March of time

20th Century icons from an old art museum in Buffalo are at the Museum of Art.

Paul Gauguin’s sullen, haunted Spirit of the Dead Watching
  • Paul Gauguin’s sullen, haunted Spirit of the Dead Watching

San Diego Museum of Art

1450 El Prado, Balboa Park

In the Paris of the 1910s and 1920s, of the many artists working there — Picasso, Chagall, Derain, Matisse, and others — it was the painter Chaim Soutine who had the most colorfully odorous studio. Born in a small town near Minsk, in what is today Belarus, Soutine liked to paint butchered animal flesh: he kept his rotting models, the carcasses of cows, rabbits, fish, and other creatures, in the studio. He made portraits, landscapes, and other sorts of pictures, but it’s those images of over-ripe decay that he’s most remembered for. The best known are his paintings of a beef carcass hung on a dressing rack. The gristly, beaded blood and tissue smear and clot down the cow’s inners. Soutine’s treatment of the motif was a conversation with predecessors, with Rembrandt’s stately Carcass of Beef and Titian’s late, demonic Flaying of Marsyas. His pictures answered those with stylistic extremity and lush corporeal energy.

One of Soutine’s carcass pictures is currently glistening in Gauguin to Warhol, a generous sampler from the collection at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. It hangs across from a Matisse double portrait of women that charms with its squinty faces and floppy oversized hands and feet. The Soutine charms with its grievousness and implacability. The torn muscle tissue, streaked with vermilions, carmines, and blue-black crimsons, is gorgeously corrupt. But what stuck a finger straight into my own gut were the marbled, putrescent yellow-blue swirls inside the carcass’s loins, shining like phantom viscera.

Art history is made one work at a time, and along the way historians propose provisional summing-ups that craft patterns of influence, of change, of progressive (or not) obsessions. The Albright-Knox, founded in 1862, collects modern and contemporary art. Gauguin to Warhol doesn’t offer fresh or innovative interpretations of the progress of modernism or challenge any of the truisms. The rooms chart a standardized version of the march of time: Post-Impressionism flowed into the School of Paris, which was invaded by Surrealism, to which Expressionism offered a less psychologically driven wildness and eventually brought us Abstract Expressionism, which was cooled and turned ironic by Pop, and so on.

But the selections are so prime that the organization hardly matters. It’s meant to be a crowd-pleaser loaded with big numbers, and speaking as a member of the crowd, it pleased me many times. Consider the American Stuart Davis (1892–1964), who jumps on the nerves as powerfully as Soutine but for wildly different reasons. There are conflicting opinions about who said this to whom, but either William Carlos Williams or Davis said to the other that what matters in art is the how, not the what. Both in their respective practices were defining a fresh, self-consciously American idiom. Davis was a jazz fan and listened to recordings while he worked. His version of American vitalism streamed out of and along with hot jazz. (Jackson Pollock, whose tensed-up, unspooling Convergence appears later in the exhibition, had a similar feeling for hard bop.) Davis said as much: “I have always liked hot music. There’s something wrong with an American who doesn’t.” Stuart doesn’t study or dramatize movement, he creates fields of randy, aggressive energy. The space in his New York Waterfront looks like a room where all the furniture has been shoved to the center. The stockpiled pier, warehouses, smokestacks, railroad tracks, and gas pumps — in dense, blazoned reds, whites, and blues, plus some blacks to weigh down the other boisterous colors — celebrate maritime industry and energy with muscular good humor. I think there’s something wrong with an American who doesn’t get a foundational jolt from Stuart’s vim and voracity.

Giacomo Balla’s pictures express a much more literal articulation of energy, of locomotive energy in particular. Balla aligned himself with Futurism, the Italian movement that burned through its influential course from 1909 to 1914. The Futurists worshipped speed, violence, mechanized motion, and the moment. They deplored passatismo, the infatuation with the past. (Not for nothing did they detest Venice.) Balla provided Futurism with its most wound-up, endearingly giddy image, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash. The dog, its leash, and the skirt of the woman walking the dog are all caught in a motion-study moment: the dachshund’s legs whirl like tiny propellers and the leash multiplies itself through the air as if in concert with the dog’s rhythm’s. It may be an illustration of a theory, but it’s also one of modernism’s most temperamentally sweet party favors.

