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Gallery Chronicle (October 2019)

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Gallery Chronicle (October 2019)

THE NEW CRITERION, October 2019

Gallery Chronicle

On William Bailey at the Yale University Art Gallery, Bruce Gagnier at the New York Studio School and Thomas Park Gallery, Graham Nickson at Betty Cuningham Gallery, Gary Petersen at McKenzie Fine Art, William T. Williams at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, and Joe Zucker at Marlborough Gallery.

Paintings of the nude can still be shocking, just not in the way you might think. The real nudity of “William Bailey: Looking Through Time,” now on view at the Yale University Art Gallery, is painting denuded of contemporary pretense.1 That’s the shock of the career survey of this living master and longtime Yale professor: a love for painting, past and present, without modern adornment. Bailey’s nudes, still lifes, and landscapes reach back to Piero della Francesca and the early Italian Renaissance to draw out compositions of consummate craft and uncanny tranquility. Pairing those with examples of his drawings and prints, this must-see exhibition, remarkably Bailey’s first museum survey, makes us grateful for a painter who looks through time and shares his distant vision.

Born in 1930, Bailey trained under the modernist Josef Albers at Yale, where he earned his bfa and mfa before joining its faculty, teaching there until his retirement in 1995. Bailey was one of the key artists to break with mid-century abstraction and lead a resurgence in representation, mentoring a generation of students along the way. When his Portrait of S (1979–80) appeared on the cover of Newsweek, the magazine’s critic Mark Stevens wrote that Bailey “helped restore representational art to a position of consequence in modern painting.” That painting, here on loan from the University of Virginia, proved to be a sensation for Newsweek due to the portrait’s partial nudity. When the issue appeared in 1982, some newsstands even censored the breasts and removed the magazine to their “adult” section.

William Bailey,  Portrait of S , 1979–80, Oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery.

William Bailey, Portrait of S, 1979–80, Oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery.

I cannot quite decide which part of that story seems most removed from us today: that there was a painting of a nude on the cover of Newsweek, that Newsweek put a painting on its cover at all, or that there was once a magazine called Newsweek. Today the painting remains startling for its skill and suppleness, but not for the nudity of the otherworldly figure glowing at its center.

Nevertheless, when I went to see this exhibition with my daughter, a gallery guard kindly flagged me down to warn me of its nude contents. Even today Bailey can elicit an unusual reaction. Plenty of paintings past and present feature the nude, of course, but I doubt works by Titian or Raphael would spark the same concern. There is something uniquely present in Bailey’s paintings, something fresh and exposed. It is not the figures themselves, which emerge from Bailey’s own painting-filled imagination. I rather think it is the way he brings his painted surfaces forward into our own space.

The paint itself is sensuous. Bailey’s touch can be as appealing across the creamy walls and shadow lines of Empty Stage II(2012) as along the shelved vessels in Horizon (1991) and the outstretched leg of N (ca. 1965), his astonishing nod to Ingres’ Grande Odalisque. There is much still life here, perhaps too much at the expense of a broader survey that might have included Bailey’s early transitional work. Yet while these vessels repeat, the treatment of their overall surfaces conveys a broad range of response. Perhaps due to his modernist training, Bailey focuses his paintings all-over, with no one part of the composition commanding more attention than another. Walls and other “background” surfaces share equal billing. This is why one wants to linger over the grass of Afternoon in Umbria (2010) and the reflected window light of Turning (2003). The same goes for the hatch marks of his lithographs and etchings and the stunning draftsmanship of his silverpoint, pen, crayon, and graphite on paper. The abstract passages can be just as compelling as the more “realist” depictions of vases, vessels, nudes, and eggs.

William Bailey,  Eggs , 1974, Oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery.

William Bailey, Eggs, 1974, Oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery.

