New York

“Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life”

Still life. The very term brings a furtive tear to the eye—a tear of nostalgia, perhaps, for all that has disappeared from contemporary art in the way of illusionism, pleasure, and painterly virtuosity. Or perhaps it is the melancholy evoked by the words themselves, for “still life” suggests death or death-in-life, even more literally in the French version of the term, “nature morte” or dead nature.

In traditional still life, the popular motif of the skull introduces the memento mori into the very fabric of the earthly delights on display. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century specialists in the genre—such as Jan de Heem, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, or even Chardin—did a brisk business in canvases of blood-flecked birds, moribund rabbits, and ready-to-eat rayfish (or, in de Heem’s case, the occasional boiled lobster, as testimony to the social status of its possessor-consumer). Nobody in recent years understood the “morte” aspect of nature morte better than Andy Warhol, who is represented in this exhibition by the isolated, elegantly empty and scary Skull, 1976, as well as by his equally apt, by-now-classical consumerist versions of the still-life genre, 100 Cans, 1962, and Brillo Boxes, 1964.

Mute eloquence and humble dignity—these almost oxymoronic qualities marked the great still lifes of the nineteenth century, and were, perhaps, what drew artists so unerringly toward the subject; that, and the sheer manipulability and ever-amiable compliance of the still-life model itself. Cézanne, who was famously intolerant of his human sitters and the greatest still-life painter of all time, is said to have shrieked at his dealer Vollard for falling asleep on the posing stand and tumbling to the ground. “You wretch! You’ve spoiled the pose. Do I have to tell you again you must sit like an apple? Does an apple move?” For the artist of passionate will, like Cézanne, an apple, unlike an art dealer, always does exactly what the artist wants: it lies uncomplainingly on the table looking beautiful. In fact, for nineteenth-century vanguard artists, the still life was a major vehicle of the pathetic fallacy in visual form: think of the isolation and alienation suggested by Manet’s single creamy rose in a glass jar; the conviviality of Courbet’s bursting fruit bowls; the sense of active vision conjured by Cézanne’s grand orchestrations of ordinary fruit, rough, simple pottery, and white linen nappery, which speak of the universal at the same time that they refer, quite specifically, to the humble peasant values emphasized by the Provençal revivalists of the time.

Margit Rowell, the curator of “Objects of Desire,” which includes about 130 examples, ranging from the late nineteenth century to the present, divided the work on view into serviceable if not always illuminating categories: “The World as Perceptual Field,” “Anatomies of Structure,” “Real Fictions,” “Metaphysical Painting,” “Forms of New Objectivity,” and so on. Certainly she is right to insist on the historical and cultural determination of the “objects of desire,” represented in traditional still life and, to some extent, in the more self-conscious manipulations of the twentieth century. Yet, I think Rowell misinterprets just what is being desired in still-life painting: it is not, after all, desire for the object—lust for a peach, a craving for carp—that propels the genre. No artist has ever been naïf enough, Greek legend to the contrary, to have thought that he or she was actually capturing reality—real fruit, real flowers, a real fly hovering over a real brioche—in a still life. The object of desire was, and always has been, the appearance itself of the object in paint—and oil paint, with its natural affinity to illusionism, has always been the medium of choice. This desire for convincing illusion (combined, of course, with varying degrees and types of formal structure), far from being “ever distant or deferred” as Rowell, perhaps conflating Lacan with Derrida, maintains, is in fact a desire often fulfilled by earlier art. Mimesis as a kind of magic, the desire to exhibit pictorial virtuosity rather than literal duplication, is one of the defining characteristics of the still life of the past, and continues to play a role in the modern still life, albeit a much reduced one. Hannah Höch, best known for her collage production, turns to oil on canvas for her extraordinarily veristic Glasses of 1927. Here, the various permutations of light refracted by glass and water within the glass, and the contrasting shapes of the transparent, carefully brushed containers, are played against Höch’s Modernist tendency to emphasize the flatness of the canvas, tilting up the table and constructing it, against the grain, as a dominating diamond shape, expertly casting shadows against the austere geometry of the beakers and the strange, organic vivacity of two flowers. But within the Modernist structure of the composition, the old illusionism is so exaggerated that it becomes the new Unheimlich. At the very heart of the image, on the bulging surface of the foreground vase, is a reflection, van Eyckian in its minute verism, of the window in the background, with the artist at her easel in front of it: “Hannah Höch fuit hic” as maker of the image and its chief witness as well.

