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Marsha Cottrell, A Black Powder Rains Down Gently On My Sleepless Night (detail), 2012; iron oxide on mulberry paper; Courtesy the artist; © Marsha Cottrell

If you are contemplating a trip to San Francisco in the next year, do it before June 2013. That’s when the entire SFMOMA will close down til early 2016 for construction of a significant expansion. As the second largest contemporary art museum in the United States, SFMOMA will be tripling its endowment and adding 78,000 square feet of additional indoor gallery and public space (SFMOMA currently has 59,500 square feet of galleries and a 15,000 square foot Rooftop Garden added in 2010.) Unlike MOMA’s alternative space at PS 1, SFMOMA hasn’t announced anything specific for that 3 year hiatus.

In addition to the Cindy Sherman show which ends on October 8, SFMOMA had a number of other memorable exhibits. My favorite was Field Conditions. Here is the description of the show:

Can there be architecture without buildings? What if a wall or a floor went on forever? What happens when people move through a room? From immersive installations to intricate drawings, the works in Field Conditions pose provocative questions about the construction, experience, and representation of space. This exhibition assembles an array of projects by both noted architects and contemporary artists — including Stan Allen, Tauba Auerbach, Sol LeWitt, Daniel Libeskind, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Lebbeus Woods, and others — that redefine the relationships between invisible and visible, field and boundary, finite and infinite. Field Conditions invites us to imagine beyond the frame.

Marsha Cottrell‘s stellar drawings (pictured above) were included in the exhibit and unforgettably masterful.

In the permanent galleries I was pleased to see a number of Bruce Connor works on display. (I am a big fan and have written about him in several posts here including Authentic Tomfoolery) and Moving in the Landscape as One of its Details.) I was also delighted to see a rich and dense Petah Coyne sculpture, a wall of Joseph Cornell boxes and some timeless Ray Johnson collages from the 60’s and 70’s that look completely contemporary. (He is so underappreciated.)

In an effort to support the local art scene, one gallery is devoted to San Francisco’s Mission School, part of the “lowbrow” art movement that took its cues from street culture (and highlighted in the excellent documentary, Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Art Culture, directed by Aaron Rose and Joshua Leonard.) Several San Francisco Mission School artists have become well known such as Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen.

Marsha Cottrell, Hypothetical Place 2, 2002; inkjet print on paper; 35 x 47 in. (88.9 x 119.38 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Marsha Cottrell

Petah Coyne

Bruce Connor

Wall of Joseph Cornell boxes

Ray Johnson

And a bonus shot: Louis Vuitton’s windows facing Union Square sporting an homage to Yayoi Kusama‘s brilliant show at the Tate Modern in London and most recently at the Whitney Museum…

Kusama display at Louis Vuitton

Read the FAQ about SFMOMA’s expansion here.


Ocean Park #54, by Richard Diebenkorn

Most artists can remember those crucial moments that were turning points in their creative journey. These are events that are a more authentic tracking of a life than the customary biographical timeline; that marked up map of a well traveled terrain that is more personal, meaningful and accurate than a linear chronology can ever be.

Two of my first turning points happened at the San Francisco Museum of Art which, in those days, was shoehorned into a few upper floors in the Civic Center Building on Van Ness. I was young and just a beginner when one of my painting teachers challenged me to sit, undistracted and undisturbed, in front of the museum’s Mark Rothko for one hour. And sure enough, at the end of that hour my love of Rothko was cooked, all the way through, enough to last a lifetime.

A second turning happened just a few years later, in 1972. I was more experienced but still a student when an exhibit of Richard Diebenkorn‘s Ocean Park series paintings was installed at the museum. I knew a little about Diebenkorn from his Bay Area Figurative work, but these were something completely different. The minute I walked in that gallery—a visceral expereince that is still there in my muscle memory—I was transfixed. To me these large, vertical works were full of motion and yet quietly contemplative, both mysterious and direct, geometric yet painterly, soulful as well as cerebral.

