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Sunday, October 20, 2013

In BFA Charles Giuliano has written about the Sargent watercolor show at the MFA. This piece, about a 1999 show, first appeared on Addison Parks "Artdeal"



"Boit Sisters"

To the painting enthusiast, professional or amateur, who admires the techniques of realism, the matching of flesh tone, the verisimilitude of satin, the glisten of a moist eye,  JSS provides a sumptuous visual feast. Painting in the stylistic tradition of Velasquez with its direct evocation of human presence, he shares in the bravura brushwork, the love of chiaroscuro, surface and texture that typifies Velasquez's painting. Most importantly he shares an affinity for similar subject matter: both painted the rich and famous of their day. Ultimately it is the sociology of Sargent's work that intrigues this viewer. In the comprehensive exhibit of Sargent's work at the Boston MFA I imagined that I was viewing stills from PBS's Masterpiece Theater or a Merchant Ivory production, that year in and year out satisfy some insatiable appetite in the American viewer to peer into the lives of upper class Europeans of the Belle Époque. It's all there: the arrogant gaze of the powerful, the smug gestures of people, who seem to pursue a life of perpetual leisure, and the languorous gazes of desiring and desirable young women. Self- sufficiency radiates from their gazes and signs of wealth from the elegance of their clothing and surroundings.The medium by which you displayed status was how you carried yourself and what you wore. It was immediate, to the point and incontrovertible. Sargent's cast of characters act out powerfully these moments of self- display.

The rich and famous that JSS painted were on the top of the social heap as was the court of King Philip that Velasquez painted. Whereas the courtiers of King Philip were in no doubt about their standing in the universe, the people of Sargent's world are actors, playing at being a king or assuming the airs of a corrupt and decadent European cardinal (in the case of the gynecologist dressed in scarlet) and know they have to act their part well if the public is to be convinced. A kind of aestheticism pervades their poses. They can at times appear to be pretentious. Something you would never say of Philip the 1st. He doesn't have to pretend. The huge fortunes of the Gilded Age have raised these select few to the top but in the boom and bust economy of that era their position in the world is no divine right. Sargent's paintings are a kind of documentary of the Transatlantic Bourgeoisie of the late 19th century(he stopped doing portraits in 1907), but the work has something of the puff piece: he has no desire to deflate their self -image as Goya was able to do to the Spanish Royalty. He gives them what they wanted. This acceptance of the values of the subject seems to have a regressive effect on his stylistic development. Sargent does not grow as an artist, either technically or spiritually. He never surpassed The "Boit Sisters" in any way. Technically, there is everything that you'd find in his later work and something that the later work doesn't have, a certain success at making the viewer conscious that the image is an illusion. This effect is in part due to several factors: a majority of the image looming out from obscurity, its references to Las Meninas, which is itself a profound meditation on seeing and reality, and a simplicity of the mark making. 

I keep thinking of Alice Neel's models whose clothes hang on their bodies. They slouch, and drape themselves across the sparse furniture. Some sitters are fatigued, others angst ridden.... and all very mortal. Sargent is taking his social models from the past, as did so many artists of that period, but this posing is just a mask, a cover up that allows them to hide their mortality. It was the Pre-Raphaelites archaism that ruled the day in England. Although, on the one hand, Sargent's sitters are very real, because of Sargent's technical abilities, on the other hand they are a cast of characters derived from Shakespeare's lords and ladies.

The mural of soldiers blinded by mustard gas in the World War is an unlikely statement from an artist for whom the indulgence of observing pleasurable scenery was the core of his visual language. In this mural he did confront the horror of it all and the result is an image that for me is emblematic of the end of an era. Painted in muted tones, the soldiers are also rendered undifferentiated by their bandages, which mask their faces and uniforms. The landscape is war torn and desolate. Gone is the world of wit and play, of garden parties or sunlit Italian vacations. The subtleties of moods or the assumption of theatrical poses is effaced by the horror of mass annihilation. The 20th century is there with all its uniformity and scouring of individual particularities.

I have pursued the critical tack that Sargent and his sitter are out of touch with reality. The mass warfare of WW1 and the revolution of the working classes would wipe the smugness from the faces of the rich and stylistically, the art of the 20th century would show the traces of effort, labor and science. However, the agonic posing and strutting,  the exquisiteness of the sentiment of exquisite moments of that Bourgeoisie cannot be duplicated today, and, as that world recedes further back in time, an art that describes it so perfectly cannot be dismissed. No matter how much one might find that his work suffers from a kind of false-consciousness, I cannot help but feel a pang of regret that this world, which Sargent renders so palpably,  is forever gone...

