“Nature is the model, variable and infinite, which contains all styles.” This statement by Auguste Rodin kept going through my head as I visited Picturing Natural History: Flora and Fauna in Drawings, Manuscripts, and Printed Books , at the Morgan Library. Rodin’s point was that the richness of nature offered aesthetic possibilities no single artist or epoch could hope to fully plumb. Style isn’t the focus at the Morgan: Nature itself is the linchpin of Picturing Natural History .
The exhibition follows plants and animals as portrayed in art over the past 1,100 years-from Pedanius Dioscorides’ 10th-century medical treatise De Materia Medica to an undated watercolor of a morning glory by Fidelia Bridges late in the 19th century. En route, we see natural illustration take varying, if not unrelated, paths, from symbols of God’s glory to examples of scientific inquiry to an outlet for a rather genteel brand of pictorial lyricism. Myth is served as well: In a 1486 woodcut by Bernhard von Breydenbach, we see, among the catalog of animals, a unicorn. Proclaiming its fidelity to observed phenomenon-Breydenbach proclaims on the face of the image that “the animals are truly depicted as actually seen by us in the holy land”-the print provides an inadvertent moment of comedy by underscoring how unreliable even the most earnest naturalist can be.
Picturing Natural History isn’t altogether unconcerned with the aesthetic-we are, after all, at the Morgan Library. Making up in exquisite measure what it may lack in comprehensiveness, the show is a bracing display of unpedantic connoisseurship. It treats each piece-and, by corollary, each viewer-with the respect and independence they deserve. Name artists you won’t need, though Edward Lear, Beatrix Potter and John James Audubon are represented. What you get are pictures that illuminate nature’s bounty. One thinks, especially, of the stringently limned yet lush Flowers, Fruits and a Fly (ca. 1480), a manuscript illuminated by the Flemish artist Simon Marmion. Almost as stellar is Scallion and Fly; Milkweed and Butterfly (ca. 1515)-French artist Jean Bourdichon brings an uncanny richness of color and structure to the title subjects.
You’ll also encounter Johann Rudolf Holzhalb’s Bison , the orneriest buffalo to have graced the earth, and some curatorial drollery, too. Whoever decided to pair Eight Butterflies , a watercolor and gouache of cotton candy-like airiness attributed to the French artist Madeleine de Basseporte, with the Dutchman Aert Schouman’s flatly stated watercolor study Horned Poppy makes a nicely understated jest on how national traits make themselves apparent through art.
Picturing Natural History: Flora and Fauna in Drawings, Manuscripts, and Printed Books is at the Morgan Library, 29 East 36th Street, until May 4.
Having dismissed Susan Bee’s assemblages, currently on exhibit at the A.I.R. Gallery, as the worst kind of pseudo-polemical kitsch, I continued on my appointed rounds in Chelsea and found that I couldn’t get them out of my head. Part of this I chalked up to Ms. Bee’s incompetence. Her brightly colored pastiches of doilies, rubber snakes, looping globs of iridescent paint, brain eaters, bad boys and “High School Hellcats” are so garishly devoid of artistic merit that they can’t help but leave a mark. A firm believer in self-expression, Ms. Bee wallows in the personal and the political: Identity, feminism and-yeah, you guessed it-pop culture are her touchstones.
Cloaking all this in a self-absorption most people abandon in adolescence, Ms. Bee’s art annoys. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t tap into something real, perhaps even hopeful. The work’s haplessness, though not a virtue, signals a sloppy generosity: Ms. Bee has a sense of humor wry enough to deflate her more doctrinaire impulses. There’s no way I can recommend these things; but then again, Maximal Rose (2001) and Hypnea (2001) might just look O.K. hanging over the sofa.
Susan Bee, “Miss Dynamite”: New Paintings is on display at A.I.R. Gallery, 511 West 25th Street, Suite 301, until April 26.
Awesome and Awful
The work of a great artist demands something of us-a relinquishing of self, an affirmation that there are things we don’t know or, at least, don’t fully comprehend. Pablo Picasso was a great artist who asked us something no less difficult: to indulge his genius. This assertion doesn’t apply uniformly-certainly not to his great Cubist phase, when his friend Georges Braques helped whip him into shape-but it does apply to much of the rest of Picasso’s oeuvre . Fans of the artist know what I mean: Who, at one point or another, hasn’t had it up to here with his bullying caprices? Of course, few artists have employed their genius-flaws and all-with such awesome and awful power.
In The Sculptures of Pablo Picasso, an exhibition at the uptown branch of Gagosian Gallery, the sublime and the ridiculous don’t just co-exist; they feed off each other in ways that confirm Picasso’s Gibraltar-like stature. In the front gallery, a sculpture of a woman from 1930, primitivist in style and classical in its prudery, is placed next to Young Man (1958), a stick-figure effigy whose penis has, as they say, a mind of its own. The difference between the two can be chalked up to the way erotic fervor manifests itself at different points in a man’s life. The younger Picasso creates a work of sinuous malleability; the older Picasso makes a crass and lifeless joke. One is fueled by the heat of experience; the other by bitter reminiscence. The passage of time wasn’t the sole cause of Picasso’s inconsistency-as the Gagosian show makes plain, he always was a roller coaster. So don’t head up to Madison and 76th hoping to see Picasso the sculptural pioneer, though he is in evidence. Expect, instead, to see a genius whose cup runneth gallingly over.
The Sculptures of Pablo Picasso is at the Gagosian Gallery, 980 Madison Avenue, until May 3.