Soutine/Bacon follows a recent trend of exhibitions in New York that feel more like museum exhibitions than gallery shows. The reigning champion of putting-on-better-museum-shows-than-a-museum-but-still-a-gallery is Larry Gagosian’s outfit. Two exhibitions up in Manhattan right now are at his Gagosian gallery, one uptown on Madison Avenue and one in Chelsea.
The uptown show, Arshile Gorky 1947, is constructed around one painting recently discovered that the artist made in 1947, the year before he died at his own hand. The press release states that the painting Untitled (Pastoral) was made and then covered up by another canvas and left for the next sixty-four years and recently discovered by a conservator. The work in this exhibition, drawings and paintings of landscape and organic pod like forms, is Gorky at his most Gorky, after he had moved through several masters, including Cezanne and Picasso. The work in this exhibition still shows heavy influence of Matta and the surrealists, artists seeking refuge in New York from Fascist Europe that Gorky had befriended. The painting’s formal impact and deeply personal and idiosyncratic content interweaves his artistic influences and the observed Virginia landscape he had recently relocated. The color is rich and dramatic, with clay reds and verdant black-greens and the drawing is so weird and precise, with finely hatched and meandering lines, that I am reminded of sci-fi illustrations from the sixties.
Viewing this show made me reflect on his large retrospective in Philadelphia two years ago. In it, one was very much made aware of how Gorky used Modern art as an overt tool of self-invention. Gorky (itself a name he cribbed from somewhere else) literally inhabited the artists consciousness, turning downtown depression New York into the Jas Du Buffon or the L’ecole de Paris. Gorky was in a sense projecting himself out of his own psychology and biography (he saw his mother starve to death in front of him and his sister) into Modern art. The disappearing act his art performs, especially in the early ‘derivative’ paintings, takes on a poignant reading of a man deeply traumatized by history who saw painting as a healing and regenerative practice. The paintings in this exhibition stitch together his many influences and biography into a tragic and personal set of paintings.
The Chelsea show, Picasso and Marie Therese L’Amour Fou, curated by the Picasso biographer John Richardson focuses on the years Picasso spent with his lover, Marie Therese Walter, whose granddaughter Diana Widmaier Picasso helped curate the show. The years Picasso spent with Walter, roughly the late twenties to the late thirties, are a transitional time in his work, when he was firmly beyond his radical discoveries of cubism and not yet into the supremely personal ‘late Picasso’ work of the fifties, sixties and early seventies. That body of work was displayed at the same site two years ago in the exhibition Mosqueteros. The work in this show has Picasso camped out at the beach, both physically and formally. The paintings often show people at the beach, while the ballooning forms and ice-cream pastel colors make these paintings feel like they could literally float away through the ceiling. Most reviews of the show have compared this show to the Mosqueteros show and found Marie Therese lacking. From a certain topical perspective the Mosqueteros show was more important in that more young painters paint and see painting from the perspective of late Picasso than the Picasso of the Marie Therese years. Seeing the Mosqueteros show two years ago I was impressed how many forms and colors Picasso used forty, fifty or sixty years ago had simply stood up and walked over to a younger person’s canvas dodo bird like and made a home for themselves. I didn’t get a sense of that in this show. The paintings felt more ‘finished’ in that the ideas they offered where already thought and felt, and could only be admired by a young artist instead of actually implemented in the studio. But, perhaps, the topicality is not in the form or aesthetic ideas Picasso uses, but in his approach to subject matter. Picasso, deeply besotted by the sexuality of Marie Therese Walter, made paintings, drawings and sculpture that feel unmediated and impetuous, sentimental, whimsical, raw and audacious. Walking through the exhibition I had the sense with some of the paintings that I was looking in on Picasso with his girlfriend, a vast carefree artistic PDA. Perhaps young artists could use some of that intimacy, that sense that maybe we could float away on the beach ball of love.