June 2006


The Aristos Awards
We have named six new Aristos Award winners--among them, Donal Henahan, formerly chief music critic of the New York Times; Bill Watterson, creator of the popular comic strip Calvin and Hobbes; and the painter R. H. Ives Gammell (see note below).

Exhibition Closing Dates
The following exhibitions reviewed below will close shortly: Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic (Philadelphia Museum of Art, through July 16--see following note), and Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh (Metropolitan Museum of Art, through July 9 (see The Wonders of Egyptian Art).

EXHIBITION: America's Greatest Living Painter
Andrew Wyeth: Memory and Magic (Philadelphia Museum of Art, through July 16).

(The following "pre-review review" by Louis Torres will be followed by a full review of the exhibition and catalogue in a forthcoming issue.)

Any short list of outstanding painters in the history of American art must surely include Winslow Homer (1836-1910), Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), and John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). Can any living painter be cited in the same breath with that threesome in terms of skill, range, and psychological depth? Just one in my view--Andrew Wyeth, who was born a year after Eakins's death. I had long admired Wyeth, but had not esteemed him so high before attending the press preview for this impressive retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and spending several hours with his paintings, often in virtual solitude.

The exhibition numbers 109 works, of which 58 are paintings in egg tempera, Wyeth's preferred technique for "serious, premeditated subjects" as the museum notes. He prizes the "clarity" and "delicacy" of its color, but the process makes him work slowly and he completes only two such works or so in a given year. Also on view are 27 watercolors ("spontaneous, impressionistic" paintings), 16 works in drybrush (in which relatively dry waterpaints are applied lightly over a surface), a few pencil drawings (studies), and two oil paintings. Though the show opens with early works and ends with recent ones, the curators wisely chose to organize it thematically, rather than chronologically, in terms of such broad themes as "Nature and Landscape," "Vessels: Clothing and Furniture," "Thresholds" (windows and doors), and "Portraits"--making it easier for visitors to retain impressions and make sense of it all. (All the paintings I cite below are in tempera, either on panel or masonite, unless otherwise indicated--dimensions, in inches, are approximate.)

An intimate work that I found especially touching is Marriage (1993, 24 x 24), depicting an old couple asleep in their bed. (Not discernible in this tiny reproduction--the only one to be found online [don't bother clicking on any of the links, as none work]--is the evocative landscape glimpsed through the open bottom shutters of a window in the upper left corner: a strip of early morning sky atop a barren field, etched by the slender branches of a single barren tree close by at the right). The painting is not about what the wall label claims. Even more egregiously unsupportable is the fantastic interpretation offered in a catalogue essay. I will not spoil anyone's viewing experience by commenting further here, except to say that such scholarly texts constitute an object lesson on why one should experience a painting firsthand before learning what experts have to say about it. Factual information as well ought to be deferred if possible (the temptation to glance at wall labels is strong, but can be resisted with practice).

Other paintings that linger in memory include Chambered Nautilus (1956, 25 x 47), a work that rewards long contemplation and resists facile interpretation; Monologue (22 x 28, 1965; drybrush and watercolor on paper), a deeply layered psychological study of Wyeth's friend Willard Snowden, seated in a darkened room; the dramatic Wind from the Sea (1947, 18 x 27), one of the painter's many images of a landscape glimpsed through an open window; Cooling Shed (1953, 24 x 12), which draws the eye, and the imagination, into its inner space; Siri (1970, 30 x 30), an intriguing portrait of a young girl; Maga's Daughter (26 x 30, 1966), a portrait of Wyeth's wife, Betsy, which is one of his most engaging paintings, wondrous even when glimpsed from the previous gallery--pause there if you can); Barracoon (1976, 17 x 33), a dramatic nude study, inspired by a watercolor Wyeth had previously made of his frequent model, Helga Testorf (reimagined in the exhibition version as a young black woman, Evelyn Smith, whom Wyeth had also painted much earlier); Distant Thunder (1961, 48 x 30); Soaring (1942-1950, 48 x 87); and, finally, one of the paintings that qualify Wyeth as a twenty-first-century painter, Otherworld (2002, 30 x 47). The range of Wyeth's subject matter and themes is impressive, scarcely suggested by these few paintings. Visit the exhibition--remember, it closes July 16--and see for yourself.

