the space. This hasn't happened yet. Tate Modern has started by putting in three monster steel towers by Louise Bourgeois, which, unlike the best of this redoubtable artist's generally smaller work, look inflated and vacuous. One wouldn't want them to stay there, but one wouldn't try to guess what could convincingly replace them either. What's wrong with this picture? Perhaps the rhetorical claim it makes that 20th century sculpture is, was and can be as great, as demanding and deserving of space, as that of other times--ancient Egypt, say, or Baroque Rome. Which, much as we good little modernistas might like to pretend otherwise, is flatly untrue.

The clarity and fine scale of this conversion are great for great pieces (Matisse's collage The Snail, for instance, has never looked better on a wall), but they are merciless to lesser ones, and they throw a harsh light on the deficiencies of the Tate's European and American collections, as acquired in the days before Serota. Under previous directors the Tate was always slow and rather grudging in its recognitions. It could, for example, have acquired great collections of Cubism and German Expressionism; it failed to do so, through timidity, ghastly good taste and lapses into daffiness. Serota did not make this mistake, and the quality of Tate Modern's European and American art visibly picks up after the '70s. In turn, the spaces respond. The galleries devoted to the British painter Frank Auerbach and the sculptor Tony Cragg--as brilliant and impressive a figure, in his own medium, as America's Richard Serra--must be among the most beautiful rooms anywhere in Britain today.

Part of the building's invigorating effect (no one calls it a museum, by the way; it's a "gallery," a more demotic title) is the way it honors small works, or small groups of them, with grand spaces. Serota clearly doesn't believe in a big door for the owner, a small one for the cat and a tiny one for the mouse, and the architects agreed. "Nothing should be lower, and nothing should be higher in status," says Pierre de Meuron. Serota insists, "You can never really have too much space above your head." It may seem excessive to use a room with a near 20-ft. ceiling to show drawings, but the expanded breathing really works, as in the gallery containing the Tate's collection of boxes, sculpture and drawings by Joseph Beuys, beautifully lit by Scott's tall sacerdotal slot windows.

In some cases, such as Cornelia Parker's Cold, Dark Matter: An Exploded View, the room's size becomes truly integral to the piece. What Parker did was collect the fragments of an army hut that had been blown up as part of a demolition exercise and hang them from the ceiling on near invisible fish line. It's as though you were looking at an explosion in progress, a stop-frame, magical view of arrested violence that is, at the same time, a collage containing every kind of superimposition and overlay. It is a lavishly dramatic piece, and it wouldn't work nearly as well outside the huge, plain context of Tate Modern.

The place feels right. It isn't a French-style grand projet, called into being with state money, Louis XIV-style, to commemorate a monarch's or a president's sense of grandeur. That isn't what the British do. It was paid for, partly, by the proceeds from a national lottery, which fed $75 million into the relatively modest construction cost of $200 million. With that budget constraint, De Meuron and Herzog couldn't have bombarded you with luxury detailing even if they'd wanted to. Instead, they went for a pleasing austerity--no frills, but no pseudo-industrial kitsch either. This is destined to be a popular building, and it may lift its sometimes difficult contents into popularity as well.

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Monday, Jul. 31, 2000
Art: Silent Mysteries

The show of 99 works by the French artist Jean-Simeon Chardin, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, falls just 21 years after the last Chardin retrospective in America--which took place at the Cleveland Museum of Art and didn't reach Manhattan. Does the new show add much to our knowledge of Chardin? In a sense no, because not many fresh facts about him have surfaced in the past two decades. But in the sense that really matters, yes, and yes again. Any extended contact with Chardin is invigorating and marvelous.

The show's otherwise excellent catalog frets a bit. Why, it wonders, should there be another Chardin show so close on the heels of the first? Well, the answer is that in human life--if not in that of a museum or a reputation--20 years is a long time. A generation of art lovers (maybe two) has come into being since 1979. All those interested kids who don't know Chardin, who have never seen him at full stretch! And, it might have added, what about the rest of us, for whom 20 years is far too long between full exposures to this genius of bourgeois imagination?

No question, Chardin was one of the greatest artists who ever picked up a brush--and all the greater for painting without the attributes of greatness. Eighteenth century France was a fine incubator for pictorial grandeur, as in the history pieces of Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Its sexual rhetoric--think of Boucher's pink and frothy shepherdesses--was peerless. Since the reign of Louis XIV, whose minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert had striven to connect the visual arts to the very essence of French gloire, every kind of official discourse had flourished in French painting and sculpture, as it did in the arts of Italy. But unofficial life--the relatively ordinary pleasures and utterances of the bourgeois center, the common protein of French society--did not as yet have its painter laureate.

Chardin became that man. There was nothing extraordinary about his career except the beauty of the works it produced. His field of social vision was narrow. But by painting what he knew, neither more nor less, he became the standard-bearer of visual truth to a generation of French intellectuals, the Encyclopedists, led by the philosopher Denis Diderot. To them, Chardin's refusal of the highfalutin theme seemed exemplary. He showed that a jar of apricots on a table could be just as important and freighted with meaning as a battle scene in an epic of Alexander, the impregnation of a nymph by Apollo, or the reception into Heaven of a patron's patron saint. In time, Chardin's "natural vision" would be eclipsed by a new form of idealism, that of the neoclassicists, like David. But never for long. People may admire David, but they love Chardin. They cleave to his lack of pretension and see it as something fundamental to the art of painting--which it is.

Chardin didn't say much--at least, not much that he did say has been preserved, since he had no Boswell and the gossips who adored his work, like the Goncourt brothers, came from a later generation and never met him. But there is a tantalizing remark attributed to him by a writer of the 1780s, Charles-Nicolas Cochin: "I must forget everything I have seen and even forget the way such objects have been treated by others." This hints at the extreme pride and immense ambition that underwrote Chardin's apparently modest arrangements of brown jugs, water glasses, dead rabbits and fruit.

To paint things in a way that forgot how they'd been done before--you couldn't do that with a nymph or an angel. Nymphs and angels aren't real, and for that reason you needed to know the precedents in order to do them. But you had to know things even better to forget them, to forget their names, their styles of presentation. And only by this means, this un-naming, could the penetration of Nature--things as they really are, the silent mysteries beyond nomenclature--really begin. This was Chardin's enterprise, and in a certain sense--particularly in the domain of inanimate objects rather than the expressive human face--he can be said to be the first artist to take on its full weight.

Painters had done still life before. The tradition goes back to Greco-Roman antiquity. Still life cropped up in later painting but usually as an adjunct, a prop. From there it turned into a sort of allegorical fixture--the 17th century peach with its brown spots and wormholes, for instance, warning of the rottenness and transience at the heart of worldly pleasure.

But there is little allegorical content in Chardin's still life, and when (rarely) it occurs, one senses a throwback. What he is best at painting is things seen for their own sake, deriving their meaning from their being, not the other way around. The Ray, 1725-26, is perhaps his single most imitated work in modern times. Cezanne, Matisse and Soutine all did homage to it in copies. Anyone who has seen the verso, as it were, of a dead ray, or skate, the commonest of sights in a Paris fishmarket, knows that the underside of this fish bears a grisly resemblance to the human face. But that sort of double meaning, with its built-in pathos, would probably have struck the artist as a bit cheap. Diderot, despite his great admiration of Chardin, thought the ray disgusting--but there's nothing to suggest that Chardin was repelled by those glistening pearl-pink guts or the lunar luster on the ray's skin, let alone that (like some modern writers) he saw in the hanging ray an analogy to public execution or even the Crucifixion.

