What Is Aesthetic Resolution?
The Question Posed at the Frick
Attend to the vagaries of the contemporary scene long enough and you could come to the conclusion that no one much cares about art anymore. The “challenging,” “transgressive” and “edgy,” sure-there’s no shortage of dealers, collectors, curators and critics eager to swoon at the mere whiff of the stuff. But what about the art object that’s coherently shaped and formally sound, that’s aesthetically pleasing and rewarding to look at? It doesn’t rank high on the cultural totem pole.
Which is why it’s refreshing to come across the following question: “When does a work of art achieve aesthetic resolution, and when does it fall short?” In an era when practically anything is forgiven if it’s done in the name of art, the mention of “aesthetic resolution” sounds impolite, even a bit radical. Leave it to the revolutionaries at the Frick Collection to bring such a clarifying question to light with The Unfinished Print , an exhibition that comes to New York City from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
The Unfinished Print sets out to examine how and when a work of art is complete-a venture fraught with not a little peril. Any attempt to unravel an artist’s decisions is bound to meet with frustration. Art, by its very nature, makes a hash of step-by-step analysis. What kind of person would want to dissect something that pulses with life? Having said that, the human animal is innately curious, and questions of process are bound to intrigue us. Printmaking lends itself to investigative disassembling: A print can exist in a variety of finished states, at times different in temper.
The chief artist to watch is Rembrandt. At the Frick, you see him create three very different depictions of the crucifixion from the same etching plate, endowing each print with a peculiar spiritual emphasis. The first state of The Three Crosses (1653) is a sweeping historical panorama, with all the distance and grandeur that implies. The second is bathed in the cleansing light of God’s beneficence; it’s a transparent avowal of faith. The third state is scabrous and harsh, a scathing indictment of the folly of men. Rembrandt was incapable of putting down (or augmenting) a mark that did not tap into the most profound reserves of feeling. Variations in tone, line and texture are established with grave purpose. Rembrandt didn’t tinker for tinkering’s sake.
Even at his most callow-as in The Artist Drawing From the Model (circa 1639), basically a showy advertisement of technique-Rembrandt works with a panache that is expansive and humble. Take a look at what surrounds him at the Frick. In comparison, Edgar Degas is a fuss-budget, Edvard Munch a decorator, Jacques Villon a dilettante and Piranesi hapless. That’s not to say they don’t merit attention-they do; Albrecht Durer, Anthony van Dyck and Hendrik Goltzius are no slouches, either. But don’t kid yourself: The Unfinished Print is Rembrandt’s show all the way.
The Unfinished Print is at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, until Aug. 15.
Walking through Into the Night , an exhibition of photographs by William Gedney and Christopher Wool at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, I couldn’t help but wonder: What are the qualifications for becoming a curator nowadays? As “curatorial advisor,” Bob Nickas has found that Mr. Gedney and Mr. Wool have an affinity: Both take black-and-white pictures, usually at night, of public places markedly absent of people.
Mr. Gedney is drawn to the anonymous and ungracious architecture of the less wealthy precincts of Detroit, Knoxville, Tenn., and Coxsackie, N.Y. The Lower East Side of Manhattan is Mr. Wool’s domain: He takes photographs of garbage-strewn lots, overstuffed trash cans, stray dogs and abandoned office furniture. In boiling down artistic commonality to subject matter alone, Mr. Nickas does a disservice to the artists-or at least to Mr. Gedney. Mr. Wool-well, he’s been done a favor here. Better known as a painter of cryptic plays on words, Mr. Wool doesn’t know the first thing about photography. Oblivious to the fundamental role that light plays in defining form and establishing mood, or to how composition can contribute indelibly to both, he takes garish photos of grubby subjects because he likes garish and grubby things. He can’t envision anything else.
Mr. Gedney, in stark contrast, alights his camera on a darkened street and discovers an America that is suffused with mystery, tinged with sadness, and unsentimental about being down on its luck. He knows enough about form to transform a political statement-a street sign that carries the graffitied message “Stop war”-in to an abstraction. He knows enough about humankind to embody its dashed dreams within the play of fulsome, velvety shadows and spare moments of sharp, filtered light.
Mr. Gedney, unlike Mr. Wool, is a photographer through and through. Whether Mr. Nickas, the show’s organizer, knows the difference-or cares that there is one-is an open question. That he has no interest in artistic quality is obvious; otherwise, P.S. 1 would be fêting Mr. Gedney with a richly deserved one-man show. As it is, he shares museum space with an artist for whom photography is a lark. It’s a museological bungle that, alas, probably won’t prevent Mr. Nickas from reaching the top of the curatorial ladder.
William Gedney–Christopher Wool: Into the Night is at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, 22-25 Jackson Avenue at 46th Avenue, until Sept. 27.