Thursday, July 31, 2008

Question and Answer

The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? “Funny” Woody Allen or “Serious” Woody Allen? Coke or Pepsi? For many people, such questions trigger endless arguments bordering on warfare. In the world of modern superhero comics, the question for many is Kirby or Ditko? Mark Evanier’s Kirby: King of Comics (reviewed here) fired the first shot for the Kirby-philes, to which Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko responds in a less affectionate, but just as admiring way—a book as conflicted as the artist himself. Bell traces Ditko’s life from his earliest days in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to his meteoric rise in the comic industry and heyday helping create Spider-Man and other cultural icons, to his essentially turning his back on fame and fortune in the name of philosophical and artistic principle. Today, Ditko still churns out comics in his Times Square studio, living in relative poverty as his characters rake in millions in films and publications. Never once has Ditko cried out “Help!” (as in the stunning, almost Expressionist image above from Strange Tales #94, March 1962) and asked for retribution. A hero in his own mind, Ditko never compromised his principles and always placed the art before the artist, becoming as elusive as Thomas Pynchon for those trying to enter his world. Blake Bell storms Castle Ditko and sheds light into the darkest corners of his art.

Ditko grew up in the shadow of disaster—the Great 1889 Flood of Johnstown that claimed more than 2,200 lives. Haunted by that memory and facing the financial disaster of the Great Depression, Ditko and his family, like so many of that generation, found solace in the comic adventures of Prince Valiant, Batman, and The Spirit. After serving in World War II, Ditko used the G.I. Bill to study under Batman artist Jerry Robinson in New York City. Ditko took the skills learned under Robinson to a series of studios before landing at Charlton Comics in 1953. Charlton treated comics as “filler” for their other publishing ventures, so Ditko enjoyed full freedom, albeit poor payment, at Charlton before the institution of the Comics Code in 1954. “Ditko reveled in this short-lived freedom,” Bell writes. “His imagery of buzzing electric chairs, dismemberment and death by drowning continued the trend of horror that was garnering such negative attention.” Throughout, Bell uses concrete examples of Ditko’s early art to demonstrate the amazing story-telling techniques of the master. “His use of single design elements, spatial interaction of objects, negative space and spotting of blacks were giving his work a recognizable visual identity,” Bell writes. Bell’s dissection of Ditko provides a primer on the fundamentals of visual storytelling itself. Eventually, Ditko found himself at Marvel Comics working with Stan Lee. Fleshing out Lee’s rough outline, Ditko gave form to Marvel’s greatest character—Spider-Man. “It was Ditko’s ability to expand on Lee’s framework that separated the ‘hero with problems’ motif from being mere repetitious novelty added to flavor a generic superhero book,” Bell says when trying to recapture the revolutionary impact of Spider-Man. Ditko eventually took over the plotting and art of the first few years of Spider-Man, letting his imagination stretch and evolve like the villainous Sandman confronting the hero in Amazing Spider-Man #4 (above, from September 1963). The visual pyrotechnics of Sandman rival anything done by Jack Cole in the acclaimed Plastic Man while simultaneously creating stories that revitalized the comics industry with their relevance to a new, young audience.

“If Spider-Man set a new standard for superhero comics in narrative depth,” Bell asserts, “Doctor Strange raised the bar for the visualization of dimensions never before seen or imagined.” Ditko’s cosmic capers led many of the Woodstock generation to suspect he shared their love of mind-altering substances. Such suspicions seem reasonable when looking at the almost Dali-esque landscapes (above) Ditko wove entirely from his own consciousness. Ironically, while the hippies sought to claim Ditko as one of them, Ditko sought to separate himself from the prevailing spirit of that age. Already “the most straight-laced man in comics,” Ditko’s personal philosophy took a hard right turn when he embraced the works of Ayn Rand. In Amazing Spider-Man #38, Ditko’s final issue, Spider-Man as Peter Parker confronts a group of college-age protesters, whom Ditko portrays as shiftless and unprincipled. Bell calls this moment “a big ‘middle finger’” to Spider-Man’s core audience, something Marvel took note of when dismissing Ditko. Ditko went back to Charlton and eventually to DC Comics to create a score of Randian heroes such as Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, Hawk and Dove, and The Creeper. The most Randian heroes of all, however, were the pair of The Question and Mister A. “Where other heroes’ powers are based on some accidental super element,” Ditko said, “The Question and Mr. A’s ‘power’ is deliberately knowing what is right, and acting accordingly.” While The Question operated under the Comics Code, Mr. A appeared in magazines outside the code, allowing villains to die with a cold ruthlessness the mainstream industry would never permit. Mr. A answers the questions The Question poses with cold-blooded Randian resolve. Bell truly walks a fine line in praising Ditko the consummate artist and storyteller while simultaneously showing the less attractive aspects of his narratives and the consequences those storylines held for Ditko’s career.

When Ditko drew Mr. A laughing at a bribe attempt in witzend #4 (above, from 1968) he might have just as easily drawn himself laughing at the overtures of the comic industry to bring the talented creator back into the fold. Even when independent, creator-driven comics companies arose in the 1980s, Ditko never found the unfettered freedom he desired for his work. Ditko saw any outside editorial imput as an affront to his principles. Such principles led Ditko to take jobs such as drawing Transformers coloring books in 1983 just for the money. Refusing all forms of altruism—from fans as well as from the industry—thanks to his Objectivist beliefs, Ditko survives on social security and veterans benefits. Always clear-eyed yet admiring, Bell recognizes the toll Ditko’s Randianism took not only on his relations with the comic industry but also on the work itself. “Ultimately, after his initial success in bringing Rand’s tenets to comics in the late 1960s, Ditko’s Objectivist-inspired work became prone to didacticism and repetition, accompanied increasingly by perfunctory artwork,” Bell writes. Ditko turns his characters, once so full-bodied, into “political ciphers” or mouthpieces for Rand’s polemics. Bell provides a sampling of “the lighter side” of Ditko near the end of the book, but there’s no shaking the sad decline of the great artist and storyteller. Fans of Ditko already know his prickly side, and may love him even more for it, but Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko will give even the most devout Ditko-phile pause not only in a reevaluation of the greatness of Ditko’s work but in the recalculation of just how far the mighty have fallen.

[Many thanks to Fantagraphics Books for providing me with a review copy of Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko and for the images above.]