All the same, it is a dramatic picture--almost a narrative, thanks to the cat making its move on the oysters--and Chardin's finest moments lay much more in the domain of stillness, where nothing "happens" at all. We know practically nothing of Chardin's character or emotional predilections, yet we can't help sensing that no artist could have been better equipped to paint still life. (Actually, he's not unlike the cat in his own seafood paintings, fastidiously stalking, with bright-eyed attention, something that cannot move but can go stale.) Everything comes to matter under his level scrutiny. A pyramid of red strawberries becomes a blazing Etna. The surface of a plum turns into a small adventure in discrimination as he gives you the white powder on the purply-black skin and the sharper white highlights reflecting from its gloss, and challenges you to follow the means by which he conveyed both.

He was a good painter of adults, pensive servants especially--who never, it should be noted, become illustrations for a lecture on class--but his children are marvels. A young boy, the son of one of Chardin's collectors, soberly kitted out in black tricorn hat and mole-colored coat, is attentively building a house of cards--that emblem of fragility that nonetheless does not fall. Another lad, not 10 years old, watches with the most exquisitely rendered absorption the fate of a spinning top on a writing table; it leans under the pull of gravity but is still (only just) erect.

And then there's the girl with the shuttlecock, that magical little refugee from a Piero della Francesca, all inwardness as she contemplates the sneak serve she is about to make. The painting's visual rhymes are delicious. Each feather of the shuttlecock, for instance, repeats some element of her appearance. White feathers repeat the white of her apron; a blue feather picks up the blue of her ribbon; a pink feather, the color of her cheek. It is as perfectly made as any sonnet. It makes you realize what rewards can flow from Chardin's desire to link the appearance of spontaneous feeling with the discreet display of its opposite, a technical perfection whose integrity rises from knowing its own limits. "All through his life," writes curator Pierre Rosenberg in the catalog, "Chardin battled to overcome his lack of natural talent." He is still an irrefutable proof that it isn't only virtuosos who change art history.

Friday, Sep. 01, 2000
The Real Australia
By Robert Hughes
TIME magazine
Posted Sept. 3, 2000 5:08 pm ET

The first thing to mistrust, should you be an American thinking of going to Australia for the first time, is your idea of the place and its people. Probably you think the 2000 Sydney Olympics is a vastly important event for all of us, a huge national rite that will "put us on the map" — the same map, presumably, on which the last Australian Olympics, in Melbourne in 1956, failed to inscribe us.

Actually, despite our traditional obsession with sports, despite the coercive drumming of pre-Olympics hype, some of us don't care that much about the Olympics. We think we matter for other reasons. We suspect we're on the map already, and that only American myopia would see us otherwise.

Ten-to-1, you think Australians are rather like Americans, and that we want to be more so. Dead wrong. No idealism attended the birth of Anglo-Australia. White colonization in America began as a religious venture; the Puritans thought they were, literally, creating God's country. Australia, by contrast, began as the continent of sin, the dump for English criminals. Australians, unlike Americans, have never felt they had a mission or a message for a fallen world. There is no doctrine of Australian exceptionalism. If this deprived us of the heights of American moral expectation, it spared us from the anguish of American disappointment. Not a bad trade-off.

Especially in Sydney, we still tend to embrace the disreputable. Organized religion doesn't play one-tenth the part in Australian life that it does in American; the churches have power, but compared with the U.S. our civilization is almost entirely secular. Our state-sponsored education is excellent, and we do not give a cent in subsidies to church schools. And we have fierce democratic commitments that hardly exist in America. It is, for example, a (lightly) punishable offense not to vote in a national election. As for campaign contributions, and all the corruption and perversion of democracy that the pursuit of them creates in the U.S., they don't exist in Australia; a whole national election costs less to stage than a California primary. You don't need to be rich or a plutocrat's pet to run for office here.

Better yet, we have no Fundamentalist Christian tradition, and the level of born-again tub thumping is mercifully low — though there are signs that as a result of American cultural influence, it is creeping up among the young. Any political candidate who declared that God was on his side would be laughed off the podium as an idiot or a wowser (prude, intrusive bluenose).

So although Australians have their doctrinal and moral disputes, they don't swing as fiercely between extremes of private indulgence and public penance as Americans do. The idea that the whole nation and its media could be convulsed and obsessed by a Prime Minister's hole-in-the-corner affair with a pudgy little Canberra intern is, to say the least, implausible. We are realists, not idealists.

The truth is that Australians tend to be natural pagans. Everything favors this: the delicious climate of the coasts, where most of us live; the dramatic and seductive landscapes of pounding surf and golden sand; the tanned bodies strutting; the food (some of the finest and most inventive in the world); and the wines, which are superb.

In such a setting, Australians — Sydneysiders in particular — have evolved a natural ethos as pleasure seekers in all areas of life. As the writer David Malouf points out, we don't even think of ourselves as hedonists, because that would be too self-conscious. Australian culture is for the most part deeply democratic, and joyously so as well. It is no longer "provincial," a distant and nervous response to norms generated in imperial centers. It is the result of a bloodless and slow-developing social revolution conducted over 40 years as a small society grew larger and immeasurably more complex, shook off its sense of derivative Englishness and its fear of American domination and learned to trust its own talents.

But a reasonable equipoise, a relaxed uprightness of cultural carriage, is only with us some of the time. Jingoism still disfigures the lowbrow end of our journalism. "One of the ways in which we have matured is that we don't give a stuff about what other people think," blustered one such "cultural" columnist, Susan Mitchell, in the Australian, a national daily, last month. "We no longer feel we have to explain ourselves to anyone but ourselves."

This dismal, Serbian-style solipsism was actually meant as self-praise. But on some levels it is, alas, true. One sees it, for instance, in the bristling posture of denial that the Australian government recently took against U.N. criticism of its flouting of the human rights of Aborigines. Australians still tend to be worried about what "outsiders" think, keep asking and then get furious if the answer is even fractionally less than flattering.

The answer from America is benign but not satisfactory. America's idea of Australia is mostly thin and vague. Americans fantasize in a desultory way about Australia but know much less about us than we do about them. Australia, we hear, is rather like Texas 50 or 100 years ago. The basic American idea of the basic Australian male is — who else? — whatsizname, him with the big knife, star of Crocodile Dundee. Aussies (wrongly pronounced Awzies; the correct pronunciation is Ozzies, though we'd rather you Yanks dropped the dumb pseudo-intimacy altogether and just called us Australians) are all supposed to be as straight as Harrison Ford or John Wayne, despite our superficially confusing habit of addressing a friend or a stranger of the same sex as "mate."

Here we supposedly have the last stand of the last Wild West, the place and ethos that were buried in America a century ago: a celluloid fiction, reinvented with kangaroos. Australia, largest of islands or smallest of continents, does something to compensate for that loss, or so you think. In the bush, men are men and women must be grateful. And don't Australians all feel the bush at their back, amplifying their memories, shaping their values?