And there is something mesmerizing in the repetition, in seeing these forms repurposed in ever-changing ways. The compositions become increasingly familiar and, yet, all the more strange. Curated by Mark D. Mitchell, “Looking Through Time” flattens the distinctions between now and then by mixing work from different periods, just as Bailey seems to paint in a time out of time. Instead, the subtly shifting forms of color and light tell their own story. I was particularly struck by Eggs (1974), with Bailey’s wonderful ova, on loan from the Whitney Museum, here alone on a table without their usual crockery companions. This painting is the first in the exhibition, or the last, all depending on how you look at it.

“Bruce Gagnier: Stance” at the New York Studio School, installation view.

“Bruce Gagnier: Stance” at the New York Studio School, installation view.

“Bilious” is the word that comes to mind whenever I see the sculptures of Bruce Gagnier. His distended figures all look as if they swallowed something disagreeable. Their humors are off, sometimes way off, as they sway along and toddle about. Gagnier comes out of a classical and Renaissance sculptural tradition. His nude figures and portrait busts are created in plaster and clay and cast in bronze. But with their misshapen heads and out-of-proportion limbs, these are the opposite of Vitruvian men and women. Unusually small in stature, they are not ideal forms but all-too-real creatures of our downtrodden world, nearly verging on caricature but comforting us in their shared burdens and imperfect body image.

Now at the gallery of the New York Studio School, where he is on faculty, “Bruce Gagnier: Stance” brings together ten of these figures in bronze. “Life-size” but seemingly smaller, these sculptures shlump and shuffle through the gallery rooms as projected and exaggerated versions of ourselves, craning and bending and trying to ignore everyone else around. We look at them as they glance at us, putting into question the seeing and the seen, and just who is better off and who is the worse for wear.2

Somewhat concurrent to the Studio School run, “Good Figure, Bruce Gagnier: Plaster Works from 2019 and 1983” was on view last month at Thomas Park gallery on the Lower East Side.3 Compressed into a tiny upstairs room, these small figures were arranged in rows facing the door like a terracotta army, along with a few of his paintings and portrait busts arrayed on a table beyond. Gagnier’s art straddles that fine line between subjects and objects. As both figures and sculptures, his works seem equally worn down, in a way that becomes even more apparent in plaster. Whether as bodies or statues or something in-between, these men and women appear to have been dug up from some contingent state, as though at one time drowned in a peat bog or buried in Vesuvian ash. The wear and tear that Gagnier builds into his work reminds me of Elie Nadelman, the modernist sculptor who also understood that objects need to have a past, even if you must invent it. What results is an unearthing of form and an archaeology of emotion.

Graham Nickson,  A.B , 2003, Oil on canvas, Betty Cuningham Gallery.

Graham Nickson, A.B, 2003, Oil on canvas, Betty Cuningham Gallery.

Graham Nickson paints snapshots of time through a lush abundance of expression. The moments he depicts can be uncomposed portraits that are recomposed in chroma. Very often his figures are turning away or otherwise off view, but in “Graham Nickson: Eye Level,” now at Betty Cuningham Gallery, Nickson focuses on the face head-on.4 The off-moments are still here, even more apparently so. Nickson works from observation, not photographs, but his portraits have the feel of passport images—unflattering, half-blinking, non-smiling, head and shoulders squared up. The captured moments are not necessarily how we want to be remembered. They are rather how we are now identified and recorded. What gives them some life is the expression Nickson puts into them in paint. Nickson balances the awkwardness of these images, which feel like studies, with the richness of his compositions. In the mix here are also some of his paintings of bathers—faces partially obscured.

Gary Petersen,  Wonder Lust , 2019, Acrylic and oil on canvas, McKenzie Fine Art.

Gary Petersen, Wonder Lust, 2019, Acrylic and oil on canvas, McKenzie Fine Art.

