Sunday, April 17, 2016

AIC - Van Dyke, Rembrandt, and the Portrait Print

Rembrandt, self portrait, 1648

I am grateful for this New City Review by Stephen F. Eisenman that got me to head down to the Art Institute yesterday to see whether I agreed with his conclusion:

" the battle between van Dyck and Rembrandt, which is also a contest between fixed and fluid identity -, or between tradition and modernity, is the main event."









Noting the opposition of concave to convex (window to table)  and horizonal to vertical (nose to books), he  succinctly concludes: "This rigid geometry highlights by opposition the open character of the model.

The actual print is so small, it's difficult to read to the face.  But zooming in with graphic software, the face does appear to be anxious, maybe even soul-searching.  We may or may not associate this attitude with being a professional fine-art painter.  But it would not surprise me if Rembrandt did. Many of his other self portraits offer a similar expression.






Lorenzo di Credi (?) portrait of Perugino (?) 1504 (?)

Compare it to the above piece from an earlier century. Is this geometry any less rigid? Is this character any less open? Is this identity any less fluid?  Is this portrait any  less modern?




portrait of Jan Lutma, goldsmith 1656

This print was also in the show - and the design also feels rigidly geometric as an arrangement of squares and rectangles.









But could this exemplify "fluid identity"?  The goldsmith feels withdrawn.   He has barely managed to endure the tragedies of life.






Clement de Jonghe, Printseller” (1651)


The review notes the difference between the two states of this print that are on display.

In the early one (shown above), "the seated man is relaxed, his left arm between his legs, his right arm across his chest and his eyes forward."







In the third state, "his eyes are shaded and his gaze cast to the right. Rembrandt doesn’t fix identity in one plate, as van Dyck does. He locates it through triangulation, using multiple states. Rembrandt and de Jonghe, unlike de Momper and Vorsterman, cannot be reduced to their profession or social status."

A further discussion of the states of this print is found here.

 we can see how changed in lighting between these states and state iv/vi make for a more dramatic and realistic portrait. The shadow of the hat's brim cast across de Jonghe's face makes him appear wily and wry. His eyebrows suddenly stand out, giving him more expression. His hat and cloak stand out stronger from the background, in turn giving him a stronger presence in the portrait. 








Since homo sapiens is a social creature, probably the most important thing our visual intelligence does is read the expression on another human face.  The slightest variations in detail can change friend to foe - smart to stupid - honest to sly.

The changes between these two states of the same print are many.  Even the middle- front brim of the hat is different - it no longer suggests a smile on the lips or suggests a receptive, curious attitude.












The differences between different prints of the same state can also affect perceived character.
(so can different scans of the same print)


Was Rembrandt "triangulating" the character of his model by presenting different images - or was he just adjusting - and playing with - the plate as it was inevitably modified by wear and tear.






Here's  another Rembrandt print from the show - and it's far less impressive. The artist seems more interested in displaying the model as he wishes to be known - rather than experimenting or maximizing his art.

I feel a firm - not  fluid - identity.







Anthony Van Dyck, portrait of Lucas Vorsterman,,1630-1633


The reviewer writes:  "The engraver Lucas Vorsterman  on the other hand, shown against a blank background, appears volatile. In fact, Rubens took out a protection order against him. He has unkempt hair,  wide-set eyes and a powerful right hand partly covered by his cape—we can imagine
 it hiding a dagger. Each sitter in the “Iconography” plays his part in a scripted  performance of friendship"









I see a much more dramatic presentation here -- as well as a more strongly expressed personality.





Multiple states also exist for this print -- the later ones being enhanced by studio assistants.

Once again, we might notice a change in the character being presented.  Several dark areas have congealed into black masses. The mustache no longer seems to extend the expression of the mouth. The person feels more troubled - more dangerous - less vulnerable.

Couldn't  we say that Vorstrman's personality has also been triangulated?

***********


The development from tradition to Modernity is the primary narrative of contemporary academic art history.  It seems like every exhibit at the Art  Institute of Chicago makes that point, one way or another.  It is not surprising that Stephen  Eisenman, a professor of art history at DePaul University, would apply that established trope here as well.  That's his job.