Well, uh, no. Australians are among the most urbanized people on earth. They have seen their national animal, the kangaroo, only in a zoo or as roadkill on the Hume Highway. Nearly 90% of us live on the coast, not in the outback, wherever that elusive place may be defined as being. (The "bush" is outside the suburbs, the "outback" beyond the bush, and the "black stump" is the word for a very remote datum point, as in, "He lives way out there beyond the black stump.") Our country towns are in decline. Their inhabitants keep moving to the coast, away from the center. Because Australia has no fertile center — no Great Plains, no Mississippi — there is no place for them in that immense, empty outback.

So the "typical Australian" is not, as foreigners once thought, a bushman. He is a slightly worried guy with a tan, a bald spot, a mortgage, a mower and two kids, whose Australian dream is a double-front brick bungalow on a quarter-acre lot in the suburbs less than 30 minutes' drive from the nearest beach, with two other nice, two-kid, one-PC families on either side of him.

And yet there are Australian traits that do, indisputably, come down to modern Australia from the vanished days of the bush, and even from the convict era. They are wound tightly into our social history. One of these is the value set on "mateship"; another, related to it, is a much paraded dislike of �litism. Mateship — essentially, male bonding — began in the harsh world of the penal settlement. It continued in the hardly less tough environment of labor that was the lot of most men in the bush: shearers, station hands, shepherds. To have a mate was to survive; to betray that mate was to be a scab, less than a man; such was the hard calculus of colonial life, and its traces are very much alive in Australia today.

Less admirable than this loyalty is the Australian fetish of anti-�litism. If you want to nuke an enemy, call him an �litist, especially if he is an intellectual. The word is empty, since no society, including Australia's, has ever been able to function without �lites of skill, intelligence and ordinary competence. Yet Australians can rarely bring themselves to say they value human superiority. It sounds undemocratic.

The one field of exception to this unseemly prejudice is sport, the real religion of Down Under. The idea of non-�litist sport is, of course, an absurdity. No Australian would waste time watching a football match in which nobody was better than anyone else, or a horse race in which every nag plunked along at exactly the same speed. And (of course) Australians find no contradiction in that. Ours is the meritocracy that dare not speak its name. Some australians will tell you they have a classless society. This is the merest fantasy. Never since human societies began has there been a classless one. We began with the most ironbound of all class distinctions, between prisoners and the free. The freeborn (the "sterling") were bitterly opposed to giving up their social placement above the ex-convicts and their children (the "currency"). But the "lower orders" — that is, most 19th century Australians — fiercely resented the pretensions of the nobs and were well aware that in a pioneer environment Lady Luck was a more powerful queen than Victoria Regina. This was rammed home after the discovery of gold in Ballarat in 1851, just after the California gold rush. "All the aristocratic feelings and associations of (England)," wrote John Sherer, an observer of the gold rush in 1853, "are at once annihilated ... It is not what you were, but what you are, that is the criterion."

Today's Australians may be more sophisticated than last century's digger with his pockets full of gold dust, but at root the dotcom millionaires of the late 1990s are not so very different from their mining ancestors. The metaphor of all wealth production is gambling — and Australians are among the most shamefully obsessed gamblers in the world. We have 20 times as many "pokies" — poker machines — per person as Americans. Our styles of wealth production enforce the belief that superiority is luck and only luck: no moral lessons apply. The Puritan impulse toward social responsibility that created the American system of educational, cultural and scientific philanthropy hardly exists in Australia.

And we are poor at symbolizing ourselves. Many of us would like to snip the Union Jack off our flag, but no one can agree on a new design. Our official Olympic mascots and emblems are kitsch, climaxing last month in the Great Medal Screwup: it turned out that all the Olympic medals, the bronze and the silver as well as the gold, had been designed to feature not the Parthenon in Athens, not even the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, but the Colosseum in Rome, less noted for Olympic-style friendship than for gladiatorial butchery. What the hell, the officials of the Sydney Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games apparently reasoned; it's still the ancient world, right? Then it befell some luckless S.O.C.O.G. flack to claim it wasn't meant to be the Colosseum, just a Colosseum. Nice try, kid. It was too late to make new medals.

Apart from the kangaroo, the koala and other enchanting marsupials, Australia seems short of identity icons. There is, of course, Ayers Rock, the most sublime stone on earth. There is also the incomparable Great Barrier Reef, a single coral organism some 1,250 miles long. We have two famous structures, both in Sydney: the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, the latter a masterpiece by the Danish architect Jorn Utzon. Perched on one of the world's most beautiful sites for a ceremonial building, a headland in Sydney Harbor, and surrounded on three sides by sapphire water, this great building was never seen in completion by its architect. He resigned under stress and never came back to Sydney, so that the promise of those lovely tiled arcs and shells is not fulfilled by the interior, awkwardly finished by a local designer.

Where it counts — which is more in production than interpretation — Australia has a vigorous cultural life, sometimes enthrallingly so. The list of first-rank Australian novelists, headed up by Murray Bail, Peter Carey and David Malouf — writers of exceptional power and social insight — is a considerable one. London has a brilliant biographer and diagnostician of past culture in Peter Conrad, an erudite and dark-minded expatriate from Tasmania.

Books, of course, circulate everywhere, whereas paintings and buildings do not. Consequently major architects like Glenn Murcutt and Philip Cox are little known outside Australia. This is a pity, and even worse is the general ignorance of Australian contemporary painting. At a time when serious pictorial talent is so thin on the ground in the U.S., it seems bizarre that artists as excellent as John Olsen, Colin Lanceley, Tim Storrier and Mike Parr aren't the world figures they deserve to be. The only Australian art that attracts much overseas attention is contemporary Aboriginal art, which varies enormously in quality.

The clarity of Australian cultural achievement is often muddied by our most irksome cultural shortcoming: a peevishly insecure hatred of "tall poppies," people distinguished by their achievements in any area except, of course, sport. Australia has never honored its artists, intellectuals, writers and musicians as fully as its sports figures; there is always an undertow of resentment, of the lowbrows' residual suspicion that the highbrow is conning them. Everyone bitches about this, nobody does anything about it; it is hardwired into us, a proof of "toughness."

Underknown culturally, Australia is also politically obscure. Why? Because we're so well behaved. We are not the mouse that roared. Historically, we have rarely even contemplated roaring. As former Prime Minister Paul Keating has pointed out, Australia has always been short of the defining value systems that are gained through conflict. We have never had a civil war or a revolution. We have never been invaded — though we nearly were during World War II, by the Japanese. We are piteously short of good political scandals and low on graft. Nobody has ever called us a Great Satan or even a little one. We tend to like Americans more than most nations do, although we do not have the least desire to be like them.

We are absolutely not a threat to anyone. But this does us no good in the media. It is why you do not read about Australia in U.S. newspapers. Practically nothing in Australia is considered worth reporting. In all the 30 years I have lived in New York City, I doubt that I have seen as many front-page stories about my country in the New York Times as you'd get about Israel in a month. Why would you want to know about us? We don't rock your boat or export much you're interested in, except for our admirable wines, a steady supply of sports figures and a few actors like Mel Gibson, Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman.

