Hodgepodge Exhibition Is Classicism- Not

What, if anything, can the word “classicism” now be taken to mean when applied to paintings and sculptures of contemporary subjects in the last years of the 20th century and the first year of the 21st? That is one of the questions posed by the exhibition called New York–Classicism–Now , which Gregory Hedberg and Barbara Bloemink have organized at Hirschl & Adler Modern. Another is whether it is even appropriate to speak of trompe l’oeil images of lined paper or a highly realistic depiction of a kitchen mixer as examples of contemporary classicism.

The standard dictionary definitions of classicism are not of much help in dealing with such questions. They are either too specific– “adherence to the aesthetic values of ancient Greek and Roman art and literature”–or too general–”emphasis on form, simplicity, proportion, and restraint”–to cast much light on the problem. Nor are the formulations advanced by the organizers of this exhibition especially helpful. To speak of “old-fashioned paintings in the classical tradition from Maillol to Mondrian, or Poussin to Pollock” is to raise more questions than can be easily answered.

I shall therefore leave to others more learned than myself any attempt to comprehend or even summarize the “New Model for Art History” that Mr. Hedberg offers as a rationale for this survey of what he believes to be a flourishing movement in contemporary classicism, and concentrate instead on what we actually see in this exhibition. To my eye, anyway, what the artists represented in this show have in common is not a coherent conception of classicism but something else: a pronounced aversion to modernist innovation and a yearning to emulate the techniques and conventions of the Old Masters.

In the case of Kathleen Gilje, for example, the masters she has chosen to copy, almost literally, are Leonardo da Vinci and Agnolo Bronzino. Her Lady with Ermine, Restored (1997) is a near copy of da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine (circa 1490), and her Allegory of Venus, Restored (1998) is a near copy of Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time (1546). To the first, as Ms. Bloemink writes in the catalogue, Ms. Gilje “adds a tattooed collar to the woman’s neck with images of howling animals and a message vilifying the use of animal fur as a luxury.” In other words, she turns her copy of da Vinci into a cartoon about animal rights. In the Bronzino copy, she substitutes the figure of Sigmund Freud for the symbolic presence of Father Time in the original. This is classicism? It looks to me more like a Postmodern equivalent of Marcel Duchamp adding a mustache to the Mona Lisa.

The Old Masters were, of course, much occupied with moral allegory, and sure enough, one of the most ambitious paintings in the current show is an elaborate allegorical composition by Graydon Parrish called Remorse, Despondence and the Acceptance of Early Death (1997-99). This is said to be an allegory about the AIDS epidemic, but if not for its title and the information supplied in the catalogue, one could only guess at what its ostensible subject might be. The male figures whose naked bodies are so meticulously rendered in this picture look so healthy and well-developed that the painting might easily be mistaken for an allegory on current fashions in physical fitness. Even the grimaces and dolor to be observed in the faces and gestures of Mr. Parrish’s figures are of a kind often seen in workout sessions at the gym, where nudity is usually disallowed outside the locker rooms. Mr. Hedberg invites us to compare Mr. Parrish’s work with that of Caravaggio, but that is a comparison that would be unfair to Mr. Parrish to pursue.

Far more successful, in my view, is George M. Kelly’s bronze sculpture of a male nude, called Dana (2000), which in everything but the gender of its subject seems to derive from the sculpture of Aristide Maillol. There is a similar attempt to meet the daunting standards of the Greco-Roman tradition of an idealized realism, and in that respect it really does qualify as an example of contemporary classicism. Mr. Kelly’s Dana is certainly a lot closer to Maillol in style and spirit than Mr. Parrish’s allegory is to Caravaggio.

Yet the hodgepodge of sources and influences to be observed in this exhibition embraces such a wide diversity of styles and conventions that the governing concept remains hopelessly compromised. The remarkable trompe l’oeil paintings of lined notebook papers (1999-2000) by Shoichi Akutsu belong to a tradition we associate with the fool-the-eye realism of the American painters William M. Harnett and John Frederick Peto, whereas Mikel Glass’ elegant portrayal of a young male figure dressed in red thermal underwear, Model in Red (1999), is apparently based on the art of John Singer Sargent. Jennifer Riley’s Infinite Playground (1999) is said by Ms. Bloemink to “recall the composition and palette of classic American Hudson River School paintings,” while to my eye this abstract painting of horizontal bands of color looks to be an academic gloss on the paintings of Mark Rothko. And so on. At every turn in this exhibition, the idea of classicism is so distended that it collapses into incoherence. Often it means nothing more than sharp-focus realism or any variety of non-expressionistic representation.

I frankly think it is a mistake to encumber such diverse talents with this muddled idea of classicism. Nor am I persuaded that the work itself supports Mr. Hedberg’s expectations about the future. “If a new classical movement predicted here does indeed come to pass with our new century,” he writes, “decades from now H.R.H. Prince Charles, with his serious interest in creating a new classical architecture through education, may prove to be more avant-garde than Damien Hirst.”

Well, I have news for Mr. Hedberg. Damien Hirst is not avant-garde; he is merely fashionable. The avant-garde is dead and gone forever. So is the classical tradition that derived from ancient Greece and Rome. What we are witnessing today is a plethora of pseudo avant-garde art designed to satisfy the expectations of the museums and the media. In a whirligig culture such as ours has now become, there is probably room for a similar plethora of pseudo-classical art. Some of the artists in this Classicism exhibition may indeed come to enjoy their 15 minutes of fame. But this should not be confused with the real thing.

New York–Classicism–Now remains on view at Hirschl & Adler Modern, 21 East 70th Street, through Sept. 15. (The gallery will be closed Aug. 19-Sept. 4.)