Plenitude and austerity can be seen as competing poles of the still-life enterprise in the early twentieth century, and nowhere better demonstrated than in the contrast between Matisse’s opulent Spanish Still Life of 1910–11 and Picasso’s reductive Guitar of 1913, an oil painting that seems to imitate or even exaggerate the simplifications of the papiers collés of the same period. Yet both paintings are united by their unqualified rejection of illusionism, even such vestiges of it as Cézanne had deployed in the construction of his majestically orchestrated still lifes of the 1890s. In the Matisse work flatness is all, a flatness against which he plays the most outrageous counterpoint of shapes, colors, and patterns without ever sacrificing easy recognition of the objective correlatives of pictorial inventiveness. The simplified form of the white flowerpot dominates the center of the piece, with its living bouquet; around this central motif swirl and pirouette the wild patternings of at least three different floral textiles, accented by a scattering of peppers and rosy onions. This anarchic exuberance is (barely) held in place by the color plane of the back wall, the simplified curves of the sofa, and the bulging symmetries of two vases that, with the flowerpot, establish a virtual space of sorts on the foregrounded table.

Picasso’s Guitar retains the minimum of information required to identify the image: a large triangle with a smaller one peeping out behind it to the right; two rough, black rectangles, one superimposed on the other, mounted on a scrubby brown one; and holding down the center, a large, dominating white rectangle, rather like Matisse’s flowerpot. Surfaces are grungy, color almost totally held in abeyance. Pleasure—and it is there—is afforded solely by the structural ploy effected: How little information do we need to read this abstract system as a guitar? Has Picasso actually provided enough for an unambiguous reading? Or is there an uncanny reference to a human head hidden in the image as well? Such metamorphic slippages are common enough in Picasso’s work of the period and later.

Hot and cold—expressionist intensity versus high formalism—is another polarity that comes to mind in viewing the modern still life. Chaim Soutine’s Carcass of Beef, ca. 1924, certainly demonstrates the former, with its splayed bovine torso hung upside down, constructed of hysterical slashes and scumbles of brilliant-red, yellow, and white paint against a contrasting blue-and-green background, the bloodiness of the whole enterprise—and presumably human destiny itself—further allegorized by the shapeless puddling of blood-red pigment to the left of this eloquent image. Frida Kahlo’s Still Life with Prickly Pears, 1938, certainly comes out on the hot side, though with less hysteria. Her fruit, however, glows with a sinister organic femininity, suggested by both shape and texture and underwritten by the blood-stained smears of red on dish and cloth. Meret Oppenheim’s fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon (Object, 1936) still generates considerable warmth, if not heat, as a signifier of displaced feminine sexuality. On the cold side, we can array such premeditated geometries as Améedée Ozenfant’s Purist The Vases, 1925, or Gerald Murphy’s hieratic, proto-Pop homage to the name-brand product, Razor, 1924. Clean of edge and clear of structure, such works oddly join Jeff Koons’ 1985 One-Ball Total Equilibrium Tank or Wolfgang Laib’s remarkably reduced yet undeniably sensual Milkstone, 1988, in creating a new kind of still life, object and structure, which bears only the remotest, most utopian relation to life as it is lived but has a great deal to say about the chilly self-sufficiency of contemporary visual invention.

“Objects of Desire” has been severely criticized for its relative lack of women artists. Why an Andy Warhol or a Gerhard Richter skull and not one by Georgia O’Keeffe? Why not a Janet Fish still life of glasses to play against the transparencies of the Höch version? Above all, why not some of the strikingly inventive work by contemporary women artists dealing with the evocative power of women’s clothing: the overscale dresses of Beverly Semmes, or Mimi Smith’s transformed underwear—a hard-candy bra, a steel-wool-trimmed peignoir, pill-lined panties? Yes, I think there could have been more women represented in the show, but the high quality and unexpectedness of the works by those who were included seems to partially make up for the relative lack of feminine presence.

The truly egregious error in the exhibition, in my opinion, is the inclusion of Duchamp’s third version of Bicycle Wheel and a few other tired and over-exhibited items by that master. They may be objects, but they have nothing interesting to say about the category of modern still life. Although Rowell makes a good case in her catalogue essay for the rightfulness of Duchamp’s place in the history of the genre, it is a case that has been made before. Once we have learned the lesson, it seems to me useless to go over it again. The same conceptual point could have been scored by printing up a label reading “Duchamp” and leaving it at that.

“Objects of Desire: The Modem Still Life” is on view at London’s Hayward Gallery from 9 October to 4 January 1998.

Linda Nochlin