Gary Petersen combines the histories of hard-edge abstraction and mid-century design to arrive at compositions that razzle and dazzle like flickering signage and televised animation. I cannot help but hear that old drumroll of “a cbs special presentation” whenever I see his acrylics flash and spin into view. His second exhibition at McKenzie Fine Art, “Gary Petersen: Just Hold On,” presents the artist’s increasingly dense compositions, where bursts of color press in rather than spin out.5

There is a lot of electricity here, a neon jungle that is barely contained in the edges and layers that Petersen builds into his work. In addition to featuring rectangles on top of rectangles with not quite squared-off edges, paintings such as Wonder Lust (2019) and Nowhere Near (2019) introduce curvilinear forms and shapes in oil that add to the dynamic snap. A favorite is Asbury Park (2019), a smaller painting where a free-form line of ink adds an extra layer of whimsy to this roller coaster of abstract expression.

William T. Williams,  Blues Labyrinth , 1991, Acrylic on canvas, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

William T. Williams, Blues Labyrinth, 1991, Acrylic on canvas, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

William T. Williams is having a moment, deservedly so. His bold geometric compositions of interlocked shapes and swirling lines are hard to miss. As black artists are being written into the canon of American abstraction, Williams’s contributions from the 1960s and ’70s mark out an important chapter. Abstraction is abstraction, of course, but artists such as Williams faced specific circumstances in their reception in American art. Primary among them was an expectation that black artists should be engaged in social content.

Instead, Williams asserted his own place in the abstract sublime. Trained at Pratt and Yale, he moved away from realism towards the freedom of abstract space. “My demographic is the human arena,” he once said. “I hope my work is about celebration, about an affirmation of life in the face of adversity; to reaffirm that we’re human, that we’re alive, that we can celebrate existence.”

Over time Williams looked beyond hard edges for paintings of tiled designs in heavy impasto. An exhibition at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery now features these more recent works.6 Williams’s craquelure surfaces have the quality of drying earth and aging skin. Their patterns recall the quilts of Gee’s Bend and other folkways. Williams gives his surfaces the suppleness of pottery glaze, working color back into the pits and grooves. The effect is more subtle than earlier work, but the result feels raw and exhumed.

Joe Zucker,  100-Foot-Long Piece , 1968–69, mixed media, Marlborough. Photo: Pierre Le Hors.

Joe Zucker, 100-Foot-Long Piece, 1968–69, mixed media, Marlborough. Photo: Pierre Le Hors.

Fifty years ago, in the age of minimalism, Joe Zucker went maximal. He imposed his own grids and limits and then overran those boundaries of artistic decorum, exploding pictorial space with narrative, history, and humor. Now at Marlborough, an exhibition of his 100-Foot-Long Piece (1968–69) feels like a retrospective seen through a single work.7 Zucker looked through the black hole of formalism to detect not just the surface of materials but also the shadow of history. Cotton and race were early factors in this investigation of art and form, with the warp and weft patterns of canvas making recurring appearances. His 100-Foot-Long Piece looked forward as much as back into the wilds of his image-making to come. Timed to the release of Zucker’s major monograph by Thames & Hudson, this focused exhibition also includes drawings and studio ephemera—as well as new examples of the “cotton ball” paintings, gridded reliefs of cotton and acrylic that first made his reputation by surveying the history of art and soaking it all in.

1 “William Bailey: Looking Through Time” opened at the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, on September 6, 2019 and remains on view through January 5, 2020.

2 “Bruce Gagnier: Stance” opened at the New York Studio School on September 9 and remains on view through October 13, 2019.

3 “Good Figure, Bruce Gagnier: Plaster Works from 2019 and 1983” was on view at Thomas Park, New York, from August 21 through September 22, 2019.

4 “Graham Nickson: Eye Level” opened at Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York, on September 4 and remains on view through October 13, 2019.

5 “Gary Petersen: Just Hold On” opened at McKenzie Fine Art, New York, on September 4 and remains on view through October 20, 2019.

6 “William T. Williams: Recent Paintings” opened at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, on September 5 and remains on view through November 9, 2019.

7 “Joe Zucker: 100-Foot-Long Piece, 1968–1969” opened at Marlborough, New York, on September 6 and remains on view through October 5, 2019.

