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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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Burning Cole

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Burning Cole

THE NEW CRITERION, March 2018

Burning Cole

On “Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

If there were ever an artist in need of some re-evaluation, it must be the painter Thomas Cole (1801–1848). Cole’s remarkable life has been long overshadowed by his outsize legacy in American art. Through his protégés Asher Brown Durand and Frederic Edwin Church, Cole famously inspired the “Hudson River School” of landscape painting. But this was a term Cole never knew in his lifetime. His own work, dense with allegory and narrative, shares less than one might expect with the more empirical American landscape artists of the second half of the nineteenth century. In his painted tribute of 1849, Durand immortalized his mentor in death, at forty-seven, as the “Kindred Spirit” of both the poet William Cullen Bryant and the American wilderness, as Cole and Bryant look out over Kaaterskill Falls and the wilds of the Catskill Mountains. But Cole was anything but a rustic, as one might assume, or an American provincial—or even, for that matter, American-born.

“Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings,” an ambitious and scholarly exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reconsiders the New World paintings of the English-born Cole in light of his engagement with Old World art.1 This engagement included the Old Masters, in particular Claude Lorrain, on through Cole’s contemporaries J. M. W. Turner, John Constable, Thomas Lawrence, and John Martin—all of whom he met first-hand through repeated “Atlantic crossings.” By exhibiting Cole’s masterpieces such as The Course of Empire (1833–36) and The Oxbow (1836) alongside the very paintings that Cole saw in the exhibition halls and studios of Europe, “Atlantic Crossings” makes the case that this renowned American artist was enriched by a surprisingly modern and worldly view.

And such revisionism makes sense for anyone who has ever wondered about Cole’s unusual body of work and his true place in American art. It has taken a transatlantic pair of curators to bring such questions to light: Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser (American), the Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum; and Tim Barringer (British), the Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art at Yale University. The genesis for their exhibition emerged in 2013, when the two worked together for a time in the Met’s American Wing. Christopher Riopelle, the Curator of Post-1800 Paintings at the National Gallery, London—where the exhibition will travel next—also contributes his own understanding of European paintings at the time of Cole’s foreign sojourns, as well as the role of the plein-air oil sketch, which Cole adopted during his time in Florence in 1831.

“Cole’s life was anything but insular,” these curators write in their catalogue introduction. “Rather, it was marked by restless transatlantic travel and by a complex, often troubled, engagement with the traditions of European art and thought, a commitment that countered, but paradoxically also heightened, Cole’s abiding passion for the American wilderness.”

Thomas Cole was born on February 1, 1801, in the factory town of Bolton-le-Moors, in Lancashire, England. The city was a center for textile manufacturing on the front lines of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. In 1812, hand-laborers who had lost their livelihoods in spinning and weaving to mechanization attacked and firebombed the Bolton plants. Along with the general squalor and depredations of England’s factory towns, these “Luddites,” named after the folkloric character of “Ned Ludd,” helped define Cole’s dim view of industry and progress.

The Leader of the Luddites,  1812 ,  Hand-colored etching ,  British Museum, London

The Leader of the Luddites, 1812Hand-colored etchingBritish Museum, London

Far from the American wilderness we might expect, the first rooms of “Atlantic Crossings” are therefore filled with similarly bleak images of urban industry by Turner and Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg. (Less propitiously, I should add, these rooms are also filled with the voice of the pop singer Sting, who has recorded the narration for an opening video. I am sure this celebrity selection sounded good when commissioned for the exhibition. The sound has a less salubrious effect when heard on repeat through the painting galleries. This latter-day Luddite critic simply asks that curators consider the disturbance of such noise in their shows.)

Up against Britain’s new economy, Thomas Cole’s father, James Cole, failed in a string of manufacturing ventures. Ultimately, these failures helped propel Thomas’s successes. At thirteen, Thomas Cole found apprentice work in the production of calico fabrics, designing wood blocks used for printing patterns. A book of such patterns is included in the exhibition. Moving to nearby Liverpool, Cole then became an engraver’s apprentice and was first exposed to the Old Master collection of William Roscoe, the “Liverpool Medici.”

