For today’s art establishment (including once-conservative institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Morgan Library), contemporary art must be radically “new”—the more unprecedented or deskilled in form and transgressive or inscrutable in content the better.1 An intrepid group of dedicated contemporary artists begs to differ, however. They are the largely neglected painters and sculptors known as Classical Realists. Devoted to continuing in the grand tradition of Western art since the Renaissance, they spend years honing their craft, striving to be worthy of the estimable predecessors who inspire them.2
The Unbroken Line: Old and New Masters [online catalogue], a modest exhibition at the Robert Simon Fine Art gallery (a stone’s throw from the Met) through June 8, begins to give them their belated due at last. As the title implies, it juxtaposes work (mostly portraits and still lifes) by faculty and recent graduates of the Grand Central Atelier with pre-modernist paintings and drawings from the gallery. (GCA is one of the many ateliers that have been created in recent decades to provide the sort of classical training generally missing from academic BFA and MFA programs these days.) The juxtaposition demonstrates that these relatively young artists clearly hold their own alongside the Renaissance and Baroque work Robert Simon specializes in.
Simon, by the way, is the art historian who discovered and identified the lost Salvatore Mundi by Leonardo that sold for a record-breaking sum last year. So he knows a thing or two about the finer points of “fine” art. The idea for this unprecedented exhibition came to him after he had enrolled as a student at Grand Central to improve his understanding of the technical side of painting, a peripheral aspect of his training as an art historian. The quality of the work he saw at GCA so impressed him that he proposed this show, which he curated with two GCA artist-instructors—Colleen Barry and Anthony Baus (both b. 1981). Barry and Baus selected works from the atelier, which Simon then paired with “sympathetically similar” images from his stock.
These Comparisons Are Not Odious
An especially apt pairing was of Sea Bass by Justin Wood (b. 1982)—at the right—with A Still-Life “Pronk” by Joris van Son (b. 1623). For me, the recent work loses nothing by the comparison, and is even more appealing in its relative simplicity—as good as anything by the still-life master Chardin. Though I’ve never been a fan of dead-fish paintings, Wood’s sea bass is compelling in its plump iridescence, as is the huge brass pot standing ready to receive it. Two other still lifes by Wood in the show are also of impressive quality.
A more unexpected juxtaposition placed David—an unpretentiously secular contemporary portrait by Jacob Collins (b. 1964), GCA’s founding force—next to Christ Blessing by Vittore Carpaccio (b. ca. 1465-70). Notwithstanding the works’ vastly different significance, they demonstrate the riveting power of a direct frontal gaze.
Mastery of the human figure is evident in two drawings by Baus—Nude in attitude of defeat and Study for an allegory—alongside seventeenth-century drawings by Benedetto Luti and Francesco Monti, respectively.
But the strongest suit of the show is portraiture. Especially fine are the examples by Barry—most notably, Black Hat and Portrait of the Artist’s Mother—sensitive depictions of pensive youth and somewhat worn and wary age. Also striking are Portrait of a Young Woman by Rachel Li (b. 1995) and an untitled portrait by Will St. John (b. 1980), side by side with a similarly toned seventeenth-century Bolognese Portrait of a Boy.
Despite their evident similarities with earlier art, each of the new works is a unique take on aspects of humanity or things we value. Most significantly in today’s context, each subject is endowed with a degree of gravitas. Moreover, these paintings and drawings are as fresh and important now as the comparable works from the past were in their day. Only the foolish modernist insistence on originality at all costs would prompt the dismissive judgment “It’s been done” regarding such contemporary work in a traditional vein.
Can it be a hopeful sign that curators from the Metropolitan Museum were spotted in the crowd at the show’s opening? Might they have carried word back to their esteemed institution suggesting that its view of “contemporary art” needs revising?
The Establishment View of Contemporary Art
As one might expect, the establishment view—in sharp contrast with the work shown at Robert Simon—is widely shared by art critics, including members of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), to which I was recently admitted. Last month I attended the annual meeting of AICA’s U.S. section, at the offices of The Brooklyn Rail. I alternated between feeling like Daniel in the lion’s den and the fox in the henhouse.
On the way to the meeting from the subway station, a longtime AICA member, Suzaan Boettger, struck up a conversation with me. An art historian who teaches at Bergen Community College, she specializes in “environmental art,” having written the book Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties—regarded as the “definitive history” of such work by the New York Times Book Review. I, on the other hand, consider “earthworks” to be one of the sixties’ anti-art phenomena, a topic for sociology perhaps but not for “art history.”
Other AICA members I met included Kaoru Yanase, visiting from Japan, where she serves as chief curator of the Nakamura Keith Haring Collection. On its website, Haring’s work is said to embody “the importance and preciousness of life, containing strong themes of peace, freedom, hopes, and dreams of humanity.” Nothing is said of the extent to which Haring’s schematic, cartoonish, street-art style undercuts the seriousness of such themes, however.
Another member, by chance seated near me at the group’s business meeting, was Norman Kleeblatt, who served for many years as a curator at the Jewish Museum in New York. As it happens, I had commented critically on a 2002 exhibition organized by him featuring “conceptual art” (Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery / Recent Art). My article was entitled “Anti-Art Is Not Art” (What Art Is Online, June 2002).
Also telling was the cover of the latest issue of the Rail, depicting a minimalist installation by the German sculptor Wolfgang Laib. Inspired by Eastern religions and philosophy, his work is at the inscrutable end of the contemporary art spectrum.
But perhaps the most unsettling indication of the artworld’s prevailing inclinations is the work of the two painters featured in a panel discussion on art writing at the AICA meeting, which was moderated by the Rail’s co-founder Phong Bui.
That prompts me to ask whose work should be more highly regarded—David Salle’s “conceptual” painting featuring dead fish, say, or Justin Wood’s still life of the same subject? Carroll Dunham’s vision of humanity or that of Anthony Baus? My answer is too obvious to need stating.
- Regarding the Morgan’s break with tradition, see “Cy Twombly in Mr. Morgan’s House?” and “Folded Paper and Other Modern ‘Drawings’.” On the Metropolitan, see “The Apotheosis of Andy Warhol” (Aristos, December 2012); “Met Rooftop Folly: Cornelia Parker’s ‘PsychoBarn’”; and “An Urgent Letter to Aristos Readers.” ↩
- Unlike Damien Hirst—who once lamented never having learned to represent the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface—these artists have mastered that foundational skill. For more on Classical Realism, see “The New Dawn of Painting” by Louis Torres (Aristos, March 1986), my “R.H. Ives Gammell” (Aristos, May 1990), “The Legacy of Richard Lack” by Louis Torres (Aristos, December 2006), and “Reflections on ‘Classical Realism’” by Jacob Collins (Aristos, November 2007). ↩