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The Two Minutes Hate Comes to New York's Subway

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The Two Minutes Hate Comes to New York's Subway

WALL STREET JOURNAL

The Two Minutes Hate Comes to New York’s Subway

‘That is your legacy! Dead children!’ yelled the young man, triggered by my arts magazine’s tote bag.

Have you been denounced on your way to the dentist? It happened to me on the uptown R train in New York City. As the subway pulled into Times Square, I looked up to see a young man pointing his finger at me. I thought it was a joke. Then he launched into a verbal assault. He called me a white nationalist, a Nazi and a fascist. He blamed me for starting wars and then some.

I am an art critic. I didn’t know how to respond. As other passengers grew silent, I heard a baby crying nearby. I asked the young man not to curse in public. He wore ear buds and said he couldn’t understand a word I was saying and didn’t care.

“Dead children in the street because of people like you! That is your legacy! Dead children!” he concluded in parting. I was relieved to be in one piece. I looked around at a perimeter of passengers staring back at me. “The subway is really going downhill,” I joked. Then I went off to my dental cleaning.

I didn’t know this young man, and he didn’t know me. My appearance alone upset him, in particular the tote bag I was carrying from the magazine where I’m an editor. I found this out only because the young man wrote about the diatribe in a tweet (since removed): “I yelled semi-incoherently at a man I believed to be a White Nationalist due to his white suit, bow-tie, hair cut, and smug, pasty face on the Q [sic] today. My anti-imperialist trigger was tripped by his @newcriterion bag. Imperial scum.”

This young man, whom I won’t name, served in the U.S. Army. He might have found a sympathetic ear from me on the subject of military entanglements, or society’s responsibility to veterans, or who knows what else. I would beg to differ on the “smug, pasty face.” But discourse was not the point. He wanted only to shame me.

What is shame? In the “Nicomachean Ethics,” Aristotle regards shame—aidōs—as a feeling that must be kept in proper balance. Too little shame and the brazen will say or do anything, with no respect for the opinions of others. Too much shame and the bashful will not speak up in the face of opposing views, even to do what is right. Shame is not a virtue in itself. But a good sense of shame helps us distinguish between virtue and vice. “Whilst shame keeps its watch,” writes Edmund Burke in the “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” “virtue is not wholly extinguished in the heart.”

Is there any doubt that culture today has lost this balance of shame? Just do it, we are told. Be yourself. Entire industries exhort us to express ourselves and our supposedly suppressed urges and identities by ignoring our natural feelings of shame.

The irony is that we now live in a society in which more is permitted but less is allowed. Our sense of shame is replaced by a culture of shaming. Much of social media and the news cycle revolve around this “call-out culture” and its forensic analysis of one’s transgressions. Shaming words become shaming actions. Many alleged offenders end up worse than I did. Some have been pelted with eggs and covered with liquids, with videos of their “milkshaking” made available online for further mocking. As in the recent attack on the journalist Andy Ngo by an antifa mob in Portland, Ore., such violence is increasingly vicious.

Where did this all come from? The soul-denying legacy of Marxism-Leninism may hold the answer. The most deadly experiment in human history similarly demanded shamelessness from its adherents and used shame to discipline its opponents. Conscience is replaced by “consciousness.” The more ruthless and indiscriminate and inward-turning the shaming, the more deeply it instills party doctrine.

From the show trials of the 1930s through Stalin’s mass purges and denunciations, the use of political shame to impose shamelessness—and the shamelessness required to expunge personal shame—has been a hallmark of socialist terror.

In China, Mao Zedong made a high art out of public shame. Everywhere from workplaces to stadiums, the Cultural Revolution choreographed elaborate “struggle sessions” to torture and shame class enemies. Those who pleaded their innocence were regarded by the Maoists as the most guilty. One favorite spectacle was to force professors to balance on stools in their universities’ sports arenas. Their tormentors hung classroom blackboards around the professors’ necks and wrote their names and supposed crimes in chalk.

