New York

Jean Crotti

Cordier/Ekstrom Gallery

Cordier and Ekstrom have mounted one of those perfect historical exhibitions which tend to be overlooked, an exhibition built around the work of an artist whose occasional work, in this case a well-known portrait of Marcel Duchamp, has elicited curiosity about its painter, but about whom little or nothing is known. Jean Crotti (1879–1958), a German-Swiss, had come to know Marcel Duchamp in New York around 1915. At the end of the hostilities of the First World War, he was introduced into the remaining circle of the family—Jacques Villon and Suzanne Duchamp-Villon. In 1919 Crotti married Suzanne. It was in the postwar period that Crotti produced his most admirable body of work, although he never surrendered an essentially turn-of-the-century sensibility, one marked by Symbolist programmatic serializing, deliquescent divisionism and sinuous Art Nouveau drawing. Not even Orphism—certain early paintings reveal a great debt to Kupka—could provide the intellectual scaffolding which Dadaism momentarily did. At least one major Dada painting must be credited to Crotti, the Vision Tabu of 1921, a cosmic image of the sort at which the Genesis Series, Orphist paintings of 1916, first hint. The black orbs of the Vision Tabu are accompanied by columns of counting ciphers and long-flicked strokes dragged across the face of the canvas. It is an impressive work. But the exhibition suggests, as does Cleve Gray’s terse introduction, that Crotti’s intellectual gifts were in no way equal to sustaining this kind of nihilistic stance. The turn-of-the-century decorous humanism ran too deep and the latter portion of Crotti’s painting was expended on perfecting the Gemmaux de France, layers of chipped glass held by a transparent plastic medium and illuminated from beneath. Their similarity to Rouault and medieval stained glass is often offered up as argument in their defense. I see them as little more than the exhaustion of the bad taste which haunted Crotti throughout his career—and which is especially heavy-handed in his Art Nouveau pieces—despite an admirable, and in this context, startling, Dadaist hiatus.

Robert Pincus-Witten