‘Life in Death: Still Lifes and Select Masterworks of Chaim Soutine’ at Paul Kasmin Gallery

'Plucked Goose' (1932–33) by Soutine. (Courtesy Kasmin Gallery)
‘Plucked Goose’ (1932–33) by Soutine. (Courtesy Kasmin Gallery)

This small, museum-quality show, organized by scholars Esti Dunow and Maurice Tuchman, is composed of just 16 paintings. All are loans from private collections, and none, miraculously, are for sale. Many are being shown for the first time since Russian-Jewish painter Chaim Soutine’s 1950 MoMA retrospective. Soutine is a painter’s painter, and it is worth going to Kasmin to see in person his particular mastery of the medium.

Rather than being a cool painter, Soutine was irrepressible. The earliest painting in the show, Landscape with Donkey (1918), is a post-Cézanne countryside—all red-roofed geometry, it surprises by the inclusion of a very flat, very pert donkey in the lower left corner. His exuberant trees and landscapes pick up rainbows in their brushwork. His scribbled mustard and green forests look like the mistral is moving through them.

Soutine is also the master of the dead bird. His pheasants, turkeys, geese and chickens are top-notch. Two Pheasants on a Table (1926) takes a pair of the little birds pillowed on a tablecloth and serves up the broken geometries of wings and each small, open orange beak. The colors are expressive: Periwinkle-on-yellow, the birds lie on a greenish-white cloth with laddered green-pea wallpaper in vertical columns behind them, highlighting the vertiginous drop-off of the table on which they are placed. The painting situates us above these two, as if our heads were bent in contrition over the tangle of two avian lives smudged out.

Exhibition view. (Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery)

Another knockout in this show is Plucked Goose (1933), an oil on panel in which the pink, bare breast of the seemingly still-warm animal is stubbly with a few white and blue brambly feathers, its neck a knot of sinews. It is grotesque and wonderful, painting with a main line into the meeting of matter and spirit. It hasn’t been on public view since a show at the Tate in 1963.

A blood-mottled hare on a black table, Skinned Rabbit (1923), prefigures Francis Bacon’s meaty bodies. In the still lifes, you see Chardin’s famous skate-ray, Rembrandt’s splayed ox hanging on hooks and those few, glorious fleshy stlll lifes by Goya. These works play with the meaning of the French term for still life, nature morte. But this makes them sound too wordy and clever—their intelligence, never moralistic or punning, is visceral.

You might feel a bit exhausted from all of the art available in recent weeks, in New York art fairs and auctions—or conflicted about the overwhelming prices achieved by so many living artists. In this show of older paintings, their canvases and panels lightly buckled and swayed from age and displayed in unfashionable frames, the winds of fashion have subsided. Within all of this death, what is left is the pure, quiet magic of paint.

(Through June 14, 2014) ‘Life in Death: Still Lifes and Select Masterworks of Chaim Soutine’ at Paul Kasmin Gallery