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Death in Venice, alive in New York

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Death in Venice, alive in New York

SPECTATOR, October 30, 2018

Death in Venice, alive in New York

Tintoretto looked not up to heaven, but down to the fallen angels of our modern age

Il disegno di Michelangelo e il colorito di Tiziano: The drawing of Michelangelo and the colour of Titian.

With these words, supposedly written on his studio wall, Jacopo Tintoretto staked his claim on cinquecento painting. We are lucky he failed on both counts. Tintoretto was no Michelangelo or Titian, but he could push paint like no one else in La Serenissima. Renaissance means ‘rebirth’, of course. Yet the paintings of Tintoretto can come as deadly shock. His ‘Crucifixion’ of 1565 in Venice’s Scuola Grande di San Rocco strikes like a thunderbolt. The painting is also the single best work of religious art in the Italian Renaissance. With Christ fixed to the cross front and centre, the action of this composition swirls around him like a dark cyclone. Everyone — carpenters, soldiers, a dog — makes up ‘a centrifugal energy that charges the entire picture’, as the late art historian David Rosand wrote. As onlookers gazing up as Christ stares down, we too are swept up in the storm.

With expressive, brooding, and in-your-face energy, Tintoretto never sought the safety of the neo-Platonic shore. In his draftsmanship, he did not trace out the idealised forms of Michelangelo. In his choice of colour, murky at best, he did not seek the fuzzy warmth of Giorgione. Yet with speed and drive, Tintoretto swept through the 16th-century scene by looking, not up to heaven, but down to the fallen angels of our modern age. He went low when Titian and Veronese went high.

As we mark the 500th anniversary of his birth with exhibitions stretching from the Doge’s Palace in Venice to the house of Morgan in New York City, the wild child of the Venetian Renaissance is receiving his due. In New YorkDrawing in Tintoretto’s Venice at the Morgan Library & Museum explores the draftsmanship of this son of a dyer — tintore — in comparison to works by Titian, Veronese, Bassano, and others. Meanwhile at the Metropolitan Museum, Celebrating Tintoretto: Portrait Paintings and Studio Drawings, a focused exhibition in the Robert Lehman Wing, looks to the painter’s quick-fire portrait studies.

Sacco di Noce — ‘bag of nuts’. That’s how Tintoretto’s figuration came to be known, in particular for the dashed-off studies on paper of his later career. What sounds like an insult, in fact, signals an expressive brilliance. Lacking time and inclination, Tintoretto refused to labour over sculptural shading. At the Morgan Library, the torso of his ‘Seated Male Nude’ (c. 1549), on loan from the Louvre and reproduced on the cover of the exhibition catalogue, looks like it ingested some bad shellfish. His ‘Seated Man with Raised Hand’ (c. 1577–78), from nearly two decades later, resembles nothing less than an aquaman pulled from the rippling Grand Canal. The wavy lines of these drawings do not have a sculptural meaning. But they have an expressive feeling — queasy, awkward, very human, very off.

By focusing on works on paper, with seventy drawings by Tintoretto and his circle now on view, the Morgan show makes the case for a ‘drawing school of Venice’. That’s the title of the first chapter of the catalogue, but it ends with a question mark. Ever since their disparagement in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, the idiosyncratic drawings of Venice have been considered a poor imitation of the Florentine school. An opening example here by Titian, ‘Embracing Couple’ (c. 1568-70), should not give Michelangelo or Leonardo cause of concern over the grading average of the drawing school curve. A tangle of marks, with bodily forms barely discernible, Titian’s drawing appears entirely preliminary, a primo pensiero. But more than that, it seems built up and worked over, as if you were applying layers of paint to canvas rather than lines of charcoal to paper. In other words, here is the richest of painters with the poorest sense for basic draftsmanship.