I have never lost my love for those paintings nor the deep marrow pleasure they flush into being. Those feelings were in full flower in me again this week as I journeyed to the Corcoran Gallery in DC to see the last stop of the show, The Ocean Park Series. Assembled by Sarah Bancroft, curator at the Orange County Museum of Art, with previous stops in both Texas and Orange County, the Corcoran show is your last chance to see these works together. (The catalog for the exhibit, also by Bancroft, is a worthy purchase.)

In case you are not familiar with Diebenkorn or Ocean Park, here is a brief overview by Philip Kennicott from the Washington Post:

The Ocean Park series was a long and productive act of anachronism. Diebenkorn, born in 1922, had already produced abstract paintings in the 1950s, and figurative work in the 1950s and ’60s, before he moved to the Los Angeles area in 1966. In 1967, he surprised himself and his admirers by turning to abstraction again even as the rest of the art world was pursuing pop and conceptualism. While other artists were leaving the studio for more engaged and confrontational work, Diebenkorn turned inward, back to painting, back to work that built on what must have seemed like the tail end of a decades-long project to purify and elucidate the fundamentals of visual art.

I spent two days at the show. Some of the pieces are old friends. Some I have never seen before in the flesh. And it was such a pleasure to become acquainted, first hand, with a number of exquisite smaller works that are from private collections and will, alas, disappear from public view once again after the show is dismantled.

But those beautifully lit, graciously quiet galleries at the Corcoran also made it easy to slip into some personal inventorying. Sitting with those works, I realized how deeply those paintings were embedded in my consciousness 40 years ago. At some point they became like the faces of relatives, so familiar that they transcend normal methods of looking and seeing. There is a point when familiarity that profound moves you into another valence of relationship, to a rarefied place where boundaries melt and it is difficult to distinguish a difference between you and it. That’s when it all becomes an us.

Another facet of this work and this artist that is important to not overlook is what Ocean Park has come to say about Diebenkorn himself. He had a dogged commitment to his own vision of things. He wasn’t belligerent or a contrarian, but he stubbornly followed his own path. In a filmed interview that accompanies the show, Diebenkorn answers a question about who the audience for his work is by stating, “I paint for an ‘ideal viewer.'” After a brief pause he wryly added, “And that ideal viewer just may be me.”

That consistent allegiance to pleasing himself first and foremost was Diebenkorn’s proclivity as well as his protection—protection from the seductions of art world trends, fads, fame. For some of his contemporaries, his flinty independence was seen as a liability to his career. He was a stubborn man, says his daughter Gretchen Grant, but a man of unflinching principle.

A few more words to that point from the Post review:

From these early works in the series, it feels as if Diebenkorn simply floated out to open waters, to a place where the familiar shoreline of art was still present, remote but tangible, a thin, flat line on the horizon. Sometimes one senses the distant echo of architecture, the suggestion of a corner rendered in strict perspective, or of the beams and joints of a building seen in profile…

It’s always tempting to drag abstraction back to something more literal. But Diebenkorn’s work, even the late work with the possibility of some sad autobiographical reference, resists that. Instead, it works best in relationship to itself, an evolving set of gestures and meaningless referents. If one puts these paintings on a traditional time line of the fads and obsessions of 20th century art, they certainly feel anachronistic. But it was also a forward-looking project in that, more than anything else, it shows us an artist clearing space for himself, looking for a little serenity within the shifting currents of art history. Even the paintings, with the complexity all pushed to the margins of the image and large acres of gentle color occupying most of the space, suggest an ongoing attempt to find fields of silence in a world that hems us in with noise and distraction.

Since his death in 1993, recognition for Diebenkorn and his work has been steadily increasing. And for those of us who consider him the ultimate painter’s painter, it’s about time.

