There isn’t anyone I know who doesn’t profess a certain respect for the paintings of William Bailey, currently the subject of an exhibition at the Robert Miller Gallery. That this respect is sometimes forced and grudging has, I think, as much to do with the character of the work as it does with individual taste. Mr. Bailey’s art, thoroughly and solemnly entwined in tradition, resists effusion. Of course, people who place a premium on the outré aren’t likely to respect the paintings at all. They’re going to dismiss as hopelessly antiquated Mr. Bailey’s Renaissance clarity and studious deliberation.
Best known for his immaculately composed still lifes of crockery, potato mashers, teacups and eggs-less so for his figurative paintings-Mr. Bailey has firmly placed himself against the prevailing currents of artistic fashion for about 40 years now. He has little truck with the various -isms that have rolled down the pike; one imagines him taking a pugnacious pride in this. And I’ve long admired his steadfastness-more so than the paintings themselves. Mr. Bailey hasn’t always successfully navigated the divide between the earnest and the self-righteous, between reticence and dullness. Respect is due; enthusiasm is another thing.
But when I gave the Miller show a cursory once-over the first time through, I came away surprised, and with a pleasant sense of vertigo. Returning for a second look, I was, in the end, flabbergasted. My respect had grown into something close to enthusiasm. How could I have underestimated (or just plain missed) the work’s subtle disjunctions of space and optical density, the uncanny play between representation and abstraction? Have I been off in my response to his art all these years? Perhaps. His work’s glacial momentum requires a significant shift of attention from the viewer, a slowing-down that isn’t encouraged by the hit-and-run exigencies of the gallery scene. But I think something in Mr. Bailey has changed as well.
The key painting at Miller is Monte Rotondo (2001). Here, the artist’s signature straight-on viewpoint has been up-ended-we look down on this particular still life. What Mr. Bailey has done is throw himself for a loop: He has transformed his parade of subjects into a kind of perpetual merry-go-round. Arresting the artist’s attention, the painting arrests our attention as well. It’s not too great a leap to think that Mr. Bailey’s newfound loopiness-an invigorated sense of challenge, really-has energized his art. Not all the time, mind you: The figure paintings don’t do much more than make a fetish of Mr. Bailey’s regard for the paintings of Balthus. Still, Monte Rotondo looks like a masterpiece, and a couple of the other still lifes-particularly those lighter in tonality-come close.
William Bailey is at the Robert Miller Gallery, 524 West 26th Street, until March 15.
Touched by Grace
Quality, not quantity, is the measure of an artist’s accomplishment, so why did Diana Horowitz include 40 paintings in her exhibition at Hirschl & Adler Modern? Whatever happened to the connoisseur’s eye that separates the wheat from the chaff? It turns out that overkill in Ms. Horowitz’s case isn’t such a bad thing. These pictures of the natural splendors of Umbria, Italy, and the less splendid environs of industrial Brooklyn are small in size, even-tempered and remarkably consistent in quality. Never once do we feel that Ms. Horowitz has been indulged. The paintings, which seek inspiration from Cézanne and Corot, build on each other, amplifying the quietly infectious pleasure Ms. Horowitz takes in putting brush to canvas.
She does have her highs and lows. She displays a greater confidence when depicting sunlight and a greater relish when painting overseas-mist and the city are less decisively handled. Having said that, Ms. Horowitz does the intersection at Union and Hoyt streets proud, and the light settling on Sackett Street seems touched by grace.
Diana Horowitz: Recent Paintings is at Hirschl & Adler Modern, 21 East 70th Street, until March 15.
Is it me, or is there something inherently unnatural about big-and I mean, really big -photographs? The work of the German artist Thomas Struth, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, derives most of its impact from scale. His pictures of the Bavarian Forest, Times Square, the Hirose family of Hiroshima and, most famously, hordes of museum-goers wandering past some of the greatest achievements of Western art are each about the size of a medium-sized painting. That they seem gigantic has something to do with conditioning (most of us know photographs as intimate things) and something to do with the artist’s interests (Mr. Struth is taken with architectural grandeur). Yet photography has a hard time sustaining bigness-indeed, bigness tends to underline the medium’s lack of body. (Smaller formats, on the other hand, invite close inspection of the image, and thus a greater involvement with space than with surface.) This is why presentation has become one of the defining elements of contemporary photography: It establishes the physical ballast that the medium itself is incapable of providing.
One reason why Mr. Struth works with large formats is that he wants his photographs to achieve the cultural authority of painting. But that’s not how it works: Garry Winogrand’s photographs, recently displayed at the International Center of Photography, are closer to painting than anything Mr. Struth has put his lens to, and they only measure about 8 inches by 11. Mr. Struth’s photographs are, in their way, spectacular, but the vision they offer is superficial. In his world, everyone is a tourist and the glories of art are inaccessible: Alienation, he suggests, is the rule.
Why has a great museum devoted space to such a meager talent? Hype, probably-the Met’s curators are as susceptible to reputation as the rest of us. Still, there’s no forgiving the invitation they extended to Mr. Struth to install in the great hall a couple of his Video Portraits , hour-long films of people staring out at us. What the great hall really needs is the return of those planters with their seating and floral arrangements. They were considerably less vacuous than Mr. Struth’s art, and nicer to look at.
Thomas Struth is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until May 18.
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