Instead of making each of us “famous for 15 minutes,” as a wit once promised, the future seems determined to put us through the “Two Minutes Hate” of George Orwell’s “1984.” “The rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion,” Orwell writes of the daily shaming ritual, “which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.” The object of ire could be anyone. What matters is the display of denunciation and the pitiless scorn that must be arbitrarily shown.

What a shame. In shameless times, it is the shamers who should be the most ashamed. My dental checkup went fine, but this check-in with contemporary reality was altogether rotten.

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Gallery Chronicle (June 2019)

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Gallery Chronicle (June 2019)

THE NEW CRITERION, June 2019

Gallery chronicle

On “Picasso’s Women: Fernande to Jacqueline” at Gagosian, “De Kooning: Five Decades” at Mnuchin Gallery, and “Lucian Freud: Monumental” at Acquavella Galleries.

Pablo Picasso once joked that he had an eye at the end of his penis. In his multivolume Life of Picasso, the late John Richardson, Picasso’s ribald biographer, excelled at writing from this point of view. Richardson followed his subject from the studio to the bedroom and back again as the priapic Andalusian cycled through his various models, muses, and mistresses. Now at Gagosian on New York’s Upper East Side, the exhibition “Picasso’s Women: Fernande to Jacqueline” is offered up as tribute to Richardson, who died in March. The show tracks Picasso’s conquests in paint and in bed, beginning with Fernande Olivier and continuing on through his portraits of Olga Khokhlova, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot, Sylvette David, and Jacqueline Roque.1

Picasso’s brush ranged as widely as that famous eye. One feature of modern art is the active erosion of divisions: between realism and abstraction; figure and ground; painting and sculpture; and among portraiture, still life, and landscape. Picasso’s protean modes could be as seductive and shape shifting as his Cubist facets, endlessly folding in on their reflected selves in glimmers of recognition.

Spanning some seven decades, the thirty-five works in “Picasso’s Women,” from Cubist to classical and back again, variously drawn, painted, and sculpted, seem to share little more than the common subject of “Picasso’s women.” Without a knowledge of Picasso’s unpredictable stylistic turns, especially his classical phase following World War I, one might mistake this selection for a thematic group show of deliberately diversified talent.

“Fernande to Jacqueline,” the subtitle of the exhibition, adds little to inform the visitor, since Picasso’s women were Picasso’s before they were Women. They were muses to be ground up into his artistic medium. At first they were celebrated as deities, with soft lines and swirling colors. Then, inevitably, they would be cast aside as demons, with distorted eyes, twisted breasts, and mouths cracked open in choruses of vaginae dentatae. Picasso made sure to destroy his women pictorially as well as emotionally. There is little biography here save for Picasso’s own.

Pablo Picasso , Femme aux jambes croisées,  1955 ,  Oil on canvas ,  © 2019 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artist Rights Society (ARS) ,  New York ,  Courtesy Gagosian .

Pablo Picasso, Femme aux jambes croisées, 1955Oil on canvas© 2019 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artist Rights Society (ARS)New YorkCourtesy Gagosian.

For better or worse, Picasso never shied away from telling the story of himself through the lives of others, borrowing what he couldn’t steal from the various innovations of fellow artists and making them his own. The exhibition opens with a pair of works that highlight this range of form. Nue endormie, a charcoal on gessoed canvas from 1932, offers a minimum of drawn arabesques of hand, nose, and nipple. Meanwhile a Portrait de femme from 1923, in an unusual media of oil and sand on canvas, could be a Botticelli goddess crossed with a mural from a Greek diner.

There are a handful of sculptures in the mix, several of them quite good, all adding to the formal complexities of the exhibition. One of the revelations of “Picasso Sculpture,” the landmark exhibition that was at the Museum of Modern Art in 2015–16, was that this famous painter who sculpted might better be regarded, in fact, as a sculptor who painted. Whether in his Cubist or classical phases, or somewhere in between, Picasso was a plastic artist by and large who unfolded three-dimensional forms in two dimensions, relying on tonal gradient rather than colored form to build his compositions.