Walu, 2008, Tommy Mitchell

On display at the Seattle Art Museum: an extraordinary (as in EXTRAORDINARY) exhibit of contempoary aboriginal art. Mostly paintings, the show has been assembled from the collection of a Seattle couple, Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi.

Some of my favorite aboriginal painters are well represented—
Emily Kam Kngwarray, Wimmitji Tjapangarti, Doreen Reid Nakamarra, Gloria Tamerr Petyarr and Kathleen Petyarr. It also introduced me to some new favorites including Maringka Baker, Eileen Yaritja Stevens and Regina Pilawuk Wilson.

My passion for this work is a long standing one thanks to my friend Colleen Burke who first introduced me to the Utopian painters 20 years ago. And after spending time in Australia (and the Western Desert in particular) my interest has only deepened. I have a few treasured pieces in my collection that I have been looking at for years and still find compelling.

Interestingly Kaplan and Levi became passionate about this work about the same time, in the early 1990s. After Levi was hit by an Australian Post courier, they used the money from the settlement to start this collection. I like their point of view. Many of the pieces in their collection are paintings I would love to be able to view every day.

If a trip to Seattle before September 2 is not on your agenda, do the next best thing and buy the catalog, Ancestral Modern. This is a beautifully conceived book with texts by Wally Caruana, Pamela McClusky, Lisa Graziose Corrin and Stephen Gilchrist.

Denis Dutton, the recently deceased author of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times a few years ago in response to the auctioning of one of Damien Hirst‘s infamous medicine cabinets:

The pricey medicine cabinet belongs to a tradition of conceptual art: works we admire not for skillful hands-on execution by the artist, but for the artist’s creative concept. Mr. Hirst has a talent for coming up with concepts that capture the attention of the art market, putting him in the company of other big names who have now and again moved away from making art with their own hands: Jeff Koons, for example, who has put vacuum cleaners into Plexiglas cases and commissioned an Italian porcelain manufacturer to make a cheesy gold and white sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp. Mr. Koons need not touch the art his contractors produce; the ideas are his, and that’s enough.

Sophisticated gallery owners or curators normally respond with withering condescension to worries about the lack of craftsmanship in contemporary art. Art has moved on, I’ve heard it argued, since Victorian times, when “she’d painted every hair” was ordinary aesthetic praise. What is important today is not technical skill, but skill in playing inventively with ideas.

Dutton uses the rest of his piece to demonstrate that objects that are well crafted, made by hand (in the most positive sense), and beautiful have always played a role in our species’ history, a point of view expounded in more detail in his last book.

The importance and role of craft and handmadeness are on my mind these last few weeks after having viewed the final exhibits for three different MFA programs. Based on the work featured in these three shows, it is clear to me that each program has a tacit—or in some cases, explicit— attitude about the importance of craftsmanship in contemporary art.

Invoking the Roberta Smith taste test* (my personal version of Occam‘s razor for navigating the world of art) I give a high five to Rhode Island School of Design. Yes it is a great art school with extraordinary resources and easy access to different disciplines and programs. But respect for the hand and the craft is evident even when the work is taking a counter position. A RISD value, “to encourage generative thinking and making” is clearly evident in this show.

Beyond the sprawling MFA exhibit however is additional evidence of how the school views handmadeness. Quietly on display in RISD’s spectacular library (situated inside a massive bank building brilliantly repurposed by Office dA) is an exhibit of handmade books by the students of Jan Baker. Baker has been teaching a book making class for 25 years and her collection of student samples is close to 500. Baker has chosen 200 and painstakingly created a “displayscapes,” lovingly populating the museum cases with these exquisitely crafted works. Arranged by themes—story telling, travel, animals, food, alphabets for example—each display cabinet invites your eye to explore a miniature world of artistic mastery. Baker has color coded each piece by the decade in which it was done, pointing out that much of the meticulous cutwork had to be done by hand. “These older works were made long before we had a laser cutter.” I could have spent hours excavating inside each one.