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Sibling Rivalry

What must it have been like growing up the brother of Marcel Duchamp? Gaston Duchamp, better known as Jacques Villon, must have felt overshadowed at times by his little brother, twelve years his junior. Born July 31, 1875, Villon took his new name in honor of French poet François Villon and set out to create his own type of poetry separate from that of his famous sibling Marcel and his lesser-known artistic siblings Raymond and Suzanne. In prints such as The Cards (above, from 1903), Villon shows his debt to the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose stunning graphic style swept through Europe and changed the way Villon and other graphic artists who followed went about their work. While Marcel delved into the deep thought experiments of Dada and Surrealism, Villon traveled in Fauvist, Cubist, and Abstract Impressionist circles, slowly moving away from the Post-Impressionism of Toulouse-Lautrec to a more modern look.

Villon excelled at printmaking and etching. The Checker Table (above, from 1920) shows Villon trying his hand at Cubist etching. (I wonder if Villon and Marcel, famous for his love of chess, ever squared off over a board or two.) The board and the table it rests on seem to be disassembling themselves off into space, much like Marcel’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 painted eight years earlier. Like Marcel and so many other European artists, the 1913 Armory Show served as a coming out party for Villon, introducing his art to an American audience for the first time. While some of those artists met resistance from the American markets, Villon found a second home and acceptance for his more accessible Cubist works such as The Checker Table.

While Marcel always seemed to be an art movement unto himself, always wary of labels and the very nature of institutionalized art itself, Villon seems more at home in groups, helping others find an audience. Although Marcel and Raymond also helped form the Puteaux Group that included Francis Picabia, Robert Delaunay, and Fernand Leger, Villon more than his brothers organized the Section d'Or exhibitions that brought those innovative artists to the public eye. In Villon’s Self-Portrait from the 1950s (above), he seems almost forbidding, perhaps poking fun at his open, inviting character. Marcel always seems to be in exile from himself and art, while Villon always seems secure in his place in the world and art-making. Perhaps the younger brother could have learned a few things from his older brother. Just the choice of the graphic medium, with its easy reproduction and often illustrative nature, speaks of Villon’s greater desire to communicate in contrast to his still-befuddling, often overshadowing younger brother.

Dutch Mistress

I remember as a kid looking at advertisements for Dutch Masters cigars and thinking, “Where were the women?” One woman, Judith Leyster, broke up the boys club of Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and others and found a place for herself in the hyper-male world of seventeenth-century Dutch art. Baptized July 28, 1609, Leyster confidently painted her Self-Portrait in 1630 (above), around the age of twenty-one, as she began to achieve renown as a portrait and genre painter. The portrait shows the influence of Hals, who was a teacher and great influence. Within a few years, Leyster became the only member of the Haarlem painters’ guild. Leyster even began to take students. When her former teacher Hals stole one of her students, Leyster sued Hals, and won! The same exuberant lust for life that characterizes Hals painting appears in Leyster’s work, clearly mirroring her feisty spirit and underdog mentality as a woman in a man’s world.

Another great influence on Leyster at this time was Caravaggio. Like many of the other “Caravaggisti,” or imitators of Caravaggio, scattered across Europe, Leyster tried to recreate the amazing light effects of the Italian master. In The Proposition (above, from 1631), Leyster shows a man and woman lit by lamplight. The woman attends to her sewing as the man places a hand upon her shoulder, perhaps as part of the proposition. Perhaps due to the shadiness of the image we read shady intentions in the man’s act. We can’t be sure what’s going on. Such scenes were common in Dutch painting as emblems of lust in action as well as innocence unswayed. Historians love to use such paintings to read hints into the nature of the relationship between Hals and Leyster, but we really don’t know enough to extend it past the roles of teacher and student. Leyster’s style followed Hals’ so closely that many of her paintings were mistaken for those by Hals, whose more famous name brought higher prices. In some cases, forgers would paint Hals “signature” over that of Leyster to pass it off as a work by Hals. Fortunately, enough faux Hals were discovered to be by Leyster that she herself was rediscovered in the 1890s in the same mania for Dutch art that lifted the reputation of Vermeer and other Dutch painters.

Leyster’s paintings show a great love for life in all its forms. Her Serenade (above, from 1629) shows a young man singing while accompanying himself on a lute. Such musical scenes made up a common genre in Dutch painting of the time, but what separates Leyster’s painting from the crowd is the Carvaggisti light effect of the light source from below, as if a lamp or fire sat just below the bottom edge of the frame. When the Robber Barons of late nineteenth-century America looked for art to invest in, the Dutch market seemed the surest bet. That buying frenzy led unscrupulous dealers to pass off lesser-known names with great talent as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and others, creating a tangled web of misattribution that still plagues art historians today. Out of that chaos, fortunately, some of those “lesser” names, such as Leyster, were saved from the dustpan of history, finally allowed membership posthumously in the club denied to them in life.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Roads Not Taken

Today marks perhaps the saddest day in the entire art history calendar—the day that Vincent Van Gogh died in 1890, two days after shooting himself. If you believe the version told in the Kirk Douglas’ film Lust for Life, you think that Van Gogh finished Wheatfield With Crows (above, from 1890), walked away, and shot himself moments later. From Hollywood and beyond, Van Gogh the myth too often replaces Van Gogh the man and artist in the collective consciousness of the world. Dead at thirty-seven years of age, Vincent’s become the archetypal tortured genius rejected by the world in life but madly embraced in death. But what if Van Gogh conquered his demons? Assuming that he never fires that fateful shot, and assuming that he lived to seventy years of age, Van Gogh would have lived until 1923, long enough to see the rise of Modern Art—Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, and countless others—as well as the horrors of World War I. As a kid, I always loved to read Marvel ComicsWhat If… ?, which gave the writers and artists license to imagine familiar characters in whole new universes. If Van Gogh’s death remains one of the great hinges of art history, then it also provides one of the great “What if… ?” opportunities.