The exhibition follows through with examples by Andrea Schiavone — the ‘Slav’ — who avoided the whole disegno-colorito feud by finding some fusion of the two. His ‘Apostle (St Matthew)’ (c. 1550), and ‘Virgin Annunciate’ (c. 1550-60) of ink, chalk, watercolour, and wash are drawn paintings — or maybe that should be painted drawings. The Venetian Jacopo Bassano went with a similar approach, using coloured chalk to give some heft to his sketchy figures. Meanwhile, practice makes perfect, and Paolo Veronese, ever the dutiful student, drew study after study in pen and brown ink. In ‘SS. Leonard, Mark, and Francis’ (c. 1549-51), he arrived at his own Venetian sense for sharpened form with highlights of white gouache.

Yes, there was a drawing school of Venice. Tintoretto started his own. At the Morgan, there are several examples of the students in his workshop drawing studies of Grimani Vitellius, or at least a fleshy cast of him, all from slightly different angles. There are also numerous attempts by the Tintoretto Workshop at depicting a cast of Michelangelo’s ‘Samson and the Philistines’. Of Tintoretto’s many pupils, Palma Giovane may have been his best. With white paint over brush and brown, he traces the light reflecting off Michelangelo’s bronze like muscles beneath oily skin. Meanwhile Domenico Tintoretto, Jacopo’s son, carries on the family name with drawings that look to the female nude laid bare in a newly naked way, unidealised and full frontal, from the bottom up.

At the Metropolitan Museum, the diminutive scale of the Celebrating Tintoretto exhibition belies the birthday party within. For someone known to go big, Tintoretto painted some of his most arresting portraits small. Collected in a single room in the Lehman Wing, the show looks behind the quickfire brushwork, or prestezza, for a selection of personal portrait studies, some of which informed larger compositions. Along with drawings from the Lehman collection by Domenico, these closely cropped figures appear out of the darkness in a raking light. Like the ‘Crucifixion’ in the Scuola di San Rocco, they also face us head on.

There is nothing idealised, nothing reserved in their poses. Focused on the elders of the Venetian Republic, these are powerful portraits of powerful men, and they glare back from the canvas. Tintoretto may not have had the drawing of Michelangelo or the colour of Titian. But in his stare, he was death in Venice.

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WSJ: Seeing Her Worldview in a Circle

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WSJ: Seeing Her Worldview in a Circle

 Howardena Pindell’s ‘Night Flight’ (2015-16) PHOTO: HOWARDENA PINDELL/GARTH GREENAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Howardena Pindell’s ‘Night Flight’ (2015-16) PHOTO: HOWARDENA PINDELL/GARTH GREENAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, September 4, 2018

Seeing Her Worldview in a Circle

Howardena Pindell’s long career defies easy categorization, but a recurring motif connects a childhood memory to much of her work. A review of "Howardena Pindell: What Remains to Be Seen" at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Va. Through Nov. 25

The art of Howardena Pindell comes back around to the circle. In “What Remains to Be Seen,” her 100-work retrospective now on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, there are brushed circles, sprayed circles, and circles punched out of paper. There are paper disks, thousands of them numbered by hand, and the holes from which they were cut. And there are depictions of stars and planets—in her 40s, Ms. Pindell took up the study of astronomy: Orbs of color and light cluster together in dense, spiraling constellations of collage....

-READ THE FULL REVIEW HERE-

 Howardena Pindell’s ‘Untitled #5B (Krakatoa)’ (2007) PHOTO: HOWARDENA PINDELL/GARTH GREENAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Howardena Pindell’s ‘Untitled #5B (Krakatoa)’ (2007) PHOTO: HOWARDENA PINDELL/GARTH GREENAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

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Shimmering Black History Brought to Life

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Shimmering Black History Brought to Life

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Shimmering Black History Brought to Life

A native son of Chicago, Charles White was a radical political progressive with a retrograde artistic talent. A review of ‘Charles White: A Retrospective’ on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through September 3, 2018. 

Chicago

Born on this city’s South Side, Charles White (1918-1979) was already a star of the Black Chicago Renaissance, a Midwestern version of the Harlem Renaissance, by his early 20s. At the time, the artist kept a sketchbook that is one of the first objects in his illuminating retrospective—his first major show in over 35 years—now open at the Art Institute of Chicago. That small book can be easy to miss, but it is worth close inspection.