Displaying artist books has been frustrating curators for a long time, and Baker is equally stymied by how to share objects that are designed to be held in the hand, paged through slowly and carefully. Her kimono-like styling—a page open here, a pop up offered there—is more enticing than most artist book shows I have seen. But the longing to jimmy the glass and reach in to hold these gems is constant.

The show is up through July. The displays are on several levels, so be sure to visit all of them, including the window box in the Special Collections wing. This is an unforgettable exhibit.

*The Roberta Smith Taste Test:
What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.

Kathy Butterfly, Pillow

Sue Williams, Color Pile

Figuring Color at the ICA features works by Kathy Butterly, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Roy McMakin and Sue Williams. The intent of the exhibit is to explore the use of color and form to speak to the body: McMakin’s brightly colored and quirky sculptures address the human form; Butterly describes her enchantingly miniaturist ceramics as self portraits of a sort, and they are full of fleshiness, sensuality and seduction; Gonzalez-Torres’s installations of candy and plastic beads are his homage to the physical absence of a loved one; Williams’s paintings veer from R. Crumb-like portrayals of violence and war to a wanton sensuality of untethered expression, the body present throughout.

Curated by Jenelle Porter, the exhibition is on view through May 20.

The wall text did a good job of addressing the mystery that is color. A few memorable quotes:

The realm of color cannot be conquered by the intellect; it must be grasped through feeling.

–Rudolf Steiner

As I worked along, making the sculptures as they appeared in my mind’s eye, I slowly came to realize that what I was actually trying to do was to take paintings off the wall, to set color free in three dimensions for its own sake. This was analogous to my feeling for the freedom of my own body and my own being, as if is some mysterious way I felt myself to be color.

–Anne Truitt

Color became the breath of bodies, every hue the aching limit of a life, as if is rose up from within the substance it covered the way feeling changes the color of the chameleon, or like those remarkable cephalopods whose configurations alter with their moods, or as, inadequately, our own blood comes and goes like sunshine dreaming among moving clouds.

–William Gass

Blue is the color of the mind in borrow of the body; it is the color consciousness becomes when caressed.

–William Gass

We must again find the way to live with colors, to experience their inner life, and not just to look at them and paint with them externally. It will not help, from the point of view of painting, merely to study the play of colors by staring at them. The only way is to enter with our whole souls into the way red or blue moves, and to feel the colors’ living quality. We must bring to life what is in the color…by actually discovering what is in color, in the same way as the power of laughter is in someone who laughs.

–Rudolf Steiner

Tangka from Seeking Shambhala (Photo: MFA)

The MFA’s small show, Seeking Shambhala, is a quiet treasure chest opened up in a corner gallery of the Asian Wing. With a mythical utopian location at the heart of the exhibit, Shambhala (or as it is sometimes referenced in the West, Shangri-La) offers an open invitation to blend both the ancient and the contemporary. An exquisite collection of thangkas (gifted to the MFA in 1906) is combined with Buddhist objects as well as compelling works by two present-day artists, Gonkar Gyatso from Tibet and Tadanori Yokoo from Japan.

From Sebastian Smee‘s review in the Boston Globe:

Is it a real place? A mere state of mind? No one can say. It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside I forget precisely what. The word derives from the Sanskrit, meaning “bliss arising,” or, less rousingly, “source of happiness…” Real or unreal, Shambhala has been described as a kingdom in Central Asia, obscured by a ring of snow-covered mountains and enveloped in fog, ruled by a succession of 32 kings…

The thangkas (there are nearly two dozen of them) are the beating heart of the exhibition; you could spend all your time with them alone. They’re magnificent—at once deliriously decorative, dauntingly potent, and laden with arcane symbolism…They make up one of the largest suites of paintings of the 32 kings of Shambala outside of Asia. And they have been lovingly restored for the occasion: Four MFA conservators…reportedly spent 4,000 hours on the job—removing them from old mounts, retouching faded areas, and adding silk borders, veils, and streamers.

