Two Decades of Dazzle: Parmigianino’s Brief Career

The Italian painter Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, better known as Parmigianino, died in 1540 at the age of 37. It’s

The Italian painter Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, better known as Parmigianino, died in 1540 at the age of 37. It’s worth keeping the short span of his life in mind when visiting A Beautiful and Gracious Manner: The Art of Parmigianino , an exhibition at the Frick Collection mounted to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the artist’s birth. A handful of paintings, a smattering of prints and 51 drawings offer testimony to Parmigianino’s amazing 20-year career. His effortless prolificacy will give pause to those who won’t see 40 again-or 30, for that matter. Measuring our accomplishments against Parmigianino’s, we’re likely to conclude that we’ve wasted a lot of time sitting around doing nothing.

Parmigianino’s fluid and graceful gift is awe-inspiring. In Lives of the Artists , Vasari dubbed him “Raphael reborn”; another contemporaneous observer likened him to a “force of nature.” Confronted by Saint Christopher (circa 1538), an elegantly brittle picture rendered with pen, brown ink and wash on pink paper, who would argue otherwise? Parmigianino was incapable of putting a mark on paper that didn’t activate its surface. The drawings are unfailing in their mastery, the touch startling, particularly when it looks casual: Drapery Study for the “Vision of Saint Jerome” (circa 1526-27), an incredibly erotic picture of some drapery, a right leg and a torso of indeterminate sex, has the improvisational character of something knocked out during a coffee break.

There’s another reason to note the short scope of Parmigianino’s life: the unformed character of his art. A Beautiful and Gracious Manner leaves us with an impression of a boundless talent never quite brought to fruition. Over the course of the exhibition, Parmigianino remains a magisterial cipher; he never shakes a fundamental anonymity. The formal continuities of the oeuvre are distinctly individual (the tumultuous coalescing of muscle; a sinuous, tornado-like rhythm; a sensuality that makes itself known primarily through mass), but his virtuosity doesn’t serve a consistent vision. Parmigianino’s authority feels undirected, untamed. The oil painting Portrait of Cardinal Lorenzo Pucci (circa 1529-1530) exemplifies the problem: The personality of the sitter is overpowered by the stormy abstract rush of the black and white vestments. Parmigianino’s priorities are misplaced.

It’s hard to get a hold of him as a painter. The few canvases at the Frick don’t tell us much; they seem to have been included only because someone was willing to loan them. The drawings are more helpful (the medium, because it’s so direct, reveals more than it conceals).

One wonders what Parmigianino might have achieved had he lived longer. Maybe he would have been the “Raphael reborn” promised by Vasari. Maybe he would have bettered Correggio, a powerhouse contemporary who was probably his teacher. In his short life, however, Parmigianino produced plenty of dazzle.

A Beautiful and Gracious Manner: The Art of Parmigianino is at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, until April 18.

Sophisticated Spaniard

In 1957, Jean Cassou, director of the Musée d’Art Moderne, lauded the work of the Spanish artist Gerardo Rueda (1926-1996) for its “proof of taste and intelligence.” The paintings, wall reliefs and sculptures featured in the Rueda retrospective at the Chelsea Art Museum confirm Cassou’s judgment: Rueda knew his stuff, and good stuff it was, too. He embraced Cubism, Constructivism and, less conspicuously, Surrealism as means by which to underscore a fascination with architectonic structure and raw material.

The earliest work, Landscape (1955), is a spare and moody distillation of a huddled group of buildings. The later images are more diagrammatic and the pictorial space flattened; illusion has been abandoned. Minimal and monochromatic, the paintings turned into objects: Burgos (1961) is a field of gray punctuated by slathered eruptions of oil paint. From the 1960’s onward, Rueda specialized in geometric wall-reliefs made from stretcher bars, incised wooden panels and, later, found objects. He also created sculptures from planks of steel, two-by-fours and old cans. He made collages from cigarette and match boxes. A faint strain of the metaphysical pervades the work … and later, a veneer of nostalgia.

A few years back, the Spanish Institute presented an array of Rueda’s collages, a slight but charming show. At the time, I wondered what the rest of the oeuvre might look like. Not much, it turns out: The retrospective in Chelsea is unremittingly bland and derivative. Rueda transformed Modernism into a more palatable, hence less pointed, version of itself. There isn’t a moment when you’re not reminded of a superior artist. Giorgio de Chirico, Nicolas de Stael, Giorgio Morandi, Ad Reinhardt, Ellsworth Kelly, Antoni Tàpies, Richard Diebenkorn and Louise Nevelson-Rueda took inspiration from each of them, and went nowhere with it.

By the time you reach the late table-top assemblages, pieces that could be described as “lumberyard kitsch,” you begin to wonder: Are taste and intelligence the engine of significant art? Or are they obstacles to its realization? But you can ask yourself these questions whether or not you bother to go see Gerardo Rueda’s art.

Gerardo Rueda is at the Chelsea Art Museum, 556 West 22nd Street, until March 14.

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