Historically Australia felt little resentment about its colonial control by Britain and its sovereign. Its population was heavy with Irishmen and Irishwomen, but the resentments their ancestors had brought with them soon mellowed into ineffectuality in the antipodean sun, not much more than folk costume, once the chains of convictry were abolished. As a colony, we were content peaceably to fulfill our natural destiny, which was to supply Britain with cheap wheat and wool and (when required) with cannon fodder for wars against the Boer or the Hun.

In these, we had little or no perceptible stake of our own. Britain, with grim enthusiasm, condemned us to assist in the creation of dead colonial heroes. In World War I, Australia lost 59,258 young men out of a total of 330,000 sent abroad. Both as a proportion of troops killed or missing and as a proportion of national population, this was the highest figure for any Allied state. It left us in the 1920s as a psychically devastated nation of widows, spinsters and orphans. This enormous death toll was rationalized as a cleansing, an erasure of the inherited stain of convictry. Winston Churchill, who sent our grandfathers to die on the implacable slopes of Gallipoli, was by no means the only Englishman to think they came from "tainted" stock.

Australia still had a largely colonial mentality when I was born, in 1938. Only vestiges of it survive today. The most important of these relics is, of course, its monarchy. It is a bizarre fact that no Australian can be the head of state of Australia. That role is reserved for the King or Queen of England, by definition a foreigner, and not even an elected foreigner: the office of the Australian head of state remains purely hereditary, open only to a small clan of Anglo-German squillionaires known as the Windsor family. This appreciably narrows the field of talent.

According to the Australian constitution — a document written for us by the English at the turn of the century — it is ultimately the English monarch who rules Australia through an unelected viceroy, the Governor-General. This official may be Australian or may not. He may, on behalf of the Queen, cancel any law enacted by the Australian government or even throw out the government itself and call for new elections. Or he may not. In practice he almost never does. The last and only time he did was in 1975, when the G-G, Sir John Kerr, fired the Labor government led by Gough Whitlam. This caused shock and resentment. Millions of Australians felt that Whitlam, their hero, the great reformer of government policy in the domains of race, immigration, foreign policy and the arts, had been stolen from them. There are still plenty of people around who regard this as not far from a coup d'�tat.

The firing of Whitlam made many Australians sit up with a jerk. It had never occurred to them before that the Queen had the raw constitutional power to do such a thing. It cranked up the long-dormant impulse toward republicanism. Until the 1970s this had been an issue only for intellectuals and a few left-wing workers whose vehemence earned them an undeserved reputation as ratbags (obsessed eccentrics). The problem was democratizing the republican issue while detaching it from the ownership of the Australian left. And it did slowly broaden, though its main political instrument, the Australian Republican Movement (a.r.m.), didn't come into existence until the 1980s.

The growth of republican feeling in Australia coincided with, and was strongly encouraged by, the prime ministership (1991-96) of Paul Keating, a brilliant and abrasive Laborite much feared for his insults ("pansies" and "unrepresentative swill" were among the milder epithets he launched at his foes in parliamentary debate) and greatly misunderstood for his tastes: given his passions for antique French clocks and Georgian furniture, Keating was the most cultivated Australian ever to serve as Prime Minister. The movement's chief unelected backer was a formidable young merchant banker named Malcolm Turnbull. (Full disclosure obliges me to say that Turnbull is married to my niece Lucy, herself the deputy lord mayor of Sydney.) Despite Keating's defeat in the 1996 elections, Turnbull and his fellow republicans were able to bring the republic issue to a nationwide vote in 1999.

The result was a triumph of electoral timidity, worsened by fake populism. By a queer flip-flop of logic, a majority of Australian voters (55% to 45%) decided that to have an Australian President appointed by a democratically elected government was �litist and unsafe, whereas to have an immensely rich hereditary monarch as their head of state was somehow democratic and good. To understand how this weird inversion could occur, one must be aware that Australians are even more skeptical about the character of their "pollies" than Americans are, though they have little reason to be: the level of serious political graft in Australia is extremely low.

In the end the monarchists won the referendum, not because Australians were devoted to the Queen and her successors, but because feuding republicans couldn't agree on which model of republic to uphold. Should the new-style head of state, an Australian President, be appointed by parliament? Or elected in a national campaign, in the American manner? The a.r.m. wanted the former, but Australians hated the idea of an American-style republic — or American-style anything — in their public life. This split the republican vote, to the boundless relief of the monarchists, who could never have carried the issue on their own. (Pollsters thought that about 70% of Australians were for a republic of some kind.)

Soon after the referendum, Elizabeth II and her cold fish of a consort, Prince Phillip, toured Australia. The crowds were small and more curious than enthusiastic; the media, polite but indifferent. The romantic, near mystical Queen worship that had surrounded her tour in 1954 was gone forever. Being smarter than the monarchists themselves, Elizabeth II could easily read the signs. She openly acknowledged (and was scrupulously careful not to attack) the possibility of a stable republic in Australia. The current Prime Minister, John Howard, is an obdurate monarchist. But the next in line as head of Howard's conservative Liberal Party, Peter Costello, is a republican. The Australian Labor Party is republican through and through. It is only a matter of time before the less reactionary and nostalgic Liberal politicians can come out of the closet, and then Australian monarchy will be finished.

It is hard to say why, apart from habit, there should be any nostalgia for royal forms among Australians, especially when we are so fond of our national anti-�litism. But people, including Australians, want figures to admire. "If we don't have the Queen, who can we look up to?" was one of the most frequent complaints at referendum time. The thought that in a democracy you don't look up to your superiors, but sideways at your fellow citizens, wasn't much aired in monarchist circles. And Australia has always been short not only of convincing shared ceremonies of national identity but also of shared folk heroes. You can count them on less than two hands. Two are alive — the great cricketer Donald Bradman, now 91, and the swimming champion Dawn Fraser. The veterans of Gallipoli, a few of whom still live, are invested with a collective heroism. The rest are dead: they include a racehorse, Phar Lap, and a criminal, the bushranger, Irish nationalist and proto-republican Ned Kelly, hanged for theft and murder in Melbourne in 1880.

Another reason why some Australians still want to keep the monarchy is unease about mixture. The Queen evokes the loyalty and gratitude of the "pure" Anglo-Australian because she personifies "pure" Britain. This worked fine a half-century ago, when more than 90% of Australians were still of British descent and could feel themselves to be, as Prime Minister Robert Menzies would later put it, "British to the bootheels." But today the picture of exclusionary Australia, the continent-size British island just below Asia, has almost faded away. The White Australia Policy, that disgraceful provision whereby no one of Asian or black descent could settle in Australia, was abandoned in the 1960s, never to be revived. Whole suburbs, like Cabramatta in western Sydney, have become Southeast Asian enclaves. Though Australia admits only some 85,000 legal immigrants a year, a minuscule fraction of its population, the Asian component is very visible and it excites xenophobia. The role of the Queen as head of state has a calming effect, suggesting that the "old" Anglo-Australia is still notionally within reach.

