This is Part Two of my ongoing series, “Thirteen Years At The Metropolitan Museum.” Part One is here.
Her Aim Is True. With an arrow to my heart, Saint-Gaudens’ “Diana” points the way to the undiscovered land.
It happens more than I’d like.
I stop into the bookshop every time I go to The Met (TM), either on my way in, or out. As these 13 years have gone on, unfortunately, it’s become one of the few decent art book stores left. They have a good stock of current and new art books and, of course, a very good supply of Met Museum Publications. Nothing old or out of print, still, I always find something of interest, either about whatever artist I’m currently fixated on (there’s always at least one), or someone I’m only discovering through a show, or right there on their shelves.
My apartment. Almost. No, it’s The Met’s Bookstore.
Then, it happened.
I picked up this heavy hardcover called “Portraits By Ingres.” Ingres. Yes. There are a few of his portraits upstairs in the European Paintings Gallery and an amazing one, which has become my very favorite painting in The Museum, in the Robert Lehman Collection Galleries. I start looking through the book. There, on page after page after page are THE most incredible drawings I may have ever seen! What? I’m amazed. Astounded. The line! The delicacy. He knows exactly what to leave out and still, somehow, capture the essence of his subject’s face, like in Chinese or Japanese painting, but more so. He’s using graphite. No washes, no ink, no nothing. The most amazingly beautiful lines I’ve ever seen on paper.
How did I not know about this?
Since the book is old, it’s on sale. How old is it? I look at the publishing data. “Published on the occasion of “Portraits by Ingres” at the Metropolitan Museum October 5, 1999 through January 2, 2000” (You can actually download it now, direct from TM(!), here, for free.)
You mean, this was A SHOW?
I MISSED IT?????
Oh my god… ….. ………….
And, that’s how I discovered THE WORST feeling I ever get when I to go TM. While “Portraits By Ingres” is the “big one that got away,” unfortunately, it’s happened more than once. And that’s only in the recent past.
And? Look what I found recently on the back of an article I saved in the NY Times from 1999. History tugged my sleeve…and now mocks me.
Since then, I live with a terrible fear of missing a great show. Why? When a show is over? It’s gone…forever. It “lives on”, but to a much lesser extent in exhibition catalogs (thank goodness!) and through websites, online videos, maybe an app or two, but that’s it. The catalogs may or may not have all the works that were in the show and almost certainly won’t have them in their original sizes (maybe, one day, e-catalogs will, but the resolution of art e-books today is nowhere near there). Almost never are shows documented with a film or documentary, the way “Leonardo: da Vinci: Painter At The Court Of Milan” was.
In fact, I only discovered “the show of the Century,” “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter @ CoM” 3 days before it ended at the National Gallery, London. (It was put together by Luke Tyson, who I wrote about in Part One of this series, who is now working at TM.) I jumped on an over night flight and went straight to the National Gallery, without a ticket for the sold-out show, minutes before doors opened on it’s very last day. I got in (a story unto itself. The NY Giants won the Super Bowl that same night. Something crazy to watch in London). It’s the first and last time 9 of Leonard’s incomparable 17 (or so) paintings were being shown in one place. And, possibly, the first time ever both version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” were being shown together- in the same room (I had to take a step aside and pinch myself in utter amazement when I walked in to that gallery), and so much more as you can see on the checklist, here, including, astonishingly, a full size copy of “The Last Supper” done in 1520, shortly after the original had been painted! To think…If I hadn’t happened to accidentally stumble on that documentary at 3am on PBS, I would have missed it!
So, impelled by this fear, I have since designed each visit to TM around their exhibition calendar- I go and see whatever’s closing soonest, if I haven’t seen it already.
This has paid off, for me, in uncountable and undreamt of ways.
I have discovered countless artists I never knew about, who have enriched my life and my knowledge of art history in so many ways I can’t even count including Sanford Gifford (besides being a brilliant underknown member of the Hudson River School, he was also a Met Museum Founder in 1880), Henrick Goltzius (who overcame a fall into a fire that disfigured his drawing hand but turned that to his advantage becoming a graphic artist, perhaps, only equalled in the north by Durer), Thomas Eakins, Alexander McQueen, Christo & Jeanne-Claude (who I got to meet right before The Gates), Philip Guston, Bernini, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Chasseriau, Ellsworth Kelly, Girodet, Sean Kelly, Degas, Thomas Hart Benton, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Cezanne, Antonio Canova, Liu Dan in the revelatory Ink Art in China show, Faberge, William Kentridge, Balthus, Paul Klee, Neo Rauch, among individual artists I “discovered” at Special Exhibitions at TM since 2002! Some I had heard of or knew a little about but I “discovered” them here.
As someone obsessed with Art History who draws a little bit, these artists had/have a huge and ongoing influence on me. I learned so much from all of them. They have helped me refine my focus. Before 1999 I was solely interested in modern and contemporary art. After seeing the Mark Rothko Show at the Whitney in 1998, I started to draw. Then, I realized I needed to go back through the entire history of art and learn from the masters who could draw. That led me to TM. TM led me to “the Light.”
This is not to mention artists I’ve discovered by wandering the galleries, like Ingres, Stuart Davis, Tiepolo, Remington, Caravaggio, Goya, Yves Tanguay and Juan Gris among them.