In painted sheet metal or cast bronze, his sculptural work seems to flow effortlessly, informing his paintings in turn. The expression of the painting Tête de femme au chignon (Fernande) (1906) is flash-frozen in the bronze head of the same year, while Cubist Head (Portrait of Fernande) (1909–10) makes more pictorial sense when processed through the matching bronze of 1909. Monochrome paintings such as La Femme-fleur (1946) and Portrait de femme à la queue de cheval, Sylvette(1954) likewise convey the metallic sheen of Tête de femme (1931), on loan from the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, and the rubbed bronze belly of the pregnant Femme enceinte I (1950).

For all of his musing on his muses, Picasso largely took his subjects out of his portraits and rendered them as nameless still lifes. His figures do not come alive on the canvas so much as become hunted, ensnared, starved, and field-dressed in Picassoid symbols and forms. Femme aux jambes croisées (1955) is a woman flayed on the Cubist drying rack. The face of Buste de femme (Dora Maar) (1940) looks like it busted up in the business end of a nutcracker, which may be just the point. Even in such a tender portrait as the famous La Rêve (Marie-Thérèse) (1932), some critics have pointed out that the artist inserted a phallus above the upturned profile.

While merely listed as belonging to a “private collection,” most observers will recognize this last work as the painting purchased by Steven A. Cohen in 2013 for $155 million, then the highest price ever paid for a work of art by an American collector. The transaction occurred even after the former owner Steve Wynn mistakenly knocked his elbow through the canvas, later claiming he suffers from peripheral blindness. What record prices and blind collectors say about the art market, and the enduring value of Picasso, we may only speculate. In any case, this painting is now firmly behind glass, as is Picasso’s titanic reputation.

Willem de Kooning , Woman as Landscape,  1952–53 ,  Oil on canvas ,  Private collection ,  Courtesy Mnuchin Gallery ,  New York. Artwork © 2019 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS) ,  New York .

Willem de Kooning, Woman as Landscape, 1952–53Oil on canvasPrivate collectionCourtesy Mnuchin GalleryNew York. Artwork © 2019 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS)New York.

A clash of the titans rages on the Upper East Side. Now at Mnuchin Gallery, “De Kooning: Five Decades” continues the titanomachy of the twentieth-century art gods—and the mortal women who loved them.2

In our hypersensitive age, de Kooning’s mid-century “women” paintings can seem like windows onto a prehistoric era, when subjects could become objects and artists were not just allowed, but encouraged, to do anything and anyone. De Kooning was himself a genre-bending modernist, a supremely gifted and classically trained draftsman who became a conjurer in paint as well as a philanderer in the sack. As de Kooning said of Picasso, “He’s the guy to beat.” Indeed. While Picasso drowned his women in the depths of abstraction, de Kooning wiped away the abstract froth to reveal the women hidden just below his surfaces.

I have always been partial to that moment just before de Kooning’s seismic revelation, when his figures were active but still sublimated in mysterious forms, such as in moma’s famous black-and-white Painting of 1948 and the Art Institute of Chicago’s Excavation of 1950. The women that came forward in de Kooning’s compositions for a brief, furious period in the 1950s receded just as quickly as they appeared. In the 1960s they were diving deep into the waves of increasingly aqueous abstractions. By the 1980s they had dissolved into the gentle fog of de Kooning’s diminishing mental acuity.

There are several smaller works on paper here, many of them on loan from the Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Maryland, that locate de Kooning’s “woman” breakthrough between 1948 and 1954. They reveal how de Kooning was working through the tension between figuration and abstraction even before he began to extract the breasts and teeth of his women from his abstract forms.

Among the painters of the New York School, de Kooning was especially sensitive to surface treatment. His wet-on-wet application conveys a sensuously felt form. In paintings such as Woman III(1952–53) and Woman as Landscape (1954–55), the apparent manhandling of his crude female forms, up close, can seem like an embrace of color-rich oils and enamels. Once revealed, it may be impossible to see these abstractions any other way.