Let’s assume that Van Gogh never pulls the trigger in 1890 and gets his life together. The admiration within the painting community building for his work increases. Even Paul Gauguin gives him another chance. The posthumous exhibitions that gave Vincent his first wide exposure become displays of the work of a living, breathing, growing artist whose works such as The Olive Trees (above, from 1889) reflect only the beginning of a whole new expressive direction in his art. Sadly, Theo still dies of syphilis in January 1891, but Vincent declares that the best tribute to his brother is to realize the dream they both held for his art. The Fauves and German Expressionists look to Van Gogh as a father figure in developing their style. Instead of providing the myth of the artist, Vincent gives them the reality, providing the heart and, more importantly, the soul of the new movements of Modern art. Everyone either must follow or reject Van Gogh’s path—there is no in between. The poetry of the letters Van Gogh shared with Theo never comes before the public until after Vincent’s death, but the living poetry of his pronouncements to and encouraging words for younger artists rings even stronger in their ears. The German art community embraces their Dutch forefather, with the members of Die Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter serving as the children Vincent never had. World War I shocks Van Gogh’s sensibilities in old age, as it did everyone’s, but he survives to see artists such as Picasso and Matisse rise from the ruins to restore European art, both radically changed by the inescapable influence of a Van Gogh that continues to interact with and evolve in response to the world around him into the early 1920s.

Or we can assume that Van Gogh never pulls the trigger in 1890 and never gets his life together. Theo’s death six months later rips his fragile mind apart. The deranged face looking back in the mirror in such works as Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (above, from 1889) haunts Vincent for the rest of his life. Increasingly erratic, Van Gogh struggles to paint. Painters, critics, and dealers earlier inclined to support Van Gogh, often thanks to Theo’s intervention, grow impatient and move on to the next thing. Without Theo’s financial support, Van Gogh lives a life of poverty, unable and/or unwilling to compromise and paint more salable paintings to support himself. The letters are never published. The German public that fell in love with the poetry of those letters never sees them. The German Expressionists still emerge, but search their own cultural heritage for a father figure to replace the Van Gogh they never get to know. The cachet that grows around the name Van Gogh in the public mind never happens. Specialists in Post-Impressionism know of Van Gogh primarily through his association with Gauguin. Eventually they may “rediscover” Van Gogh, but only decades after he dies in obscurity in the early 1920s, a fruitless branch of the great family tree of art history that withered untended. The shocking otherness of Van Gogh’s works never wears away thanks to ceaseless reproduction, which allows modern viewers to get a sense of his uniqueness but simultaneously distances them from Vincent the sensitive soul longing to be embraced by the world. Success comes too late for Van Gogh—not only for him to appreciate but also for his work to have any major impact on Modern art or popular culture.

Van Gogh is so firmly rooted in our imaginations today that it’s hard to imagine a world without him. He seems inevitable. How could you not like Van Gogh? We forget that many of his contemporaries clearly didn’t like Van Gogh’s work, or him personally. Nothing in art, or life, is inevitable. On this day when Van Gogh the man died and Van Gogh the legend was born, we should think of all the other “Van Goghs” that we’ve never heard of and most likely never will. It took a great number of coincidences for Van Gogh to become the Van Gogh we know today. Each of those accidents could have produced different results, a whole new “What if…?” we can only guess at.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Behind Closed Doors

The PMA will host next summer a special exhibit centering around Marcel Duchamp’s Etant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (in English, Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) (above, from 1946-1966). Dedicated to the memory of Anne d'Harnoncourt, this exhibition hopes to shed light on Duchamp’s final masterpiece, built over the last twenty years of his life, when he claimed to have given up art to play chess. I remember the first time I visited the PMA without my parents and wandered through their amazing Duchamp collection, which is perhaps the finest in the world. I walked over to the two wooden doors, looked through the peep hole, and came away red-faced after seeing the nude female manikin spread-eagled inside. Born July 28, 1887, Duchamp still leaves critics embarrassed by his ability to shock and provoke with works now nearly a century old. Whether placing a urinal on a pedestal (1917’s Fountain) or creating a cross-dressing persona (Rrose Selavy), Duchamp always seemed one chess move ahead of the times, leaving other artists to imitate palely, if they dared.

Duchamp always seems to be playing a joke. I remember sitting with an art history book years ago and asking my very gullible, younger brother if he’d like to see Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (above, from 1912). “Where is she?” he asked, as so many others had before him. Duchamp made Cubism move in a way that Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque never imagined. After revolutionizing that “ism,” Duchamp quickly moved on to Dada and Surrealism, redefining those “isms” as well before moving on again, always wary of being pinned down. Duchamp remains beyond categorization, which makes him the most frustrating of all modern artists, and perhaps the most influential. Peter Blake went so far as to paint an imaginary “world tour” series featuring Duchamp. I would estimate that more academics tangle with the meaning of Duchamp and his work than any other single artist. After reading so many of these usually dense, baroque examinations of the artist, I always find it refreshing to go back to the art itself. It makes me think, of course. More importantly, it makes me laugh.

I remember the professor teaching the one art history class I took in college going on and on about “reading” the characters involved in Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (aka, The Large Glass; above, from 1915-1923). I strained with my fellow students to pick out the bride from the bachelors to no avail. My favorite part of The Large Glass, and the one that caught my eye right away, remains the fine network of cracks in the glass, a spider’s web of shards spun when handlers dropped the work years ago. Duchamp embraced the accident, saying it actually improved the work. Despite years of exile from his native France thanks to two world wars, Duchamp always maintained a zen-like optimism when viewing the world. Despite his dour visage and late “just let me play my chess” persona, Duchamp never failed in the role of merry prankster. The jester still stands next to the door, pointing to the peephole and daring you to take a look. You know you want to.

From the Outside In

With only a third-grade education and art supplies he scavenged from trash, William Hawkins typifies the kind of outsider artist who found acceptance in twentieth century art. Born July 27, 1895, Hawkins claimed that his mixed heritage—black, white, and Native American—was the source of his artistic ability. Hawkins painted Sioux Indian on Warpath (above, from 1985) as an homage to that piece of his ancestry, but painted images related to American history, pop culture, his farm upbringing, and the Bible during his 94 years on Earth. Using cast-off enamel paint and discarded masonite boards, Hawkins took an innate sense of composition as well as a precocious gift for color and created images that rival those of his contemporary Jacob Lawrence in their colorful simplicity and those of Henri Rousseau in their amusing depictions of animal life. Spurred on by the need to support twenty children and sometimes even his grandchildren, Hawkins painted the world around him always with an eye on what would sell.

I love Hawkins’ Prudential N.Y.C. (above, from 1985) for the odd green mountain take on the famous Prudential Financial logo. Hawkins shows a Pop Art sensibility without the ostentation of Pop Art itself. What you see is what you get. That’s not a swipe at his lack of education but praise at his outsider’s sense of honesty, something that art world insiders often lose once the system lays claim to their talents. Hawkins was already in his seventies when he began painting full-time and didn’t get any wide-spread recognition until he was in his eighties. Even today, few books exist that cover his art and that of similar outsider artists. Critics simply don’t know how to handle these artists. I find myself trying to relate Hawkins to what I know, but realize that the full impact of Hawkins’ art comes from him being slightly different from what I know, as if he’d landed on an artistic Madagascar long ago and evolved in a wonderfully different direction like some kind of rare, painting lemur.