Suggestions for viewing: If time allows, take a quick walk through the exhibition to get an overview and then return to the beginning to look at the paintings more closely. If you absolutely must rent one of the audio guides (which I do not recommend), do so on a third walk through the galleries.

Information: Exhibition tickets (required); travel information (Amtrak is offering a special companion-discount fare for travelers to the Wyeth exhibition in Philadelphia and to related exhibitions at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington and the Brandywine River Museum in Wyeth's home town of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania); visitor information; catalogue (highly recommended--get the hardcover, if possible); and floor plan (exhibition area is in beige). [While at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, try to visit the Thomas Eakins gallery (#118 on floor plan), on which see Thomas Eakins: Painting Pure Thought.]

Letters: If you attend the exhibition, please send us your thoughts and comments--see contact information.

Capuletti Watercolors--Early Designs for José Greco Dance Company
A stunning cache of some 60 watercolors and mixed-media works (various combinations of watercolor, charcoal, pastel, and ink) by the Spanish painter José Manuel Capuletti (1925-1978) has recently been brought to our attention by the owner and is now being offered for sale. All the works were completed over the five-year span from 1946 to 1951, when the young painter was associated with the nascent company of José Greco (then based in Madrid), who went on to attain worldwide renown as a dancer and choreographer in a wide range of Spanish dance, from flamenco to ballet. Consisting mainly of costume designs and sketches of dancers backstage and in performance (as well as of set designs), these previously unknown works are characterized by vivacity of movement, impassioned spirit, and striking detail--some dashed off in a flash of inspiration, others meticulously rendered. As the owner notes, this early period of Capuletti's career was "extremely lyrical and romantic--his life seems to have been bursting with color, emotions, and vitality." We found these expressive works (which will come as a surprise to those familiar with Capuletti's oil paintings) ravishing to behold. Serious collectors should address detailed inquiries (including telephone number and postal address) to the editors of Aristos.

R. H. Ives Gammell--Twilight of Painting
The original hardcover edition of Twilight of Painting, by Aristos Award winner R. H. Ives Gammell (1893-1981), has long been out of print, but may still be available through BookFinder.com and other online booksellers. Though the paperback edition of this worthy volume is also sadly out of print (anyone to the rescue?), we have discovered a very limited supply of copies available for purchase at $31.95, including shipping (add sales tax if applicable). The Atelier, 1681 East Hennepin Avenue #280, Minneapolis, MN 55414 (atelier[at]theatelier.org).

A wonderful portrait by Gammell of a boy, William [more], is in the collection of the Provincetown (Mass.) Art Commission and is on view in that city's Town Hall, along with other paintings that hang in its private offices, central corridor, and public meeting rooms. Visitors are welcome to walk through and view the paintings on display. William is located in the Assessor's area, toward the rear of the Town Hall, on the side closest to Bradford Street. It can be viewed through the public desk and "window" where inquiries are made and is, we are told, "a favorite of the staff." Those who work in the building are happy to allow a closer look "if prompted by polite inquiry." Remember, however, that the building is not a museum or gallery, and its staff are government employees attending to local business, not curators or guides. If it is a busy time, they may not be able to grant your request to enter the office. The Town Hall is located at 260 Commercial Street (see map [more]).

EXHIBITION: A Realist Retrospective
William McCullough: A Southern Painter (City Gallery, Charleston, South Carolina, through August 12). See representative images of McCullough's paintings (not necessarily on view) and the Charleston City Paper's review of the exhibition.

