Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Shifting artistic reputations

I had plenty of opportunity to ponder just why do I spend so much time in art museums on this trip.  But that question is usually easily answered when I turn the corner and see another masterwork.  I actually find that I can identify a few dozen artists by their visual style, including quite a few of the abstract expressionists!  I know of people that can do this for jazz musicians (and there are some who claim to be able to do this for soloing classical performers), but I simply do not have that kind of ear, which certainly begs the question of why do I listen to this kind of music when my ear just does not recognize these distinctions.  Sadly, this is not an era where having a very good eye for visual arts carries many tangible rewards...

I've spent some time thinking about how I would rate artists,* basically from the Impressionist era on up.  It is a bit of a fool's errand, since it is all so personal.  There are general trends of course, and I will discuss briefly how my views do or do not align with the mainstream.  At any rate, mainstream views of art change over time (though perhaps less quickly than the literary canon), and certainly my tastes have shifted. (I don't rate Franz Kline nearly as high now as I used to, for example.)  For better or worse, this is my list of my favorite artists:
  1. Pablo Picasso
  2. Henri Matisse
  3. Paul Cezanne
  4. Vincent Van Gogh
  5. Max Beckmann
  6. Marc Chagall
  7. Wassily Kandinsky
  8. Giorgio de Chirico
  9. Georgia O'Keeffe
  10. Stuart Davis 
  11. Gustave Caillebotte
  12. Paul Klee
  13. James Rosenquist
  14. Philip Guston
  15. Edward Hopper
  16. Claude Monet
At this point, there is a cluster/tie at 17-22 with the abstract expressionists:
Franz Kline, Mark Tobey, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, Helen Frankenthaler & Adolph Gottlieb

Then in a big jumble from 23-45 I have another bunch of artists that would be difficult to rank:
Joseph Cornell
Camille Pissarro
Jean-Édouard Vuillard
Romare Bearden
George Segal
Roy Lichtenstein
Lawren Harris
Jasper Johns
René Magritte
John Sloan
Jackson Pollack
Lee Krasner
Joan Mitchell
Ben Nicholson
Stanley Spencer
Tom Thomson
Max Weber
Joan Miró
Juan Gris
Georges Braque
Lee Bontecou
Louise Bourgeois
Claes Oldenburg/Red Grooms (tie)

I'm sure I'm forgetting a few, but these are generally the artists who have inspired me enough to buy one (or more) monographs on their work.  From this you can tell that I really don't care that much about art prior to the Impressionists, though I do have a soft spot for Rembrandt, Vermeer, Titian, el Greco, Goya and Hieronymus Bosch.  If I were to open up the list, they would certainly push out a few of these artists.  Nonetheless, I generally don't care much for rural landscapes (with the exception of Monet and Cezanne), so I was generally underwhelmed and even a little bored by the current AGO exhibition.  I do tend to like urban scenes (Pissarro and John Sloan and Caillebotte to a certain extent and even Stuart Davis at a certain point in his career).

I definitely favor painters, though there are a few sculptors on the list.  I decided to skip over photographers completely (perhaps another list for another day).

While I do like abstract expressionism, I tend to sort of absorb it quickly and move on.  Quite a few of the abstract expressionists are a bit interchangeable, and they kind of fall into and out of favor depending on the piece (I suppose I do tend to rank Franz Kline and Mark Tobey towards the top).  Pollock and Krasner and Mitchell are just a bit lower, whereas I am just not as interested in Rothko or de Kooning and I actively dislike Cy Twombly, who is actually more out of the Pop era, but has a style more akin to the expressionists, at least some of the time.

I generally like figurative painters who are not entirely straight-forward.  This probably explains why Chagall and Beckmann are so high (probably the one area where I depart the most from conventional wisdom).  I don't like the simple Pop artists, but I find Rosenquist's juxtapositions interesting.  If I was only looking at their early work, I probably would not have put either Lichtenstein or Jasper Johns on the list, but both came up with more interesting work as they matured.  I particularly like Johns's take on the Four Seasons (apparently if I could come up with $175,000 I could buy the set...)

Am I completely consistent?  Of course not.  There are a few artists here who are on the list mostly on the strength of a single painting, such as Max Weber's Chinese Restaurant at the Whitney.

Max Weber, Chinese Restaurant, 1915

But there are other one-hit wonders I have left off.  I think for Paul Gauguin there are just as many paintings that interest me as make my skin crawl a bit, though ultimately, it's probably just a feeling that I should not reward colonization or colonizers that truly keeps him off my list.

This is probably the most intriguing painting from the earlier part of his career (typically on display at the Albright-Knox):

Paul Gauguin, The Yellow Christ, 1889

For some reason, this doesn't rank (with me) quite as highly as Chagall's somewhat similar treatment, which is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion, 1938

While it is tempting, I will try to resist the temptation to put up my favorite one or two paintings by all the artists on the list.  I'm sure I'll figure out a way at some point to get my favorites on the blog one way or another.

I will end with a somewhat labored comparison between birth and death as portrayed by Beckmann and Chagall.

Again, the Chagall painting can be viewed in Chicago.

Marc Chagall, Birth, 1911-12

It is certainly arguable that death is ever-present as this peasant woman goes into labour, but it is just as interesting how there is such a jumble of activity around her, and in fact, she is somewhat off-center.

Beckmann's Birth painting is a somewhat simpler composition, though there are certainly quite a few bystanders.

Max Beckmann, Birth, 1937

Beckmann's Death is closer in spirit to Chagall, with reversed figures hugging the ceiling.

Max Beckmann, Death, 1938

(I was fortunate enough to see both of these at the 2003 MoMA show.)

To close out, I will end with Chagall's The Falling Angel, which is in a private collection, but is occasionally lent to major museums.  I have not seen it in person.

Marc Chagall, The Falling Angel, 1923-47

The color schemes are different, and Beckmann uses a much thicker line throughout, but somehow I see quite a few similarities (filling the frame with candles, skulls, musical instruments, magical birds and other animals) in the dream-like, sometimes nightmarish paintings by these two, who are both so high on my list of favorite artists.

* I suppose this is a companion piece to my ranking of art museums from the early days of this blog.  That's still a solid list though I might bump Museo Reina Sofía down several slots and move the St. Louis Museum of Art up a few.  I still haven't seen the Hermitage nor the Uffizi.  I'm far more likely to get around to the latter than the former, at least in the near future.

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