I’ve seen the light.
Even now, today, September 18, 2015, I returned from TM after spending a large part of last weekend there for the last few days of China, with a fresh revelation- George Caleb Bingham. Bingham. Hmm… I know of him though the one intriguing painting that’s been continually on display in the American Wing. It’s a work you walk by and always draws you closer. You ponder it and are left thinking. “It’s interesting…different…powerful and real. Bingham, huh? I don’t know him.” There’s no other by him work on view to reinforce the feeling that “I really need to look into him.” Well, maybe he was a one hit wonder.
23 year old Bingham’s Self Portrait beckons us in to “discover” his unique light.
It turns out, he was far from it. After seeing his about to close show, “Navigating the West” featuring his River paintings and drawings, I came away struck by an artist that seems to be something of a missing link. Someone who fills in a gap before Thomas Eakins. He’s a master of the natural pose,while making that pose always seem uniquely American, a powerful draughtsman, with a real gift for setting the stage in his compositions, which often feature beautifully out of focus backgrounds years before cameras showed such things, and in ways I haven’t seen many other artists do this well. Ever since Leonardo artists have put in very realistic backgrounds, often consisting of modern towns or locations regardless of the time period being depicted (which no doubt charmed contemporaries, but always struck me as being weird and bizarrely out of place in the story). Bingham’s rarely depict a recognizable location (according to the catalog), but they add to the air of authenticity that he is trying to present more convincingly than some of his Renaissance predecessors. Interestingly, Bingham was influenced by the Hudson River School after his first trip east, and his early landscapes show their trademarked lush and thickly detailed flora and fauna. As time went on, he paid more and more attention to the focus of his work- his characters. Carefully working and reworking them in masterful preparatory drawings, he was able to simply transfer them to his canvas and then make sure that everything else supported them, or they got left out. He became an editor as much as he was a draughtsman. The Met has prepared a fascinating short analysis of the process Bingham used in creating his masterpiece, “Fur Traders Descending The Missouri,” The Met’s painting that first caught my eye. He was downright ruthless in his editing, down to the smallest detail, creating a work of sublime economy that I wonder if it in turn influenced another masterpiece of American River art, Thomas Eakins’ “ Max Schmitt In A Single Scull,” which happens to call TM it’s home, too.
His light runs the full range from soft to hard, and is never more masterful than in “Fur Traders.” The foreground water, in particular. Then there is a pair of masterful, yet entirely different, self portraits, one, early, of the artist in his 20’s, the other done 2 years before his passing. They speak volumes about his growth and the evolution of his technique and style. The early one is a marvel of seamlessly smooth skin coloring and belies a style of it’s own. It actually reminds me of early Ingres in this regard. The face just pops from the canvas 180 years later, and I found myself marveling at how few colors he accomplished this with. Ah, but then a closer look reveals his mastery of economical blending. The overall effect is both brilliant and unforgettable. All we see is his torso. No arms. No hands. It’s all in back, except for the collar of his white shirt, and his face. He looks out at us with an expression that says “Yes, I may be young, but I’m already THIS good, and I’m taking no prisoners from here on.” And? he didn’t. The late self portrait was done by an entirely different artist, one who had learned nuance, who’s craft had vastly deepened and who wasn’t afraid of truth or age. Interestingly, he paints himself in the act of drawing. After seeing the many drawings on view, it’s a tribute well earned. His drawings hold every bit of their own even when viewed right next to the paintings they preceded, including his masterpieces, like TM’s own “Fur Traders Descending The Missouri” from about 1845, the work I had seen before in the American Wing-
Bingham’s “Fur Traders Descending The Missouri.” The work that drew me to his light.
Everything about Bingham’s river paintings (and the drawings/studies that led to their creation) says “American,” in exactly the same way as Mark Twain’s writing does. From the attire to the attitude, all done with masterful attention to detail and shadow, THIS is American art for the people. The show is devoid of portraits of the well-to-do, the famous, or the powerful and is, instead, populated by the people who were trying to survive in a new land while helping their new country survive in the process. Is it any wonder that the school children of Missouri took up a state wide collection to help the State buy (and thereby preserve) a collection of Bingham’s masterful, iconic drawings? While being an act they all can be eternally proud of, it shows those kids had better taste in art than some of the dealers in Chelsea do today.
While not a big show, it’s a very deep show, and since it’s doors are closing for good on Sunday at 5:15pm, I’m going to be scrambling to see it one or two more times before it does.
Afterall? I well know what happens then.
These wonderful work will go back to where they belong, possibly never to be seen together again.
The light will go off in those galleries Sunday night.
But, it will remain “on” inside me for the rest of my life.
The second best thing I’ve gotten out of going to The Met so often for 13 years is Discovery.
Hark! A Met Angel Beckons me to the Light. To not hear it is my loss.
*-Soundtrack for this post is “The Shape Of Jazz To Come” by Ornette Coleman, 1959. I chose this to honor Ornette, who led us into many new frontiers of music, like TM has with Art, since he recently passed. He was exceedingly nice to me, a complete stranger to him, the one time I had the privilege of meeting him.
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This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com