PRINT December 2005

Robert Rosenblum

1 “MATISSE: THE FABRIC OF DREAMS—HIS ART AND HIS TEXTILES” (ROYAL ACADEMY OF ARTS, LONDON; METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK) Instead of kneeling again at Matisse’s shrine, curator Ann Dumas thoroughly resurrected him. The master’s “working library”—a half century’s ragbag accumulation of fleamarket cotton prints, couture gowns, Romanian blouses, North African hangings, and more—was excavated from family trunks and displayed beside the works that incorporated their patterns and textures into landscapes for a new vision of Paradise. Seeing the alchemy that turned rags into riches was to rediscover Matisse’s genius.

2 “JACQUES-LOUIS DAVID: EMPIRE TO EXILE” (J. PAUL GETTY MUSEUM, LOS ANGELES; CLARK ART INSTITUTE, WILLIAMSTOWN, MA) In another show that offered a fresh take on a familiar deity, we were finally treated to a full-scale display of David’s late work, which, like that of Picasso’s final decades, has traditionally been relegated to the “decline and fall” category. Philippe Bordes, curator and author of the magisterial catalogue, followed the artist’s path from chief propagandist for Napoleon’s imperial glory to his last inglorious years as an exiled regicide in Brussels, where he continued to paint portraits and grand themes from antiquity, but with a twist. His deadpan, truthful rendering of the faces and clothing of the bourgeoisie announces a new language of realism that foreshadows a lineage running from Daguerre to Chuck Close.

3 FRANK STELLA (PAUL KASMIN GALLERY, NEW YORK) Kingpin of ’60s painting, Stella apparently lives on his own distant planet today, so often is he overlooked by younger generations who think of him merely as history. But his latest work may shock (just as those long-ago black stripes once did) with its extreme, three-dimensional chaos. Like thunderbolts hurled by Jupiter, these tangles of twisted metal armature hit the walls and floors with a speed and a fury that at first defy comprehension. But, as always, Stella’s iron fist controls this apparent madness.

4 “ANDY WARHOL: PORTRAITS” (TONY SHAFRAZI GALLERY, NEW YORK) This stunningly installed 1970s’ who’s who was a trip down memory lane, a vast anthology of legendary faces including those of Leo Castelli and Joseph Beuys. But apart from the nostalgic pleasures of thumbing through a vintage yearbook, there was the tonic confirmation of Warhol’s genius not only in his infinite variations of color versus noncolor, oil paint versus silk screen, but in his plumbing the psychological depths (and skimming the shallows) of his celebrity sitters.

5 “EAST VILLAGE USA” (NEW MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, NEW YORK) Another rewarding voyage to the New York art-world equivalent of an archaeological site, “East Village USA” was an energetic blast from the past, combining ’80s video, graffiti, photography, and pigment. Curated by Dan Cameron, who himself was part of this brew, the selection rushed us back to the feisty birth pangs of Youthquake galleries (open on Sundays for art-world strollers) that nurtured a fresh generation of then-unknown artists who would later become household names. Jeff Koons, Jenny Holzer, Laurie Simmons—the list kept (and keeps) going.

6 “SURREALISM USA” (NATIONAL ACADEMY MUSEUM, NEW YORK) For any museum that wants to do more than intone the catechism of twentieth-century art, curator Isabelle Dervaux’s show should be the model of adventurous research. American Surrealism was often deemed a quaint and embarrassing digression from modern art’s main highways, useful only as an academic segue to the AbEx generation. But here was a full-scale reincarnation of a long-buried, midcentury world where artists would paint dreamscapes in photographic detail that unveiled all sorts of social and sexual anxieties. What a pleasure to see work by unfamiliar artists such as Alexandre Hogue and Kay Sage. We should check our storerooms more often.

7 “RICHARD PETTIBONE: A RETROSPECTIVE” (INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART, PHILADELPHIA) Having started some forty years ago and still going full-speed ahead, Pettibone has finally been given the career-spanning overview he deserves. Elegantly presented by curators Ian Berry and Michael Duncan, he emerged as an indispensable artist who, along with his contemporary Sturtevant, launched the obsession for replicating works by the hottest art stars: Warhol, Mondrian, even Ingres. Pettibone’s riffs on these classics are uniquely his, reduced as they are to a Lilliputian scale with such exquisite craftsmanship and carpentry that they might all be packed up in a Duchampian valise to be opened later by younger copycats such as Sherrie Levine and Mike Bidlo.

8 MARC QUINN, ALISON LAPPER PREGNANT (TRAFALGAR SQUARE, LONDON) Asked to place a temporary sculpture on Trafalgar Square’s empty Fourth Plinth, Quinn chose to counter Britain’s military heroes with a nearly-twelve-foot-tall naked woman carved from white marble—a portrait of Alison Lapper, herself an artist. She is not only eight months pregnant, but deformed due to a chromosomal defect that robbed her of arms and stunted her legs. A startling transgression for public sculpture, she presides here, seated, with grave dignity as a new kind of earth mother forcing us to rethink our ingrained prejudices about human beings who don’t measure up to the macho standards of Lord Nelson, who, standing, still reigns aloft on a megacolumn. (Incidentally, he, too, was missing an arm.)

9 THE L-WORD This ultrahip Showtime soap—now in its third season—immerses us in a Sapphic community of LA professionals whose problems with adultery, sperm banks, divorce, and commitment are compounded by their obsessions with torrid sex, gorgeous bodies, trendy hairdos, and stylish clothes. Catherine Opie’s Garden of Eden this is not, but these melodramas are becoming so seductive and glamorous that a mainstream audience might finally prefer them to the heterosexual ardors of Desperate Housewives.

10 ZANDRA RHODES Originating with the San Diego Opera, Rhodes’s sets and costumes for Les Pêcheurs de Perles (Pearl Fishers, 1863) recently landed on the New York City Opera stage, where they reinvigorated Georges Bizet’s classic with a wacky and dazzling interpretation of outdated Orientalism. Rhodes brought the opera’s mythical vision of Ceylon to life with a fresh mixture of old and new. The saffron, turquoise, and scarlet Indian-style costumes played well against flat, cartoonlike bobbing waves, palm trees, and a shorthand design for Hindu architecture that might have been attributed to Keith Haring. A total delight.

A contributing editor of Artforum, Robert Rosenblum is currently working on an exhibition provisionally titled “Citizens and Kings: Portraiture in the age of David and Goya,” opening October 2006 at the Grand Palais in Paris.