Compared with their older selves, Australians — especially the younger ones — are a tolerant people. Few of the extreme emotions set off in the U.S. by the idea of multiculturalism have been awakened by its Australian version. We are, in fact, one of the world's most successful multicultural democracies, and this is an ethical triumph of no small consequence. Australians on the whole realize that multiculturalism, that forbiddingly bureaucratic polysyllable, responsible for so much hot air, really means learning to read other people's image banks, not a forced renunciation of one's own. They realize, quite naturally and instinctively, that the desire to "give people a fair go," which is one of the traditional moral imperatives of Australian life, also applies to immigrants, including those of a different color.

This does not, however, mean that Australia's road to multi-culti has been stoneless. Translated into government policy, multi-culti in the 1980s became, its critics say, not just a neutral recognition of diversity but a pork barrel for buying the temporary loyalties of ethnic groups.

Maybe, but it doesn't ultimately matter. Immigration has done its work. It has changed Australia irrevocably. Nobody old enough to remember the dullness of its old monocultural cuisine can regret that. The British Empire has gone. The British Commonwealth is no longer, to put it mildly, a decisive linkage between nations. The Australia Act of 1986 formally defined England as a foreign country. Australia's economic links to England, though not insignificant, are small and dwindling in comparison to its trading ties to the Near North, once known as the Far East. Britain is in the European Union, and will act in accordance with its interests there, giving no priority to Australia. Australians who feel they are British because they speak English are fooling themselves but no one else. You can no longer "be" Australian and, without conflict, "feel" British. The two countries are too far apart.

Once upon a time, back in the 1950s, the hot emblematic issue in Australia's politics, as in America's, was communism. We feared Stalin and subversion by the enemy within; the "red menace" was played on, crudely but efficiently, by conservative politicians. Today all that is gone. Australian politics has a new emblematic issue, a different moral center. It has nothing to do with ideology. It is race: the politics of identity, of Aboriginal rights, and the obligation to face a murky and cruel history.

About 2% of Australian citizens are black, roughly the same percentage of Aborigines as there are Jews in the U.S. This amounts to roughly 390,000 people out of 20 million, a tiny minority. Unlike American Jews, however, Australian blacks have very little power, economic, political or cultural. There are no rich Aborigines, no Aboriginal-owned newspapers, no Aboriginal ceos of Australian companies. Out of the 224 elected members of the Senate and House of Representatives, which form the Australian Parliament in Canberra, only one is Aboriginal, the brilliant and resolute young politician Aden Ridgeway. Aboriginal influence is exerted mainly through bureaucracy, committees and the courts; for political clout, Aborigines depend largely on the sympathy and support of whites.

The fact that they have any serious political power at all is remarkable, because Australian whites, in the course of waging an undeclared war of conquest against the Aborigines, systematically denied them any access to the culture of politics right from the moment of settlement in 1788. Aborigines weren't mentioned in the Australian constitution when it took force in 1901. Not until 1962 were they given federal voting rights. The historical weight of discrimination against them is crushing.

A lot of white Australians think of this minority as a bunch of thievish, ignorant welfare bludgers who are played upon by a handful of black demagogues. They oppose the idea of a national apology for past treatment of the Aborigines — a deserved and, in liberal opinion, an essential gesture of goodwill — by saying all this happened in their grandfathers' time, and the living bear no responsibilities for it. This is Prime Minister Howard's view too, although — significantly enough — he is quick to drape himself in the nobler emblems of Australian history with which his generation had nothing to do, such as the heroism of the soldiers at Gallipoli.

The aborigines are a very old people. their ancestors colonized Australia from the north, by sea, tens of thousands of years ago — nobody can say just how many. At the time of the first white contacts in the 18th century, there were perhaps half a million of them divided into hundreds of tribes, speaking mutually unintelligible languages, thinly scattered across the vast hot skin of Australia. They lived by hunting and gathering. These seminomads were, even by the lowest standards of Africa or the Americas, almost incredibly low tech. They had fire, sticks and stones, and little else. Yet their traditional oral culture is of great antiquity; their structure of myth is remarkably coherent and continuous across millenniums, not just centuries; and, as anyone can see who visits some of the sacred cave sites scattered across northwestern Australia, their traditions of rock-painting — animals and fish of every kind, spirit figures and the imposing, fearsome effigies of the great Rainbow Serpent — are as impressive as anything in the caves of Lascaux or Altamira and tens of thousands of years older. As far as we know, the Australian Aborigines stood at the very dawn of human imagemaking.

Through most of the 19th century the Aborigines were driven off their ancestral lands by settlers, and when they resisted, they were killed. Many more died of disease or social despair. Nobody knows how many, because no one bothered to count either the living or the dead; the whites were engaged in the more important task, as the history books used to say, of "nation building." By the end of the 19th century it was assumed that the natives would soon be extinct, and the whites' only task was "to smooth the dying pillow."

But having been in Australia for 40,000 years or more, in contrast to the whites' 200 or less, the Aborigines were not giving up. So the policy changed to assimilation. First, the Aborigines were deprived of their nomadic tribal life and concentrated in "mission stations," communities run mainly by Protestant evangelists, where they were taught the Gospels, shown white ways and prepared for low-level jobs as servants.

Around 1910, an even more shameful policy came in: the "stealing" of children from their natural, Aboriginal mothers. These kids, whose only crime was to be Aboriginal, were abducted by the white authorities to be assimilated, as orphans, into white society. The members of this "stolen generation" were not told their parents' names, and most would never see their mothers again. This odious experiment was not abandoned until 1970 and did not become general public knowledge until 1997, when a report on it, "Bringing Them Home," by Sir Ronald Wilson, caused national outrage.

The key to all Aboriginal rights is land. Land is identity; to own none is to be no one, deracinated, invisible. Land is also theology. In Aboriginal myth, the Australian earth — its valleys, hills and watercourses, together with everything that grew and lived on it — was shaped by ancestral beings during an ahistoric period called the Dreamtime. When these Ancestors withdrew from the earth, they left behind not only the humans they had created but also a body of sacred law, embedded in dances, songs and images, that described their worldmaking acts. These images showed how the spirits of the dead were continually absorbed into the land and recycled into the newborn living. Hence, to Aborigines, land is far more than real estate. In their struggle for rights, it is the key element.

But it has taken a very long time to drag the Australian courts and government into admitting that the Aborigines owned their land before white arrival; that the doctrine of terra nullius — "no man's land" — was legally invalid. This finally happened in 1992, when Eddie Mabo, a member of the Meriam clan on the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait off northern Australia, successfully argued before the high court that his people had been there before the whites and had never given up their ancient rights of ownership. This was the first "native title" victory in Australian law.

Its results have been explosive. Huge deposits of minerals, including, at Jabaluka in the Northern Territory, the richest known uranium deposits in the southern hemisphere, lie beneath the earth. No less than 15% of the total land area of Australia is owned or controlled by Aboriginal groups and councils. Some 700 land claims, covering 50% of the Australian landmass, await determination by the courts — and more are coming in every day. This avalanche has caused legal and bureaucratic gridlock. Few Aboriginal groups accept mediation by whites. No two groups agree on land use. Some, for instance, think that tribal land should not be exploited at all, and left sacrosanct. Others are for all-out mining.

