Robert Pincus-Witten

  • Robert Pincus-Witten on the Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris

    MY DOCTORAL DISSERTATION, submitted to the University of Chicago in 1968, was published in 1976 as Occult Symbolism in France: Joséphin Péladan and the Salons de la Rose-Croix. Back then, these salons were all but absent from the accepted narrative of modernist development; half a century later, I am stunned to discover them as the focus of a handsomely grave exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum organized by the museum’s senior curator, Vivien Greene, who gratifyingly acknowledges my early work. This weird experience sent me back to the memory of copying somniferous citations by hand


    Some 150 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and prints by Jasper Johns will constitute a vast assembly that begins in the 1950s. In the early years of his career, Johns’s work was thought to reflect the consumerist boosterism that arguably infused Pop art. But he was also negotiating between abstract epistemes—stripes, say, or hatchings, or catenary curves—and an abstruse iconography of mortality, elements of which Johns found in Edvard Munch’s Between the Clock and the Bed, 1943, or in the armor of the sleeping guards in Matthias Grünewald’s

  • Bernard Buffet

    Two admissions are needed to make the case for Bernard Buffet, a painter so long considered minor that his work is—or was—unredeemable even in the realm of camp taste: First, one must accept that painting is a serious vehicle for artistic expression; second, one must admit that anything sufficiently seen eventually comes to sit normatively in the eye. 

    My 1950s triangulated between New York, Chicago, and Paris, so I well remember Buffet as a central figure amid a group of artists called Misérablistes—the now-forgotten Francis Gruber being the other once well-regarded painter of

  • R. B. Kitaj

    In 1994, the Tate Gallery in London mounted an immense survey of R. B. Kitaj’s work. Intended to be the American-born painter’s English apotheosis, it resulted instead in the brutal rejection of his achievement. And then Kitaj’s wife, the American painter Sandra Fisher, died. For Kitaj, she incarnated the indwelling Shekinah, the Kabbalistic personification of the female nature of God. In the current exhibition, titled “The Exile at Home,” she was present in works such as I Married an Angel, 1990, and Los Angeles No. 16 (Bed), 2001–2002. These works also reveal a folkloric mode found, say, in

  • David Reed

    The exhibition “Painting Paintings (David Reed) 1975” was cocurated by Katy Siegel, an art historian drawn to renovating the reputations of American figures of the 1970s—see her 2006 show “High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967–1975”—and Christopher Wool, an old friend of David Reed’s and a painter of considerable note. This particular event reconstructed Reed’s first New York show, held in 1975. At the time of his Knickerbocker debut, the West Coast–born and –bred Reed was twenty-nine, hardly a kid, though there is something endearingly gullible in the painter’s adoption of


    An event of singular importance is scheduled this spring at MASS MoCA—a decade-long installation of three monumental marbles by Louise Bourgeois, each weighing several tons and occupying a sprawling measure of floor space reinforced by steel supports, with an additional aluminum sculpture on five-year loan. One of the colossi on display, Untitled, 1991, comprises two marble slabs wedged together. The work incarnates a team of mythic personages, their heads rising above a stylized frieze of the sea, whose curling waves seemingly allude to Poseidon and riff on the Pergamon


    The crucial place of Alberto Giacometti in the history of modern sculpture was confirmed at the Venice Biennale in 1956, where he showed six tall female bronzes called Femmes de Venise, after the city of their first exhibition. The fragile plasters for these instantly famed figures will be seen together for the first time in sixty years at Tate Modern’s immense survey of more than 250 works of sculpture, drawing, and book illustration. The Femmes de Venise were first executed in clay, then cast in plaster and further reworked with knives, brushes,

  • Francis Picabia

    JOINING FORCES with Cathérine Hug of Kunsthaus Zürich, curator Anne Umland of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, assembled roughly two hundred opinion-shifting works by the wildly mercurial Franco-Cubanartist Francis Picabia (1879–1953). Some 125 of them were paintings; the rest comprised drawings, illustrations, film, and period ephemera. The exhibition’s title, “Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction”—a Picabia aphorism—underscored the jarring discontinuities that marked the painter’s seemingly discordant sequence of styles. Perhaps, given the spoiled, vain, uxorious

  • Richard Oelze

    A determinant piece of good luck during my high school years—the early 1950s—was a class pass offering free admission to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, a privilege I availed myself of virtually every afternoon. This meant I was able to absorb the collections as Alfred H. Barr Jr., the famed founding director of the institution, had installed them—tightly organized according to country and style.

    One work in particular stuck out like a sore thumb from Barr’s didactics—Richard Oelze’s Erwartung (Expectation), 1935–36. That piece, loaned to Michael Werner Gallery for this

  • Carlo Maria Mariani

    The 1980s were, above all, a period of sharp contradiction. The decade is especially remembered for the emergence of a doctrinaire, pro-Minimalist art criticism. But at the same instant, it also saw the resurgence of painting, particularly that of the wide-reaching genre of neo-expressionism. Much of this work entered into the fray from Europe, with Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and Georg Baselitz leading the German phalanx. The Italian contingent was headed by the “Three Cs”—Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, and Sandro Chia—accompanied by a number of compatriots, among them the

  • Mark di Suvero

    As the academy of art criticism developed over this past half century, a vocabulary of enthusiasm—great, masterpiece, awesome, cool, and suchlike opinion—was struck from the lexicon of permissible discourse. The fear, quite correctly, was that such descriptives served to bolster bourgeois acquisition (ever an academic bugbear) while in no way explaining the work of art or facilitating access to its experience or meaning.

