Chaim Soutine’s Colorful Expression [Also Charles Ray and Andrew Wyeth at Whitney Museum]

The Washington Post, July 19, 1998, p. G7-8.

“LETTER FROM NEW YORK: Chaim Soutine’s Colorful Expression,” The Washington Post, July 19, 1998, p. G.07.

By Jason Edward Kaufman

The Chaim Soutine retrospective now at the Jewish Museum should not be missed by anyone interested in modern painting.

A Lithuanian-born Orthodox Jew, Soutine (1893-1943) fled the shtetl and settled in Paris, where Italian expatriate Amedeo Modigliani helped him find a dealer. By the time he died from a perforated ulcer while hiding from the Nazis, Soutine had become a master of abstract expressionism — not the postwar American brand of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock et al., with its figureless fields of colors and shapes, but a mode of abstraction that distorts recognizable subjects for expressive effect. The survey of more than 50 canvases at the Jewish Museum is enough to convince anyone that abstract is a better adjective than it is a noun.

Soutine’s landscapes are roiling seas of slashing brush strokes that swallow up motifs in heaving waves of impastoed pigment. They communicate a van Gogh-esque perspective of the world, a nightmare of turbulent flux and woozy unease. The caricaturish portraits of solitary bellhops, pastry chefs and assorted acquaintances share this hallucinatory aspect. Their elongated El Greco bodies and warped contours make them close relatives of the German expressionists, as well as of Jean Dubuffet and other artists who later cultivated an expressive naivete.

Soutine is best known for still lifes of slaughtered animals: sides of beef, entire horses, plucked poultry, gutted skate-fish and twine-bound hares. A famous anecdote has him splashing blood on decaying fly-swarmed beef to keep it looking fresh, and winning a studio visit from the board of health. The canvases themselves seem raw and flayed, exposing some nerve within the painter’s psyche. This manner and the frequency with which Soutine contemplated such subjects suggest not merely a fixation on food, but a personal meditation on flesh and mortality.

But Soutine left no journals or manifestos to explain his motivations. Was his violent slathering of paint a release of primitive emotions, an embodiment of Jewish angst, or merely an extension of the French painterly tradition? And for that matter, is Soutine a progenitor of the gestural abstraction that flourished after World War II — an emotion-packed prototype for New York School abstract expressionists such as Pollock and Willem deKooning? A number of critics have proposed as much.

Yet, American museums have ignored him for nearly half a century, making it all the more urgent that the present exhibition be seen.

“An Expressionist in Paris: The Paintings of Chaim Soutine” is at the Jewish Museum, Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, through Aug. 16. It travels to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Sept. 27-Jan. 3, 1999) and the Cincinnati Art Museum (Feb. 14-May 2, 1999).

Charles Ray at the Whitney

Remember Donald Judd, the minimalist who made those plywood or metal boxes that were said to be filled with theoretical significance of one sort or another? Few of us ever made much sense out of them.

No matter. Along comes Charles Ray with his own Juddlike steel box, but Ray’s has an interior that extends slightly below floor level. An astute viewer will recognize that Ray’s minimalist structure is quite literally “deeper than it looks.” Get it?

Ray, a tenured professor of art at the University of California at Los Angeles, is the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

He is a devout postmodernist who perpetrates prankish riffs on the shibboleths of past art, particularly the minimalism and conceptualism of the 1960s and ’70s. Of course, there are other ways of looking at Ray’s work, but much of his oeuvre gets its punch from the earlier traditions on which it puns.

Take “Tabletop.” The flowerpot, bowl and other objects on the wooden table appear to be stationary, but actually they are slowly rotating, powered by motors under the table. So what? Well, it’s Ray’s little joke on the genre of “still” (i.e., not-so-still) life.

Should such one-liners be taken seriously? Well, there’s a tradition for sendups of this sort going back at least to Duchamp and the dadaists. They may seem intellectually thin, but any art that takes a well-aimed shot at minimalist gravitas can’t be all that bad.

Ray’s latest piece is a full-size gray fiberglass cast of a car that has been in a fatal accident. Oh, it may be a postmodern take on John Chamberlain’s crushed-car sculptures, the crumpled-steel abstractions of Anthony Caro, or Andy Warhol’s famed disaster images, but in this case Ray’s humor is more likely to elicit a grimace than a grin.

