Rediscovered Italian Masterpieces, Including Soulful Christ

Leafing through the catalog accompanying Two Rediscovered Masterpieces of Italian Renaissance Art: Domenico di Michelino and Tintoretto, one of two exhibitions of Italian Renaissance art at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, my eye caught on a blunt and striking sentence: “Tintoretto had enormous eyes.”

It appears in an essay by the art historian William Hood. Mr. Hood likens Tintoretto’s eyes to that of “a predator … ready to pounce”: “Eyes burrowed in the dark caverns of … heavy brows.” On the next page, reproductions of two Tintoretto self-portraits confirm that the description is in fact accurate, even taking into account that a painter-particularly one as “disgracefully ambitious” as Tintoretto-might be prone to exaggeration.

But forget about the size of the eyes. Think, instead, of their enormous acuity-that’s what counts in Tintoretto’s Deposition from the Cross (circa 1560-64), one of the rediscovered masterpieces on display. The painting is a brilliant orchestration of space and gesture: Look, particularly, at how Tintoretto centers a turbulent composition by setting a solid diagonal of light between the dead Christ and his grieving mother. Yet the painting’s soul, as it were, lies in its telling, dramatic details-not least of which are the fine pats of oil bringing structure to the Virgin’s face, dabs of paint so swift and tender it’s as if they’d been applied by the painter breathing them on to the surface.

The spiritual and pictorial locus of Deposition from the Cross is Tintoretto’s depiction of the left arm of Christ. Falling to the ground, outside of the shroud in which he is being carried, Christ’s arm retains a sense of thriving musculature-indeed, of purpose-even as the dulled, silvery light describing it confirms his lifelessness. The slow, almost balletic drag of Christ’s knuckles in the dirt is among the most moving moments in Western painting that I’ve encountered.

Credit the enormity of Tintoretto’s vision with the hushed and roiling majesty of Deposition from the Cross. Then pity poor Domenico di Michelino, whose Triumph of Fame, Time and Eternity (circa 1440-1445) shares gallery space with it. Michelino’s crystalline primitivism, which is no mean thing, can’t compete with Tintoretto’s stormy gravitas. Maybe the folks at Salander-O’Reilly could find a more amenable spot for this intensely wrought painting.

Up the stairs, the art historian Andrew Butterfield has, for the fifth year running, organized a selection of Italian Renaissance sculpture. There you’ll find works in marble, polychrome wood, bronze, terracotta and stone devoted largely to devotional subjects, with a smattering of mythological figures thrown in for good measure. The finest pieces are resolutely earthbound: Benedetto de Maiano’s Head of a Man (Giovanni Serristori) (circa 1475) and Johan Tobias Sergel’s Portrait of Court Embroiderer Christofer Sergell, the Artist’s Father (1759), portrait busts that take inspiration from antiquity but bring it to radically different ends.

Maiano was relentless in his attention to the (at times unflattering) specifics of physiognomy; Sergel stylized observed form in a conscious attempt to reclaim classical archetypes. In their own divergent manners, both sculptors give us the measure of their subjects’ character, thereby providing a compellingly humane core to a superlative exhibition.

Two Rediscovered Masterpieces of Italian Renaissance Art: Domenico di Michelino and Tintoretto (until Nov. 27) and Italian Renaissance Sculpture (until Jan. 8, 2005) are at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, 20 East 79th Street.

Eccentric Intricacy

For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been struggling in the attempt to write about the mixed-media paintings of Josh Dorman, the subject of an exhibition curated by the novelist Paul Auster for the CUE Art Foundation in Chelsea. The pictures-crazy-quilt amalgamations of topographical maps, invented landscapes, apocalyptic scenarios and diaristic doodles-don’t lend themselves to a writerly peg. Mr. Auster concurs: Mr. Dorman’s pieces “are difficult to describe, almost impossible to pin down in words,” he writes in the catalog.

Try following the stream of images in any one picture-you’ll be led astray. Watch as a collaged map of the Mississippi River evolves in to a painted rush of water that, in turn, settles into a descending array of looping lines. At that point, you notice the huge snail and a subterranean cavern filled with-of the things I can name-a ladder, a billiard table and what my notes describe as a “doily alien.” Mr. Dorman’s “flattened lands” are constantly turning back in on themselves, forever unwilling to give in to the logic of a single vantage point. They’re unwilling, as well, to clarify their myriad secrets.

Yet it’s not so much the wordlessness of Mr. Dorman’s art or its eccentric intricacy that’s made it difficult to write about; it’s the aesthetic purview. The realization comes courtesy of Manny Farber, whose retrospective of paintings at P.S. 1 has obliged me to reread his essay on “termite art.” That’s Mr. Dorman’s specialty: Art that is “ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved [and] go-for-broke.” In his moody pastiches of Cubist structure, Surrealist whimsy and folk-art haplessness, Mr. Dorman has created a cosmos so small and dear it’s a wonder he can stand to share it with anyone else.

Only once does Mr. Dorman open the door to the rest of us: in Fledgling Lament (2004), wherein a tracery of white lines, breaking free of a smoky ground of antique ledger pages, undulates like some kind of free-floating collective memory. It’s a haunting and elegiac piece, as rich and as spare as a Chinese landscape painting or a still life by Morandi. It’s worthy of Braque’s dictum, as quoted by Mr. Auster in the catalog: “There is only one thing in art of any value-that which cannot be explained.”

Josh Dorman is at the CUE Art Foundation, 511 West 25th Street, until Nov. 27.