    Yet, the recent exhibitions of Mark di Suvero’s sculptures at Paula Cooper’s magnificent Chelsea space reset the path anew, and we can once more use such academically

  • Salvatore Scarpitta

    All lives are unique, but none more so than that of Salvatore Scarpitta. New York–born in 1919 but Hollywood-bred, Scarpitta developed an early obsession with the automotive. At seventeen, he landed in Palermo, Italy—his father was born in Sicily—before moving on to Rome, then at the zenith of the Mussolini imperium. He studied at the Accademie di Belle Arti there until 1940, with studio space granted at the American Academy. (One wonders what this early “academic” painting looked like considering the conservatism of those institutions, especially at that time.)

    Following Pearl Harbor

  • Nahum Tevet

    Born on a kibbutz in 1946, Nahum Tevet was by his midtwenties an ascendant figure in Israeli art. This exhibition surveyed twenty-six of his works on glass—virtually the entirety of this subtle body of work—produced between 1972 and 1975. The informative catalogue by Thierry de Duve, the exhibition’s curator, explains that, in the forty years since their creation, a few of these works have been lost, a few repaired, while others are not on glass at all but rather are on Plexiglas.

    To create the works, Tevet taped, pinned, clipped, or otherwise adhered translucent papers, cardboard

  • Lucas Samaras

    TWO CONCURRENT EXHIBITIONS devoted to the early work of Lucas Samaras underscore the artist’s adoption of mediums often perceived as odd, even marginal, when compared to the more familiar tropes of easel painting. Born in Greece in 1936 and enduring a war-ravaged childhood, Samaras arrived in the United States in 1948. His ceaseless drawing as a boy presaged an output whose quixotic estrangements are perhaps traceable to his immigrant experience. While a scholarship student at Rutgers University in New Jersey in the late 1950s, he fell in with a troupe of artists exploring the expressionist

  • Eric Fischl

    My earliest reviews of Eric Fischl’s “narrative paintings”—they date some thirty-five years back—bore the titles “Snatch and Snatching” (1981), and “Analytical Pubism” (1985), their snarkiness meant to take note of the then-tenderfoot painter’s louche imagery. In the early 1980s, Fischl was negotiating the shoals between Conceptual art and figurative painting, a divide that also marked the curriculum of CalArts, where Fischl graduated as a member of the school’s initial class in 1972. For a while, it seemed that the Conceptualist adherents of John Baldessari, a justifiably beloved

  • Allen Jones

    A half century and more has passed since the Swinging ’60s, Carnaby Street, teddy boys, even the Stones, all potent reminders of a British cultural liberation that was, admittedly, often perceived negatively—particularly in the stellar example of Allen Jones. His hyperstylized robotic woman–as–idol remains a constant iconographic feature of his work, as this fifty-year survey, organized by Sir Norman Rosenthal, former longtime exhibitions secretary at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, amply documents. The show affirms anew the familiar trajectory of an artist first met as outcast who in

  • “Painting in Italy 1910s–1950s: Futurism, Abstraction, Concrete Art”

    Most persons committed to modern art possess at least a passing acquaintance with such proper nouns as Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, F. T. Marinetti, and Carlo Carrà—and with Futurism itself, the Biggest Bang of Italian modernism. How wonderful, then, to encounter this exhibition of some 120 works by more than thirty Italian artists working between 1910 and 1950, artists whose names are virtually unknown except to specialists.

    One such individual is the international art dealer Gian Enzo Sperone, whose collection comprises the heart of this exhibition, to which has been added numerous

  • Jean Tinguely

    Jean Tinguely (1925–1991) was a Swiss-born artist of singular though shifting reputation. His special place in American art owes much to his close connection, both stylistic and personal, to our great neo-Dadaists: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The elevation of the found object and the devotion to chance, key procedures in the work of both those artists, unexpectedly achieved an apotheosis in the tinkling piano of Tinguely’s own Homage to New York, 1960, a piece that, at its premiere in the gardens of the old Museum of Modern Art, New York, famously collapsed into flames—the

  • Walter Pach

    During the first years of the twentieth century, Walter Pach (1883–1958)—painter and polyglot scholar—was in Paris, world center of the thrilling shifts then occurring in art. Pach, already liberated by the American Impressionist William Merritt Chase (with whom he studied), was equally responsive to the “Art Spirit” that animated Robert Henri’s students, the Ashcan School painters. This attractive, counter-academic blend of influences would inform the urban views, still lifes, and portraits that Pach would paint for a lifetime. A range of this work was on view in this presentation of

  • Robert Morris

    Robert Morris, now eighty-four, is a figure of singular importance to American sculpture, painting, Conceptualism, and performance art. His recent exhibition, which he titled—with admirable didactic zeal—“MOLTINGSEXOSKELETONSSHROUDS,” comprised several figural groups made of Belgian linen. Saturated with epoxy resin and draped over life-size mannequins, the linen, when dry, is lifted from its support, becoming, in turn, a ghostly exoskeleton, the memory of what had once been the weighty dross below: immaterial weightlessness versus earthen matter.

    The new shells of figures—light