The old is put in high contrast to the new. A series of silkscreens, called Shambala, were created by Yokoo in the 1970’s. They came into existence during a critical period in the artist’s spiritual journey when a monk came to him in a dream and spoke of the “King of Shambhala.” That mystical connection seems very fitting for the spirit of this show.

Gonkar Gyatso’s contemporary piece, “Shambhala in Modern Times,” offers another view from a different angle. His seated Buddha is haloed in the detritus of our noisy commercial world—throwaway images, logos, clippings, advertisements. From a distance it is a luminous and sacral portrait; it is only when you look closely that the nature of the elements making up the image are revealed.

The setting of this show is also in keeping with a spirit of the illusive and ethereal. Walking to the exhibit takes you through quiet galleries of ancient sculptures and meticulously detailed woodcuts. The show itself hangs in the foyer leading into the darkened space that is the Buddhist Temple Room, a space that holds its worthy silence with gravitas. Worthy of more visits, the show is up through September 30.

Gyatso’s Shambhala in Modern Times

Close up of Gyatso’s Shambhala

Another close up of Gyatso’s Shambhala

From Tadanori Yokoo’s series, Shambala

Sammy Tunis as Ada Lovelace in Futurity (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva/Boston Globe)

In an interview with Tony Kushner that took place when his landmark play in two parts, Angels in America, had just opened in Los Angeles, he talked about the genesis of the idea for AA. It was the 1980s and he was living in New York City. The time and circumstances of his personal life had brought a specific set of themes to his attention, front and center: the AIDS epidemic and sexual identity, the role of his Jewish heritage and community, and the American religious phenomenon that is Mormonism. As unconnected as that list appears, he wanted to weave all of them together into a play that used those concepts to forge a much larger story. His success at achieving that has been well documented.

Assembling a cohesive and memorable work of art from a panoply of unexpected themes is ambitious and a bit daunting. It is easier to take one core idea and let it unfold. But when the assemblage approach comes together, the results can be unexpectedly fresh and surprisingly provocative. Futurity, a play with music (I can’t bring myself to call it a “musical”, a term I view as denigrating when applied to serious theater—that being my own prejudice, admittedly) currently being presented by American Rep in Cambridge, is an exploration into that theatrical genre of idea assemblage. Set at the time of the Civil War, the play interweaves narratives of science fact/science fiction imaginings, war, technological utopianism and American roots music. Factual and fictional characters come together and include Lord Byron‘s real life daughter Ada Lovelace, a brilliant young woman who worked with Charles Babbage in thinking through the genesis of computational technology. There is the overarching theme of building a computational prototype, a “steam brain,” that can couple human intelligence and technology to bring the end to war. Part H. G. Wells, part Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, part Red Badge of Courage and part adventuresome and slightly wacky indie-rock opera, Futurity has a lot to recommend it.

The creative team behind the production is César Alvarez and the The Lisps, a “band” by some accounts but more accurately self-described as a “public/performative version of all the relationships you are struggling with.” The members of that creative matrix are well suited at blending music with theatricity. While produced in collaboration with an impressive crew of theatrical talents—Molly Rice cowrote the book and award-winning Sarah Benson directed it—the production still feels like a work in progress however. But works in progress are OK too. The hope is they will continue in their process of being honed, polished and tightened.

A few words about the production from director Sarah Benson:

Futurity is about that power of the imagination to transcend our human frailties and limitations. If war is a failure of the imagination, Futurity asks us to challenge or assumptions and invest in the imagination, our “steam brain” enabling us to think beyond our own perspective and create new possible worlds.

Technology makes real these new worlds. It enables us to realize the imaginary, and as yet, what seems impossible.

