Subtle Pleasures of Still Life
Blossom in Specialist Show
I’m willing to bet my Observer paycheck that the same number of people who attended the exhibition of still lifes by Evaristo Baschenis, a 17th-century Italian painter, a few years back at the Met-not many-will be visiting the Frick Collection’s current exhibition, Anne Vallayer-Coster: Painter to the Court of Marie-Antoinette . I don’t mean to imply that the Vallayer-Coster show, which focuses exclusively on her still-life paintings, isn’t top-notch. It is, one might say, typically Frickian in its quality, though the exhibition was actually organized by the Dallas Museum of Art. Nor do I want to suggest that there’s something inherently unsexy about still-life painting. The verisimilitude of Vallayer-Coster’s paintings will delight those who do encounter them.
What all but guarantees Painter to the Court of Marie-Antoinette a modest audience is a lack of marquee value. Vallayer-Coster isn’t a name likely to roll off the tongue, even of those conversant with art history. (The patron, Marie Antoinette, provides the only star power here.) This is a specialist’s show: The paintings require an eye attuned not so much to a specific genre as to what the artist brings to it. The pleasures of the work are subtle. Seen among the paintings of her contemporaries, Vallayer-Coster wouldn’t make much of an impression. Seen on its own and given ample space, the painting is allowed to announce itself and the artist’s gift made clear.
Vallayer-Coster (1744-1818) was accepted by the prestigious Royal Academy at the age of 26. This makes her a prodigy and a special case. But how good of a painter was she? A quick jaunt up the Frick’s staircase confirms that she lacked Chardin’s uncanny gift for animating form; nor did she achieve the unyielding exactitude of the Dutch and Flemish painters she so admired. Vallayer-Coster’s art is considerably less intense, though it can be spectacular in its ambitions. Paintings like Still Life with Lobster (1817) and, especially, Still Life with Seashells and Coral (1769), rebuke the hierarchy that placed still-life at the bottom rung of viable painterly subjects.
Clearly relishing the challenge of depicting a variety of objects in a single setting, Vallayer-Coster was better at painting some things than others. Steel, glass and porcelain were not her strong suits; neither were dead animals-the notable exception being lobsters, whose reddish-orange coloration and gnarled features inspired her to breathtaking moments of painterly lucidity. Flowers were her thing. A small undated study of gillyflowers, done with oil on paper, is unusual in its angularity and density of surface. More representative is a nearby bouquet from 1789: Suffused with a languid opulence, the picture is sensual and hedonistic, but not overly so. One can’t quite work up a passion for Vallayer-Coster’s art; indeed, passion seems an inappropriate response. A polite admiration is called for, and that’s exactly the response the organizers of this sterling exhibition have made possible.
Anne Vallayer-Coster: Painter to the Court of Marie-Antoinette is at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, until March 23.
Does it really take 10 good paintings to match one good sculpture? That’s apparently the opinion of Sidney Geist, who’s not only a critic but a sculptor; so he’s biased in the matter. In the case of the American artist Tony Smith (1912-1980), who was a sculptor as well as an architect and painter, Mr. Geist’s declaration is right on the money. Smith’s Louisenberg paintings, named after a geographical site near Bayreuth and now the subject of an exhibition at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, live in the shadow of the sculptures, those implacable monoliths whose concentration of form links them to Minimalism and whose crankiness of spirit shows Minimalism the door.
A similar contrariness informs the Louisenberg paintings. Blocking off each canvas with a grid and using the circle as a basic compositional module, Smith created paintings that hew to the systematic and call it into question. Filled with shapes that can be likened to oversized peanuts or socks filled with tennis balls, the pictures posit a denatured, though not unplayful, biomorphism. They’re smart and efficient pieces, yet ultimately lightweight and sometimes slapdash. To find Smith’s heart and soul, you have to turn to the sculptures. Having said that, whoever acquires the small 1953 canvas keyed to gray, yellow and blue should be congratulated-it’s a honey of a picture.
Tony Smith: Louisenberg is at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 1018 Madison Avenue, until March 1.
Composition 260A (1944), a painting by the Greek-born American painter Jean Xceron (1890-1967) on display at the Kouros Gallery, is in terrible shape: The stretcher is warped, the surface cracked; it could use a once-over with a damp cloth and some mild detergent. It’s not aging gracefully-which isn’t to say it’s old . On the contrary, Xceron’s canvas feels brand-new, even “relevant.” With its geometric network of whites and grays punctuated by brightly colored rectangles, the painting could well be an homage to our digital age. It seems to anticipate both the look of a P.C.’s innards and the free-floating, utterly rational character of the virtual desktop.
Xceron wasn’t a prophet; he was just following in the footsteps of the Modernist painters he admired. The influence of Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Klee and Torres-Garcia is readily discernible in the patchwork retrospective at Kouros. Though some of the pieces may seem derivative, a current of individualism eventually pushes to the fore. Nothing else comes close to matching Composition 260A in terms of pictorial surety. As for its digital character, it’s a striking coincidence, and a measure of the painting’s metaphoric elasticity. Xceron’s minor masterwork may glance off of contemporary phenomena, but it isn’t bound by them and is unlikely to stale. Can the same be said of the efforts of our current crop of computer-impacted artisans? As my son might say: “Yeah, right.”
Jean Xceron: Paintings and Works on Paper is at the Kouros Gallery, 23 East 73rd Street, until Feb. 22.