But I am more convinced  by Georg Simmel 's argument that Rembrandt was especially concerned with the inner life of his portrait subjects -- which would stand in sharp contrast to the game-face  portraits of  Van Dyck.

And a similar contrast might be found between the psychological portraits of Oskar Kokochka with the social ambient portraits of Gustav Klimt - two contemporaries who worked  250 years later.


************



Albrecht Durer, portrait of Philippe Melanchthon, 1526


By the way -- here's another great portrait from the show-  so small, but so powerful.













Saturday, April 02, 2016

Travail



Milton Horn, "Travail"???, 1966, plaster

When I purchased "Who Walketh Upon the Wind" this piece was thrown in - presumably because it was not expected to sell by itself.  It's not a very pleasant subject matter - and it's just a plaster cast  - even if a unique one.

Not surprisingly, it was made - and hung - amidst a fine collection of Medieval European sculpture.






The piece is not mentioned in the 1989  Spertus exhibition catalog.  I believe it depicts the discomfort, anxiety, and even fear of an expectant mother.  I vaguely recall that it was called "Travail", but I'm not sure.






Milton Horn, "Pain", 1970 


A rather odd subject matter, isn't it?  Definitely in the tradition of Kathe Kollwitz.  Feeling  the pain of others is about as far from the post-war American mentality as one can get.

But Milton and Estelle were far removed from that mentality - even if they lived in a central Chicago neighborhood that was rapidly becoming  gentrified. They didn't even own a car.

As I recall,  Milton made a few other works on related themes, most notably "The Birth of a Poet" (1970), a bronze figure of a woman in a birthing chair and an infant emerging from her womb. Also there is "Travail"(1966) a 50" X 20" walnut relief which was probably based on the plaster piece shown at the top.

Regrettfully, a catalogue raisonné has yet to be published.




Cosmo Campoli, "The Birth of Death", 1950



Come to think of it, Chicago's Monster Roster from the 1950's were also influenced by Medieval and tribal sculpture - and the dark side of the human experience.

But, for the most part, their work belongs in a theme park's haunted house - rather than a temple, cathedral, or shrine.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Man Upstairs





Milton Horn, "Who Walketh Upon the Wings of the  Wind"
Bronze, 39.75 inches (Detail) 1958





Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty.

 Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain:

 Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind:

 Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire:

 Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.

(Psalm 104, excerpt)
**********




Once or twice a year, I type "Milton Horn sculptor"
into a Goodle search window to see what pops up. 

 A new exhibition? A new picture online? Whatever.

When I did that two weeks ago,
 I found an image of a statue called "Moses" on an  auction site
 along with the incredible news that the auction would begin
in TEN MINUTES.

Now I own it.







I first saw the piece when I was a teenager, about fifty years ago. My father had helped Milton build the armature for the monumental "Hymn to Water" and he drove us  up to Chicago one weekend to see the nearly finished work before it was cast.. I've written about that trip here . We spent the night in Milton's home, surrounded by his collection of Medieval, ancient, and Asian sculpture, as well as his own work - including this piece.




It was the only statue to which he gave an optional  spotlight. He clicked it on whenever I showed an interest in viewing it. . It's the only free-standing statue of Jehovah or Yahweh or the Judeo-Christian God that I have ever seen.       






But God  has also appeared in several sculptural reliefs, including his own,  In  "Hymn to Water",  God the sculptor, is modeling Man.





 Eight years earlier he represented the in-dwelling, feminine aspect of God, the Shekhinah, in a sculptural relief  on the outside wall of Temple Har Zion in River Forest, Illinois.







Looking back through art history, Michelangelo's God is the best known.




Here, God makes Man.





Here, God makes the sun and moon


This  face appears more severe and less loving that the one gazing at Adam.









Jacopo  Della  Quercia


Christian art has always been  more interested in statues of  Jesus and the Virgin Mary. They can serve as objects of devotion and supplication. God, the father,  is too distant - and dangerous..