Gauguin to Warhol contains a baby anthology of the fluttery, expanding dimensions of ways of looking. In the Matisse double portrait, the two women seem to be at the same time looking inward and out at us. The choicest image of self-regard is Picasso’s La Toilette. It’s early, from 1906, before Picasso turned 30, and the two figures have the sturdy classical poise that he would return to dozens of times. A nude, pinning up her hair, tilts her head down to consider her form in a mirror held by an attendant in a blue gown, who stares ahead indifferently, her lips a little pinched, as if her entire presence were a mirror in which the nude defines her own being. And Soutine’s great friend Modigliani is represented with his picture of a different kind of servant girl, a maid dressed in a black smock, alone, hands clasped politely, her eyes (like most women’s eyes in his work) an undiscriminating almond-slitted blot, in this instance slate purple — they’re unbreachable membranes hiding a subjectivity that won’t disclose itself.

One shadow history of modernism chronicles the relation of the seen to the unseen. Surrealists made this one of their big subjects. Giorgio de Chirico believed in the double life of appearances, in a shared visible world we all recognize and in what he called “the other, a spectral or metaphysical appearance beheld by only some rare individuals in moments of clairvoyance and metaphysical abstraction.” In The Anguish of Departure from 1913, the open spaces create an uncanny systolic pressure. A departing horse-drawn van is trapped in a gravitational field of a colonnaded building that casts its stony gaze upon the entire scene. Two figures in the distance, saying their farewells either to each other or to the train that’s barely visible beyond a wall, throw shadows that reach only to that wall. The faraway locomotive’s puffs look like fluffy clasped fingers raised in prayer to the dominant object in this raucously empty space: a high cylindrical tower.

Mark Rothko’s Orange and Yellow is an argument  against “orange” and “yellow.”

Mark Rothko’s Orange and Yellow is an argument against “orange” and “yellow.”

De Chirico wanted us to use his strange imagery as a meditative occasion, though its contemplative range is controlled and narrow. Mark Rothko crafted a language of strangeness that invites contemplation on high moral themes. He was exasperated by writers who called him an abstractionist or colorist. “My aim is to express basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom. Color is only an instrument.” The picture I spent the most time looking at was his Orange and Yellow. The image is an argument against “orange” and “yellow”: it disrupts any stable, narrow-gauge state of color perception. No square inch of this very large canvas sustains a solid monochromatic statement of either color. Rothko used rabbit hide glue and dry pigment mixed with lots of turpentine to create feathery tissues and rubbings and smudges of color, and he used absorptive un-prepped canvas to aspirate the color. The massively restless surface of Orange and Yellow stirs up a storming, cover-all astonishment. It’s as if the idea of orange generates endless inflected iterations of “orange.” Ditto the yellow. And the yellow bolster in the picture’s upper hemisphere doesn’t hover or float above the orange block below. Between them foams a trembling, misty meniscus that seems to both bind them and tease them apart.

There are many other fine things in Gauguin to Warhol that I haven’t space to talk about: Horace Pippin’s elegant self-portrait seated at his easel as if in expectation of an initiating vision; Gauguin’s sullen, haunted Spirit of the Dead Watching; Giacometti’s Man Walking (Version I), which gives physical form to Henry Adams’s phrase, “the effort to live”; or Gorky’s feverish, fiendish The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb or Max Beckmann’s delirium of overcrowding, Hotel Lobby, or the counterweight to Balla’s happy-footed pup, Francis Bacon’s picture of a dog that makes the animal’s and his walker’s scene a shattered urban wilderness. I could go on.

Gauguin to Warhol: 20th Century Icons from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, on view at the San Diego Museum of Art until January 27, 2015. 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park, 619-232-7931; sdmart.org

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