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Two If by Sea


Two If by Sea

THE NEW CRITERION, November 2019

Two If by Sea

On “J. M. W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate” at the Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, Connecticut.

Sailing to Mystic Seaport is one of those prehistoric memories of my childhood that still inspires limbic delight. How primitive it all now seems: no cell phones or GPS, my father and I dead reckoning on our small cutter-rig Cape Dory. Down in the cabin, I measured the paper charts with a plexiglass navigational plotter. I turned the directional dials on the LORAN radio. Finally we reached the mouth of the Mystic River. We circled and honked our airhorn until the railroad and highway bridges rotated and lifted to let us through. When we tied up at the historic Seaport, a maritime town of preserved boats and buildings, the facility was just closing for the day. That was the best part about it. As transients staying overnight at the marina, we alone could still wander the Seaport village at all hours, past the cooperage, the ropewalk, the church, the tiny school, and the George H. Stone & Co. General Store, like Ishmael on his way to the Spouter-Inn. On my Walkman, I played a cassette tape of sea shanties. Here was the Age of Sail. We were living it.

From the Age of Sail—or at least its recreational variant—to the Age of Screen, the subsequent decades have not been altogether kind to Mystic Seaport. History has gone out of fashion, if you haven’t already heard. So has the sort of immersive history offered by institutions like the Seaport, founded in 1929, where reenactors forge iron, craft barrels, and caulk hulls in its historic structures. In our virtual present, real experience itself has grown suspect, foreign, even dangerous. As a teacher recently explained to me, many children today do not know what to do when their feet get wet. They really don’t know what to do when close-hauled in wine-dark seas. The sport of sailing has suffered. A large outdoor institution dedicated to our seafaring past has suffered especially.

Enter the “reimagined” Seaport. Since the turn of the millennium, the historic institution has proclaimed at least two “Strategic Plans.” The Seaport must be “repositioned.” It must “appeal to new audiences.” It must be “evolving and embracing contemporary culture.” It must be “rebranded.” It must be “relevant.” It all sounded, to me at least, quite alarming.

The  Charles W. Morgan  (middle), the last remaining American wooden whaling vessel, on the docks of Mystic Seaport. Photo: Mystic Seaport Museum.

The Charles W. Morgan (middle), the last remaining American wooden whaling vessel, on the docks of Mystic Seaport. Photo: Mystic Seaport Museum.

Yet the distress calls have been a boon to the consultants, architects, and planners who now school around foundering institutions. One consequence has been the renaming of the Seaport, as it seems every “library” and “collection” and “institute” must be renamed these days, into a “museum.” And so we now have the “Mystic Seaport Museum.” Another consequence has been the construction of a new gallery, the Thompson Exhibition Building, to serve as a Kunsthalle for traveling shows and commissioned installations.

The proliferation of white-box galleries has largely become a blight on our cultural landscape. I suspect we will one day regret most of them, much like the benighted highways that slice through our urban centers, which are similarly designed for maximum throughput but have only invited further congestion. Contemporary art puts greater and greater impositions on its housing and display. Bigger galleries are built to contain it. Then new forms of art develop to overfill these gargantuan spaces.

Often this new art comes in the form of commissions designed to provoke commentary and commotion around some aspect of contemporaneity. At the Seaport we might soon see installations about swirling gyres, or modern-day pirates, or the rising seas. Or what about the history of the salt trade through large salt sculptures? That’s coming next year. You can almost figure it out yourself. The Seaport even brought in the impresario Nicholas R. Bell as its new curatorial director to crank up the institution’s popular reach, as he did at the Renwick in Washington, D.C., with immersive shows where “photography is encouraged.”

Museum leaders rarely lament these modern intrusions on their historic missions, buildings, and collections. Far from it—the “need” turns their hamster wheels. New buildings spur new fundraising that pays for more buildings and so on. What results are new brick-and-mortar (and glass-and-steel) billboards of perpetual presentness. I will never forget the director of one famous collection who proclaimed that her new Renzo Piano addition would finally let people know her institution was a museum. Of course, several generations of patrons managed to find their way there without Renzo. And of course, they still go there for the historic institution, not its mock-industrial appurtenance.

The Thompson Exhibition Building at the Mystic Seaport Museum. Photo: Mystic Seaport Museum.

The Thompson Exhibition Building at the Mystic Seaport Museum. Photo: Mystic Seaport Museum.