And then there is the question of proving original ownership. Sometimes a group can show it has been on a given tract of land since records began. But this situation is rare. Often a claim is just that, a mere assertion unbacked by documents of any kind, made by Aborigines who live in an entirely different area. This infuriates some Australian graziers, especially those whose stations (ranches) are on land they do not own outright but hold in lease from the Crown. A native title claim on their land, even a weak one, can freeze their assets and put bank loans out of reach. Moreover, it is facile to fall in with the favorite assumption of white urban Australian liberals: that only Aborigines have an authentic spiritual connection to the land. Why cannot whites have one too?

The point is, however, that this and a hundred other issues between black and white in Australia can be worked out only in an atmosphere of reason, trust and reconciliation. The time of name calling should be over. But despite the dignity and moderation of Aboriginal leaders, and the goodwill of so many whites, it is manifestly not over. Finishing it off, at last, is work that will take us into the millennium. But it has to be done, or we are a much lesser nation for it.

Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2000
The Subtle Magic of Koetsu
By Robert Hughes

"Poem Card with Design of Moon and Pine Tree"

Hon'ami Koetsu, the Japanese artist, is scarcely known in the U.S., but in Japan he is a national treasure several times over — about as famous there as Benvenuto Cellini is in the West. This is because he was one of the supreme masters of calligraphy, an art that matters only to specialists on the American side of the Pacific but is wholly central to Japanese and Chinese aesthetics. It's understandable, therefore, that the present show of Koetsu's work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, though respectably attended, has not been packing in the crowds. This is a boon for those who go to see it. The fewer people looking over your shoulder when you're looking at one of Koetsu's exquisite moments in ink, the better. It wouldn't be as private as this in a Japanese museum.

There is an inverse relationship between the size of Koetsu's work and the scale of his cultural resonance. These tiny, fugitive-looking images, in which luminous fragments of nature�pines bowing before a wind, the undulation of a flock of cranes�were painted in colored inks on handmade paper by his collaborator Tawaraya Sotatsu and then written over by Koetsu, have acquired, for Japanese taste, the sort of cardinal importance that a fresco cycle or an altarpiece might have for ours. Koetsu's work, given the accumulated Japanese reactions to it, is perhaps the ultimate example of the power of the small, the exquisite, the almost marginal.

Koetsu died at 79 in 1637, laden with the esteem of patrons and connoisseurs. He was a devotee of beauty and had given over his life to art with the degree of throwaway fanaticism that entails a horror of self-importance. Koetsu was not a professional artist. He raised amateurism to an extreme level. The rougher and more summary his work, the greater its appeal to the cultivated. He has always been associated with the "Renaissance" of the city of Kyoto, then Japan's capital, after the ferociously destructive civil wars of the 16th century, when Japan was finally stabilized under three successive autocratic warlords. Rather as Italians thought their Renaissance was an upwelling of disciplined classicism — Rome reborn from the ashes of "barbarous" Gothic — so the Kyoto Renaissance strove to recall the spirit of the Japanese past, as far back as the Heian era (794-1185), especially in the domain of writing. It produced an intensely �litist, nobly disciplined and masculine culture whose emblems were the ink brush, the samurai sword and the tea bowl.

It is not certain how Koetsu managed to find a place within this society as one of its principal tastemakers — as, in a sense, its artistic director. The role wasn't a complete sinecure: the ruling warlord, Tokugawa Ieyasu, ordered the seppuku, or ritual suicide, of one of Koetsu's circle, the tea master Furuta Oribe, for some real or imagined disloyalty. But Koetsu ended his days in dignified security, as the quasi-religious head of a community at Takagamine, near Kyoto, part artists' colony and part monkish village.

Koetsu's sources reached back hundreds of years, and yet his way of writing "fat and thin" characters, some bold and emphatic and others trailing to the faintest visual whisper, was peculiarly his own (at least among Japanese calligraphers) and difficult to emulate. His ability to work with space through writing struck his admirers as a marvel. Ernest Fenollosa, the great Boston connoisseur of Japanese art who did the most to introduce Koetsu to a Western audience at the end of the 19th century, went into raptures about it: "Such a unique feeling for spacing, placing and spotting has never elsewhere been exhibited in the world's art. Koetsu's is as new a species in spacing as Shakespeare's is a new species in drama."

"Poem Card with Design of Water"

This was not solitary art. It rose from collaboration among Koetsu, the painter Sotatsu, a suitably skilled papermaker, and — not least — the dead hand of the poet whose waka, or classic verses, Koetsu was transcribing. Some of the most beautiful things in this show are the shikisi, or poem cards, in which the visual form of Koetsu's writing chimes wonderfully with the loops and eddies of Sotatsu's water, the spikes of his plant stems and the slow blur of his distant mountains. And Koetsu's calligraphies on sheets of paper pasted together, paper made in the subtlest imaginable tints and textures, a salmon pink abutting the most delicate smoky blue, display a sensibility that seems an etherealized version of Georges Braque's.

Koetsu made ceramics too. In fact, he is seen in Japan as one of the two greatest potters of the 17th century, the other being Nomomura Nisei. But Nisei was a professional, and he specialized in such tea utensils as caddies and incense jars. The amateur Koetsu sometimes worked with potters and sometimes commissioned pieces from them; his approval became a signature of authorship. His passion was tea bowls — the "active," intimately handled objects of a ceremony that, imported from China, had been turned by its first Japanese grandmaster, Sen No Rikyu, into a cultural rite linked to Zen Buddhism. The "way of tea" had become an essential part of the samurai-influenced code of upper Japanese behavior. It connoted roughness, naturalness and — at its origins, at least — lack of pretension. In it, aesthetics and morality were conjoined, under the sign of severe restraint.

Koetsu was the first Japanese to sign one of his own tea bowls — the famous "Fuji" bowl, now designated a national treasure by the Japanese and hence unable to be shown in the U.S. — but he never ran his own kiln. Like Rikyu before him, Koetsu worked with a family of potters whose name came to stand for a whole class of rough, low-fired pottery: raku ware. Unlike Rikyu, though, Koetsu got his hands dirty, shaping the clay, carving it with knife and spatula.

It is still a surprise, for people used to the immaculate technical refinement of S�vres or Wedgwood, to see the lack of finish of Koetsu tea bowls. Slumped, pitted, cratered, they seem to preserve the primal character of the earth from which they're made. They're so uneven that you'd think they'd wobble if set on a table. Instead of pattern or fine painting, their surfaces are all drips and cracks that, contemplated in the dim natural light of the teahouse, may suggest large natural events. One of the most beautiful bowls in this show, black glaze on a gritty brown ground, has an almost thunderous gravity that suits the name bestowed on it by earlier owners, Amagumo, or "Rain Clouds."

To the uninitiated, such objects may look like cowpats, but their roughness has always made them precious to the Japanese connoisseur. Koetsu once sold his house to raise the money — 30 gold coins — for a particularly famous old tea caddy he yearned to buy. Later he came to see the ownership of such exalted things as "a nuisance" and the antiquarian enthusiasms they aroused as irrelevant: better to make them for oneself.