In 1818—two hundred years from the current exhibition, the curators note—the Cole family set sail for America. As James Cole attempted to establish, again unsuccessfully, a wallpaper printing business in Steubenville, Ohio, Thomas, now a young adult, worked as an engraver’s assistant in Philadelphia.

In April 1825, Cole made his way north to New York. It was the year of completion for the Erie Canal, a defining achievement for the emerging world city. It also proved to be an auspicious moment for an artist who would become famous for painting the changing wilderness along the country’s arterial waterways, in particular the Hudson River.

Thomas Cole , View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson),  1827 ,  Oil on panel ,  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Thomas Cole, View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson), 1827Oil on panelMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston

With little in the way of formal training, Cole rapidly scaled the heights of New York’s burgeoning art scene. Paintings such as View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) (1827) announced his arrival. In “Atlantic Crossings,” this stunning painting rises out of nothing, but it already displays many of the characteristics that defined Cole’s body of work: steep, vertiginous perspectives with clear layers of fore-, middle-, and background; gnarled, anthropomorphic trees playing out a melancholy dance on a rocky stage as though illuminated in spotlight; slivers of the Hudson River along a high horizon line signaling deep distance. His dramatic painting Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans,” Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) extends these compositional techniques, with theatrical trees replaced by a staging of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking bodice-ripper. Cole found ready patronage for his heroic local scenery among New York’s growing collector class. Their interest in the state’s dramatic sites was hastened by an emerging tourist trade, which brought a new awareness to both the natural beauty and rapid development of the upstate region.

In 1829, through the encouragement of his New York collectors, Cole set out to expand his artistic education back in Europe. He brought with him his sketchbooks of Niagara Falls and other New World wonders with which he hoped to interest Old World buyers. His sales strategy met with limited success, but it was enough to sustain a prolonged Grand Tour that began in London and continued through France and Italy from 1829 through 1832.

The artists Cole was able to meet along the way, all while still in his twenties, attest to both his manifest talents and his intense ambitions. He arrived in London in time to catch the 1829 summer show at the Royal Academy. The exhibition included Constable’s Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames—Morning after a Stormy Night (1829) and Turner’s Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus—Homer’s Odyssey (1829), each now exhibited together again in “Atlantic Crossings,” on loan from the Yale Center for British Art and The National Gallery, London, respectively. Cole attended salons with John Martin and joined Thomas Lawrence, the president of the Royal Academy, for breakfast at his home, followed by a tour of his studio.

But Cole was anything but starstruck. His writings tell of his often humorously low regard for the artists he met. Turner, whom he visited in his studio, was among his greatest disappointments: “I had expected to see an older looking man with a countenance pale with thought, but I was entirely mistaken. He has a common form and common countenance, and there is nothing in his appearance or conversation indicative of genius.” The same goes for the paintings in the Louvre: “I was disgusted in the beginning with their subjects. Battle, murder and death, Venuses and Psyches, the bloody and the voluptuous, are the things in which they seem to delight: and these are portrayed in a cold, hard, and often tawdry style.”

Cole returned to the United States in late 1832. Within four years he completed his most ambitious works: View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, a longtime staple of the Met’s American painting collection, and the five-canvas cycle of The Course of Empire, on loan from the New-York Historical Society.

Joseph Mallord William Turner , Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps,  1812 ,  Oil on canvas ,  Tate Britain, London.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, 1812Oil on canvasTate Britain, London.

The classical fantasy of The Course of Empire and the modern factualism of The Oxbow might seem worlds apart. Yet both came out of Cole’s European travels, argues “Atlantic Crossings,” and the visual evidence seems hard to dispute. The same swirling storm clouds of Turner’s Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812) threaten the summit of Mt. Holyoke in The Oxbow. The ruined tower in the left foreground of Constable’s Hadleigh Castle reappears as the overgrown column in The Course of Empire: Desolation. Even the classical columns in the central panel of The Course of Empire have an uncanny resemblance, as Tim Barringer points out, to Cumberland Terrace in Regent’s Park, near Cole’s London lodgings. Yet what’s most remarkable, perhaps, is the result of a new study of The Oxbow. Advanced infrared imaging has revealed that this painting in fact began as an early canvas for The Course of Empire, which Cole painted over.

