Robert Pincus-Witten

  • Fernand Khnopff, I Lock My Door upon Myself, 1891, oil on canvas, 28 5/8 × 55 1/2".

    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

  • Jasper Johns, Painting with Two Balls, 1960, encaustic and collage on canvas, wooden balls, 65 × 54 1/8". © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London.


    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, La plage, 1956, oil on canvas, 44 7/8 × 76 3/4".

    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, Arcades (After Walter Benjamin), 1972–74, oil on canvas, 60 × 60".

    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, #90, 1975, oil on canvas, 76 × 56". © David Reed/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

    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

  • Louise Bourgeois, Nature Study (Velvet Eyes), 1984, marble, steel, 26 × 33 × 27". © The Easton Foundation; VAGA, NY.


    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

  • Alberto Giacometti, Suspended Ball, 1930–31, plaster, metal, 23 7/8 × 14 × 14 1/4". © Alberto Giacometti Estate/Licensed by VAGA and ARS, New York.


    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,

  • View of “Francis Picabia: Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction,” 2016–17. From left: Dances à la source [II] (Dances at the Spring [II]), 1912; Les pins, effet de soleil à Saint-Honorat (Cannes) (Pine Trees, Effect of Sunlight at Saint-Honorat [Cannes]), 1906. Photo: Martin Seck.

    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, Statt Blumen und Blut (In Lieu of Flowers and Blood), 1963, oil on canvas, 52 × 64".

    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, Un volo di colombi (A Flight of Doves), 2012–16, acrylic, gouache, and graphite on canvas, 73 × 95".

    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, The Cave, 2015, steel, 13' 1 1/2“ × 14' 4” × 11'.

    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, Matrimonio segreto (Extramural n. 6) (Secret Marriage [Extramural n. 6]), 1958, bandages, mixed media, 64 1/8 × 51 1/8". © Stella Alba Cartaino.

    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