Of course, Hawkins did know some kinds of art, mostly from popular culture and religious imagery. Everyone knows Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, including Hawkins, who created a series of mixed-media works on the subject, including Last Supper #6 (above, from 1986). Toward the end of his life, Andy Warhol also created a series of meditations on Da Vinci’s Last Supper, mostly as examinations of his own devout Christianity, but Hawkins’ series seems more like a study of the imagery itself, with a eye-catching framework that was not only a nod towards salability but also a reminder that this is an image and not unfiltered documentation. Hawkins signed most of his works “William L. Hawkins, Born KY July 27, 1895,” giving the plain, unadorned facts of his existence. His crude writing reminded me of the text that Edward Hicks would place on the borders of his Peaceable Kingdom paintings, giving the plain, unadorned “facts” as the Bible set them out. In many ways Hawkins continues (and perhaps completes) the long line of American outsiders that Hicks began.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Misunderstanding, Persecution, and Neglect

In 1894, after losing his teaching job at the PAFA amidst a sexually charged scandal that would plague him the rest of his life, Thomas Eakins wrote: "My honors are misunderstanding, persecution & neglect, enhanced because unsought." Born July 25, 1844 under an unlucky star, Eakins may be the greatest artist America has ever produced, certainly the greatest Philadelphia ever birthed, and yet also the most unjustly neglected. Growing up in Philadelphia and fascinated with Eakins’ work since I was a teenager, I can’t help but see Eakins around every corner. Annie once asked me what great painting I’d like to own. When I told her Eakins’ The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) (above, from 1871), she did the next best thing—she made it the wallpaper for my laptop. Now, Eakins portrait of his friend Max Schmitt stares out at me each time I turn it on, but my eyes often turn to Eakins portrait of himself rowing away into the distance. Each time we drive along the Schuylkill River and see Boathouse Row, I think of Eakins and this painting, however briefly. Each time we cross the Girard Avenue Bridge, shown in the distance of The Champion Single Sculls, to make a U-turn after visiting the Philadelphia Zoo, I think of Eakins and this painting, however briefly. (While visiting the zoo with Annie and Alex, I sometimes think of how Eakins’ pet monkey Bobby ended up there after Eakins’ death and wonder if any of Bobby’s ancestors still swing in those habitats.) But all those brief moments of reflection add up to a huge ghost that haunts the city like Hamlet’s father, asking to be revenged.

Sidney Kirkpatrick actually titled his great biography The Revenge of Thomas Eakins, in response to the hatchet job by Henry Adams titled Eakins Revealed. I’ve read both, as well as every other major book on Eakins. The sum of such reading infects me with the ability to merge the city and the artist almost entirely. A Phillies game harks back to Eakins watercolor of baseball players practicing in 1875-style uniforms. Walking past Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and their statue of Dr. Samuel D. Gross calls to mind The Gross Clinic and how that work was almost taken from Philadelphia. For someone who has been dead for almost a century, Eakins still gets around, at least vicariously through my thoughts. When the PMA exhibited Eakins’ The Swimming Hole (above, from 1884), I made sure to take a good long look before it went back to it’s home museum in Texas, part of the great Eakins exodus in the years after his death. Eakins almost sheepishly raises his head above the water in the lower right corner of the painting, looking on at the young men cavorting in the water. Many read sinister narratives into Eakins’ watery self-portrait here, usually centered around homoerotic voyeurism, but I prefer to see Eakins as an unapologetic student of the human form literally worshiping at the feet of God’s greatest achievement.

When the National Academy of Design in New York invited Eakins to join their organization, they asked him to submit a self-portrait. Eakins’ Self-Portrait (above, from 1902) shows the artist gone from riches to rags. His jacket is clearly worn in spots. He’s painted himself poorly shaved. His eyes seem sad rather than proudly brilliant. In this self-portrait, Eakins showed to the world the effects of the years of “misunderstanding, persecution, and neglect.” In many ways, Eakins’ plight mirrors that of Philadelphia itself. Home to the Centennial celebration of 1876, Philadelphia stood as one of the most prosperous manufacturing cities in the world. As the decades passed, those factories gradually closed, jobs disappeared, neighborhoods went bad, and a general sense of malaise and inferiority took firm root in the soul of the city and its people. Everything from the trivial (losing sports teams) to the deadly serious (astronomical murder rates) contributes to the second-class city mentality that Philadelphia imposes upon itself as it slinks into the shadow of New York City. I feel the same fury for my city’s fall as I do for Eakins’ eclipse, believing that the answer to one may actually rest in part in the answer to the other. I’ve been toying around with the idea of writing a short book with a title something like “Thomas Eakins’ Philadelphia.” Aside from finding the time and energy to write a formal proposal for a publisher, I wonder if I’ll ever find the time and energy to write such a book while working a full-time job and being a full-time husband and father. Part of me, however, would love to do it for no other reason than to show my son and future generations of Philadelphians that their city has a great and powerful past all around them that makes them second to nobody. The ghosts are already speaking to them, calling them to better things, if they will simply stop and listen.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Fallen Hopes

I remember standing under Alexander Calder’s gigantic stabile Eagle (above, from 1971) when the PMA installed it at the top of the “Rocky Steps” as part of the city’s push to get a Calder museum for Philadelphia as part of the “Museum Mile” dream to include the PMA, the PAFA, the Rodin Museum, and the eventually to be moved Barnes Foundation Museum. I remember looking down and seeing the optic orange paint chips scattered everywhere as evidence of just how much difficulty the installers had moving the gentle giant. Born July 22, 1898, Calder’s known better for his lighthearted mobile structures that dance in mid-air on wind currents. I never forget to look up at Calder’s Ghost high above the great staircase of the PMA. Although Calder’s stabiles seem whimsical, they’re just as monumentally crushing as the sculptures of Richard Serra, although I don’t know of anyone being hurt or killed by a Calder. Just because Calder’s works don’t seem to threaten you like Serra’s do, doesn’t make them less dangerous. For Philadelphia’s dream of a “Museum Mile,” the dream of a Calder Museum has been crushed time and again over the last 9 years.