The waters off Long Island helped de Kooning cool these heated works. Following his move to East Hampton in 1963, both his palette and his paint handling began to chill. Two Women (1964) and Woman and Child (1967) have loosened their grip on de Kooning’s abstract surfaces. The “Untitled” paintings here from the 1970s feel like a refreshing swim in the hot Hampton sun.

Further bending his creative focus, de Kooning produced during this period a suite of watery clay figures, cast in bronze, most famously his Clamdigger (1972). As sculptures that seem to defy solid form, these are powerful works, crude from afar, like those “women,” but supremely tactile up close, imbued with the artist’s hand in their squished and pinched material. These are wet, sun-drenched visions, at the same time intimately felt and distantly perceived across the tidal flats.

For de Kooning, these figures may signal a long withdrawal into the recesses of cognition. A victim of Alzheimer’s who died at age ninety-two in 1997, de Kooning continued to paint into the 1980s, even as his compositions became more simple. There is long debate as to what exactly de Kooning painted himself during this period, and which compositions were driven by assistants. Nevertheless, forms from decades before remain as vestigial visions. Untitled III (1983) reads like a memory of 1950’s Excavation, with its evocations of lips and eyes, while Untitled XLII (1983) is mere ribbons of red and blue paint over light ground. As de Kooning’s forms dissolve into light, all that remains is the whiff of feeling.

Lucian Freud , Naked Man, Back View,  1991–92 ,  Oil on canvas ,  The Metropolitan Museum of Art ,  New York. Photo: © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images.

Lucian Freud, Naked Man, Back View, 1991–92Oil on canvasThe Metropolitan Museum of ArtNew York. Photo: © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images.

Not since Rubens has a painter been so focused on the amplitude of the nude as Lucian Freud. The English grandson of Sigmund, Lucian made a fetish out of flesh, surveying the landscapes of his mottled figures through a favorite selection of subjects. Last month at Acquavella, a loan exhibition brought together thirteen of Freud’s major paintings, curated by the artist’s studio assistant, David Dawson.3

There is, of course, a long tradition of English landscape painting, and Lucian Freud is not the only English modernist to treat the figure as another landscape view. The focus of landscape, especially in the English mode, is all-over, taking it all in, with a predilection for Saxon fact over Gallic fancy. Freud was a precocious draftsman. In 1943, just in his early twenties, he made a drawing of Loch Ness from Drumnadrochit that seems to account for every leaf and stone in pen and ink. His landscape drawings remain a high point in their astonishing detail.

As he turned to the figure, Freud applied this same precision, increasingly recording the marshlands and bogs of the flesh with unsentimental determination. By the time we get to the “monumental,” with the well-known portraits painted from the 1990s to Freud’s death at age eighty-eight in 2011, which were on display at Acquavella, this mode has become a manner. Going for the monumental in both the scale of his canvases and the size of his chosen subjects, most notably Leigh Bowery and “Big Sue,” Freud indulged in the landscapes of the flesh and exaggerated their ample vistas in paint. In Leigh Bowery (Seated) (1990), the perspective begins at groin level before turning to survey Bowery’s hills and dales in widening angles of view. There may be truths in these unflattering figures, but photographs reveal how Freud packed on the pounds and roughed up the flesh. In Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995), he added his own crags and mudslides to the human landscape for dramatic effect. These paintings may shock, but the results replace English fact with modernist fiction.

1 “Picasso’s Women: Fernande to Jacqueline” opened at Gagosian, New York, on May 3 and remains on view through June 22, 2019.

2 “De Kooning: Five Decades” opened at Mnuchin Gallery, New York, on April 19 and remains on view through June 15, 2019.

3 “Lucian Freud: Monumental” was on view at Acquavella Galleries, New York, from April 5 through May 24, 2019.

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