A Shot of Classical Calm,
Antidote to Picasso Fatigue
In the mid-1980’s, Tom Wolfe predicted that Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) would be knocked from his pedestal by the year 2020. Mr. Wolfe has long exhibited a tin eye for the innovations of modern art-but maybe, in this case, he had a point. What New Yorker hasn’t had it up to here with Picasso’s maddening genius, particularly after an overload of exhibitions dedicated to this or that aspect of his art?
Overkill has placed a devastating light on the work: More Picasso can definitely be less. The capper was Matisse Picasso , seen last spring at MoMA Queens, an exhibition that should’ve been titled Matisse Kicks Picasso’s Butt . I wasn’t the only one riding home on the No. 7 train thinking that Picasso’s reputation couldn’t survive the work’s indolent variousness. Here was an artist who deserved to be forgotten.
Or maybe not. Picasso: The Classical Period , a superb exhibition at C & M Arts, will act as an instantaneous restorative to anyone suffering from Picasso fatigue. It focuses on the artist’s neoclassical phase, which began with a trip to Rome in 1917 and lasted approximately seven years. The gallery mixes New York museum staples like MoMA’s Three Women at the Spring (1921) and the Met’s Woman in White (1923) with a few well-chosen works from antiquity.
The show is all about flow: Picasso partakes as an equal of the classical world’s rarefied calm. The paintings and drawings hold up well when placed side by side with something like the extraordinary Attic Black-Figure Hydria (515-510 B.C.) or a marble bust portraying the head of a veiled woman (fourth century B.C.). That’s pretty amazing.
There are numerous other Picassos of great beauty on view, including the ineffable and tender L’Entretien (1923) and the homoerotic Trois Baigneurs (1921), with its adroit contrasts of mass and line. Best of all is Bathers (1920), which pays homage to Egypt and Pompeii, while simultaneously partaking of a disquieting, decidedly modern artificiality. Would that it, too, were a New York museum staple. Do you think MoMA will peddle its cache of Warhols, Naumans and Richters in order to spring for it? I don’t think so, either.
Picasso: The Classical Period is at C & M Arts, 45 East 78th Street, until Dec. 6.
How much pleasure you derive from The Drawings of François Boucher , an exhibition at the Frick Collection, will likely depend on your taste for 18th-century French art. I have a hard time stomaching the stuff: All feathery rhythms and incessant frivolity, the Fragonard Room is the only gallery at the Frick I sprint through.
Boucher’s drawings are rescued from the extravagant superficiality typical of the period by the directness of the medium and a nuanced, knowing hand-Boucher’s command of the human form is never in doubt. Even so, the touch can get clumpy, particularly when he’s delineating darker values, and Boucher’s prized eroticism loses its spice when he plays to the crowd. Recumbent Female Nude (1742-43) never completely seduces, because showmanship upstages its risqué charms.
Not every artist has to plumb the depths of the soul, but there should be more to art than a mere pleasing facility. Only in The Purification (circa 1769-70) does Boucher summon more than a veneer of feeling and-not coincidentally-employ strong tonal accents to convincing pictorial effect.
The Drawings of François Boucher is at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, until Dec. 14.
There isn’t a single bad painting in Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford , an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and there are a few masterworks as well. The Wilderness (1860) is a stunning, all but impossible shifting of high, thin tonalities. The Marshes of the Hudson (1876) is a tour de force -just try pulling apart its seamless amalgam of unnamable colors. The almost monochrome An Indian Summer’s Day on the Hudson-Tappan Zee (1868) is like a summation of the Hudson River School’s virtues: dedication to the glories of nature, to light and, by extension, to America itself. (Gifford also painted scenes from his travels in Europe and the Middle East.)
Having said all that, by the time you reach the midpoint of the show, you’ll have had your fill of Sanford Gifford (1823-1880), who’s something of a one-trick pony. The sublime ultimately became his straitjacket: His mature response to the landscape never intensified or grew in pictorial invention. An exhibition of 70 paintings almost buries him; half that many would’ve been twice as kind.
Gifford deserves a good look. If he wasn’t John Frederick Kensett or George Inness-few painters are-he’s preferable to Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt, not to mention a slew of lesser lights tangential to the Hudson River School. Long after this show is over, you’ll remember Gifford’s name, and when you bump into one of his paintings again, you’ll know exactly why you remembered.
Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until Feb. 8.