Back at Mystic Seaport, maybe it’s the case of a stopped clock being right twice a day. Or maybe a favorable wind still blows over my beloved institution. Despite my dire predictions, through storm-tossed seas the Seaport has remarkably reached safe harbor. With a major exhibition of Turner watercolors on loan from the Tate, which opened here last month and remains on view through February, I might even say the institution has discovered a triumphant new world.1

Designed by Centerbrook Architects and Planners, the 14,000-square-foot Thompson Exhibition Building, which opened in 2016, is better than feared, even as it nevertheless presents a “distinct departure from the Museum’s traditional architecture.” Wood-framed in the shape of a hollow wave, the building references the Seaport’s collection of ship hulls in its fittings—although with its oversized patio and cavernous interior, the structure most resembles a mountaintop ski lodge. Stephen C. White, the Seaport’s president, says he wanted a building that would say, “Something’s happening here. Things are moving forward.” Such pathetic pleas aside, the museum sought a building that would be “good enough for Turner.” And here is Turner. There are also plans afoot to open up the Seaport’s extensive watercraft collection, with some eighty-seven boat designs, to public view. If this building boom ultimately leads to more open storage and more Turner, the results would be welcome indeed.

There is nothing quite like seeing a Turner, such as A Shipwreck in a Stormy Sea (ca. 1823–26), after just witnessing a reenactment of a nautical rescue by “breeches buoy,” as I did on my recent visit to the Seaport. The former United States Life-Saving Service, one of our government’s smartest creations, patrolled beaches day and night to rescue shipwrecked sailors. The breeches buoy was an ingenious system of ropes and pulleys that could be fired from a small cannon hauled down the beach from the lifesaving stations (which were themselves beautifully designed). Attached to the mast of a ship run aground, the buoy had a pair of shorts sewn to it that held passengers in place as they were hoisted ashore. Tens of thousands of lives were saved this way.

J. M. W. Turner,  Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves , 1846, Oil on canvas, Tate.

J. M. W. Turner, Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves, 1846, Oil on canvas, Tate.

Through its artifacts and displays, the Seaport reveals the true challenges and terror of life at sea. Whaling ships like the Seaport’s prized Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining American wooden whaling vessel, were closer in experience to today’s floating oil rigs than to the romantic visions they might now inspire. They were factories at sea. American ships like the Morgan were the first to be able to harvest, process, and store whale oil, all without touching land, due to their set of shipboard try pots, which could render blubber while underway. “Voyaging in the Wake of the Whalers,” an ongoing and must-see exhibition at the Seaport, explains it all while matching a historic film of whaling with passages from Moby-DickWhalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flow Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves (1846), a stunning Turner painting at the center of this exhibition of watercolors, likewise shows those boilers firing away even as their ships sit stranded. Like a real-world Ahab, the American whaler was always determined.

While the watercolor exhibition is centered around a selection of maritime images, this is more than a “Turner and the Sea” show. The exhibition brings to America close to one hundred works from the Tate’s 1856 Turner Bequest, which ended up conveying just about everything the artist left behind, hook, line, and sinker, into Britain’s public trust. Selected out of some thirty thousand watercolors and sketches by the Tate’s David Blayney Brown, the exhibition presents the full arc of Turner’s astonishing fecundity. The artist began as a precise draftsman in such works as View of the Avon Gorge (1791), Durham Cathedral: The Interior, Looking East along the South Aisle (1797–98), and Holy Island Cathedral (ca. 1806–07). He ended up the atmospheric dreamer we famously know in such meditations as Venice: Looking across the Lagoon at Sunset (1840), Rain Falling over the Sea near Boulogne (1845), and Stormy Sea with Dolphins (ca. 1835–40).

J. M. W. Turner,  Venice: Looking across the Lagoon at Sunset , 1840, Watercolor on paper, Tate.

J. M. W. Turner, Venice: Looking across the Lagoon at Sunset, 1840, Watercolor on paper, Tate.

The exhibition makes the compelling case that watercolor was the medium in which Turner developed and tested these stylistic innovations. An accompanying catalogue of revealing essays and interviews assembled by Bell (who will soon be leaving the Seaport) looks at how Turner began his career as a painter-like watercolorist and ended up a watercolorist-like painter. In resplendent works such as Venice: San Giorgio Maggiore—Early Morning (1819), we can see how Turner’s uncanny sense for luminosity on canvas first developed in the white ground of watercolor, as did his gauzy building-up of scrims and layers.

