Naval Battle Claims Victim: Manet’s Reputation Scuppered

Manet/Velázquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting , the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has been dismantled, the pictures packed in crates and shipped back to their respective collections. Out of sight, out of mind? Not a chance. Manet/Velázquez was an event-“once in a lifetime” is the phrase-that will be talked about for years to come. As an examination of how influence is transmitted and transformed, it set a standard that will be hard to beat. As an indicator of tradition’s viability and vitality, it was invigorating and much needed. As an array of paintings, it was awe-inspiring. Certainly Manet/Velázquez underlined how fortunate we are to be living at a time when the Met is soaring to thrilling heights of excellence.

Having said all of that, and at the risk of sounding churlish, I do have a gripe: Manet/Velázquez soured me on the art of Edouard Manet. With each subsequent visit to the show, his undeniable genius grew ever more deniable. Of course, he was stacked up against giants like Velázquez, Goya and Zurburán-inevitably humbling. Manet himself could have told you that the title of the exhibition, with its dynamic-duo connotations, was lopsided from the start.

Manet/Velázquez did something devastating to Manet: It placed his art under a lens that exposed its limitations without charity. An inability to compose a complex picture, a touch whose forthrightness can’t disguise a crabby ham-handedness, a drab palette whose nuances are rare, a perverse tendency toward thematic obfuscation, an arch aesthetic detachment-what once seemed the eccentricities of a master now look like the failings of a minor, off-the-wall painter. Do people really cherish Manet for the pictures? Or for his modernity and weirdness? I left Manet/Velázquez with a better impression of John Singer Sargent-a painter I usually try to avoid-than of Manet.

Walking through the Met on my way to see Manet and the American Civil War: The Battle of U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and C.S.S. “Alabama” , I kept my fingers crossed, hoping my high opinion of Manet would be restored. This jewel-box exhibition takes as its point of departure a Manet painting, newly acquired by the Met, depicting the victorious ship in a Civil War naval battle fought off the coast of France. Upon entering, you see The “Kearsarge” at Boulogne (1864), the new Met acquisition, and its partner The Battle of the “Kearsarge” and the “Alabama” (1864), from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In the second gallery, there are a series of smaller, related canvases by Manet.

I’m not about to say that these are lousy paintings. They contain inspired moments. The smoke engulfing the mast of the Alabama in the painting on loan from Philadelphia has a beautifully scumbled concision. The Jetty of Boulogne-Sur-Mer (1868) has a pleasingly disjunctive near/far shift of composition. But that doesn’t mean the paintings are good . The stiffness of Manet’s touch deadens the surfaces, draining them of variety and drama. The palette-particularly the greenish-blue, flecked with white, used to denote ocean-is pedestrian. And, again, there’s an awkwardness to the way forms are located in space; objects never quite sit within the painting or in taut relation to each other. I doubt that the Met would claim that these pictures represent Manet’s crowning achievement (to see his best work, visit the permanent collection), and yet their peculiarities sum up and clarify my misgivings about the rest of the oeuvre .

Manet and the American Civil War also includes items of documentary interest: the log from the U.S.S. Kearsarge , a scrap of American flag and a delightful model of the Kearsarge made by Dr. Arthur C. Roberts, finished in 1997. There are also pictures with maritime themes by Utagawa Hiroshige, Gustave Courbet, Claude Monet and James McNeil Whistler. Once again, I left an exhibition favoring a painter I usually don’t much care for-Whistler steals the show. His Trouville (Gray and Green, the Silver Sea) (1865), with its silvery striations of gray, is surprisingly underplayed, sharp and stunning.

Manet and the American Civil War: The Battle of U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and C.S.S. “Alabama” is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, until Aug. 17.

Formula One

It figures: The work of an interesting British artist is being exhibited at P.S. 1, so I head out to the museum-only to find that Phillip Allen’s abstract paintings have been consigned to a dreary, out-of-the-way gallery, a ghetto for dead art. The cloistered oppressiveness of the room (dank air spewed by an air conditioner) was such that the gentleman working security paced back and forth as if he were being held in solitary confinement. The paintings couldn’t offer him much solace, I’m afraid. As with many artists nowadays, Mr. Allen is a victim of the willful ignorance spawned by postmodernism. Art, for him, is a matter of shuffling styles once over lightly.

Establishing a burnished, atmospheric field of thinned oil paint on each canvas, framing it with crusty bands of impasto and plunking a decorative motif right in the middle, Mr. Allen couples the romantic and the kitsch-inflected, the visceral and the suave, the heroic and the hermetic. In doing so, he “reinvigorates pictorial conventions”-or so we’re told. What he’s actually doing is cranking out pictures according to a formula, industriously re-tweaking the same set of painterly clichés. Having established a product line, Mr. Allen has seen his careerist savvy vindicated: The paintings now carry the P.S. 1 stamp of approval. This will make him the envy of many of his peers. But those who expect more from art than marketing strategy will think twice before making the trip out to Long Island City.

Phillip Allen: Recent Paintings is at P.S. 1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue at 46th Avenue in Queens, until Aug. 31.