PRINT December 1996

Christopher Knight


Any number of satisfying and significant shows scanned global art history, up to and including artists whose mature work began to develop in the ’50s (such as Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly). But most memorable 1996 museum exhibitions kept their distance from work by younger artists, about which we lately seem rather reticent. Maybe that’s why the knockout midcareer survey of LARI PITTMAN’s brash, queer, in-your-face paintings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art seemed doubly vivifying: flat-out artistic confidence is in otherwise short supply these days. Since 1985 Pittman has made boisterously decorative, demandingly beautiful, generously information-laden paintings; in turn, they have made him arguably the most important painter of his generation (he’s forty-four). Pittman’s politically and aesthetically astute pictures surreptitiously colonized the museum’s white-cube galleries, making themselves—and us—feel right at home.


The Museum of Modern Art’s tedious “PICASSO AND PORTRAITURE”—the fourth big-deal American Picasso show in sixteen years—shuffled the artist’s deck yet again. This time we’re to believe Picasso is the progenitor of modern portrait painting. Should we tell MoMA the once-glorious genre of portraiture withered into a minor key with the birth of the twentieth century? Portraiture largely came about as a mode of aristocratic public address, but the arrival of democratic mass culture put a stop to that. Public address was replaced by public relations, in which the “real” man or woman is hidden away. That’s why “Picasso and Portraiture” had the aura of a tittering, tabloid-style chronicle of a celebrity’s sex life. His great, galumphing, prehistoric portrait of Gertrude Stein isn’t the start of something big; it’s the end of the line.

Christopher Knight is art critic for the Los Angeles Times. His collection of essays, Last Chance for Eden (Los Angeles: Art issues Press), was recently issued in paperback.