The same ideas of civilization’s fall, spread over the five panels of The Course of Empire, are summarized in The Oxbow. An Edenic paradise becomes a decadent empire; an American wilderness gives way to the encroachment of farming and logging. This same millenarian view can be found embedded in most everything Cole painted, whether it be the ruins of Aqueduct near Rome (1832) or the ruined forests in the foreground of River in the Catskills (1843).

Born into the English Dissenting tradition and baptized in the fires of Bolton, Cole railed against the “copper-hearted barbarians” and “dollar-godded utilitarians,” the “toiling to produce more toil—accumulating in order to aggrandize” in his writing and his art. His perspective was not that of forward projection but of cautionary reflection, with a message particularly aimed at his adopted homeland, where he became a citizen in 1834.

Thomas Cole , View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow,  1836 ,  Oil on canvas ,  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836Oil on canvasThe Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The painterly innovations Cole picked up in Europe, in particular the mechanics for plein-air oil sketching, inspired the florid naturalism of his American disciples. Yet Cole himself was always less and something more than a pure landscape painter. Unlike the later landscapes of Church or Durand, where nature speaks for itself, Cole used nature to speak for his ideas. Of course, all great landscape painting says something, but Cole’s messaging was more explicit. His compositions were both allegories and real places. His landscapes were science fictions—science and fiction in equal measure. Cole’s overt political messaging might help explain his recent resurgence, even as interest in the later Hudson River School continues to wax and wane. Yet Cole resists oversimplification. He was more than a proto- environmentalist immigrant railing against the populist politics of Jacksonian America. Beyond the political situation, he gave vision to the human condition.

1 “Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings” opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on January 30 and remains on view through May 13, 2018. The exhibition will next travel to The National Gallery, London (June 11–October 7, 2018).

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Gallery Chronicle (June 2017)

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Gallery Chronicle (June 2017)

THE NEW CRITERION, June 2017

Gallery Chronicle

On the 2017 Met Gala, “Frieze New York” & “TEFAF New York Spring.”

When it comes to the life of art, there may be nothing less gala than the Met Gala, or at least what this annual boondoggle at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has become. The scandal of this year’s iteration should serve as a sobering wake-up call for the increasingly besotted priorities of too many American museums, including our greatest institutions.

If you have not heard of the Met Gala, do not worry. You were not invited. Since 1995, on the first Monday of every May, the Metropolitan has handed its keys over to Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine and the artistic director of Condé Nast. Here her purported aim has been to raise funds for the museum’s Costume Institute—I’m sorry, make that the “Anna Wintour Costume Center.” Her lording over the gala’s invite list has become notorious and the subject of a documentary called The First Monday in May.

Of course, the potential conflicts of interest that exist between Wintour’s commercial concerns and her museum trusteeship are blatant. The specter that she has conjured up with her gala has followed priorities far beyond fundraising and certainly beyond the realm of art. Along the way these extra-artistic interests have risen up from the Institute’s basement galleries to infect not only the museum’s spaces but also its institutional tenor, and by extension the tenor of American museums at large.

Tweet of an image from the 2017 Met Gala

Tweet of an image from the 2017 Met Gala

Like much else in the world of art, the Met Gala and the Costume Institute itself have become unrecognizable deformations from the Institute’s founding and the event’s inception in 1946. Consider that for nearly twenty years, from 1979 to 1995, the gala was helmed by the singular society doyenne Patricia Buckley. During this time the Institute mounted exhibitions such as “Fashions of the Hapsburg Era” (1979–1980), “Victorian Dress 1837–1877” (1988–1989), and “The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire” (1989–1990). The historical programming more than fit, so to speak, the seriousness of the institution that presented it.

The Wintour era has wrought, by contrast, “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy” and “Punk: Chaos to Couture.” Even beyond its superficial, contemporary turn, Wintour’s Costume Institute has exposed the museum to the predations of celebrity culture. Worse still, the museum as a whole, a once-protected precinct of our cultural inheritance, has learned to revel in Hollywood’s demotic attention. “The Met is a place that you consider very very correct, very formal,” the fashion editor André Leon Talley explains in the Wintour documentary. “Anna has taken that out of the mix.”