Earthquakes, tornadoes, plagues, and tsunamis are  some of the  "acts of God".  Jesus would never harm a fly.

Here are a few more memorable representations of the Man Upstairs:



Jacopo Della Quercia


Lorenzo Ghiberti



Ghiberti's God is more like a quiet, gentle father than the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.

 
 
 
Lee Lawrie
 
 
 
 
 
Here's a 20th Century version found in Rockefeller Center - based on the painting by William Blake.
It seems to belong in a movie theater - or Disneyland.





Michelangelo's "Moses" is the statue that Milton Horn's God most closely resembles  -  in both turbulent inner energy and that fine pair of horns emerging from his scalp.

Michelangelo gave Moses his horns  because it's how the Vulgate Bible translated the Hebrew word for  "shining".

Milton Horn gave God his horns as a tribute to Michelangelo - thereby invoking art history as well as deity.







And one might note that God has turned his face away from the viewer to communicate with an attendant angel.  Perhaps the angel is dutifully awaiting a command - but as Milton once explained it to me, the angel is delivering a report - which makes more sense to me.





God was the prime mover - but He is not the continuous mover.  He put things in motion - and then keeps track of how things are turning out.

Which should let him off the hook for all the bad stuff that happens every day - especially to Jews in the early 20th Century.

The true believer cannot expect God to get him out of every jam.  But he can expect not to be alone.











(reminds me of Rembrandt's early etchings  depicting  old oriental men)






The face of God is interesting - but the important content of this piece is  turbulent, writhing power - the kind that spins out the galaxies as well as the double-helix of cellular biology.

It's as evident from the back as well as the front   --- because, of course, the universe has no front and back.







One might well think of this as an abstract sculpture -- which occasionally takes the form of recognizable human features.




The Divine Dance



Just noticed this little putto under God's foot -- just as cherubs accompanied the God of  Michelangelo.







Here is the piece currently on display in my office at the store.  God is flanked by the crown of His creation:  beautiful young women.

On the right, my father  presents "Gloria", his favorite model.

On the left, I present a Palette and Chisel model from about twenty years ago.

Showing my sculpture beside that of Milton and RJ is something of a dream-come-true for me.

Though - I might note that I am only person in the world who currently has any interest in owning these three statues.  Horn's piece cost less than half the cost of casting it. My father's piece is only worth the cost of its re-cycled bronze.  And my polyester resin piece is utterly ....... priceless.



Friday, January 08, 2016

The Art Criticism of Peter Schjeldahl

Chardin, "Jar of Apricots", 1758

The philosopher and pioneering art critic Diderot reported that at the Salon of 1763 Jean-Baptiste Greuze, the leading genre painter of the day, was observed to pause before a Chardin, and then pass on, “heaving a deep sigh”.  I imagine Greuze thinking “Some guys have all the luck”  That painting, the Louvre’s “Jar of Olives” is not at the Met, but any of a dozen that are could have stung Greuze equally.  I recalled this anecdote while noting an astonishing color – a smoldering orange – that sounds a deep bass note in the “Jar of Apricots” (1758). Were I a rival of Chardin’s, I might briefly consider hanging myself.--Peter Schjeldahl, excerpt from "Stillness", New Yorker Magazine, July 17, 2000


By way of introducing his audience to the art critic, Peter Schjeldahl , Steve Martin, the entertainer and art collector, read the above excerpt on his on-line interview .

