Exquisite Beauty With a Moral: Vast Nature Shows Us Our Place

There are works of art so spellbinding in their beauty that they transport us beyond the mundane and often dismaying exigencies of day-to-day existence and prompt the kind of experience-uplifting, expansive, profound -that we expect from art. I was transported in this way when I visited Cultivated Landscapes: Reflections of Nature in Chinese Painting , an exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the immediate cause was a scroll with a pair of finches alighting on the branches of a bamboo tree. Painted by an emperor-Huizong, who ruled the Northern Song Dynasty between 1101 and 1125-it’s an image of supernal grace. Delicately inflected with green leaves, Finches and Bamboo is at once stylized and true to life, tightly coiled yet relaxed, exquisite and electric. A wall text informs us that Huizong believed art should remain true to nature, yet be “enriched” by “poetic resonances.” Here was an emperor who practiced what he preached.

Emperor Huizong provides the high point of Cultivated Landscapes , but that’s not to say the exhibition is without other riches. Encompassing 1,000 years of Chinese history, from the Five Dynasties period (907-960) to the 20th century, the show is a study in continuity. The Chinese response to the landscape, as seen in this compendium of scrolls, album leaves and fans, is steady and serious, though not without quirks. The pictures, with their imposing yet evanescent mountain peaks and great, gnarled trees, carry a moral dimension: the sense that nature’s vastness, as well as its intricacy, has much to teach us about our place and purpose within it. How much we buy into the lessons of these impeccably marshaled images depends, of course, on the gifts of those articulating them.

Of the dozens of artists included, only the flatfooted Yang Jin (1623-1697) fails to impress. Zhao Lingrang (active circa 1070 to after 1100) and Mei Qing (1624-1728) prove themselves adept at atmosphere and composition, respectively. The most animated is Jin Nong (1687-1763), whose ornate, joyous and, at times, foreboding depictions of plum blossoms positively spring off the page. Nong is second only to Emperor Huizong in terms of pictorial quality, but even those painters bringing up the rear have their resplendent moments. This quietly spectacular show more than rewards the concentration it demands.

Cultivated Landscapes: Reflections of Nature in Chinese Painting with Selections from the Collection of Marie-Hélène and Guy Weill is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, until Feb. 9, 2003.

A Sense of Mission

When I was preparing to write about the Abstract Expressionist painter Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74), the subject of a truncated retrospective at the Jewish Museum, I surfed the Internet hoping to find information about (and possibly a reproduction of) my favorite Gottlieb painting-one of his “Pictographs,” a series of works predicated on Native American art and the work of Joan Miró and Paul Klee. Though I didn’t find the picture, once a staple of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, I did see a reference to Gottlieb as a “forgotten American master.” It could be that he’s forgotten-the scarcity of visitors to the Jewish Museum would seem to bear that out-but was he a master? Writing in 1943, the art critic Clement Greenberg declared that Gottlieb was “one of the handful of artists on whom the immediate future of painting itself depends.” Gottlieb saw himself in no less weighty terms. In a letter to The New York Times , written with his friend Mark Rothko, he declared, “Only that subject matter is valid [which] is tragic and timeless.” Clearly a man who considered painting a solemn undertaking; clearly, also, a man who considered himself up to the job.

It’s hard not to be moved by this sense of mission. Earnestness seeps from the work like a heavy perfume; in fact, that’s all that’s really left of the paintings. Ambition courses through Gottlieb’s early work-variations on Averyesque anecdote, metaphysical realism and Surrealist bric-a-brac-and emerges full-blown in the Pictographs. There’s an endearing pathos in Gottlieb’s endeavors to reclaim the spiritual authority of tribal art with a homely array of glyphs, Muppet-like monsters and omnipotent eyes. Yet the material means are crude to the extent of being uninvolving-one keeps wishing that Gottlieb’s clumpy line would take on Miró’s lilt, or that his hasty compositions would snap with Klee’s resolve.

The Pictographs, however hokey, are Gottlieb’s strongest work. The “Burst” series, the circle-and-scrawl motif for which he’s best known, has its merits- Exclamation (1958) and Three Elements (1964), in particular, are worth looking at-but this is the work of a painter cruising on a trademark style. Perhaps a fuller accounting of Gottlieb’s oeuvre would make a more credible claim for his place in art history. As it is, he seems a vestige from the age of anxiety.

Adolph Gottlieb: A Survey Exhibition is at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, until March 2, 2003.

Ghoulish Inspiration

In 1943, when he visited the morgue at Boston’s Kenmore Hospital, Hyman Bloom (b. 1913) had a revelation. Later, when he recalled his first glimpse of a dead body, he wrote: “[O]n the one hand it was harrowing, on the other it was beautiful-iridescent and pearly. It opened up avenues for feelings not yet gelled.” He went on to elaborate on the “palette of bacterial growth that creeps across the body in the days and weeks after death.” Thanks to this ghoulish inspiration, Mr. Bloom, the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the National Academy of Design, created bird’s-eye-view paintings of sore-ridden corpses. With their patchy colors and crusty textures, they’re garish, opulent and unforgettable; they’re also harrowing. One can’t say they’re beautiful-Mr. Bloom’s fascination with the morbid gets the better of him. At the risk of sounding puerile, the corpse pictures are too icky to fly.

Mr. Bloom doesn’t have to depict the human form, alive or dead, to give his canvases a visceral charge. His paintings of chandeliers, archaeological treasures, Christmas trees and synagogue services are all invested with the same fleshiness. The model for these overheated pictures, all of which date from the 1940′s, is the cathartic Expressionism of Chaim Soutine. The cloistered and somewhat sickly nature of Mr. Bloom’s art underscores the chief failing of the Expressionist painter: the inability (or unwillingness) to get out of his own head.

Mr. Bloom’s nightmares are personal to a fault. From the 1950′s onward, we see him participating in seances, meeting up with bug-eyed monsters, journeying to the astral plane, and pursuing a style of landscape painting that can only be termed hysterical. In the end, we return to the hallucinatory intensity of the Soutine derivations, paintings that Clement Greenberg dismissed as those of a “respectable” painter. Greenberg did have an incisive eye, but for my money, Mr. Bloom’s The Christmas Tree (early 1940′s), Chandelier II (1945), Rocks and Autumn Leaves (late 1940′s) and the glittering fantasy that is the gown of The Bride (1943-45) have more going for them than the best of Adolph Gottlieb. Which goes to prove that even respectable artists are sometimes capable of greater things.

Color and Ecstasy: The Art of Hyman Bloom is at the National Academy of Design, 1083 Fifth Avenue, until Dec. 29.

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