Tweet from the 2017 Met Gala by Marc Jacobs

Tweet from the 2017 Met Gala by Marc Jacobs

The 2017 Met Gala became the apotheosis of this transformation. With the pop singer Katy Perry serving as the year’s honorary hostess, the hordes of bold-faced names, amply stocked with Jenners and Kardashians, marched up the museum’s Fifth Avenue steps and made a public mockery of the institution. “The celebrities were like animals . . . acting like they were at the Playboy Mansion!” one informant explained to Radar magazine. “Some didn’t even know it was a museum. They thought it was an event space with old stuff brought in to make it look like Egypt!” Many of the attendees, clearly uncertain of their surroundings, came to loiter in the museum restrooms. Here they sprawled out across the floors, spilled drinks, smoked cigarettes, and took “selfie” shots in the mirrors, which they disseminated through social media.

Some may perceive such spectacle as a tolerable distraction—even a welcome frivolity for an overly stuffy and off-putting institution. I fear the pantomime is far more anti-civilizational. It is a takeover—a commercial-grade, mass-culture affront to an institution held in disdain. Guarded by a phalanx of bodyguards, these latter-day vandals take barbarous license amidst the greatest artifacts of history. They smoke. They fornicate. They sprawl across the floors in mockery of the art around them, merely to focus on themselves. And all the while they record their debauchery on social media for millions of fanatics to emulate their cultural annihilation.

There have been many cringe-worthy moments during the reign of Thomas Campbell, the disgraced director of the Metropolitan Museum who departs this month. Perhaps the curator once dubbed “Tapestry Tom” thought he could take a major carpet ride to new money and popular adulation. Instead he opened the floodgates and drowned his institution in ridicule and debt while forsaking his scholars and curators. There should have been only one response for any proper museum steward to this year’s Met Gala: to sweep the trash out of the galleries, and to keep Wintour’s damage deposit with the suggestion never to return. Short of that, Anna Wintour’s Met Gala should be interred alongside Tom Campbell’s ignominious career.

Frieze New York. Photo: Mark Blower / Frieze

Frieze New York. Photo: Mark Blower / Frieze

The sixth annual art fair known as Frieze New York opened on the same week as the Met’s inanities, but seemed a world apart.1 My first thought upon entering Frieze’s elevating, light-filled tent was how the value of seeing, as opposed to seducing, has been abdicated by many museums to be taken up by commercial galleries, which in turn increasingly coalesce around these quasi-institutional art fairs.

Six years ago I was bullish over the first stateside Frieze, a remarkable art encampment on New York’s Randall’s Island at the confluence of the Harlem and East Rivers by the Hell Gate to Long Island Sound. The setting alone is a stunning retreat. Of course, many of us already know this island to be that which exists beneath the roadbed of the Triborough Bridge. There was a time I played after-school sports beneath its dingy overpasses, and I attended a grungy rock festival there in 1994. But one of the surprises of Frieze is how Randall’s Island has been recently transformed into a bucolic sanctuary in the heart of the city with flowering paths and woodpeckers tapping on trees. The first year I took a ferry there. More recently I walked across a footbridge from Manhattan.

Admittedly over the past few years I grew somewhat weary of Frieze’s formula of trendy, transposed eateries and art as lifestyle retreat, mixed with some showboating and the dumbing down of the art on view. Access to Frieze has become increasingly daunting, with inscrutable online directions, unreliable transportation, and the feeling during storms that the whole operation may become a runaway bouncy castle. But this year seemed different, at least once the clouds parted, and far less frivolous—a place set apart, and well engineered, for the contemplation of art in exile.

In 2012 the architecture firm SO-IL designed the Frieze tent from pre-fabricated rental components to snake along the edge of the Harlem River overlooking Manhattan for more than a quarter mile. Made of white translucent material, supplemented by minimal artificial illumination, its 225,000 square feet are awash in natural light. The visual effects can be uncanny, cooling colors and bathing both painting and sculpture in an indirect, northern-like light.