He contrasted it with the following  example of "art talk":






Ginger Wolfe-Suarez and her installation




Wolfe-Suarez explores the psychology of built space and perceptions of place while re-engaging notions of sitespecificity. Approaching fragility and impermanence, the material, textural, and odiferous with the same complexity as site and scale, Wolfe-Suarezʼs sculptures operate phenomenologically, the exhibition space reformed into a temporal and experiential zone for the viewerʼs body. Utilizing a material palette of wood, rock, paint, transparencies, light, yarn, as well as various odors and scents, “Memory Objects” includes recent sculptures and installations questioning how moments are made physical. Wolfe-Suarez negotiates a tension between presence and non-presence, dispelling notions of reduction, in what the artist terms a “symbolic abundance through absence."
........LTD Los Angeles

Since it takes about three seconds to find it with Google,  Martin was rather disingenuous to claim ignorance of it's source.  But as you can discover , the above text comes from a gallery press release.  It has been targeted at a specific audience of academics and collectors of 21st C. avant garde art. And contrary to Martin's assertion, it does not use uncommon words (or common words in an uncommon way)   But it does aim at those who are more interested in contemporary rather than 18th C. art.

And it's more about analyzing experiences rather than having them - the same distinction  that  can be found in Schjeldahl's two essays in the Dec. 21/28, 2015 edition of The New Yorker. His feature essay discusses the minimalist, Robert Ryman, while a shorter review discusses the Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock.   They are the reason that I began to write this post.  But now that I've discovered his earlier essay about Chardin, I can't resist examining that one as well.

Ryman boors me.  Pollock disgusts me.  But Chardin!.  I LOVE CHARDIN!.

And happily, "The Jar of Apricots" is online at the Google Art Project





This must be an example of the "smoldering orange".  (the color - not the fruit)





The title of Schjeldahl's essay on Chardin is "Stillness".

It begins with these thoughts:

"...the most silencing of painters - put thought and emotion on hold with gentle sternness as if to say "no doubt you are intelligent and full of feeling,  but for the moment simply look, if you don't mind"

-- if you won't wholeheartedly contemplate it , it will have nothing to do with you. You must relax and gaze. No special effort or acuity is required, but patience is not optional. Gradually you are engulfed in mysteries of painting and of something else supremely indefinite - something about existence. 


I am also "engulfed in mysteries of painting and existence" by Chardin -- but also by every other painter whom I like.

And like Schjeldahl, I always try to  put my thoughts on hold when looking at a painting.  Let them come later. But emotion drives my involvement with art. (which can be a problem when I need to look at ordinary things for mundane reasons)









Chardin eschewed the showy, eye fooling sensations of Flemish still-life. With him, the illusion of reality is a conviction won on scant evidence. You buy it, but when you look carefully you can't say why, because what's there is just paint. Except in the smallest formats, Chardin's brushwork usually resolves into passing verisimilitude only at distances of between six and ten feet. Strong pleasure occurs at closer, blurring quarters. Standing back you see pictures that bespeak intimacy-domestic stuff, preoccupied, ordinary people. Approaching the canvases, you receive something actively intimate- the obsessive passion of the artist to wrest rightness from his material It becomes hard to distinguish awkwardnesses from inspirations. A smear of Orange tells everything knowable about light when it collides with the bottom of a copper pot.







Rubens, "Diana Returning from the Hunt", 1615 (detail)





Frans Snyders, "Market Day on the Quay", 1635-40 (detail)


"Showy" characterizes these Flemish examples better than "eye fooling" - which one might easier find in  Dutch paintings.

I'll have to experiment with viewing distance when I next see  Chardin at the Met. Chardin-size paintings usually put me about four feet away.

Schjeldahl's last  two sentences puzzle me. If "it becomes hard to distinguish awkwardnesses from inspirations" - and if any area feels like a paint smear more than anything else - then I would say that the painting has failed.

His  emphasis continues to be on paint rather than whatever it might represent. But if he is feeling the artist's "obsessive passion", he must not be putting his feelings on hold, as he earlier recommended.







 Chardin, "Return from the Market", 1739



Reddish smudges on the cheeks of a servant woman convey the hectic path of a busy day in “the Return from market”, but then, somehow, so does everything else in this eventful composition, including a tiny triangle of blue sky over the top of an open door. That blue patch nearly took my breath away. How does Chardin do it? He paints. He keeps reaping epiphanies that are within the reach of painting, because that – and not copper pots and servant women , is what he is about. He was the first painter to convince us that he painted purely for paintings sake, an example that was not lost on the greatest of those painters who learned from him, Edouard Manet. . .


