Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Gladys Nilsson at U.I.M.A.

It’s not just that Gladys Nilsson is a female artist, but also that she presents a distinctly, if quirky, modern woman’s world. Which is presumably why the Illinois Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts has partnered with the Ukrainian Institute of Modern to give her this 40-year retrospective, pulling in paintings from area museums and collectors, as well as her own collection. And it’s hard to say just how her large, cartoonish watercolors have changed in all that time. There’s a few pieces from the sixties that share her husband’s (Jim Nutt) vision of an ominous, unhappy world. But mostly, she’s been consistently upbeat – with a colorful, cheerful, goofy clutter and a large, central female figure who seems triumphant to be just her own buoyant, dumpy, rubber-armed self. This is the happy, high energy world of children’s book illustration, except that the playful characters and primal colors of Nilsson’s paintings have escaped the confines of thin, simple narratives, and run riot from painting to painting, each busy corner demanding attention, and making an entire gallery of it as overwhelming as a trip to a child care center. But for relief, one can always wander over to the adjoining room through which rotates the museum’s permanent collection of Ukrainian as well as non-Ukrainian modern artists, as they echo the grim problems of the 20th Century, mostly caused by males.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917 - at the Art Institute of Chicago

Like the Seurat exhibit at the Art Institute in 2004, this show is built around a single piece in the museum's collection, in this case, Matisse's "Bathers by a River" :

so, happily, it can continue to enhance the experience of that piece on permanent display, long after the rest of the show has closed. But while Seurat worked so creatively at discovering what he could fit in, 30 years later, Matisse seemed to be working very hard to find what he could take out. Recent x-radiographs have uncovered seven stages in that painting's eight years of development, and two computer stations allow viewers to scroll through diagrams of each one. Even better, since each stage can be seen completely, the exhibit has all 4 versions of his monumental sculptural relief, that begins with something like a woman's back, and ends with something more like an arrangement of cylinders. All of which may be fascinating , but does the piece get any more radical - or just more peaceful and decorative? And is this process of abstraction,"the modern method of construction", with all its layering and scraping, really the "radical innovation" which the title of this exhibit would suggest?

All such techniques can also be found in Cezanne's "Three Bathers" (also in this exhibit) , which was done 30 years earlier and later owned by Matisse himself.

Reducing the human figure to a kind of hieroglyph, Cezanne pioneered a kind of painting that was more like a personal calligraphy and less like a window on the world.

So Matisse’s innovation was just the development of his own personal logographics. His earlier work in this show, the “Blue Nude” of 1908, resembles the brash, angry, explosive modernism of Picasso and Stravinsky.

But then his painting became more subdued, as he cocooned himself into a quiet, prosperous domestic life, probably in response to the war that was decimating his countrymen.

Contemporary art theory requires that important artists be radically innovative, and if the results feel angry , dreary, or otherwise unpleasant, so much the better, as they trumpet the arrival of a new, modern world and challenge the self satisfied, mindless hedonism of the bourgeoisie.

It’s just that Matisse doesn’t always fit that mold, and hard as he may have worked to expunge anecdotal details, he still liked to paint flowers, goldfish, and pretty girls, and their charming ambience comes through, especially in his small, dry point or monotype figure drawings and various views of Tangier or his studio in Quai Saint-Michel.

Rather than exemplifying the radical, iconoclastic, transgressive innovation demanded of a modern European artist, Matisse’s work from 1913-1917 seems to better exemplify an aesthetic that is traditionally Asian.

Still Life with Goldfish, 1914

Some different responses are here:

Erik Wenzel
Janina Ciezadlo