Today, where the Calder Museum might have been on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a small park full of smaller Calder stabiles rests like a kind of graveyard. Many of these smaller stabiles wear the funereal black of Calder’s Man (above, from 1967) rather than the happy optic orange of so many other stabiles. Calder’s family’s association with the City of Brotherly Love goes back generations—from his grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, who came to Philadelphia from Scotland in 1868, to his father, Alexander Stirling Calder. Sculptures by the Calders appear all over Philadelphia. Between the Peales, the Wyeths, and the Calders, Philadelphia-area art has always been a family affair. Unfortunately, local government just couldn’t put together the proper package to sway the current generation of Calders to take that final step that would have made the museum a reality.

Hope lives for the Calder Museum. The very nature of Calder’s work always gives new collections a chance. Calder’s Mountains and Clouds (above, from 1976), located in the Hart Senate Office Building, actually found its home after Calder’s death. Calder suffered a fatal heart attack right after finalizing plans for the sculpture in 1976. Six years later, the sculpture, a unique blend of mobile and stabile, appeared during the building’s own unveiling. Because Calder’s art is more about ideas than execution, versions of his work can be created just as well posthumously as during his lifetime. The idea of a museum of Calder’s greatest ideas in the city his family called home for over a century may see the light of day yet.

Under the Volcano

The Italian government has declared the ancient site of Pompeii a disaster area. Destruction comes this time not in the form of volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius but rather from years of neglect and poor conservationism. For the next year, the Italian government’s newly appointed commissioner will oversee the new conservation effort. Frescoes (one example above) and other artifacts exposed to the elements during the past 260 years of excavations are being destroyed over time. Trash from nearby Naples is actually being dumped near the site, burying it just as cruelly as Vesuvius did in 79 AD.

I remember being greatly moved when Annie and I visited Pompeii during our Italian honeymoon. Walking down the streets (above) with the tour guide pointing out the ancient technological wonders, the too-familiar homey touches, and the sexually explicit artwork here and there brought the “dead” city back to life for us. Seeing where bakers and other tradesmen worked each day, including that final day, proved that very little has changed about people in the last two thousand years. Sadly, I have equally clear memories of the many dogs that walked among the ruins of the city begging for scraps from tourists, living in the ancient homes, and polluting the historic scene. After seeing Pompeii in person, I’m still amazed that only two thirds of the city has been uncovered, with another third still buried under Vesuvian ash as it has been for millennia.

As the article points out, Italy’s flagging economy leaves little money to take care of the many culturally important sites under government supervision. Pompeii’s age and already fragile state made it more susceptible to disrepair than most others, but the disaster area label may soon find its way on other treasures of Italian history. As one commenter pointed out, our best solution may be to rebury the city of Pompeii before our actions do any more irreparable harm. (A computer-generated image of the 79 AD disaster appears above.) As horrific as the prospect of another eruption of Mount Vesuvius sounds, especially to the highly populated areas around Naples, it may be the only chance of saving what remains of the lost city of Pompeii.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Perhaps the finest art video podcast I’ve seen so far was Alexander Nemerov’s 2007 Wyeth Lecture in American Art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, titled Ground Swell: Edward Hopper in 1939.” Of all the great American artists, Edward Hopper resists political readings more strongly than any other. Born July 22, 1882, Hopper seems untouched by events during his life, content simply to depict light as it falls on a wall, as he famously remarked countless times, or to give visual form to the alienation and loneliness of modern life, especially in twentieth century America. Nemerov breaks through Hopper’s apolitical wall and shows how works such as Ground Swell (above, from 1939) can also be read as America “listening” to the drums of war in Europe before entering the conflict. Just as the figures in Hopper’s painting listen to the buoy’s bell in a strange rapture, Americans glued themselves to the radio in 1939 for dispatches from Europe as Germany invaded country after country and England seemed the last line of defense. Even the seemingly reclusive Hopper (who was a closet Francophile) must have listened to the news and the stirring broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow during the London Blitz.

Once Nemerov breaks the seal of Hopper’s apoliticism, almost all of his works from that fateful year of 1939 take on a whole new meaning. Nemerov shows how even Hopper’s Bridle Path (above, from 1939), a realistic depiction of a riding path in New York City’s Central Park, may also be read as a resistance to enter the conflict, as symbolized by the horses’ resistance to enter the dark tunnel. As FDR inched America closer to closer to the brink of war with incremental gestures such as the Lend-Lease aid program to England, a large portion of the American public looked to pull back the reigns and not become involved in another European conflict. Pearl Harbor remained two years away, so Hopper here may be depicting this reticence. Whether Hopper himself shared in that reticence remains a mystery thanks to his sphinx-like silence on almost anything not directly related to art.

Hopper’s Cape Cod Evening (above, from 1939) serves as the third painting in Nemerov’s 1939 troika. Here, Hopper paints many of his familiar Hopper-esque motifs: a simple New England house, two people emotionally distanced from one another, all of it seemingly captured on the brink of action or just after. What makes this different, however, is the dog’s attentiveness to a distant sound. Just like the buoy bell tolling in Ground Swell, the dog and the people find themselves mesmerized by that distant sound. The tall grass envelopes the dog and the entire foreground, like a sea on land. Hopper may also hint at the “snake in the grass,” poised to strike from a hiding place, like the Pearl Harbor attack. Nemerov’s lecture beautifully illustrated the power of a talented critic to bring a whole new dimension to an artist we believe we know completely. Produced in conjunction with the 2007 exhibition Edward Hopper at the NGA, Nemerov’s lecture provided the perfect compliment to that career-spanning reevaluation.

From Left to Right

Critics dissect many artists into almost different people based on “periods.” I know of only one artist differentiated by which hand he painted with—Lovis Corinth. Born July 21, 1858, Corinth painted realist works with an almost sinister Symbolist feel such as Self-Portrait With Skeleton (above, from 1896) up until 1911, the year he suffered a stroke (perhaps hastened by his chronic alcoholism). Left with a partially paralyzed left side, including his painting hand, Corinth learned to paint with his right hand within a year with the love and support of his wife Charlotte Berend, herself an artist and Corinth’s former student. Painting with his naturally dominant left hand, Corinth worked in a mostly realistic style that borrowed from other movements such as Symbolism and Impressionism. Along with his friend, Max Liebermann, Corinth brought some of the first stirrings of Impressionism to Germany. Unlike Liebermann, however, Corinth saw the world in darker tones, recognizing the pain of life he experienced so closely firsthand.