On the one hand, Schjeldahl tells us that everything in this eventful composition conveys the hectic path of a busy day.  On the other hand - he tells us that it does so because the artist was about painting itself - not it's  subject  matter like copper pots or servant women. Can't he allow that the artist used the one to show the other?






Here's that small blue triangle (upper left).  It's a nice touch - but so is the servant girl who stands beneath it while answering the door  Her erect posture contrasting with the woman in the foreground who is leaning on the table as she finally sets down her heavy load.

Schjeldahl then introduces us to a discussion of 18th C. French painting by Michael Fried.  Entitled “Absorption and Theatricality”, it defines that practice as "A time consuming investment of the painter’s life that holds still to be realized by the viewer, whose life is correspondingly enriched."

If we allow that the artist's investment might be in a lifetime of study rather than just whatever time it took to make the painting, I would apply that definition to every  painting I like to see. In contrast to the definitions provided by contemporary artists , it is made to serve the viewer rather than the painter.


Chardin, "Soap Bubbles", 1733





The above painting is offered as an example of an absorption "so total that the presence of the work's beholder is negated"


Yes -- it does feel that way - in contrast to so many images, especially devotional ones, where the characters on the pictorial stage are there to interact with the viewer

Suggesting that this is a paradox (if viewers were absent, how would anyone know that they were being ignored?), Schjeldahl goes on to share other "outlandish"  responses - and invites us to make up our own.  Apparently Diderot wrote that Chardin's harmony is like what theologians say about the spirit - sensible in the whole but secret in the details.

Diderot's analogy seems irrelevant. Not to be outdone, Schjeldahl proposes that Chardin's paintings appear to have been  painted by someone other than the artist, to be  viewed by someone other than the viewer. But that does not seem too outlandish.  Many paintings seem to exist in a world quite distant from either me or whoever made them




Chardin ,"Still Life with Hare", 1730









For me, Chardin’s most penetrating motif explicitly involves death: still-lifes with freshly killed game animals, notably rabbits. The subject came from a tradition of celebrating nature’s bounty, but there’s nothing festive in Chardin’s treatment of it. There’s nothing precisely sad, either. He isn’t propagandizing for animal rights. Bunnies get hunted, and that’s that. Moreover, he couldn’t render them with such fantastic accuracy if they were alive. It could be said that they died for art, that Chardin’s art hungrily consumes – beyond their marvels of shape, texture, and color – their very deadness. Here are creatures formed for motion that no longer move. They have embarked on the second career that awaits all beings, as inanimate objects of a special sort. They lie or dangle in eloquent postures that in life nothing can assume. They strike me as the deadest things in art – vibrantly, lyrically so. Is this disturbing? It is to me. It verges on an indecency that is all the more nerve-racking for having no touch of the grotesque, and for being firmly in the cause of beauty. The phenomenon of beauty can be a kind of murder, snatching something out of time and freezing it permanently.

Wow!  This is the paragraph that makes the entire review worth reading.

But please note -- Schjeldahl is no longer talking about paint.  This poignant reflection is all about subject matter and the dramatic, figurative gestures that express it.

As it discusses the naturalistic presentation of a timeless, impersonal subject matter - no more relevant to the artist than to any viewer - and more about life than art -- it exemplifies  pre-Modernist art criticism.


*****************



Jackson Pollock, "Stenographic Figure", 1943




Schjeldahl begins his  discussion of Jackson Pollock (December 21, 2015), with a career synopsis:



The trajectory of his too brief career retains a drama, as evergreen as a folktale, of volcanic ambition and personal torment attaining a lift-off, with the drip technique, that knitted a man’s chaotic personality and, with breathtaking efficiency, revolutionized not only painting but the general course of art ever after. (It can be argued, and has been, that the matter-of-factness of Pollock’s flung paint germinated minimalism.)


Did drip-painting germinate Minimalism?  That makes sense to me -- and I would add that the respectability of Outsider Art is another sprout from that wild seed.  But note that Schjeldahl only states this argument.  He does not endorse it.