NEA WATCH: Children at Risk
If you thought that the bogus art supported by the National Endowment for the Arts is only of the visual sort, an item in a recent issue of NEA Arts, the endowment's bimonthly newsletter, may well make your blood boil. See the NEA Spotlight on an Internet resource for students and teachers called the Virtual Poetry Workshop, which purports to provide participants with "new writing strategies to develop critical skills and [introduce] young writers to contemporary poetry in English." Nothing wrong with that, except that by "contemporary" the NEA (like the artworld at large) means avant-garde or postmodern. For an indication of the kind of "writing strategies" and "critical skills" likely to be imparted to the participants (each of whom is said to be a "poet"), one need only sample this horror by Hoa Nguyen, who leads the workshop.

The Virtual Poetry Workshop, part of WriteNet, was developed with NEA support in 1999 by an organization called Teachers & Writers Collaborative (T&W), founded in 1967. Those listed as "responsible for shaping T&W's program and philosophy over the years" include the willfully inscrutable John Ashbery (on whom, see Chapter 13 of What Art Is) and his cohort Kenneth Koch (discussed at length by Louis Torres in "The Child as Poet: An Insidious and Injurious Myth").

Another indication of the collaborative's tendencies is a book entitled What Is Poetry: Conversations with the American Avant-Garde, carried by the T&W Bookstore. Finally, there are the water-torture mantras produced by Seattle schoolchildren (of indeterminate age) in the WriteNet program "Student Poems of the Month." Brace yourself.

If any of this disturbs you--in particular, if you know a child who is being exposed to such mind-numbing exercises (please tell us if you do)--you might want to write Dana Gioia, Chairman of the NEA, and urge that the endowment end its grant-making to T&W--which received $60,000 [search for "T&W"] to support, in part, Teachers & Writers magazine. Gioia, ironically, happens to be a real poet--and a fine one at that--as well as an astute critic (see his website, and the discussion of the title essay of his book Can Poetry Matter? in What Art Is).

Ignoring de Mille
When we paid tribute to the choreographer Agnes de Mille on the occasion of her centenary last December, we were struck by the fact that the dance world--most conspicuously, American Ballet Theatre (notwithstanding its revival of de Mille's Rodeo, with a mere mention of the centenary in the program) and Dance Magazine (no mention at all)--had failed to honor one of its most estimable members. Moreover, not one critic we know of bothered to mark the occasion. Ironically, ABT was the company with which de Mille was associated, as both a dancer and a choreographer, during her long career--she was a charter member of the company in 1940 (see its website archive for her bio and notes on her ballets). How soon the great can be forgotten! Readers who care about de Mille's legacy may wish to write to Kevin McKenzie, ABT's artistic director (American Ballet Theatre, 890 Broadway, New York, NY 10003), to urge that the company make belated amends by devoting an evening to her work in a forthcoming season.

Celebrating de Mille
On April 28 and 29 of this year, the New York Theatre Ballet put American Ballet Theatre to shame (see note above) by presenting, forgivably a few months late, a thoroughly delightful "de Mille Celebration" at Florence Gould Hall in New York City to commemorate the choreographer's centenary. NYTB is a national chamber dance company dedicated to reconstructing and reviving classic ballet masterworks. Its de Mille program was in two parts: Act One, "Agnes the Dancer," featured two ballets by de Mille, Three Virgins and a Devil (1941) and Debut at the Opera (a solo reconstructed from de Mille's notes by Janet Eilber), and Antony Tudor's Judgment of Paris (1938). Act Two, "Agnes the Choreographer," was devoted to de Mille's groundbreaking Broadway choreography--"The Dream Ballet" from Oklahoma! (1943), "Another Autumn" from Paint Your Wagon (1951), "Come to Me, Bend to Me" from Brigadoon (1947), and "Hornpipe" from Carousel (1945). Instrumental accompaniment was provided by the NYTB Chamber Ensemble, and three talented vocalists performed the songs to which the Broadway dances were set. The young dancers we saw on the 28th were totally engaging. If you love dance, you would do well to become acquainted with NYTB, which tours nationally, offering among its special programs "Once Upon a Ballet," designed for children ages 3 and up. For information regarding the company's 2006-2007 season (which does not yet appear online), contact NYTB [scroll down to bottom of page].