White’s prodigious talents are already manifest in these pages. Here are studies ranging from the dancers of Degas to the statues of the Baule, a people of Ivory Coast. Here are confident drawings in charcoal, pastel, ink, graphite, pen, and watercolor. Here is a portrait of Langston Hughes that includes “his autograph,” as White annotates with an arrow. And finally here are White’s own “theories on teaching art,” where he writes: “Learn to draw the figure, to compose and express ideas clearly, dramatically. Style will come by itself as a matter of course.”

White emerged at a moment of foment in 1930s black Chicago. His challenge was finding the style that best represented the struggles of African-Americans and the working class, and pursuing it in an era increasingly estranged from the craft of illustration. With a lifelong focus on draftsmanship, which also included astonishing achievements in printmaking, White was a radical progressive with a retrograde talent.

 Charles White’s ‘Sound of Silence’ (1978) PHOTO: THE CHARLES WHITE ARCHIVES INC./

Charles White’s ‘Sound of Silence’ (1978) PHOTO: THE CHARLES WHITE ARCHIVES INC./

Curated by Sarah Kelly Oehler of the Art Institute and Esther Adler of the Museum of Modern Art, “Charles White: A Retrospective” highlights the connections among his roots, his ideas and his art. A map in the exhibition includes points of interest that stretched from his South Side home to the main branch of the Chicago Public Library, where his working mother often deposited him as a child. Here, through books such as Alain Locke’s “The New Negro,” White first engaged with the neglected storylines of black America.

This native son attracted early acclaim in Chicago. White went from a Saturday scholarship student at the Art Institute at age 13 to major commissions for murals of black history in his 20s. When the State of Illinois sponsored the “American Negro Exposition” to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the 13th Amendment in 1940, White’s drawing “There Were No Crops This Year,” a swirling graphite illustration of two downcast figures holding an empty sack, received top prize.

 Charles White’s ‘Our Land’ (1951) PHOTO: THE CHARLES WHITE ARCHIVES INC.

Charles White’s ‘Our Land’ (1951) PHOTO: THE CHARLES WHITE ARCHIVES INC.

White created cycles of visual mythology out of black American history. Take, for example, his mural commissioned for Virginia’s Hampton Institute and completed in 1943 showing the “Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America.” This packed composition inspired by Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals (and shown here only in reproduction) includes numerous historical figures led by an avenging angel fighting against the anti-democratic forces of bondage. White’s studies for the work depict Denmark Vesey and Paul Robeson as luminous figures in pencil, their faces seeming to reflect light as though rendered in metallic relief. A similar study of Sojourner Truth and Booker T. Washington reveals White’s sensuous all-over line, seen in the wood grain above Washington’s head and in the folds of Truth’s headscarf.

 Charles White’s ‘Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man)’ (1973) PHOTO: THE CHARLES WHITE ARCHIVES INC./

Charles White’s ‘Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man)’ (1973) PHOTO: THE CHARLES WHITE ARCHIVES INC./

White’s talents brought him from the heartland to the coasts. He became immersed in the Harlem Renaissance and then the worlds of black and blacklisted Hollywood. In 1965 he took an influential teaching position at the Otis Art Institute, which he held for the remaining 14 years of his life. By traveling to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in October, and then to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in February 2019, “Charles White: A Retrospective” will follow the artist’s personal migration.

But White never changed political direction. His worldview spanned the Old Left of the 1930s and the New Left of the 1960s and ’70s. A journey in 1951 to the Soviet Union even included a special trip to the Republic of Georgia to visit the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. The sojourn exposed him to Socialist Realism and upended his own style, which thereafter became more rounded and naturalistic, focused less on historical figures and more on contemporary images of work and toil. A later turn to collage-like compositions, borrowing neo-Dada tropes and Surrealist symbolism, connected his final work to Afrofuturism and the Black Arts Movement.

One might wonder where White’s talents would have taken him had his interests in black experience not become enmeshed in class politics. Nevertheless, just as White gave vision to black history, so is art history rightfully rediscovering White’s vision. “I try to find and search for answers to three questions,” he said in 1971. “Who am I? What am I? Why?” Thanks to this probing exhibition, we can follow his search.

(June 27, 2018)

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