Water gives and it takes. In his 1950 book The Enchafèd Flood: or, The Romantic Iconography of the Sea, W. H. Auden writes that the sea represents “that state of barbaric vagueness and disorder out of which civilization has emerged and into which, unless saved by the effort of gods and men, it is always liable to relapse.” In his watercolors, Turner likewise mixed the waters of content and medium for his own deep dive into compositional disorder.

J. M. W. Turner,  Arundel Castle, on the River Arun ,  ca . 1824, Watercolor on paper, Tate.

J. M. W. Turner, Arundel Castle, on the River Arun, ca. 1824, Watercolor on paper, Tate.

But Turner was not a pure abstractionist, despite the claims made by “Turner: Imagination and Reality,” Lawrence Gowing’s 1966 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that has long left us with an unfair retrospective view of Turner’s achievements. Nor was Turner a proto-Impressionist, an ultra-Romanticist, an anti-Industrialist, or whatever other school or cause he has been attached to. Turner began as an empiricist. As his compositions dissolved into formless shapes and blinding light, he became even more so, capturing a fuller vision of nineteenth-century life at the outer reaches of experience.

Born into the lower classes, through his own hard-driving career Turner maintained a respect for industry and the experiences of those who build, forge, sail, and render. His sense for awe reflected the real lives of hardworking people of the kind we still see at Mystic Seaport, which you can still reach by land or by sea.

1 “J. M. W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate” opened at Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, Connecticut, on October 5, 2019, and remains on view through February 23, 2020.


Should dead men leave no reviews?


Should dead men leave no reviews?

THE NEW YORK POST, October 12, 2019

Should dead men leave no reviews?

My father was dead less than a month when I received a letter from his funeral home. The mail was hand-addressed. Another sympathy card, I thought, very nice. But no, rather than a note of condolence, the letter turned out to be something else I should have anticipated: a form asking me to “visit our Facebook page and leave a review. We appreciate your comments.”

Having never administered a father’s death and interment before, I frankly do not have much to go on when I consider death services. My dad’s ashes seemed properly cremated. His remains were returned to me in a sealed plastic box in a timely manner; this is all true.

But after paying out thousands of dollars, isn’t that all just standard funeral home procedure? Is there an emoji that represents my feelings toward this final transaction in the cycle of life? Would the crying face, the angry face, the wow face — or perhaps the heart — reflect my impression of a business that turned a small profit over my dad’s demise?

What is clear is that the standard “like” button would just not do. Services rendered over the burial of a parent require an escalated Facebook response.

Like death and taxes, requests for “feedback” have become the unavoidable consequence of just about any interaction. My inbox is now inundated daily with such demands.

“Share your thoughts,” begins one email, from my freelancer-payment system, about which I have no thoughts. “We’d like your feedback!” exclaims another, this one from L.L. Bean; here my online “shopping experience” consisted of purchasing a pair of rain boots, about which I have little to “share.”

“Reminder: James, We Value Your Feedback,” Delta Air Lines writes with increasing urgency after a flight to Chicago — following up on a similar missive I deliberately ignored just three days before. After a series of concerts, Carnegie Hall “invites” me to consider a “favorite memory” and “share your story on social media” about these special and all-too-rare evenings out with my wife.

Long ago I gave up ranking my occasional Uber trips on its scale of one to five stars. It was nothing personal. The drivers have always been hard workers who conveyed me successfully from Point A to Point B.

It’s just that once my trip is over I tend to focus on other things rather than adjudicate my transit experience. Could my lack of feedback be why my own passenger ranking hovers at 4.6 and why nearby cars seem to ignore my requests?

Fortunately, for now at least, I can still summon my local radio car service by telephone, no follow-up required.

“Feedback” has become the unrecompensed currency of the digital age. (China has recently implemented an Orwellian “social credit system” to rank every individual and business with a centralized score that will determine everything from jobs to schools to internet speeds.)

The largely automated requests have little to do with genuine interest in personal experience. These interactions are rather the coins in the fountain of our search engine algorithms.

They are the wishes of good fortune and the offerings of appeasement from the gods of Big Data. Look, they say in their piles at the bottom of the pool, other humans were here, and they did things just as you do things.

