First thoughts on Americans in Paris
Post #819 • June 27, 2006, 4:14 PM • 62 Comments
A bit under the weather and overwhelmed by what I just saw at the MFA yesterday, I'm going to review Americans in Paris slowly, in as many installments as need be.
My first thought: If this is what really jazzes me up as an artist, why am I not trying to paint like these guys? Oldpro has described the feeling of going to see some art, and then having to go back into the studio to deal with it. I had that experience over this exhibition. When the model came to the studio this morning, I told her to sit comfortably as I put a white sheet of paper on the board, took out a pastel pencil, and just tried to get it right. To make the drawing look like her. To make the modeling and proportions convincing. To get it in a good place on the paper. Before she arrived, I had it in my head to paint her, but it occurred to me that I hadn't worked realistically in a few months, and my game might be off. Boy, was it ever. I spent an hour feeling like I had all the fine motor control of a llama. By the second hour, my skills came back online enough to save the piece from disaster, but not enough to correct the misfortunes that cropped up during its start. With all due respect to other modes, and excepting the mysterious, monumental difficulty of getting something to be good, this is the hardest problem in art.
I don't paint like these guys because I make gestural marks as easily as breathing, and there's something sensible about capitalizing on your innate abilities rather than trying to recreate your talent from scratch. But seeing Beckmann in D2P didn't send me scampering back to the studio to come up with a retaliation. Seeing Elizabeth Nourse did.
An alert reader sent me a recent feature from the New York Times, in which culture editor Sam Sifton answered questions from readers. One Michele Taylor of New York City asked:
Maybe I am just not paying attention, but it seems to me that painters in traditional styles have a .0004 percent chance of being reviewed by The Times unless they have taken the precaution of dying quite some little while ago. Since imagery smeared on surfaces with pigments and grease has been "it" for the last 35,000 years or so, why are academics, critics and arts writers so quick to dismiss it?
I can't speak for the academics and wouldn't want to. But maybe you're not paying attention. In the past decade or so we've seen the pendulum of both artistic practice and its fair handmaiden, criticism, swing back in the direction of figurative art. Art coverage in The Times reflects that, no matter how many shows filled with dead artists we review.
As just one recent example, look at Holland Cotter's fine review of "Legacies: Contemporary Artists Reflect on Slavery," at the New-York Historical Society, which we published on Tuesday. Check out Whitfield Lovell's work there. Or check out Kara Walker's. Definitions of "figurative" are plentiful. But this stuff qualifies.
Taylor wansn't asking about figurative. She was asking about traditional. Kara Walker doesn't qualify. Jerome Witkin, mentioned later, does, but the Clayton Brothers don't, and Jackie Gendel really doesn't. I get the message that traditional figuration would be a wonderful thing to get involved in, only because you don't see this level of obfuscatory apologetics unless a whole class of somebodies finds itself in the wrong. The MFA has a Kara Walker up right now, positioned so as to create inevitable disappointment upon departing the room of Himalayan sculpture and heading towards Americans in Paris. In a hundred yards, you get art made for the sake of eternity, art made for the sake of the times, and art made for the sake of both. Those Americans were on to something, and we're not done with it yet.