Museumgoers in New York must now accustom themselves, when visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to walk past a fountain of incongruous design. Placed on them in golden, raised letters of a nondescript font are the words David A. Koch Plaza. A sensation will invariably arise not unlike discovering that someone has just spit on your meal.
But we must press on. Masters of painting are occupying major venues in New York this winter. Egon Schiele at the Neue Galerie, Matisse cutouts at MoMA. In addition, the rival Picasso exhibitions at Gagosian and Pace are noteworthy, as is Madame Cézanne at the emblazoned, tarnished Met.
Of the three, in terms of the claims made for it, Picasso & the Camera at Gagosian on 21st Street is a bit wobbly. The exhibition design by David Korins clutters the space. There are tilting floor-to-ceiling panels of blown-up photographic images; dim light, so that the films projected in the center of the space don’t get washed out; and for all the borrowed masterpieces, it feels scrappy and so crowded with ephemera that the omnipresent guards have nowhere to stand. One has to sometimes ask them to step aside in order to see the work, as I was forced to twice, both times when there was few visitors on hand. There is no checklist. The catalog, a doorstop, is available for $100.
If one can put aside gnawing questions as to why Picasso must be endlessly slogged and celebrated to the exclusion of other prescient 20th-century artists (the under-sung punk-minimalist masterpieces comprising the late works of Miró come immediately to mind) there is much to spend time with in both galleries. The Gagosian show features a series of snapshots, including several of Picasso’s digs in the Bateau Lavoir, documenting Cubism-in-progress in the rustic rooms. One thing has not changed: a century on, youthful artists still inhale the odor of musty wood as they are poised to begin their careers in parcels of neglected real estate.
Also included is a small photograph Picasso took of the town of Horta de Ebro as reference for the canonical early Cubist “Le Reservoir (Horta de Ebro),” (1909) with its subdued, silvery light. Probably a studio concoction, the painting’s physical presence is nothing much in this setting, yet it looms large in the imagination; it has a visionary, steely quality that seems to hover somewhere between Cézanne and Robert Smithson, or maybe J.G. Ballard. Picasso’s photo of the town, in its sun-baked, maze-like outcroppings, depicts it as an earthwork. This image is one of the few genuine instances in the exhibition in which a photograph by Picasso can be regarded as crucial to his pictorial invention.
It is already widely known that some of Picasso’s Neo-Classical works of the 1920s, including the most muscularly dainty and pious images he has made, especially of his children, were done from photographs. A number of these works are here, but few of their photographic sources. Picasso is a kind of gangster: when he’s not being sentimental, he’s monstrous, as he is in “Le Repos” (1932), an amazingly bonkers deconstruction where even the wallpaper background comes unhinged, surrounding the stretched-to-snapping pink flesh of the semi-abstracted figure. I am sure she talked. Elsewhere, “Femme nu Couché” (1932) has interesting paint, in that it appears to have gone on slowly. The velocity of application that seems to activate most of Picasso’s work after the 1920s is absent.
There are a number of home movies continuously flickering in the center of the space, and the most unusual is the color print of the visit from Man Ray, Roland Penrose and their respective wives, and how Picasso was willing to be pushed around playfully for the camera and drape himself with a shawl over his head, like Carmen, while lighting endless matches.
I have always been weakened by Picasso’s Dora Maar paintings. His work from his time with her has a searching, tormented gravity that stands out among his various periods. A Bosnian, she spoke fluent Spanish, could not bear children and went through the darkest years of the Nazi occupation with Picasso. Coming to Picasso after an affair with Georges Bataille, she probably taught him a few moves. Dora Maar perhaps got to him like no other woman. After he was through with her, she became a devout Catholic recluse. “After Picasso, God.” She said. (Read Picasso and Dora by James Lord , great stuff.) And Dora Maar really did make a contribution to photography: a suite of works are in evidence here, as well as a couple of her paintings. Gagosian Gallery places on the wall above her paintings a blown-up image of Maar and Picasso waist-high in the sea, lest we forget that she was principally one of the genius/satyr’s many hot babes.