And from co-writer Molly Rice:

What was most exciting was that the band was both outside and inside the story. They were never not a band, but never not the characters they played, either…And the mere fact that a band from Brooklyn sought to tell the tale of a “peace machine” made by a Civil War solider/inventor and an unsung Victorian lady scientist? Who also happens to be Lord Byron’s daughter? I wanted to work on that…

In part the piece is about the hidden similarities between seemingly different things, like science, art and war; math, mechancis, and music. And something about about the piece beckoned many disciplines to collide inside of it, from visual art to dance to sonic invention.

Futurity runs through April 15 at the Oberon Theater.

Here are a few shots from last night’s opening for Inquire/Acquire* at the Bannister Gallery. Kudos to curator James Montford for bringing cohesion to four very different bodies of work. And thanks to all those who braved the snow in Boston (just as we were beginning to think we’d slide past this winter without any) to drive to Providence. Great evening all ’round.

Deborah Barlow

Denyse Wilhelm

Marcia Goodwin

Doris Weiner

*Show info:
March 1- 29, 2012

Bannister Gallery
Rhode Island College
600 Mt Pleasant Ave
Providence, RI 02908
Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 12 to 8pm

Earlier Hockney: Man Ray, 1973

Winter Timber (2009), from David Hockney’s A Bigger Picture exhibition at the Royal Academy. Photo: Jonathan Wilkinson

Seeing (and writing about) the David Hockney show, A Bigger Picture, at the Royal Academy was (and is) hard. In some ways I have a sentimental place for Hockney that dates back to my early days as an art student. His early work, particularly those that showcased his masterful draughtsmanship and his wit, left an impression on me at a time when I was learning my craft. And the work that emerged from his newly-adopted home base in Los Angeles became iconic, with swimming pools and palm trees that were a signatory measure of the English gent living in that strange landscape of American suburban sprawl.

I eventually lost that personal connection with his work, but I did observe his development as he powered through phase after phase, from theater design and decorative inventions to a reconnection with the landscape of his homeland. In addition, his lassoing of new technologies into personal style tools (including Polaroids, the iPhone and now the iPad) is impressive for an artist who has been over 30 for a long time.

There are lines in London for all the current exhibits but none were as long as the line to see the Hockney show. In an exhibit full to the brim in every room with attentive viewers, the general sense I had in listening and watching was that the work was delighting those who stood outside in the cold for over an hour. It is a prodigiously huge body of work and a testament to the ability for artists in their 70s and 80s (and sometimes 90s) to continue to produce new work. But unlike most of the other gallery visitors, my experience was not one of delight. While I am glad I saw the show and did have a few moments with his very unique mastery of pictorial space, I left the exhibit feeling unsettled and unsatisfied.

The drawings, done in charcoal, are exquisite. Like most of the work in the show, these were done in the last few years and are as lush a celebration of nature and tree-ness as I seen. But the glorified sense of color that has always been Hockney’s signature flair was exhausting in room after room of paintings, so these black and white images were a place of rest and quiet for me. I looked for them in every gallery as a touchstone of groundedness before venturing into another deep dive of magentas, brilliant oranges, purples and lime greens. For a longtime colorist like me, this reaction was a surprise. But the use of color felt gratuitous, more like the way color is used for cheery illustrations in a children’s book.

Maybe the best of us can’t really see when our explorations, each of which we value deeply, do not translate into a form that belongs in the harsh, staid and naked setting of an empty gallery. This whole exhibit seems to have done assembled by an artist who has the stature to demand and be given carte blanche to fill an enormous space with anything and everything. Was there a conversation with anyone at any point about the visual disruption of assembling a massive painting from smaller canvases that have each been framed in mahogany wood? This felt like a student grade exhibit decision to my eye.

And then there is the issue of two most glaring editorial mistakes: The first is Hockney’s riff on the Claude Lorrain painting, The Sermon on the Mount, which hangs in the Frick collection in New York. These exercises should never have left the studio.