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Boston art, The Marathon Bombings, Robert Lowell and other things that got me thinking


But so it goes for the narrators of the art world.The ones who create the still space, the gallery, where art survives.The gallerists decide: they tell the story of  who is in and who is out and as one gallery director recently told me, who will have the chance to move up the feeding chain to New York and greatness. They can start someone on the race to the top, to glory, but how does it happen that one makes it, another doesn't. The reality is that the world is a very messy place. Good citizens worship at the alter of predictability.They go year in and year out to the Marathon or the July Fourth fireworks. It provides a socially acceptable venue for a little contained uncertainty. But one day some brothers from a part of the world most good Boston citizens have never heard of kill and blow off the legs of some of the spectators of the Marathon and almost end forever the fairytale of Boston, the Hub of the universe, the Athens of America. Before the perpetrators are caught our President comes to the city full of bromides and crass boosterism to pretend that we are going to bounce back, if only we tap into the enthusiasm we apply to our world championship teams. We love our routine: every year the Red Sox will start their race to the World Series and the Marathon will proclaim  the notion and primacy of bodily strength and perseverance, good Yankee self-reliance and discipline.And out of the blue really angry and delirious and, god forbid, undisciplined boys, who looked so all American with their love of sports and drugs, stain the  image of the fantasm that is Boston. But don't worry: words and more words can be poured on the fire and everything will be all right .Before the victims are buried the President and the mayor describe the city as the sports mad parody of itself and proclaim it is "Boston Strong".

At the beginning of one of my favorite novels  "Voyage au But de la Nuit" by Celine we find Bardamu at Place Clichy musing about the the nature of the universe with his friend Arthur Ganate. Ganate makes the claim that the passers-by are not on their way to accomplish anything of any worth; they are just walking about from morning 'til  evening. The proof is that , when it is cold or raining, they are fewer in number and are probably in the cafes drinking their cafes-creme or their beers. If they were truly working they would be out in all weather. So it is with the art scene. The galleries, the content providers, need only content, the empty the better;  maybe just inert content.They are just circulating like the "gens de Paris".And the artists figure this out early on. Just play the game, just show up as Woody Allen suggested. Look earnest and wear the art of the day like some hip T-Shirt. Just be sure to not be anxious or worried about the messy state of things or if you dare just do so with a certain amount of ice in our veins or as the French say: sang froid.

I recall a visit years ago to a Boston gallery.The work on display was some overly tense and fastidiously wrought sculpture by Christopher Wilmarth. The press about him talked of exquisite poetry and magic, where all I saw was someone suffering from an obsessive compulsive disorder. I think he deserves all the accolades he has received but I can't help myself:  It made me nervous. The use of glass made me think that  the hidden and the dark where light cannot penetrate  had been wiped clean. How that happened I don't know? Medication, enlightenment, pure rationality? In the gallery were a couple, who appeared  to be collectors .They were being told the story of Wilmarth by the gallery director.I don't know if the story included his suicide at the age of 44. Their clothing had the same fastidiousness and precision of the sculpture. Excellent cloth,well pressed shirts. It extended to the man's nicely trimmed moustache. From the quality of the cloth I could discern that they could afford to be collectors of art. I imagined them both lawyers finessing contracts day in and day out, cool, calm and collected.They were the sort of people that were destined to buy a Wilmarth. They were people for whom the dark and hidden was not to be considered at all in their well-oiled lives.

This past year, a friend and I had some fantasies about showing in a certain Boston gallery. The gallerist even came by our show leaving positive remarks in the guest book. All looked up and up. But the initial enthusiasm never translated into anything concrete. My gallery mate pointed out the ingenues the gallery would show and we would scratch our heads in disbelief. What he showed was so dry and predictable. My gallery mate's emotions run deep and reach back into history, with oracular depth. The void hovers around his work and almost devours it. The paintings were the artist's soul turned inside out. But we forgot to consider the clients of these gallerists,  Boston's rich and monied class, the ones who made it playing the stock market or in real estate, All is calculation and ratiocination.Nothing messy or scary, or, if it is, make sure you keep it at the level of a hint or a sleight of hand.The numbing redundancy of affectless work.

Occasionally, Boston looks at its soul and sees sorrow and loss and does not cover it over with bombast and rhetoric. So it was with Robert Lowell 50 years ago.

At the beginning of the Sixties Boston was reduced to a parking lot with the onslaught of urban renewal. The tax base was no longer there to support the city so the Federal Government came in with cash to knock down the 19th century and to replace it with anonymous buildings reminiscent of Soviet bloc architecture. The high tech boom was years away and the Boston I remember was not a pretty place. Robert Lowell, influenced by the "Swan" of Baudelaire, who himself bemoaned the Haussmannian demolition of Paris, wrote probably his greatest poem about New England and Boston  and by extension Modernity: "For The Union Dead". So much of America can easily absorb modernity since there was little before it to resist it. Boston already had three centuries of history and much of that architecture still remains. The clash of the new and old was obvious and it was easy to side with the nobility of the past. The overarching metaphor of the poem is the transfer of the reptilian and ichthyan kingdom from the contained Aquarium to our modern world. It is not a pretty picture. But then again maybe the Boston Intelligentsia  has been engaged in a concerted battle against the "dark downward vegetating kingdom" that Lowell secretly longs for. Judging from what passes for art in Boston, they have won.

FOR THE UNION DEAD by Robert Lowell, 1960

Relinquunt omnia servare rem publicam.
The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.
Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles,
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.
My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized
fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steam shovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.
Parking lots luxuriate like civic
sand piles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin-colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse, shaking
over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.
Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.
The monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its colonel is as lean
as a compass needle.
He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure
and suffocate for privacy.
He is out of bounds. He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die—
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.
On a thousand small-town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.
The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year—
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets,
and muse through their sideburns.
Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."
The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
showed Hiroshima boiling
over a Mosler Safe, "the Rock of Ages,"
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school children rise like balloons.
Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessed break.
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.