The issue of how Picasso put himself on display for international news magazines, with his trademark black-eyed stare deployed, shaman-like, in an effort to throw his power back through the lens, is well-covered, and at times the show feels by too-familiar images that appeared when Henry Luce publications (Time and Life magazines, among others) dominated the mid-century. What this all has to do exactly with Picasso and the photograph is not ever made clear. Mainly he seemed to use it to propagate images of his work or his various personas to a larger audience, or he used them as an aid to his painting, as any number of 19th-century painters did, or he took snapshots of his life, just like any 20th-century family man. He drew on top of a few, accomplished one photomontage series, and had any number of world-renowned photographers visit him, codifying the artist’s lifestyle as that of a enormously wealthy magus, a pose that artists have been at pains to either de-mystify or emulate ever since.
What is great about both Picasso shows is that you get to stand in front of a lot of great paintings that are not under glass and look at them as long as you like. This is even easier at Pace on 25th Street, where there are even more paintings, the guards are benign and the works are well-lit. There are explanatory texts on some of the walls but they do not intrude. Picasso & Jacqueline: The Evolution of Style follows an elliptical progression of painterly invention that constituted the artist’s final twenty years. These were spent with his second wife and constant companion Jacqueline Roque, an earthily stunning presence in the photographs.
What is most apparent here is Picasso’s problem of how to avoid turning his paintings into parodies of themselves. Certain fundamentals of what he believed constituted a picture were not about to change: painted space would largely continue to be wedded to gravity and figurative elements would go on being contorted behind the theatrical proscenium. Picasso’s space is an interior, a cabinet where sleight of hand contorted and amalgamated flesh, objects and air.
In the same way that he became a hammy clown for the camera, the paintings from these years have an element of the cartoon. The way to avoid becoming a parody of himself was to parody himself.
The very idea of his painting becoming a dialogue among the greats whom he perceived as his equals, Delacroix, Rembrandt, Manet, Velasquez, seems pessimistic, a send up. Trapped within his absolute virtuosity, he would take the European tradition of easel painting down with him. Matisse left him the Odalisque, he claimed. But Matisse spent his lifetime transforming the decorative into the pictorial while Picasso was wedded to the baroque.
To the end, Picasso did not trust color, but in its very arbitrariness and its tonality and the feeling that colors are almost interchangeable, his color becomes great, and seemingly destined to be what it is. He liked ugly objects and once said that he never saw a painting he didn’t like. With his overuse of astringent viridians, lemon yellows and bright pinks, you feel he is always challenging taste.
I thought of Jasper Johns, who long studied both Picasso and Cézanne, as another artist whose work — like the Picassos, here — gives you the sensation that you are watching him watching himself paint.
What is extraordinary here is the paint itself: it goes on wet, it sags, puddles, dries into crusty passages that are then painted over. “Painter and His Model in a Landscape” (1963) fills in curved planes with wooly, sgraffitoed color marks made by pushing the paint out of the tube. The model is silly, the painter goofy, the message seems to be that as death moves closer there is less dignity in life, not more — it’s a rude joke, like the vaginas that always seem to appear as a surprise in the lower portions of many of the paintings.
Thinking of Johns as a student of Cézanne and Picasso once again, it seems as if his statement about using images of “things the mind already knows,” such as flags or targets, so that he could concentrate “on other levels,” could be applied to Picasso and Cézanne’s paintings of their familiar surroundings: their wives, in these current instances.
What modern artists got from Cézanne was that his methodology opened up painting to admit its history in a way that the Impressionists, with their concentration on perception, could not. Haunting the Picasso & Jacqueline exhibition is the presence of past painting, not so much when Picasso takes it on directly, as in the “Les Femmes d’Alger” series, as when he does not. The arresting “Jacqueline with Black Scarf” (1954), for example, seems a homage to Manet’s “Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets” (1872), one of art history’s most tenderly loving portraits (unrequited in Manet’s case). Picasso borrows the slight shadow that divides Jacqueline’s face and almost completely surrounds her in black, but for some pearly background light, as in the Manet. The only change is a tight headscarf instead of a hat and a complex painterly rendition of the chair caning, a motif the dates back to cubism, behind the figure.
In the many Jacqueline portraits she wears a striped blouse, another motif seen in a number of Cézanne’s quicksilver portraits of his wife, Hortense Fiquet, the subject of the show Madame Cézanne at the Met, where her appearance changes in every portrait. The more you study these works, the more you get the feeling that Cézanne, at some point would get lost and despair, then resolve the painting by coaxing it towards one he had seen in a gallery or museum. This is how paintings still get finished all the time.