Koetsu's name is also associated with lacquer, another of the chief Japanese arts. "Associated" because it is highly unlikely that he actually made the lacquer boxes himself; the technique was too demanding and took too long to acquire. Clearly he knew a lot about lacquer and was immersed in its possibilities — not a surprise, because he was well known as an expert on the classification of swords, whose scabbards and other fittings were always adorned with lacquer. Clearly too he liked innovations in technique that may seem small to us but, in the tradition-bound and slow-moving context of Japanese art and design, were quite significant. One was the near alchemical contrast of dull lead inlay and bright gold detail on black lacquer in works like the beautiful writing box named Ashibune, or "Reed Boat."

But in the end Koetsu is one of those artists who elude classifications, even those of his own time and place. He remains the consummate amateur, drawing his authority from the peculiar independence of his work. It's not surprising that there is no one else quite like him in the West, because there was no one else in Japan either.

Thursday, Oct. 26, 2000
The Phantom of Utopia
By Robert Hughes

From designs for Renaissance forts to a replica of the sexy robot from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," 1926. From baroque engravings of New World cannibals in grass huts to pictures of yuppies enjoying a stroll through Celebration, Disney's "ideal town" in Florida. From Nazi racial propaganda to unalluring photos of early kibbutzim in Israel. From Stalinist kitsch in the '30s to Haight-Ashbury peace-and-love kitsch in the '60s. This intriguing range of objects and images is contained in "Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World," the sprawling show that kicks off the 2000–01 exhibition season at the New York Public Library. It was jointly organized by the library and the mighty Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris — a rare enough collaboration in itself — and its catalog features essays by some 22 scholars, French and American.

Even so, there are some surprising omissions. The grid city of 19th-century Barcelona, designed from the ground up as an ideal townscape by the socialist engineer Ildefons Cerdà, is the biggest example of would-be Utopian town design that ever got built — but neither it nor its inventor rates a mention in the catalog.

This is a show about failure. Necessarily so: Its subject is the fallacies and delusions of human hope. Utopia has never existed. It is one of the enduring phantoms of the human mind, because it cannot be tested; every time someone tries it, it fails, and whenever it fails, there is always someone around to tell you the wrong reasons for it and propose another model, which in turn proves equally unworkable. This is as true of nutty little proposals by discontented geniuses — like the idea of communalist, rural "pantisocracy" put forward by Shelley, Coleridge and others in their youth — as it is of paranoid, pseudo-collectivist systems that take over whole societies and make huge contributions to the sum of human misery, like Stalinism. We flawed animals can be somewhat improved, spottily and with difficulty; but we cannot be perfected, which is what the Utopian project, in its various forms, is all about.

Utopia means conformity, a surrender of the individual will to the collective or the divine. "In la sua voluntate e nostra pace" (In His will is our peace), wrote Dante of the joys of heaven, where all choice is excluded by contemplation of the Divine: perfect obedience, perfect happiness, no worries. For God, substitute adepts, the People, the Charismatic Leader, or any one of a number of beguiling gurus, from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to Jim Jones with his refreshing drafts of Kool-Aid in distant, steamy Guyana. The Utopian state of mind indicates a yearning to be released from history, to shed the burdens of free will, failure, improvisation.

Basically, Utopia is for authoritarians and weaklings. But it was also loved by philosophers, when they were in a what-if frame of mind, dreaming up systems. Two of Plato's works, "The Republic" and "The Laws," have recognizably Utopian elements. One of the most charming items in this show is a Renaissance miniature from Florence by Zanobi di Strozzi, circa 1470, showing St. Augustine of Hippo dreaming up the City of God, taking dictation (so to speak) from an image of Florence itself, complete with Brunelleschi's great dome, which floats in the blue air before him.
On one side, all notions of Utopia touch heaven, or at least the primal Garden of Eden — that state of nature before mankind's fall, when all creatures coexisted in harmony and there was no sin in the world. The trouble with this is that Utopias are, or ought to be, whole societies, in which many conflicts of desire are solved and aligned — and Eden had only two people in it, plus a snake. Can you call heaven a Utopia? Probably not, but this is a question the show tends to fudge.

Is the idea of Utopia old? Depends on how you define it. The poet Hesiod, in the 8th century B.C., wrote about a Golden Age of perfect ease and social cooperation. The biblical vision of the New Jerusalem — as in the Apocalypse — is full of Utopian elements. One thing is sure: There is no standard model of Utopia, and it is always somewhere else. That came from its inventor, Thomas More, who in 1516 published the didactic tract that gave Utopia ("no-place" or "good place," depending on which similar-sounding Greek root you prefer) its name. He put it on an island, as others would; later versions placed it on an unexplored continent or, when those were used up, put it in outer space, or even below the crust of the earth.

If Utopia stayed on the earth, it had to be shifted in time, not space, to a Radiant Future: the future of Marx's dictatorship of the proletariat, filled with eupeptic workers and peasants striding into the future like electrified pouter pigeons. Or the future of Hitler's Jewless Europe. Or the milder anarchist fantasies of peace and ease that were common in late-19th-century France and commemorated in a work like Paul Signac's "In the Age of Harmony, 1895–96."

The fallout from the French Revolution, reverberating down into the 19th century, made human hope seem infinitely large. Etienne-Louis Boullée's preposterous and magnificent ideal architecture — like his vast planetarium of a cenotaph to Newton — testifies to that, and such schemes set up echoes in the equally unbuilt Radiant Cities of Le Corbusier and others. They have a parallel in the insane size and detail of the social fantasies of French control freaks like that egregious crackpot Charles Fourier (1772–1837), who envisaged a society composed of "phalansteries" (so named because they would hold phalanxes of true believers), each with 1,700 souls living communally and practicing free love in barracks. By perfect mutual help, Fourier figured, paradise would return, the world would have 37 million musical geniuses the equal of Mozart and 37 million mathematical ones to rival Newton, and its oceans would turn to lemonade.

You can't fit that kind of transformation into the New York Public Library, but a poignant souvenir of its mindset is the sleeveless vest worn by Barthélemy Prosper Enfantin, a leader who with 40 disciples set up a barracks of a commune at Ménilmontant on the outskirts of Paris, in 1832. There they sang socially idealist hymns to soften the monotony of their labor, and wore clothes that symbolized their standing and ideals. On Enfantin's vest was emblazoned Le Père (The Father). But it, like all the others, was designed to button up the back, so that you couldn't put it on without the help of your fellow Utopians. (If it had had no buttons, like a t-shirt, it would have implied that you could look after yourself, heresy to the Utopians.)

Père Enfantin's vest is close to that great therapeutic invention of the time, the straitjacket. You can't look without dread at the photos and engravings of panopticons, meeting houses, commune buildings, phalansteries and other social-idealist architecture in the 19th-century stretch of this show. They resemble prisons and nunneries because they were prisons and nunneries, the difference being that the prisons meant to keep sinners in, whereas the Utopian buildings aimed to keep them out. But the same grim coerciveness suffused both, as we know from their ultimate state forms in the 20th century: Nazism and communism.

After a while at this show, you may think that to be deprived of a life in Utopia may be a loss, a sad failure of human potential. Until, that is, you consider how unspeakably awful the alternative would be.

Monday, Dec. 11, 2000
Art: A Flawed Ex-Paradise

If the great state of California had never existed, or if it had sundered along the edge of the Rockies and sunk, Atlantis-like, into the Pacific, what would the arts of the world have lost?

