Morandi at the Met
Post #1266 • December 11, 2008, 12:55 PM • 52 Comments
Writing for the New Criterion this past October, Karen Wilkin repeated the wisdom among the admirers of Giorgio Morandi that he represents a kind of litmus test for visual sensitivity. Overtly, the paintings have nothing going for them. Upon examination, they reveal some of the most sophisticated handling of color since Cézanne. As artistic examples of the via negativa, they regard the spaces around objects as palpable, and the objects themselves as ephemeral. The results do something magical to scale: dusty bottles take on the blocky grandeur of Bolognese architecture, and the palettes evoke the creamy light of Emilia-Romagna despite having been painted indoors.
Speaking of the indoors, these paintings glow with interiority. The monastic life does not call to everyone, nor do its fruits, and I'm wondering whether the inclination to see value in Morandi's work has something to do with one's answer to this question: Does shutting yourself in a room and dealing with a single intractable problem appeal to you, or no? In any case, Morandi's monkish exploration of paint did not uncover a wide area, but the hole he dug went through to the core of the earth. Clearly, the figure pained him; two self-portraits show him agonizing his way around the painting, successfully, but in a manner that might have made another model's life impossible. The oversize works that we would expect from his mid-century contemporaries likely lay beyond his reach. But within this narrow problem of visuality, he has no equal. What champion marathoners can do with their legs, he could do with his attention. And as Simone Weil remarked, absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.
Nevertheless I see doubts about the work here and there. Skira produced the catalogue for this show, and it's a disaster. Whoever was responsible for color correction found these paintings too drab for their liking. I can't help but think that it was performed by someone calibrated to the work of Takashi Murakami, yanking the saturation slider in Photoshop as far to the right as they could get away with. Even the images supplied to your author look acidic in places and I'm posting only the better examples. At this point we've likely all heard someone opine that perhaps the current economic downturn will oblige us to measure our success with more wholesome and humble metrics than our bank balances. I similarly call upon the doubters to measure the success of Morandi's work with metrics other than intensity. They require a visual equivalent of listening. But in turn they yield a visual equivalent of revelation.