New York

The Bestiary

Cordier and Ekstrom Gallery

When you don’t as a rule like the idea of “theme” exhibitions built around subject matter, and then the theme in question is something you happen to dislike, chances are you aren’t going to be too receptive. This is where I find myself with regard to the show called The Bestiary at Cordier and Ekstrom. I have never liked material of this kind because in it there is an almost inevitable distraction from plastic values by fascination with the motif; in art the only subject matter more dangerous than the Interesting is the Fascinating. Works of art like these are swimming upstream, and if they get anywhere they do so only by spending inordinate esthetic effort. All fascinating art is distracting, including the pornographic—where we want to be distracted—and the grotesque—where we toy with thinking we do.

Time helps to cool off such subject matter, probably because mankind tends to forget what made certain things shocking and the pretense of shock can become fun. But also, people in ancient and medieval times seem to have been more intellectually tidy about the monstrous than we have been since the Renaissance. Fabulous beasts were make-believe, but they had the ultimate precision of apt figures of speech. You could recognize a griffin or a sphinx, should you ever run into one, and if somebody told a story you could even tell if it made sense for a griffin or a sphinx. Even the irrational was intelligible. In the Middle Ages if you ran into a unicorn you would not only know what it was, but what it could be used for, and you also knew that when people talked about the unicorn they were also talking about Christ.

The griffin and the sphinx are represented here by a good small bronze Etruscan griffin head and a stone sphinx with an archaic grin, also Etruscan, both from the 6th century B. C. Both these motifs came to Etruria from Greece, and before that from the East, which is further proof of the extent to which such creatures were sufficiently regularized to make them rather “sensible” by modern standards. Representing the Middle Ages, we have a unicorn (narwhal) horn, eight and a half feet tall and beautifully spiraled. No such thing? Well, here it is. It is as if even so ethereal a legend as that of the unicorn were obliged to intersect with reality at some point; what is beautiful is the way the burden of disbelief (in poetic truth) is thrown back upon the nonbeliever.

There is a nice but rather weathered stone lion’s head from India, dating from around the 4th–7th centuries A. D. And there are a few pieces of primitive art. The stubby-nosed yet sleek wooden Mossi Animal, from Upper Volta, has charm but the Yoruba Turtle with Human Mask from Dahomey is really only of ethnographic interest.

A set of anonymous 17th-century Italian paintings of animals engaged in human activities is a kind of humorous takeoff on the medievalistic/Manneristic bizarrerie of Bosch. The four canvases represent dueling, music-playing and dancing, spinning and (perhaps) serving food, and a sort of wine and fondue party. In each picture man also appears, scaled down to the size of the barnyard animals and every bit their peer. It is typical of the fact that Italy always retained some of the ancient levelheadedness that nothing happening here is really awful, and that what in the North would be a “heavy” comment on human monstrosity is here at worst silly.

There are two quite different pieces from the 19th century. An English painting called The Heron, depicting that particular bird in a full-length portrait, like some strutting gent, is competently painted but dumb in a peculiarly English way—something like Country Life magazine. There is a very good Temptation of St. Anthony (ca. 1863) by the Irish painter John Austin Fitzgerald.

About a dozen 20th-century works find themselves in the aforementioned company, paintings and sculptures. I can see that Morris Hirshfield’s Tiger (1940) has a kind of raw frozen power, if you like that. Max Ernst, the modern Altdorfer, is represented by a small but richly worked Untitled (1940) picture of a freaky figure with a horse’s head, wearing a cape and making a Disneyesque hocus-pocus gesture. This is Interesting Art, and I see between it and Hide and Seek a narrow gap. Other works by Ernst may be more worthwhile than this, but sometimes I think that a severe editing of 20th-century painting is overdue, a weeding out of all prewar painting that is not up to the formidable measure of the great art of modern times. The fact is that this particular work by Ernst is inferior to such a merely surprisingly good old-fashioned picture as the Fitzgerald in this exhibition.

Dubuffet’s Speckled Cow (1954) I would consider an abnormally pleasing picture by him. There is a sensitive patternization of the shape; yet how provincial beside the School of New York. Richard Lindner’s The Scream (1958) is unusually interesting for this artist, again for its active sense of surface. Romare Bearden’s collage The Blue Snake (1971) is a good piece of work, though Bearden seems unable to decide whether or not he wants to preserve a narrative space into which space-displacing forms can be crammed; this in turn prevents him from exercising an irony in the handling of space, which he seems to desire.

The sculpture is uneven in quality. There is a rather sensitive wax relief, Untitled (1943), by Victor Brauner which looks like Snoopy pretending to be an Egyptian goddess. An elegant tall slate sculpture by Noguchi, Strange Bird (1945) is surely the most articulate work of art in the exhibition. The latter-day sculpture, however, tends toward a light weight, estheticized Surrealism. If H. A. Kalinowski’s ornamental leather-covered Stele for my Gazelle “Amaryllis” (1966) looks at all familiar as a form that just may happen to be because its overall obelisk shape together with its Cubistic eye resembles Man Ray’s metronome with swinging eye. Also leather-upholstered is Nancy Grossman’s black Lindnerlike shark-toothed mouth with a face inside, Smith (1971); and also pyramidal is Varujan Boghosian’s elegant but arty Deus ex machina (1971), in which a man’s face, sporting ibex horns and a pharonic beard, surmounts a truncated pyramid which is in turn carried on a model wooden cart with weathered chassis and spoked cartwheels lacking their upper halves; the piece does not rest on the wheels but is instead propped up on a mount, as if in a body shop for repairs.

Everything here looks indiscriminately high class; there is a tone of moneyed bad taste. I imagine the show, despite its few worthy pieces, as appealing to the person who would buy a Meissen animal less as a fine piece of porcelain than because that person likes that particular breed of animal.

Lizzie Borden