The right-handed, post-stroke Corinth began to paint in a highly Expressionist style. Although almost an entire generation older than most other Expressionist artists in Germany, especially the artists of Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke, Corinth felt compelled to play the younger man’s game of angst and outrage. Corinth’s Cain (above, from 1917) strikingly depicts the pain and the defiance of the Biblical character. Painted in the midst of Germany’s involvement in World War I, it may also serve as a symbol of Germany’s own fratricidal guilt in ginning up the war fever that soon consumed all of Europe in the flames. Corinth watched an entire generation of young men, including many of the fine young Expressionist painters, die in the war. Already manic-depressive, Corinth’s natural pessimism grew even deeper during the war years.

Corinth died in 1925 while making a pilgrimage to Holland to see the works of Rembrandt, Rubens, Hals, and many other beloved influences. In that final year, Corinth painted his son in Thomas in Armor (above, from 1925), perhaps a satiric comment on a world that sends young men to battle. Trapped in an ailing body, Corinth turned inward and turned his art upside down, replacing finish with raw emotion. Like his beloved Rembrandt, Corinth painted himself over and over throughout his career, in all kinds of settings and in all moods, from bacchanalian to bleak. Corinth died before the Nazis’ ascension in Germany, so we’ll never know his judgment of them, but we know their judgment of him. When the Nazis wrote up the list of “Degenerate Art,” only those works by Corinth after 1911 were deemed improper, as if the paralysis from his stroke had actually killed the artist rather than freed him in a whole new way.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

More Than the Minimum

Martin Puryear, American (born 1941). In Sheep's Clothing, 1996. Pine. Des Moines Art Center. Purchased with funds from the Nathan Emory Coffin Collection of the Des Moines Art Center. © 2008 Martin Puryear. Image courtesy McKee Gallery, New York.

“Music is as much about the silence as it is about the notes,” jazz great Miles Davis once said of his pared-down, minimalist style of playing. For Martin Puryear, sculpting is as much about the empty spaces within a sculpture as it is about the sculpture itself. In the catalogue to the current exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, curator John Elderfield and other essayists try to get at the heart of that silent emptiness within Puryear’s sculptures that speaks volumes not only on multiple cultures but also on the nature of art-making itself. In works such as In Sheep’s Clothing (above), “what seems solid and substantial is hollow, a sort of decoy,” Elderfield writes. Many of Puryear’s works act as Trojan horses, deceiving us into thinking there’s nothing more there than meets the eye before releasing a teeming horde of associations and connections. “Puryear accepts the modernist challenge of Ezra Pound’s ‘Make it new!’ by making it old at the same time,” Elderfield says of Puryear’s coalescing of such disparate elements as African native culture, ornithology, and American history in his work, resulting in not “an imported, assumed primitivism but… an extremely original rediscovery of other, atavistic worlds of flux and transformation.” Puryear’s unique take on Minimalist sculpture carries the maximum load of cultural baggage for us to unpack and sift through.

Martin Puryear, American (born 1941). Bask, 1976. Stained pine. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Exxon Corporate Purchase Award, 1978. © 2008 Martin Puryear.

Puryear claims that Minimalism showed him “the power of the simple, single thing as opposed to a full-blown complex array of things.” As Michael Auping’s essay “Artisan” states, Puryear gravitated to Minimalism because its “fundamental, no-nonsense vocabulary of forms fit his practical builder’s personality,” but the Minimalist use of “industrial materials and machine-made processes,” as in the word of Donald Judd and Carl Andre, sent Puryear off in a different direction. Puryear refused, as he put it, to accept “the false premise… that if you work with your hands in a very deliberate way, you somehow cannot be an intellectual.” After learning woodworking from his father as a child and even learning to craft fine guitars in college, Puryear developed the “intelligent hands” needed to employ unique methods of craftsmanship in creating works such as Bask (above). Using the centuries-old method of strip planking once used to build curved ships’ hulls, Puryear created the hull-like shape of Bask. By adding this human touch, which Auping calls “an oblique form of drawing” and a “sculptural version of contour drawing,” Puryear brings a humanity to his Minimalist works that the industrialized versions of Minimalism lack.

Martin Puryear, American (born 1941). Lever No. 1, 1988-1989. Red cedar, cypress, poplar, and ash. The Art Institute of Chicago. A. James Speyer Memorial Fund, UNR Industrial Fund in honor of James W. Alsdorf, Barbara Neff Smith and Solomon Byron Smith Funds. © 2008 Martin Puryear.

Puryear’s rehumanized Minimalism engages the viewer with a multiplicity of meaning by an economy of means. In a work such as Lever No. 1 (above) we imagine the sculpture actually working as a lever, as if we could raise the weighted element by the long handle. Simultaneously, Lever No. 1 is not a lever but an aesthetically pleasing shape. As Elderfield puts it, Lever No. 1 “is an extraordinarily serene yet strangely discomforting sculpture” that “refuses to settle into its beauty.” Elderfield sees the handle “inviting empathetic leverage to dislodge something familiar but long forgotten.” In all his sculptures, Puryear uses the leverage of an image that is both something and NOT something to pry open a space in which the imagination itself can widen and both reclaim forgotten cultural memories and embrace, perhaps for the first time, treasures of other cultures waiting to be claimed. “By the early 1980s a seasoned viewer of Puryear’s sculptures had come to expect being asked to hold in the mind, at the same time, congruities and inconsistencies—between one view and the next, between settled immobility and implied mobility, between factual presence and metaphorical suggestion,” Elderfield writes. The magic of the NGA’s Puryear exhibition lies in the immersion it provides in this unique language within Puryear’s method—an alien tongue that brings us closer to ourselves through its powerful otherness.

Martin Puryear, American (born 1941). Ladder for Booker T. Washington, 1996. Ash and maple. Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Gift of Ruth Carter Stevenson, by exchange. © 2008 Martin Puryear. Photo David Wharton.

