PRINT December 1999

Robert Rosenblum

1. The Revival of Portraiture
Once occupying the lowest rung of the modernist ladder, portraiture is again alive and well. Central to the ’90s (Close, Sherman, Ruff, Morimura), it has also reoriented our view with respect to the old masters. Within recent memory, shows of Degas, Renoir, Picasso, and Ingres have all focused on their sitters; and then there’s the rediscovery of high-society portraiture, ca. 1900, as witnessed by the success of the Sargent show, a virtual-reality trip out of Merchant Ivory.

2. Could Artists Be Human? Not only their sitters, but artists themselves are being freshly scrutinized as flesh-and-blood creatures who no longer reside on Olympus. Magisterial new biographies of Picasso (John Richardson) and Matisse (one by Hilary Spurling, another by John Russell) have tethered the deities to Planet Earth. With a wealth of new data, these page-turners send us back to the drawing board when we look at even the masters’ most familiar work. And think how the revelations about Bonnard’s personal life have added eerie dimensions worthy of Hitchcock to his seemingly pleasure-drenched nudes and interiors. Art may waft us away to higher realms, but it is no less thrilling to remember that it has roots in real people, places, and things.

3. South Park For me, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999) was the most entertaining of revolutions. With words and lyrics foul enough to make the proverbial truck driver blush, with sidesplitting and “postmodern” quotational spoofs of everything decent and beloved by, say, Rodgers and Hart or Andrew Lloyd Webber, with song-and-dance extravaganzas worthy of Busby Berkeley, with abstract colors and geometries as startling as Peter Halley’s, with a hilarious but knife-edged parody of American hypocrisy . . . well, what more could you ask for?

4. Late Warhol We used to think his art moved off center-screen after 1968, when Valerie Solanas nearly killed him. But the ’90s have seen one spectacular resurrection after another from his own last decade, an inventory of abundance and diversity rivaling Picasso’s estate. There are appropriations in which artists from Uccello to Munch get the Warhol treatment; there are the amazingly fresh abstract paintings that rejuvenate the classic vocabularies of the old modern masters (Miró, de Kooning, Pollock, Kelly, et al.); there are his repetitive offerings at the altar of Leonardo’s Last Supper, yet another part of the sustained themes of religion and death that, as illuminated by Jane Dillenberger’s 1998 study, permeate his entire life and work. Who knows what the twenty-first century will find?

5. Invasion of the Body Snatchers With Duane Hanson as an unlikely father figure, we have seen a creepy proliferation of mutant, 3-D humanoids who provide a new kind of science fiction for gallerygoers. I happen to love most of these grotesque breeds, including Vanessa Beecroft’s Galatea-like fashion models, Charles Ray’s American version of Gulliver’s Travels, the Chapman brothers’ Freudian Island of Doctor Moreau, and Mariko Mori’s high-tech Japanese fairies.

6. Matthew Barney My abiding awe and gratitude go to this Wagnerian visionary. While thrilling us with narratives of ancient magic, color chords invented on another planet, and fantastic mutations of vintage musical-comedy spectacles, Barney creates a private mythology that, eluding reason and words, cuts deep into the psyche and the viscera.

7. Abstract Beauty Painting, of course, isn’t dead. Neither, it seems, is beauty, at least if one is to judge by Peter Halley and Philip Taaffe, who, for all their cerebral explanations and art-historical references, deliver gorgeous visual goods that look like nothing ever seen before.

8. A Topiary Renaissance? An endangered species since the seventeenth century, topiary is being seen again, and not only on the pruned lawns of Disney World. Symptoms include the astonishing, walk-through re-creation of Seurat’s Grande Jatte, a park in three green dimensions designed by James Mason in Columbus, Ohio, and dedicated in 1992; and, of course, Jeff Koons’s huge puppy, first seen at Schloss Arolsen that same year, and then cloned in Sydney and Bilbao. Rumor has it that this irresistibly lovable, flower-studded challenge to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World will soon be given equal time with the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.

9. Low to High Now that the twentieth century is due to be buried, it’s safe to reconsider the stuff modernist hierarchies sneered at, particularly art that was once immensely popular among the unwashed masses. Artists who mirrored American dreams, like Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell, as well as those who dreamed up what now seem quaint sex fantasies, like George Petty, Alberto Vargas, and Tom of Finland, have become as distant as Victorian narrative painting and Gibson girls, which means we can start to look at them for both pure pleasure and more high-minded studies of art and culture.

10. X-rated Museums Nobody wanted to close the Brooklyn Museum in 1988, when, in the midst of the Courbet retrospective, you stumbled upon the master’s notorious and previously invisible Origin of the World, a gynecologist’s view of the nude. And in the same year, the Whitney’s Mapplethorpe show passed through New York with scarcely a hackle raised until it reached Cincinnati. Even the most sexually in-your-face Picassos, early and late, which as recently as the ’70s no respectable museum would have dared to show, became so familiar by the ’90s that they could produce little more than a shrugged shoulder or a nervous smile. This was a quiet revolution worth defending against those who think that Satan never sleeps.