Manifestly, one great and incomparable thing that California made its own: the American film industry, in all its splendors and miseries. In architecture and design, a certain amount from Frank Lloyd Wright to Frank Gehry, little of whose best work was actually done in the state; and more from such European exiles as the two Viennese Modernist architects Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, who took refuge on the Pacific shore and found themselves in the company of assorted shrinks, religious prophets, musicians and writers, from Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann to Henry Miller and Nathanael West. A lot of photography, of course, especially ultrasharp f/64 pix of very grand mountains by Ansel Adams and fuzzy Pictorialist ones of American nudes capering among the redwoods in homage to Isadora Duncan. In sculpture, not a hell of a lot. In painting, sad to admit, not much either. Two shining exceptions are recent--Richard Diebenkorn (1922-93) and Wayne Thiebaud (1920- ). But it should be grasped that one is not dealing with New York City 1900-2000, and still less with Paris 1800-1900.

There have been good book surveys of California art, led off more than 20 years ago by Peter Plagens' Sunshine Muse. But until now no institution has taken on the daunting task of mounting an exhibition that surveys the visual culture of California in relation to a century's worth of social changes in that huge, dynamic and almost crazily heterodox state. That is what the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has tried to do in a mammoth show that opened last month: "Made in California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900-2000." It involves some 800 works in just about every imaginable medium, set forth by a team of catalog writers and curators as long as the credit crawl on a George Lucas movie, under the general direction of LACMA's senior curator, Stephanie Barron. Its size makes for fatigue, and parts of it might have fared better as documentary film. But the story it tells is an absorbing one.

The first two pages of the huge catalog to "Made in California" tell you the essential plot line. On the left, a detail from a tourist poster, ca. 1930, showing two women chatting under a palm on a crag, with a luxuriant view of golden mountainside behind them: California as Promised Land, an earthly paradise, Eden without the snake. On the right, a photo of a suburban slide area in Los Angeles, where earthquake-stricken bungalows teeter on the edge of a muddy chasm at whose bottom lies an upside-down car. The heaven of nature, the hell (or at least purgatory) of black insecurity, both in the same place; a saga of innocence being continuously lost.

It's a working template of American experience and, on the whole, useful. The young man obeys Horace Greeley and goes West; in California, he runs out of America. It is the culmination and extinction of hope. The vision of plenty for everyone becomes a mockery--a process whose impact is amply documented by the 1930s social-realist segments of this show, with their dock strikers and Mexican migrant workers pitted against grasping Anglo bosses. Different cultures and immigrant races swirl around, not in a melting pot as some optimists have supposed but in unappeased opposition to one another.

However falsified it may now be, however much of a cliche it may have been even at the dawn of the 20th century, there's no doubt about the Edenic promise of California to generation after generation of Americans. To the gold seekers of 1850 no less than to the desperate migrant Okies of the Depression, to the wannabe actress on the bar stool in Schwab's as to the migrant lettuce pickers from Mexico and the Jewish kid getting into the nickelodeon business, California signified hope, plenty, release and transcendence. It was the New World's New World. "That's why I can hardly wait/Come on and open up that Golden Gate/ California, here I come!"

Ceaselessly uttered, this hope was endlessly disappointed, but the allure of California never diminished (at least in the eyes of outsiders). Its early 20th century images are full of it, whether in a massive pair of strawberries, ca. 1910, on a railroad flatcar, a view of sublimely twisted eucalypts framing the far sky near Carmel, or in one of Gottardo Piazzoni's classical views that translates the sea pines of his ancestral Italy to the edge of the Pacific.

Religion itself was nonjudgmental and easy on kooks, unlike the stern Puritanism of eastern American origins. One of the few intentionally funny paintings in the show--there are plenty that look funny but weren't meant to be--is Barse Miller's 1932 view of a downtown temple in L.A. over which floats the apparition of Aimee Semple McPherson, evangelist and sexpot, flanked by figures of Venus, her lover in a straw hat, and little top-hatted putti clutching sacks of dollars like teeny refugees from a Popular Front cartoon of bosses.

But the chief emphasis of the exhibition is on California as a place of incessant stress and conflict between groups and interests, as new migrant societies necessarily are. Each of its five sections corresponds to a 20-year slice of history, and tries to set forth (or at least to indicate) the dominant history, the winners' and losers' versions, of the era. It spends at least as much time and space on ephemera, from tourist brochures to labor pamphlets, as on certifiable masterpieces of art--which California has never produced in abundance anyhow.

The show isn't quite as good on icons of craft as one might wish. Its conspectus of ceramics is quite good, but it's weaker in furniture. There is a fine suite of low-slung Modernist furniture in gumwood designed by Rudolph Schindler in the 1930s for his unbuilt Shep House in Los Angeles, and a splendid 1908 sideboard with inlays of fruitwood, ebony and abalone shell by Greene & Greene, those Pasadena masters of the Arts and Crafts style. But it's hard to get much more than a hint of how much really good furniture was being made in California in the first third of the century.

A show like this, so sprawling and vagrant in its scope and so impressionistic in its detail, is bound to be plagued by the question, If this, why not that? Especially nowadays, when we are used to assigning the same density of meaning (or lack of it) to a pot or a cigarette case as to a painting. Few visitors, for instance, will find their hackles raised by the inclusion of those essential emblems of California street art, the custom car and the hot rod. But if anything, the trouble is that the show seems rather weak on them. Good that it includes Road Agent, a fabulously slick tomato of a chariot built and lacquered by Ed ("Big Daddy") Roth, dean of car customizers, back in 1963. But if there's one custom job you'd expect to see in a show about the growth of a California ethos but don't get a hint of, it's the kind of long-forked, stripped-down Harley chopper that starred in Easy Rider 35 years ago.

The exhibition's auto-eroticism sector does, however, include one triumphal fetish--Larry Fuente's Derby Racer, 1975. Like some pious Latino decorating a shrine, Fuente glorified a convertible jalopy with an undulating crust of shards, beads, mirror fragments and pearly gewgaws. It is still a convincing, near folk object--an automotive equivalent, perhaps, to Simon Rodia's towers in the Watts neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles.

Of course, by the '60s the car had moved near the center of California art in more ways than one, because California life is hardly imaginable without autos and thruways (nor is American life in general, but California is less so). The very perception of landscape and townscape was locked into auto experience. Even conventional views of buildings in the street, like Ed Ruscha's gas stations, give the impression that they're glimpsed vividly and briefly from a passing vehicle. And an essentially traditional modernist like Richard Diebenkorn, during the figurative-landscape phase of his work in the '50s and early '60s--represented here by a slashing landscape called Freeway and Aqueduct, 1957--gave those landscapes a sense of rapid movement in deep space, and an imagery of roadworks, water conduits and ramps that you can't dissociate from the car.

The stuff of which cars were made also became the stuff of art. Only in '60s California would artists adopt the artificial seductions of auto finishes, the glittering sprayed enamels and fiercely inorganic colors of glaze that made Ken Price's little ceramic sculptures so immediate and memorable. They manage to look luscious and poisonous at the same time, and in terms of what curator Barron and her team have set out to show--the weird confluence of vectors in a flawed and contradictory ex-paradise--they are perhaps the most "Californian" objects in this whole enormous show.

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