In addition to the multiple physical and metaphorical dimensions in his work, Puryear introduces a historical dimension in works such as Ladder for Booker T. Washington (above). Puryear’s Ladder illustrates the “jogs and switchbacks in the historical continuum that people always want to believe in,” Puryear says. Alluding the civil rights pioneer by its title, Ladder appears taller than it is by a trick of perspective in which the ladder gets narrower as it rises. Some may optimistically see this as the physical manifestation of the heights to which race relations have risen in America. In a recent conversation with Puryear included in the catalogue, Puryear describes Ladder as embodying “the kind of gradual, often illusory notion of upward progress that Washington encouraged blacks to adopt in the nineteenth century against an overwhelming set of obstacles to our advancement.” Aside from that dichotomy of interpretation, Ladder shows Puryear’s ability to assimilate other cultures into an American subject without diminishing them. In her essay titled “Jogs and Switchbacks,” Elizabeth Reede links Puryear’s Ladder with similar ladders in South American, Asian, and African cultures. “Puryear’s strength lies in his ability to absorb unique and unrelated elements... and merge them into something cohesive and original without privileging any one function or form,” Reede argues. By adding historical and cultural references to his sculptures without prioritizing them, Puryear maintains the magical balance that keeps his works Minimalist yet imbues them with an arresting social relevance.

Martin Puryear, American (born 1941). C.F.A.O., 2006-2007. Painted and unpainted pine and found wheelbarrow. Courtesy the artist and Donald Young Gallery, Chicago. © 2008 Martin Puryear. Photo Richard P. Goodbody.

In 1963, Puryear travelled to Sierra Leone as part of the Peace Corps. “One thing that struck me when I was in Sierra Leone,” Puryear says, “was how rich life was for the people there and how much they could do with so few material and technological resources.” As an African-American in an African culture, Puryear connected with the native crafts and found his vocation as a sculptor. “Before I went to West Africa,” Puryear confesses, “I thought of myself as a painter.” In C.F.A.O. (above; which stands for “Compagnie Francaise de l’Afrique Occidentale,” the name of a nineteenth-century French company that traded in West Africa), Puryear presents African culture in the form of an African Fang mask, but simultaneously distances from that culture by enlarging the mask through reproduction. Puryear refuses to fall into the stereotypes of primitivism and nativism, choosing instead to present the thing itself for interpretation. The mask, a means of hidden identity, paradoxically becomes an amplifier of personal identity—specifically Puryear’s own identity as an artist challenging people to see anew rather than hold onto old beliefs. “It is not an argument about something,” Elderfield writes of C.F.A.O. “It is a dare to have courage to look hard at that thing, which means seeing how almost arrantly improper it would be to replace it in a translation.” Puryear plays not “truth or dare” but “truth and dare,” daring us to see these cultural elements unfiltered by our own. In a world getting seemingly smaller by the day as well as more fragile, Martin Puryear’s art may provide the key to accepting the world as it is rather than trying to bend it to our own purposes.

[Many thanks to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to Martin Puryear and for the images from the exhibition.]

Monday, July 21, 2008

Awkward Positions

In an episode of Seinfeld titled "The Apology," Jerry’s new girlfriend Melissa walks around his apartment naked all day long. After enjoying the view for a while, Jerry soon learns the difference between “good naked” and “bad naked,” finally deciding he can’t take any more after Melissa does “a full bodyflex on a pickle jar.” Edgar Degas depicted the nude female form in various media in countless poses, but I can’t say that any of them qualify as “sexy.” In fact, Degas, born July 19, 1834, seems to specialize in Seinfeld’s “bad naked,” in which a woman contorts in some fashion that puts her in an unattractive light. Degas’ The Tub (above, from 1885-1886) shows a woman washing herself at one of the most awkward moments of the process, nearly bent in half. As with his images of dancers and the dance, Degas found the female form in motion endlessly fascinating, regardless of the aesthetics of the position itself. Yet the balance of the “good naked” versus “bad naked” seems horrible askew.

Critics debate Degas’ sexuality even today. We know pretty much nothing about his preferences in that regard. Degas’ devotion to art consumed apparently every ounce of his energy and passion. Critics also accuse Degas of misogyny thanks to antifeminist remarks he often made. Degas’ support of Mary Cassatt, however, seems to poke a hole in that theory, yet Cassatt’s own murky sexuality leaves Degas defenseless once again. Are Degas’ awkward poses of women a form of torture? Degas asked models to hold these sometimes painfully awkward poses for unbearable lengths of time. Was it sadism that led Degas to ask a model to raise her arms in the pose for Woman Combing Her Hair (above, from 1885-1886) long enough for him to capture the moment completely? Although Degas finds himself lumped in with the Impressionism crowd in histories of art, he considered himself a realist. Perhaps these awkward poses are simply a realist capturing the not-so-pretty picture of everyday life.

Degas even brought this awkwardness to his sculptures of women, as in Dancer Looking at her Right Foot (above, from 1895-1910). The figure stands so off balance that an additional support was added to keep her from toppling over. Degas used such sculptures to help him complete drawings or paintings when models weren’t available. He’d ask the models for such sculptures to pose nude to get the body right, knowing he could add costuming later. How long do you think Degas asked that young woman to model in such a position? I’ve always loved Degas work. I believe him to be the finest pastel artist of all time. As I’ve come to read more and more about Degas the man, however, it’s become easier and easier to read sinister overtones into his work. Whether that’s fair or not, I can’t answer. But I can say that there’s a lot of “bad naked” in Degas art if you look closely enough. For someone so attuned to the world of beauty, Degas excelled at making even the female nude look ugly and wrong.

Getting Away

Best and brightest, come away,
Fairer far than this fair day,
Which, like thee, to those in sorrow
Comes to bid a sweet good-morrow
To the rough year just awake
In its cradle on the brake.

—From “The Invitation” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Watching the Nazis march through the Brandenburg Gate in 1933 to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Max Liebermann said "I could not eat as much as I would like to vomit." Born July 20, 1847, Max Liebermann tried to bring the beauty of Impressionism to Germany in works such as Garden to the West of the Wannsee (above, from 1917). Liebermann built a home and garden on Lake Wannsee that served not only as his inspiration but also as a refuge from the turmoil of German society. Too old to fight in World War I and dead in 1935, years before World War II, Liebermann felt the sting of war’s effects all the same, especially the anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime, which forced him to give up his academic post when Jewish artists were forbidden to exhibit any longer. At a time when Expressionism and New Objectivity grabbed the spotlight in German art, Liebermann continued to look for a place in his homeland for Impressionism’s devotion to pure natural beauty.

Aside from his beautiful landscapes and seascapes, many of which feature children playing in the surf, Liebermann painted many striking portraits, including a portrait of the classical composer Richard Strauss (above, from 1918). Whereas the landscapes and seascapes follow the brand of Impressionism practiced by Monet and Renoir, Liebermann’s portraits show the influence of Edouard Manet with their dark backgrounds and psychologically astute portrayals. Strauss and Liebermann may have felt an artistic kinship, as both seemed to be behind the artistic times in their chosen fields as they held on to their signature styles as new schools passed them by. There’s a sadness in Strauss’ eyes that may mirror the sadness in Liebermann’s own, as Germany plunged into economic and political chaos in the wake of the punitive reparations imposed after World War I, which served to destabilize the country enough for Nazism to eventually capitalize on the situation.