“Madame Cézanne Leaning on a Table” from 1874, depicts his new mistress with a dumb honesty that makes her look like a underage barmaid from the Dutch painter Adriaen Brouwer, but is nonetheless a loving, subtly pre-or post-coital depiction. Amid the luminous browns, ochres, dusty blues and grays, the brightest area is the (vaginal?) pink bow below Hortense’s neck. In the distance, the ribs of what appears to be a bed frame rhyme with the striped cuffs above her mitt-like hands. Nearby, in an a intimately small portrait, he paints Hortense to look like a dreamy version of Baudelaire’s mistress, Jeanne Duval, with long, loosened hair, wearing only a pendant around her neck and surrounded by brushstrokes approximating lush greenery. Cézanne read Baudelaire throughout his life, particularly his notes on Delacroix, and Baudelaire’s image is perhaps behind another portrait, that of “Madame Cêzanne in the Conservatory” (1891), with her inky blue dress and unpainted fingers; the sitter’s impassive visage uncannily recalls Nadar’s portrait of Baudelaire.
One also notices the section on the right edge, near the flowers, where the paint goes every which way, squiggles rambling over flowers, like in the Albert Oehlen paintings on painted fabric at Skarstedt Gallery, down the street from the museum.
The somber palate in the lifelike, semi-side view portrait (ca. 1885-88) that Matisse owned (for which HIS wife raised the money so he could have it), is sensuous beneath the swift palette knife erasure on the right by Madame’s upturned nose. “Portrait of Madame Cézanne” (1885), from Berlin, has an obscure magic akin to Redon and is more tender than most, with Hortense’s full-on stare and the subtle arabesque emerging from her deep blue patterned blouse.
Cézanne was also a proto-surrealist. His somnolently odd pencil portraits seem to draw us out of time, Balthus-like, towards an eternal, mildly depressive mid-afternoon, a drowsy death of the day.
Four versions of “Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress” assembled for the first time, march across the wall of one gallery like a progression of Papal Portraits. The most well-known of them, at least in this city, the Met owns, and has all the crazy tilting-ness of a painting in a haunted house.
Themes emerge as one moves through this collected series, such as the always slightly different but always uncertain mouth, the descending trilogy of parted hair, the steady eyes and spread collar, or the way that the portrait is divided by different backgrounds, light and dark, or often split behind the head, (one of the ideas Matisse took up in his own portraits of his wife). “Cézanne and Matisse Paint Their Wives” by Hilary Spurling, incidentally, is the highlight among the essays in the very good Madame Cézanne catalog.
“Madame Cézanne” (ca. 1886-88), another painting with a weird face, a hooked nose and nervously clasped hands, has regally muddy patches and seems as if it has been carved from the inside of a cave. One imagines it literalized by Magritte.
It is a prime example of what is present in everything here, an arrested state of becoming a painting, and its simultaneous unraveling, as one detects, especially in the crevices, the history of painting itself in the form of patches of paint from other paintings. Where they appear, they are uncannily like a matrix, their intertextuality made apparent: paintings past and future passing though them. Cézanne is a primary text, in the sense that an artist can still come to Cézanne and find ways to interpret him anew. Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Giacometti, to name the dominant examples, all attempted to define him and get past him, but Jasper Johns and Simon Hantaï, to mention two , went to the source and found a new way to utilize him. I suspect this may have also been the case with Raoul de Kayser.
It is actually easier to look at Cézanne’s achievement in a situation like this, where there is a very circumscribed theme, because he can be seen more abstractly and intellectually than when one is faced with a variety of motifs. The transitory qualities of Cézanne’s works, and the wisdom seemingly contained in that condition, are what place him. in the eyes of many, high above most artists, the equivalent of Bach, or Shakespeare.
Picasso & the Camera continues at Gagosian Gallery (522 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 3, 2015.
Picasso & Jacqueline: The Evolution of Style continues at two of Pace Gallery’s New York locations (32 East 57th Street, Midtown, Manhattan and 534 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 10, 2015.
Madame Cézanne continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 15, 2015.