By now, we all know these numbers can lie. Maybe someone’s nephew loves to leave reviews for his uncle’s takeout? Or some tech titan found another buyer to slice and dice my every move into bits and bytes?

Still, as though I were inspecting a diamond through a loupe, like most anybody else, I now pore over these online results before making even the most mundane decisions. Why does this hotel have more stars than that one? Why should this coffee maker have a thousand more reviews than some other?

Having suffered a series of strokes, my father lived his life blissfully unaware of these demands on contemporary life. For over a decade he did not have an email address or even an internet connection. So I was the one to administer his online bill payments, contest his charges through chats and field hundreds of requests for comments, likes and testimonials.

After 87 loving, fruitful and honest years as a veteran, architect and parent, he chose to leave this bitter earth at just the right moment. He avoided the exit survey.


Secrets of the Maestro


Secrets of the Maestro

THE SPECTATOR, October 2019

Secrets of the Maestro

On Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Finally, some justice for the ‘teacher of Leonardo da Vinci’. Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence, now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., reveals that this master was more than a mere footnote to his famous apprentice. Born around 1435 into the artistic boomtown that was Florence under the Medici, Andrea del Verrocchio may, in fact, have been the original Renaissance man. The greatest artists of the Florentine Renaissance took root in his studio and grew out of his mentorship: not just Leonardo, who stayed with him for over a decade, but also Pietro Perugino, Lorenzo di Credi and, most probably, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Sandro Botticelli too. ‘Of the three main founders of the High Renaissance — Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael,’ says exhibition curator Andrew Butterfield, ‘Verrocchio taught one and trained artists who taught the other two.’

The first ever monographic exhibition of Verrocchio in the United States, the show makes the case for the maestro's own artistic achievements and helps explain why everyone else came to follow him. From carving in marble to casting in bronze, molding in terracotta to painting in oil, Verrocchio worked with sumptuous precision across artistic media. A goldsmith by training, he learnt to paint from Filippo Lippi, and created art ‘cross platform’. Something extraordinary happened as Verrocchio crossed those platforms, for a spark of inspiration leapt from one to the other.

Somehow, from his experience modeling sculptural form in space, Verrocchio found new ways to render sculptural form in paint, using a new mode of smoky shading called sfumato. Verrocchio’s innovation, first explored in his own drawings and paintings and subsequently brought to perfection by his apprentice Leonardo, changed the course of Renaissance art, and opened the window to the dramatic plays of light and dark in the chiaroscuro of the Baroque. With some fifty sculptures, paintings, and drawings on loan from nearly two dozen institutions — including some, but not all, of Verrocchio’s masterworks — this exhibition tempts us to explain just how Verrocchio did it. 

Andrea del Verrocchio, David with he Head of Goliath, c. 1465

Andrea del Verrocchio, David with he Head of Goliath, c. 1465

In his own time, Verrocchio was best known as a sculptor. He could be as equally adept in the vastly divergent practices of carving in stone as casting in bronze. Although his most famous sculpture and the one that made his reputation, his ‘Christ and Saint Thomas’ (1467-1483), remains in the Orsanmichele in Florence, there is at least one bronze here that alone requires a visit to Washington: ‘David with the Head of Goliath’ (c. 1465), on loan from the Bargello. This is arguably the third most famous ‘David’ in Florence — which is still saying something in a town whose artistic Goliaths cast and carved a tribe of Davids. 

Verrocchio’s ‘David’, created after Donatello’s ‘David’ and before Michelangelo’s, connects the other two, enlivening the ephebic forms of Donatello while hinting at the muscular power of Michelangelo to come. Verrocchio’s might be the most human of these three Davids. His body is strong but slight, and genuinely adolescent. Unlike the other two, he wears body armor, and here the one-time goldsmith produces an amazing play of surfaces between David’s exposed shoulders and his finely hammered and detailed cuirass –– all miraculously rendered, we must remember, in the same ball of wax. And this David, unlike the other, rather gazey ones, seems to know just what he has done. You can see it in his face. There he is, standing over the severed head of Goliath, beneath a thick halo of curls, betraying the most human of smirks.

