PRINT December 1997

Robert Rosenblum

1 Duane Hanson (Saatchi Gallery, London): Perhaps it’s my passion for Spanish polychrome sculpture (with real hair and fake tears) that made me a longtime fan of Hanson’s, a love that dared not speak its name in “serious” art circles. And now I find sweet revenge for my minority view. Dusted off and minimally displayed, this tribe of American waxworks uglies suddenly took on a freshly macabre second life. Hanson’s role may now be Johnny Appleseed’s, with progeny like Charles Ray, Robert Gober, and the Chapman Brothers, whose humanoids are at their best when, like Hanson’s, they sport Nikes and synthetic hair.

2 Pierre-Auguste Renoir (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa): Rivaling Hanson’s ability to polarize responses from populist adoration to elitist condescension is the great Renoir. In tune with our revived fascination for the countless human beings swallowed up in the maelstrom of modern art, this perfect show presented the artist as a keen observer of real-life individuals. He did not, we learn, insist on putting all his sitters in the smiling mold we too often mistake for his only emotion, but could catch endless psychological subtleties, including melancholy and anxiety, as he scrutinized singles or couples, family or friends, and then set them floating or anchored in gorgeous oceans of pigment washed up from Rubens and Delacroix. Colin Bailey’s catalogue sets new standards of scrupulous research and elegant prose.

3 Sol LeWitt (Ace Gallery, New York): In the fickle turnover of art-world reputations, it’s heartwarming to find that some things not only endure, but get better. LeWitt’s spectacular wall paintings were anything but déjà vu, rising to heights of extremism that evoked Barnett Newman’s gigantic exertions toward ultimate sublimity. Amid these vast murals that created new mysteries from densities of blackness, height versus width, matte versus glossy, LeWitt’s art-world crown took on fresh luster.

4 Peter Halley “New Concepts in Printmaking I” (Museum of Modern Art, New York): For the tonic of an unsettling visual and cerebral shock, Halley’s installation was a landmark. Generally obtuse about the theoretical trappings of his cell-and-conduit images, I was nevertheless dazzled by the sheer look of this new universe that first grated the eyes and nerves and then transformed clashes of synthetic color, abstruse diagrams, and free-floating objects into an unfamiliar kind of, well, beauty. The mix of an electronic order beyond human intervention and an apocalyptic explosion was like a computer screen savaged by a Luddite. The dust has yet to settle.

5 Georges Seurat (National Gallery, London): Radiating from the luminous stillness of Bathers at Asnières were a variety of vantage points on the youthful masterpiece, ranging from works by the likes of Flandrin and Bouguereau (which spoke of Seurat’s roots in Ingresque ideals of purity) to the artist’s own preparatory studies for his huge canvas. As a result, everything, including Van Gogh’s later views of the gloomy suburb of Asnières, looked fresh. And as a surprise spin, Richard Dorment, in The Daily Telegraph, speculated on a new scenario for the painting, namely, that the spot on the Seine Seurat depicted was a haunt for picking up boys and that the well-dressed gentleman reclining forever in the foreground was considering his prospects. More research into Parisian social history may bear out what is yet another strange layer to Seurat’s world of enigmatic silence.

6 Nahum B. Zenil (Grey Art Gallery, New York): With a Mexican, ultra-Catholic twist, Zenil belongs to the latest “me generation” of such fantasy self-portraitists and gender-benders as Yasumasa Morimura or Cindy Sherman. Frontal and motionless as a holy icon, the artist’s dour, bearded face and frequently naked body repopulate an entire cultural cosmos, whether floating with angel wings over our planet or marrying his double in a bridal gown. I was happy to visit his crazily consistent solar system, whose source of divine light was always the artist himself, a mad tyrant with a child’s imagination.

7 Bill Viola (Guggenheim SoHo, New York): As an old-fashioned viewer who usually yawns at video art that others find riveting, I was astonished to experience total immersion in Viola’s baptism of cosmic fire and water, which made me forget about media and plunge right into these engulfing, cyclical visions of birth and death, destruction and resurrection. And recalling, as I often do, the aspirations of the Romantics, I thought Turner himself might have found this a thrilling update to the apocalyptic visions that haunted him.

8 Jeff Wall (Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC): Another revelation via nineteenth-century ancestors. Perhaps it’s the light-box that does it, but Wall’s endlessly sharp focus on every weed, pore, hair, and pebble, presented in colors of newborn intensity, took me swiftly back to the microscopic infinities of the young Pre-Raphaelites. As obsessive in his pursuit of empirical truths as Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, Wall also turns mundane facts into radiant fictions of dreamlike power.

9 Georges Braque (Royal Academy of Arts, London): Having long ago written off post-Cubist Braque as not only beside the point of mainline art history but as hopelessly sweetened by his un-American love of quiet nuance and belle facture, I was obliged to eat my words in front of these meditative images of a bell-jar studio world that mixed mundane facts, remote memories, and phantom aspirations. And that they offered previews of Jasper Johns’ own cloistered reveries and compilations lent them an unexpected topicality.

10 Christian Schad (Kunsthaus, Zurich): Thanks to a handful of kinky, hyperrealist paintings from the ’20s, Schad has always had his cult following; but at last he’s been given the Full Monty. His Young Turk embrace of everything explosive from Cubo-Futurism to Dada experiments in photography, assemblage, and typewriter art was surprise enough; but what followed 1920 was even more startling—a subzero, often X-rated world where both Marlene Dietrich and Stanley Spencer would be at home. Still eerier, if possible, were his later, more official portraits from Nazi and postwar Germany, where Satan lurks behind every frozen stare and grimace. Once seen, Schad’s never forgotten.

Robert Rosenblum is professor of fine arts at New York University and a curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.