This year many of the two-hundred-plus galleries, brought together from thirty-one countries by Frieze’s London-based curatorial team, took best advantage of these light-filled surroundings not just to give us something to look at, but also something to see, with minimal labels and misdirection. Alexander Gray Associates, with a prominent booth by the southern entrance, singled out a late geometric abstraction by the painter Jack Tworkov called Triptych (Q3-75 #1) (1975), a contemplative fugue of gridded form and spontaneous brushwork. (This Chelsea gallery, it should be noted, is currently showing a survey of the artist Betty Parsons, a central figure of twentieth-century art better known for her singular dealership of the Abstract Expressionists.)

Sculpture by Carol Bove. Photo: Mark Blower / Frieze

Sculpture by Carol Bove. Photo: Mark Blower / Frieze

Both David Zwirner and Sculpture Center exhibited pas-de-deux sculptures by Carol Bove of scrap metals punctuated by urethane dots. The paintings of Henry Taylor were released from the circus of the Whitney Biennial to show to best effect at Blum & Poe. The Symbolist abstractions of Gabriel Lima were new to me at the Portuguese gallery Múrias Centeno. I liked the worn paint textures of Marina Rheingantz at the Brazilian gallery Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, while the bold lines of James Nares’s abstractions at New York’s Paul Kasmin directed us to the American road. London’s October gallery testified to the modernist innovations of contemporary African art, especially Romuald Hazoumè’s Benin-style masks crafted from gasoline canisters.

There was some regrettable selfie bait, in particular Karl Holmqvist’s sign paintings at Gavin Brown’s “Enterprise” instructing fair-goers to “Hug a Hooker!” Yet these were anomalies in a fair that dedicated much of its real estate to its selection of “Spotlight” galleries exhibiting solo shows of work created exclusively in the last century, which included many of the best booths in the fair: Judith Linhares’s dreamscapes at San Francisco’s Anglim Gilbert, Paul Feeley’s color-forms at New York’s Garth Greenan, and, in particular, Alfred Leslie’s stark portraiture at New York’s Bruce Silverman.

TEFAF New York Spring at the Park Avenue Armory. Photo: TEFAF

TEFAF New York Spring at the Park Avenue Armory. Photo: TEFAF

A depression in interest for European antiquities may say as much about the state of the European past as it does of the European economy. Founded nearly thirty years ago in Holland, TEFAF Maastricht has long been a preeminent art fair featuring an advertised “7,000 years of art history,” but one particularly known for its selection of Old Masters and antiquities. Looking to expand from Maastricht while educating an American collecting public that may know little beyond the latest Jeff Koons, TEFAF came stateside last fall with a fair that transformed the Park Avenue Armory into an ethereal treasury of art history.

I wish I could stay so enthusiastic for tefaf’s spring edition, which returned to the Armory over “Frieze Week” to exhibit ninety-three galleries showing modern and contemporary art and design.2

Booth at TEFAF New York Spring. Photo: TEFAF

Booth at TEFAF New York Spring. Photo: TEFAF

There were some highlights: the New York gallery Hans P. Kraus Jr., dealing in the “old masters of photography,” as always showed a remarkable selection of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century prints. Bernard Goldberg featured scenes by Thomas Hart Benton from his “American Historical Epic” of 1924 through 1927. David Zwirner smartly positioned Josef Albers next to the equal (if not superior) work of his wife, Anni Albers. London’s James Butterwick offered a selection of Russian and Ukrainian modernists, and Lisson featured the Cuban-American painter Carmen Herrera, while Bergamin & Gomide focused on South American modernism.

But overall TEFAF New York Spring was a letdown, a largely directionless retread of other modern fairs underscored by an often garish arrangement of work. Once again TEFAF included jewelers and other such retailers in the mix, which gave its fair an aura of the international departures terminal “duty free.” The selection also leaned awkwardly towards postwar European painting, and I can only gather that a memo went out suggesting exhibitors display every sliced-up Lucio Fontana canvas in inventory, rendering the fair both a whodunit slasher and a vagina monologue. Perhaps there’s a future for TEFAF New York Spring. For now I will simply look forward to the opening of TEFAF’s next revelatory fall production of Old Masters.

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