Liebermann’s wife continued to live in their house on the Wannsee after the artist’s death. (Liebermann’s Garden and House in Wannsee is above, from 1918.) Little did she suspect that nearby Nazi leaders conducted in 1942 the infamous Wannsee Conference in which the “Final Solution” to the "Jewish Question" was decided. Hours before officials planned to take her away and add her to the Holocaust’s tally, Martha Liebermann took her own life in that Wannsee home in 1943. Today, the villa where Hitler and his henchmen planned the Holocaust is a center for education, just as the Liebermann home is now a memorial to the man and his art. Max Liebermann always saw the best and the brightest of Germany and captured it in his art, even in the darkest of days.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Drawing Conclusions

Is there any more interesting draftsman in history than Rembrandt? Born July 15, 1604, Rembrandt may not be able to compete with the soaring Renaissance works of Michelangelo or with the most photographic renderings of hyper-realists, but the personality injected into each of his drawings and etchings places him in a category of one. Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Wide-Open Eyes (above, from 1630) certainly makes you smile by his mugging in a mirror, but the real eye-opener for me here is the frenetic hatching with which the portrait is created. Through a wide array of hatching techniques, Rembrandt builds up the darkest darks while simultaneously creating the subtlest shades. The sheer energy of the line makes the portrait instantly engaging, complimenting the warm humor of the facial expression, which clearly comes from clowning rather than concern. Rembrandt plays around with the techniques he’s mastered, showing off all his “trick shots” for the crowds. If art history were a basketball game, Rembrandt would be the Harlem Globetrotters.

Rembrandt brings that same playful energy even to religious subjects, such as Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (above). In The Gospel of John (John 7:53-8:11), the scribes and Pharisees bring a woman “taken in adultery” to Jesus, asking him if they should stone her to death, as the law demands. Rather than take the bait, Jesus stoops and begins drawing in the dust with his finger. Rising from the dust, Jesus says to the crowd, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” and then returns to his drawing on the ground. The crowd disperses, leaving only Jesus and the woman, whom Jesus forgives. Rembrandt selects the moment at which Jesus draws in the dust, the moment at which the savior himself becomes a draftsman in order to save the woman’s life. Rembrandt’s drawing lacks finish, but the rawness only adds to its appeal. Just as Jesus “broke” the law to serve a greater purpose, Rembrandt breaks the laws of art to serve the greater purpose of his vision with all its raw electricity.

In his etching The Three Crosses (above, from 1653), Rembrandt follows the rules of finish and composition more closely, but still infuses his special energy into the drawing. Beneath the crucified Christ and the two thieves, a mosh pit of humanity teems at their feet, making the dying men seem even lonelier from their lofty position. The rays of light falling on the three men pierce the scene and focus the eye, yet you’re always aware of the people below. Despite the number and size of the crowd members, Rembrandt invests each one with individuality and a slice of the drama to play out. I’ve found myself searching through the crowd over and over, wondering at the little narratives scattered from left to right. Of all the depictions of the crucifixion, I’ve always found this one by Rembrandt to contain the most humanity. For sheer grandeur, the Renaissance wins hands down. But for a sense of the sweat, blood, and sheer chaos of a public execution, Rembrandt has no peer. It is this comprehensive scope, from the playfully comic to the painfully pathetic, that makes Rembrandt one of the truly encyclopedic artists of the human condition in any medium.

Lost and Found

One of my favorite exhibitions over the past year was the Neue Galerie’s Gustav Klimt: The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections, the biggest exhibition of the works of Klimt ever to be seen in the United States. (I reviewed the catalogue here.) Aside from the huge celebration of the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (above, from 1907) arriving after years of litigation, I found myself basking in the opportunity to see so many works by Gustav Klimt all in one place. Born July 14, 1862, Klimt may be the most difficult great artist to see in person unless you travel to Austria. Austria’s complex cultural heritage laws make it nearly impossible for his works to travel or be sold, except through the loophole of restitution to victims of the Nazis that brought “Adele” to America. The Neue Galerie’s show may have been a once in a lifetime opportunity to see so many works by Klimt in one place and only a few hours driving away. Another obstacle to seeing many of Klimt’s works is that they simply no longer exist. Klimt’s many Jewish patrons and their descendents suffered Nazi persecution, but Klimt’s works suffered at those same hands many years after the artist’s death.

As German SS forces retreated in May 1945 before the Allied assault, they employed the “scorched earth” policy (aka, the “Nero Decree”) of Adolf Hitler. When the German soldiers set the Austrian castle known as Schoss Immendorf ablaze rather than see if fall into Allied hands, a cache of Klimt’s works perished in the flames, including the three works now known collectively as the University of Vienna Ceiling PaintingsPhilosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence. Sadly, only a few preparatory sketches, some black and white photographs (one taken just before they were destroyed, click on the names to see the photos), and a lone color photograph of Hygeia, one of the figures in Medicine (above, from 1900-1907), remain. The University paintings stirred up one of the first great controversies of Klimt’s career. Alas, it’s hard to recreate that passion looking at ghostly black and white images and a single, tantalizingly incomplete color glimpse. I like to believe that these works still exist somewhere, spirited from the castle before the torches were lit and waiting to see the light of day again in a grand rediscovery, but even I’m not that naïve.

I remember buying a CD of Franz Schubert’s music years ago, admiring the cover art, and finding myself amazed that it was a painting by Klimt—his Schubert at the Piano (above, from 1899). It was unlike any of the other Klimt that I had seen up to that time. That joy of discovery soon disappeared when I read the note that the painting no longer existed, another casualty of the Schloss Immerdorf immolation. German critic Hermann Bahr called Schubert at the Piano in 1899 “the finest painting ever done by an Austrian.” Four years later, Bahr edited Against Klimt, an anthology of anti-Klimt articles essentially attacking the artist as a pornographer. How amazing would it be to see the works that caused such praise and such condemnation together today? Alas, we’ll most likely never have that chance. A single color photo of Schubert at the Piano taunts us across time, reminding us of all the works of art we’ve lost thanks to the madness of war—just another column in the great accounting of the human cost of conflict.