Then, he takes us through the highlights of the MOMA collection:






Jackson Pollock, One Number 31, 1950






..perhaps his single most satisfying work, the songful “One: Number 31, 1950,” more than seventeen feet wide: interwoven high-speed skeins in black, white, dove-gray, teal, and fawn-brown oil and enamel bang on the surface while hinting at cosmic distances.

…. Drawing in the air above the canvas freed him from, among other things, himself. “Number 31” is the feat of a fantastic talent no longer striving for expression but set to work and monitored. He watched what it did. We join him in watching. Pollock redefined painting to make it accept the gifts that he had been desperate to give. Any time is the right one to be reminded of that.




Giotto, "Last Judgment) (Hell - detail), 1305


Pollock's Number 31 reminds me of Giotto's Arena Chapel -- but not the beautiful parts.

I suppose that chaos, misery, and despair needs some kind of  representation  to remind those who suffer that they are not alone.  But  thank  goodness that Giotto, unlike Pollock,  could paint saints and heaven as well.


Jackson Pollock: "She Wolf"

Here's another hellish image - about which Schjeldahl had this to say:

MOMA also has the transitional touchstone “The She Wolf” (1943)—a picture ferociously conflicted between Jungian voodoo and exasperated originality

Might we allow that a person may choose Hell - just others may choose not to follow him there?



..and a rough gem from the artist’s blocked, sad last years,
“White Light” (1954).

(two years later he killed himself and injured others while driving drunk)


 Pollock redefined painting to make it accept the gifts that he had been desperate to give. Any time is the right one to be reminded of that.



 Was American high-brow painting really improved by accepting these dark gifts ? Wasn't the ironic optimism of Pop-Art, as well as the nihilism of Minimalism a direct consequence? More positive expressions have been overwhelmed and marginalized - even if, like Ed Clark ,  they were early Abstract Expressionists.


*********************



  Robert Ryman, 'Arrow", 1976 




 As a response to the painful Abstract Expression of Jackson Pollock,  installations like the above seem to be saying "Stop it!"

It's not so much a self expression as the firm denial of one -- as if this white panel had been tacked up on the wall to cover something else. (the  four brutal  brackets are part of the piece itself).

Schjeldahl writes 1300 words about a Ryman exhibition  in the same New Yorker issue that he discussed Pollock.  His introductory paragraph concludes with:

There’s no savoring of style, just stark presentation. His work’s economy and quietness may be pleasing, but its chief attraction is philosophical. What is a painting? Are there values inherent in the medium’s fundamental givens—paint skin, support surface, wall—when they are denied traditional decorative and illustrative functions? Such questions absorb Ryman. Do they excite you? Your answer might betray how old you are.


Schjeldahl's manner may be respectful, even deferential,  but he's telling us that Ryman is a philosopher, not a painter, and the questions that he asks may  be  dated. (BTW - he notes that Ryman, unlike Pollock, was not  trained as a painter. He came to NYC to become a jazz pianist. He got work as a museum guard at MOMA - and started hanging out with co-workers like Don Flavin and Sol Lewitt)


In his second paragraph, he outlines a brief history:


Ryman is rooted in a phase of artistic sensibility that was coincident with early minimalism and Pop, and is still in need of a name. Call it the Age of Paying Attention, or the Noticing Years, or the Not So Fast Era...... What you saw, while not a lot, stayed seen. The mental toughness that defined sophistication in art back then is rare now. Ryman’s Dia show is a spiritual time capsule. The work isn’t dated, exactly; it seems classical. But what’s missing is a confident assumption that there will be an audience eager to put up with it.



He's still toying with the idea of Ryman's work being dated, but not yet ready to commit to it. Though it's something of a stretch to call an all-white canvas "classical".  It's also a stretch to conflate "sophistication" with "spiritual"-- except as a  mockery of both.



