[New York Peasant by Wilfrid: June 7, 2010]
The showing of Claude Monet's late works at the Gagosian in Chelsea is in the running to be the most popular private gallery show of the summer. Even on a weekday morning, there's a scrimmage around the door - partly caused by attendants enforcing the obligatory bag check.
Scroll down for Helmar Lerski.
By all means avoid the Gagosian at weekends, but in fact when I finally thrust my way past the entrance bottleneck, I found the spaciously hung show afforded easy sight-lines despite the crowds. Worth the effort; not, surely, because water lilies painted by Monet are a novelty, but because the later works in particular articulate the beginning of a bridge from Impressionism to the abstract art of the next century.
This strikes me as a simple aesthetic narrative - which makes me nervous, as art history is rarely simple. Monet was a founding figure of Impressionism. The very name of the movement is said to derive from his painting "Impression, soleil levant" - although I suspect its enduring use reflects deeper philosophical connotations. Monet's paintings struck contemporary viewers, accustomed to the clearly delineated figures and landscapes of classical art, as unfinished drafts. Incomplete smudges.
It's unfortunate that even today, many gallery-goers vaguely view the Impressionists as imprecise renderers of mere atmosphere - content to suggest the general feeling of a subject rather than attempt its meticulous depiction. The sheer quantity of Monet's paintings of water lilies alone - some two hundred and fifty paintings - underlines the absurdity of that view.
The Impressionists, far from seeking to capture the emotional gestalt of a subject, were obsessively concerned with its meticulous depiction. They differed from academic art and neoclassicism in their conviction that painting should concern itself primarily with the visual field and not with imaginative representations of the objects to be found within the field.
For example. Looking across a stretch of parkland on a sunny day, I see a bench under a tree, half-lit by the sunlight filtered through the tree's branches and leaves. I know it's a bench. I've sat on it. I know its materials and dimensions and I know what it would look like in ideal lighting conditions. The academic painter (so the theory goes) paints that bench, clearly delineated, just as it might be seen if it was brought into the studio.
The Impressionist insists on painting the visual field in which the bench appears; a field in which parts of the bench may be completely hidden by shadow; other parts merging indistinctly with the trunk of the tree behind it. The Impressionist doesn't draw boundaries around objects; he (for it was usually he) paints the shifting patterns of light and color he actually sees. A project complicated, of course, by the ever-changing patterns of natural light.
Monet - to come back to the show - was not in the grips of compulsion to communicate an emotion produced by looking at water lilies (or perhaps only indirectly). His business was to explore the effects of light and shade and the possibilities of capturing the dynamism of the visual field using oils - a medium extraordinarily adapted for that purpose. And there's the rub.
Pace the galleries and enjoy the painter's tweny year struggle with reflective water, lilies and reeds, and a picturesque Japanese bridge. As the work wears on, notice also the bare stretches of canvas, the increased concentration on details of color and texture rather than the overall scene. Notice also the drastic foreshortening of the visual field as Monet becomes less and less concerned with providing a window on nature, more interested in arranging swirls of paint in a more or less flat plane (close inspection of these works - "L'Allée de Rosiers," for example - reveals details of concentrated coloring which reminded me of DeKooning in his prime).
Examination of the visual field through the medium of oil painting gradually gives way - whether Monet acknowledged it or not - to an examination of the properties of paint itself. Color, texture, arrangement, and the possibility of expression through non-narrative, purely aesthetic and plastic channels. What else is abstraction?
A beautiful but also instructive show: at the Gagosian through June 26 (webpage here).
Helmar Lerski at The Ubu Gallery
For a contrast, consider the overt academicism of Helmar Lerski's vintage gelatin silver prints at this small, engaging duplex space tucked under the Queensboro Bridge. As far as subject matter is concerned, Lerski's work could be displayed at the Dahesh Museum, the midtown gallery devoted to nineteenth century academicians. In addition to still lives, these now unfashionable artists focused on anatomically impeccable portraits of studio models - and their body parts - and fantastic narrative pictures derived from the mysterious "Orient" (north Africa, Asia, the middle east provided endlessly fascinating subject matter for ninteenth century painters - and indeed writers).
Lerski, born in Alsace in 1871 and active in a number of countries through the first half of the twentieth century, shares these two obsessions. The relentless gaze of his camera gives us the hands - soft and weak, gnarled and strong - and the hands only of a series of anonymous workers and artists. The hands of an oboe player; of a carpenter. He focuses equally relentless on the face of a single model - a strong, square face - in the series "Transformations Through Light." And he analyzes in almost off-putting detail every crevice and line on the faces of a series of Jewish and Arabic subjects discovered on his middle east travels. There are young women and boys in the mix, but the older, the wearier the face, the better it lends itself to the stark contrasts of dark and light Lerski conjures in his prints.
Initially I was uncomfortable with the "Orientalism" of these pictures. It seemed intrusive to capture so nakedly the faces of the old, the poor, the beaten-down and preserve them as beautiful images for a gallery space. It seemed to be an exercise in phyiognomy. In Lerski's defense, however, when he turns to European subjects - the "Everyday Faces" series - the resulting photographs are every bit as strange, alien and challenging as the images from abroad. And the work is, after all, visually ravishing.
Go if you can: if you can't, the gallery website features extensive reproductions from the show (through June 25).