His main body of work in the ’90s has been customized mannequins, many decorated by genitals. There’s a 10-foot-tall female mannequin whose scale hints at feminist triumph of one kind or another. And “Family Romance,” in which father, mother, son and daughter stand side by side, naked and naturally proportioned but, uncannily, all the same height — suggesting an egalitarian family dynamic to which the Southern Baptists might object.

Ray’s most provocative piece has eight life-size self-portrait mannequins engaged in a homoerotic orgy on the gallery floor. Explaining the work, the artist alludes to multi-figure sculptures like Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais,” but his more plausible inspiration is Jeff Koons’s series of self-portraits in flagrante with his former wife, Italian porn star Cicciolina. In a post-Freudian masturbatory flash, Ray out-Koonses Koons, surpassing the shock jock of banality and kitsch at his own inane game. What next?

“Charles Ray” remains at the Whitney Museum until Aug. 30, then travels to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art from Nov. 15 to March 14, 1999, and to the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art from June 19 to Sept. 12, 1999.

Wyeth at the Whitney

About the last place one would expect an Andrew Wyeth exhibition is the Whitney Museum of American Art, where efforts to hone contemporary art’s cutting edge have favored socially engaged, politically correct and fashionably controversial contemporary art. A traditionalist like Wyeth, whose rural realism is associated with conservative values, hasn’t stood a chance.

But the Whitney has been subtly shifting toward the center, adjusting its priorities by filling galleries with golden oldies like Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe in an effort to regain audiences lost in a decade-long rush to ride the latest critical bandwagon. The current Wyeth exhibition is the strongest evidence yet of the Whitney’s new moderation, even while the Charles Ray retrospective maintains the institution’s radical-bad-boy bona fides.

The Wyeth survey suggests why some revere the once-celebrated artist and others revile him. For one thing, all 120-odd landscapes are utterly predictable depictions of the same locales Wyeth has documented for six decades, centering on his birthplace in Pennsylvania and his family’s summer home on the coast of Maine. (The Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, recently opened a Wyeth Family Center to house artworks created in and about Maine by Andrew {b. 1917}, his father, N.C. Wyeth {1882-1945}, and his son, Jamie Wyeth {born 1946}.)

Technically — aside from some loosely rendered watercolors — they are all drawn from the same meticulously realist mold. And emotionally they all share more or less the same sense of desolation. Redundancy notwithstanding, Wyeth’s craftsmanship can be captivating. Throughout the show there are flashes of brilliance in rendering meteorological effects and the worn textures of things. But the compositions often seem less sincere in their melancholy than contrived to achieve a patina of gravitas. There is something paradoxical about aestheticizing the hardships of off-season country life, like photojournalistic snapshots of poverty exhibited as art.

Notable exceptions include figurative works from the 1940s such as the renowned “Christina’s World,” and more recent efforts such as the 1985 tempera “Ring Road,” a brilliantly persuasive and spatially complex snow scene. These pictures extend the line of American realism that can be traced back to the Hudson River School. Indeed, Wyeth’s vision is regarded as quintessentially American, though it is equally Northern European.

America’s Puritan heritage has made the disciplined austerity of the north seem more authentically American than the hedonistic chromatic exuberance of the sunny Mediterranean tradition. Will changing demographics transform that paradigm and harden opinion against Wyeth? Perhaps in the short term, but the never-ending market demand for landscape pictures virtually guarantees that eventually Wyeth’s art will return to favor.

“Unknown Terrain: The Landscapes of Andrew Wyeth” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave. at 75th Street in New York, through Aug. 30. For more information call 212-570-3600.


PHOTO,,REGEN PROJECTS/JOSHUA WHITE; PHOTO,,STAATSGALERIE STUTTGART; PHOTO,, WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART CAPTION: Chaim Soutine’s “Hen and Tomatoes,” left, and Charles Ray’s “Unpainted Sculpture,” above. CAPTION: Andrew Wyeth’s “Oliver’s Cap,” from the Whitney’s restrained “Unknown Terrain.”


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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.


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