    


Ryman, untitled, 1959


Here's an earlier piece that accompanied Schjeldahl's essay.  It looks like Ryman has not yet completely obliterated  the colorfully expressive painting beneath the  thick, lumpy paint that he lathered over it.  As Schjeldahl put it:

.The earliest of Ryman’s paintings in the show, made in 1958, are small, awkward, oddly charming arrangements of impasto strokes, which have a generic look of expressive painting—at a time when the swashbuckling style of Willem de Kooning was much in fashion—but are as matter-of-fact as cards laid out for solitaire. Ryman was likely affected by Jasper Johns’s recent, sensational “Flags” and “Targets,” in which sensitive-looking touches of thick paint wander like sheep without a shepherd



Sheep without a shepherd?  I like the gentle humor.

Here's his response to his favorite piece:


 If I could have one work from the show, to satisfy my somewhat equivocal appetite for Rymanism, it would be the delicately befuddling “Arista” (1968), a six-foot-square painting on unstretched linen, which is stapled to the wall and abutted, on the wall, by ruled lines in blue chalk. The lines suggest a guide to placement, but there they are in place, themselves, as the most interesting feature of the work. The particular meaning, if any, of a Ryman commonly tiptoes just out of mental reach.


.Unfortunately, images of this piece cannot be found online. Possibly it would have less impact than the above words. After a few more descriptions, we move toward a conclusion:


 Ryman’s reductions of painting to basic protocols are engaging only to the extent that you regard painting as an art that is both inherently important and circumstantially in crisis. You must buy into an old story, which bears on Ryman’s extreme, peculiarly sacramental standing in the history of taste.


 Which allows that it may be reasonable not to buy into a story that is both old and paradoxical - just like religious notions that require ever greater leaps of faith from one generation to another.


 Ryman’s is a kind of mute art that, generating reverent and brainy chatter, puts uninitiated citizens in mind of the emperor’s new clothes. (I have in hand, as tinder for such derision, “Robert Ryman: Critical Texts Since 1967,” a thick volume of often gruellingly dense essays.) Yet, actually, the populist fable rather befits the serious aims of Ryman and his avant-garde generation, who insisted on something very like full-frontal nudity in artistic intentions. The emperor—roughly, high-modernist faith in art’s world-changing mission—could retain fealty only if stripped of fancy styles and sentimental excuses. That was Ryman’s formative moment. It was succeeded by a suspicion, now amounting to a resigned conviction, that contemporary art is an industry producing just clothes, with no ruling authority inside them. 

Yikes! Not only does the emperor have no clothes (despite exhaustive critical texts that say otherwise) -- but the emperor no longer has authority anyway - at least, no more authority than any other very rich guy. That would be a rather harsh judgment - of both Ryman and the world of contemporary art (galleries, museums, universities, magazines, etc)  that celebrates him.

 But note -- Schjeldahl does not claim this "resigned conviction" for himself as an art critic. Instead, he steps back to give his report, as if he were a journalist or social scientist - just as he did with his insights connecting Jackson Pollock to minimalism. Interesting things can be said about the contemporary art industry - but what about all the other kinds of  art practiced by contemporaries? (portraiture, commemorative public sculpture, traditional Asian landscape painting,, etc) Why doesn't Schjeldahl look there for some kind of cultural authority or world changing mission? As Kenneth Rexroth once noted, The dominant school of post-World War II American painting has really been a long detour into plastic nihilism.

And though that detour by now has many branches, none of them have led back to any kind of idealism.


Insightful  art criticism may not be dead -- but it does need to present judgments as if  the art critic had no heart and soul, and  his judgments belonged to someone else..

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 By contrast, here is a less ambivalent response , that celebrates Ryman as an innovative "Light and Space" artist, as well as a "master of white on white painting",  updating his sophistication from one  verbiage to another. In another conceptual update, white-on-white has  been re-phrased as Queer painting 

Meanwhile,  the conventional  Contemporary Art 101 response can be found here: "Robert Ryman is a wonderful reminder of the historical importance of the artist, who bridged Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Post-Minimalism. Moreover, his work resonates with the liveliest contemporary practice, finding a place of honor within the current discourse about the medium of painting."

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