This particular human quality, a shared sense of earthly recognition, continues through Verrocchio’s works in marble. ‘Bust of a Young Woman’ (c. 1470) on loan from the Frick Collection, and ‘Lady with Flowers’ (c. 1475/1480) from the Bargello in Florence, may be less dynamic than his contrapposto ‘David’, but again the faces and necklines, framed by finely tooled hair and exquisitely rendered clothing, seem to describe figures that are living, breathing, and thinking. They cock their heads. They curl their lips. While the ‘Young Woman’ raises her eyebrows and pulls back her head in skepticism, the ‘Lady with Flowers’ looks forward with glassy, affectionate eyes as she flutters her fingers in anticipation. The expressions are subtle, but the results are present and felt. 

Andrea del Verrocchio, Head of a Woman with Braided Hair, late 1470s

Andrea del Verrocchio, Head of a Woman with Braided Hair, late 1470s

It helps that one of Verrocchio’s innovations was to conceive of his sculptures in the round. His ‘Putto with a Dolphin’ (c. 1465-80), from the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, may not be as uncanny and ‘real’ as his portraits. But this crowd favorite, his bambino di bronzo, twists and balances on one foot so that there is no obvious front, side, and back. Rather, the sculpture draws the eyes up and around in much the same way that the pudgy-winged baby twirls up, bearing his tiny dolphin.       

These works are complemented by several additional sculptural pieces, in the round and in relief, ranging from silver to unbaked clay, or terra crudo. Yet if we are to isolate Verrocchio’s most innovative achievements, we must turn to his works on paper. Verrocchio’s new abilities in shading are revealed by ‘Head of a Woman with Braided Hair’, a drawing from the late 1470s in black chalk or charcoal, lead white gouache, and pen and brown ink, loaned from the British Museum. Verrocchio developed a way to blend his shadows, most significantly around the mouth and cheekbones, into an infinite gradation of light to dark, giving effects quite unlike the staccato marks of parallel hatching and crosshatching, or the rough variation of different pigments. 

Andrea del Verrocchio, Madonna and Child with Two Angels, c. 1470-1474

Andrea del Verrocchio, Madonna and Child with Two Angels, c. 1470-1474

Where did this all come from? There was clearly something extraordinary in Verrocchio’s appreciation of sculptural space that informed his innovations in two dimensions. I like to think that his feel for modeling in bronze gave him a new sense for pictorial touch. After casting in wax, Verrocchio worked his bronzes over to polish them to life. The resulting ‘human’ surfaces, with their subtle reflections of emotion in the brow lines, cheekbones and lips, emerged from this inhuman and laborious process. Similarly, in two dimensions Verrocchio developed a method of smoothing the shadows of dark pigments by hand. His drawn features take on the same rubbed expression as his sculptures, depicting gradations of shadow in the exaggerated way that light reflects off of polished metal. These developments were unlike anything that preceded it, and they went on to revolutionize painted form. Calling him a ‘fountain’, his contemporary Giovanni Santi claimed that, ‘whatever painters have that is good, they drank from Verrocchio’s spring’.

Unfortunately, just which of Verrocchio’s paintings were actually painted by Verrocchio — or rather by his assistants, some famous, some not — remains a matter of speculation. Perhaps more unfortunately, ambitious attribution has encouraged some seriously irresponsible connoisseurship, as otherwise sensible art historians have undertaken vision quests to find Leonardo’s fingerprints in this or that corner of the compositions to come out of Verrocchio's studio. You could spend a lifetime poring over ‘Madonna and Child with Two Angels’ (c. 1470/74), a loan from the National Gallery in London, and still not know for sure which parts were painted by Verrocchio, and which by Perugino, the dutiful Lorenzo di Credi, or some other studio schlub, and not pure Leon. Fortunately, this exhibition avoids such frenzied speculation, and there is one Leonardo painting here, ‘Ginevra de' Benci’ (c. 1474/78), from the National Gallery’s own collection, that helps reveal the pupil's debt to his teacher — while also satisfying the crowds.

It is thanks to Leonardo, of course, that we can now see Verrocchio in Washington at all. Along with major exhibitions at Buckingham Palace and the Louvre, this is but one more exhibition occasioned, albeit indirectly, by the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death. The genius cult that now surrounds Leonardo is one of those mystery religions of our postmodern age, as millions now make pilgrimage to worship at the rope lines surrounding the ‘Mona Lisa’. But my, with that smirk, doesn't she look just like a Verrocchio?

Andrea del Verrocchio’s ‘Lady With Flowers, c. 1475/1480

Andrea del Verrocchio’s ‘Lady With Flowers, c. 1475/1480