The second is the iPad drawings, blown up in size, framed and then hung salon style in the Royal Academy’s largest hall.

Here is Laura Cumming‘s take on that body of work from her Guardian review:

With their felt pen squiggles and eerily empty transitions, so reminiscent of Photoshop, they appear inert and dehumanised. The surface of these prints has an easy-clean sheen and at more than a metre high they look like what they are: quick studies of dandelions and leafy lanes voluminously enlarged.

Perhaps the technology has bewitched him with its efficacy and speed; and who would begrudge Hockney this pleasure after a lifetime’s experiments with Polaroid, fax, photocollage, video and all. But perhaps this goes to the central disappointment of A Bigger Picture. One witnesses Hockney’s excitement, verve and energy, wall to wall, floor to ceiling and in room after room without ever feeling it oneself.

The best line I heard while I was in London came from a taxi driver. When I asked her to take me to Whitechapel Gallery she perked up and said, “Oh, I love art! It is so subjective.” It was so immediate and so right on, I was still rather stunned when she dropped me off. I don’t begrudge anyone their joy at experiencing this exhibit. For me it was bigger picture, not a better one.

Benefits Supervisor (“Big Sue”) Resting

“There are facts,” the painter Lucian Freud once said, “and there is the truth.” The current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London follows less than a year after Freud’s death at 88. The show is a stark reminder that while Freud dealt with the facts of our all-too-human flesh, his primary concern is the truth that his artistic vision uncovers, probes and delineates.

In many ways the show is overwhelming. The work displayed spans most of his career, and I was reminded how rare it is to see an artist who has spent a lifetime plumbing one particular métier. Seeing those early portraits in context helped me better understand the trajectory of his evolution as a portrait visionary. And while portraiture has never been a form I have been drawn to, this show left its mark on me. Flesh, whether rendered by Freud or by Jenny Saville, is deliciously seductive to the painter’s eye. And both have painted it in profusion.

In a recent review of a Renaissance portrait exhibit (at the Bode in Berlin before coming to the Metropolitan Museum) in the New York Review of Books, Andrew Butterfield‘s exploration into the history of portraiture tracks its evolution in Western art traditions. That show’s curators state that the goal of portraiture was to “‘confer a distinct identity on a subject—as a husband or wife, merchant or intellectual, military commander, civic office holder or prince.’ Portraiture was a matter of both description and aspiration; it sought to capture the likeness of a particular man or woman and simultaneously to suggest how that person exemplified a type or ideal.” Over the course of the several hundred years, portraits moved from appearance and aspiration to reveal a “range of emotion and depth of feelings never before shown in European portraiture.”

From Andrew Graham-Dixon‘s review in the Telegraph:

Stylistically, Freud might be said to have begun at one end of the spectrum of Western painting and moved towards the other – from Van Eyck towards the later, more painterly likes of Rembrandt and Velazquez.

Gradually he became more interested in flesh and less in the gaze alone. There is an element of conscious contrivance about many of the later portraits, which focus so closely on the mute, mortal bodies of those who submitted to his many months of sitting…Men and women, huge and emaciated, are arranged in splayed or pole-axed poses, like ancient Christian martyrs. Yet the milieu is always the same mundane painter’s studio: a place which, with its small quota of never-changing props (the iron-framed bed, bulging sofa, pile of painter’s rags), brings to mind the pared-down set of Waiting for Godot.

Life, these pictures imply, is a waiting-room for death. Sometimes the light plays tricks but the truth will always out. In the final room, one bearded model, vulnerable and naked as a Man of Sorrows, resembles a modern Christ. Of course he is no such thing, just a man posing on some bare West London floorboards.

The border between enchantment and disenchantment is always breached. There are traces here of the magical, the mysterious, the uncanny, but there are no actual miracles – save, perhaps, the miracle of each individual’s inimitable, human presence.

That last line is a good encapsulation of my response to the show. There ARE traces of the magical here, but there are no miracles.