The Pulitzer Joke
This year's Pulitzer Prize for "criticism" was awarded in April. Pity the hard-working arts critics of the nation's newspapers, even if much of what they cover is merely alleged to be art. Just once in the past three years has the prize for criticism gone to an arts critic--in 2005, when the winner was Joe Morgenstern, the film critic of the Wall Street Journal. In 2004, Dan Neil of the Los Angeles Times, was cited for his "one-of-a-kind reviews of automobiles," which blended "technical expertise with offbeat humor and astute cultural observations." Give us a break. Wasn't he mainly writing about cars?

How does Pulitzer Prize-winning criticism read? Here's a sample from one of Neil's winning pieces ("What Would Gulliver Drive?"--a review of Nissan's new Pathfinder Armada, which was designed to compete with Detroit's full-size sport utility vehicles):

. . . clearly, Nissan's designers believed that gawdamighty size alone would not be enough to guile Americans away from their beloved domestics. It had to look scary. Thus the Armada's case-hardened styling--vast slabs of steel and glass soaring above the wheel wells, with fender flares punched out at discontinuous angles to give it a muscular look, though it looks to me less muscular than glandular. The chrome bumper insets look as if somebody swiped the doors off a Vulcan gourmet oven.

This isn't design, it's pornography.

That isn't criticism, it's twaddle.

This year, the Pulitzer for criticism was awarded to Robin Givhan of the Washington Post, cited for her commentary on . . . fashion--specifically, for her "witty, closely observed essays that transform fashion criticism into cultural criticism." Somehow we had missed reading Givhan's transformative essays. In view of the Pulitzer Committee's well-known political proclivities, however, it is not surprising that it honored a writer apparently less concerned with haute couture than with politically motivated commentary on such items of attire as Dick Cheney's olive drab parka and Condoleeza Rice's knee-high black boots. (For further information on Givhan, see the Pulitzer's criticism page [click on "Works" to read more].)

EXHIBITION: The Wonders of Egyptian Art
Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh (Metropolitan Museum of Art, through July 9; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 27 August--10 December 2006). Anyone with even a cursory interest in ancient Egyptian art will find Hatshepsut an enriching experience. If you do not like such work--think it boring, stiff, uninspiring, too concerned with the afterlife, and so on--you are in for a surprise. We discovered works we never knew existed, some quite touching--among them Statue of Senenmut Seated with Neferure, which depicts Senenmut as the guardian of Hatshepsut's daughter, Neferure. In Statue of Senenmut Standing with Neferure, the child places her arm around Senenmut's shoulder in an affectionate gesture that is said to be unique for its time and place. (Further reading: "The Woman Who Would Be King.")

Television Talk and News: Art or Business?
Readers who follow our regular item "'The Arts' at the New York Times"--documenting the paper's practice of publishing articles having nothing at all to do with the arts on the front page of its arts section--may welcome the good news that the Times recently covered one episode of the seemingly endless saga of Katie Couric's transition from chirpy NBC morning talk-show co-host to CBS Evening News anchor in the business section, where it properly belongs. The bad news is that the paper then reverted to featuring articles on Couric (along with other media news) in the arts section. For other recent instances of the Times's indiscriminate use of the term art, see also the newest entries in 'Arts, Briefly' at the New York Times and in Artworld Buzzwords.

The Best of Aristos (1982-1997)
With this issue we inaugurate the reprinting in .pdf format of select articles and reviews from the print archives of Aristos.

Fixed Links
Broken links have been fixed (or deleted) in three exhibition reviews: Messages from the Heart (March 2004), Birds, Birds, Birds (December 2003), and Thomas Eakins: Painting Pure Thought (August 2003).

Letters to the Editors
We invite readers to comment on matters related to items published in the current or past issues (see Archives).

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