MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

All the World’s a Reflected Dot

IMG_6658Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors is this year’s big blockbuster exhibit at Seattle Museum of Art. (Kusama moved to Seattle in 1957 for a year before heading to New York. In Seattle she had her first important American show at the legendary Zoë Dusanne Gallery.)

I’m still processing my contradictory reactions to Infinity Mirrors. Here, the usual inflated hype is actually more germane than usual, since it ironically underscores aspects of Kusama’s aesthetic.

T.S. Flock gets it in this piece for the Seattle Weekly, one of the most incisive critiques I’ve seen so far of the show.

This notion is what ties the Infinity Room format to Kusama’s other calling card: dots. The earth itself is a dot. Everything is a dot. In Kusama’s worldview, everything is atomized into dots in an incomprehensibly large universe, and the sense of a singular continuity (i.e., ego, monument, institution) is “obliterated” by her dots. …

After all, the Infinity Rooms are simultaneously self-negating and self-centering, just as Kusama’s dot motif sees a unified whole among discrete particles. Isn’t that a fine definition of love between humans?

Margo Vansynghel offers another insightful take:

 Framing the story as the “artist-in-mental-hospital-who-makes-art-as-therapy” robs her of nuance and due credit. …

Maybe Kusama, intentionally or not, has been mirroring back to us what we created, a world of endless reflections of the same thing. She plays the leading role in this society of the spectacle. In November, wax museum Madame Tussauds Hong Kong opened up a polka-dotted “artistic themed” Kusama “zone.” One wonders where the art ends and her life, and the spectacle, begins. Critics have argued that she turned her mental illness into a spectacle, too. I don’t agree. The more interesting question though: If your antidote is turned into an art-world or Instagram commodity, how effective is it? And if you place the visitor in front of the mirror and it spins out of control, who’s to blame? In this uncertainty the show becomes truly interesting.



Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition, Uncategorized

Joshua Sofaer’s Rubbish Collection

As a foretaste of the upcoming Seattle Art Fair, Seattle Art Museum is currently hosting a series of talks by contemporary artists about their practice. The first one took place this week.

In it Joshua Sofaer, who focuses on projects involving collaboration and participation, talked about his recent effort at the Science Museum in London: The Rubbish Collection.

During the first phase, visitors to the Science Museum last summer were invited to participate by “sorting and documenting of one month’s worth of rubbish generated by the Science Museum’s visitors, staff, contractors, and exhibition projects to create a growing visual archive of the things we throw away from day to day… With a focus on sustainability and reuse, The Rubbish Collection confronts the materiality of rubbish and highlights that the things we throw away do not disappear but are transformed.”

Says the versatile British artist Sofaer: “Museums generally display items that have some special status, that are rare, or valuable. But in this project, I want to give the ‘museum treatment’ to the stuff it would normally throw away.”

I was intrigued to learn that Sofaer had also recently directed a staging of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the Folkoperan in Stockholm:

In this production the recitative which carries the biblical text has been replaced by filmed interviews that are projected on a screen which covers the wall behind the stage. In the interviews, singers and musicians share personal stories which concern the big themes of the passion: forgiveness, guilt, pain, fear, loneliness, and love.

The staging is kept simple, with the ensemble, including the orchestra, on stage all the time. As one body of people, they act as collective witnesses, with soloists emerging from the amongst them in a series of tableaux.

At the start of his talk, Sofaer quoted this famous statement by French Fluxus artist Robert Filliou as his own “rallying cry”: “‘Art is what makes life more interesting than art.”

Filed under: aesthetics, art, art exhibition

À la Recherche de l’Espace Perdu: Leo Saul Berk at the Frye

Wind Jangle, 2015 Aluminum, fishing line, weights; courtesy of Leo Saul Berk

Leo Saul Berk: Wind Jangle, 2015
Aluminum, fishing line, weights; courtesy of Leo Saul Berk

There’s a house west of architecture-rich Chicago, in Aurora, that was scorned by other residents when it was built back around the middle of the last century: the so-called Ford House, designed for Albert and Ruth Van Sickle Ford by the maverick architect, painter, and composer Bruce Goff. With its dramatic geometrical accents and manipulation of light and space, along with its use of recycled World War II materials like Quonset huts, Ford House is a testament to the idiosyncratic, visionary imagination of the Kansas-born Goff.

Ford House also happens to be the dwelling in which the Seattle-based artist Leo Saul Berk spent part of his childhood. Structure and Ornament, Berk’s first major solo museum show, distills his memories of the wondrously unconventional environment in which he grew up. The resulting works, now on view at the Frye Museum, take the form of sculpture, video, and photography, along with two site-specific installations.

Leo Saul Berk: Clinkers, 2012. Duratrans, sculptural light box. 76 x 64 5/8 x 3 3/4 in. Frye Art Museum, 2013.002.

Leo Saul Berk: Clinkers, 2012. Duratrans, sculptural light box. 76 x 64 5/8 x 3 3/4 in. Frye Art Museum, 2013.002.

Some of Berk’s pieces involve fanciful recreations of particular details from Ford House: “recreations” in the sense of attempts to recapture the visual poetry, say, of the setting sun as perceived through the semitransparent glass cullet windows positioned in Goff’s walls of coal masonry, which cause it to cast a green glow. (Berk’s backlit true-to-scale photograph is titled Clinkers.)

Other pieces are more tangentially related riffs on the impressions the house made on Berk growing up — impressions he’s been contemplating again over the last few years. This reengagement with Ford House led Berk to strike up a friendship with its current owner, the architectural historian Sidney K. Robinson. “Going back” to it both physically and in emotional terms has intensified Berk’s curiosity about the enduring impact his former home left on his artistic development.

My favorite among the loosely related fantasies is a video piece inspired by Berk’s visit to re-explore these roots. He was initially grossed out by a film of calcium deposits lining the bathtub, but when he filled it with water and then pulled the plug, a dancing cosmos of starlike detritus emerged, spotlit by the skylight directly overhead, before vanishing down the drain’s black hole.

Less effective is a sculpture in which Berk uses modern technology to try to “update” Goff’s vision, creating a miniature model of the central dome that had been the architect’s original plan. (The original specs proved too complex to execute.)

One piece, Berk’s homage to Goff’s organizing concept of a birdcage dome, gives the exhibit its title: the plywood-and-acrylic Structure and Ornament is both spikily abstract and mesmerizingly quirky — and in fact remarkably fragile, says Berk, for all its defiant severity.

Leo Saul Berk: Structure and Ornament (installation view), 2014. Plywood and Acrylic. 120 x 213 x 59 in. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Mark Woods

Leo Saul Berk: Structure and Ornament (installation view), 2014. Plywood and Acrylic. 120 x 213 x 59 in. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Mark Woods

And the concept of structure and ornament — construed by some modernists as at odds or even incompatible — feeds into larger concerns, according to Frye director Jo-Anne Birnie Dansker.

Berk’s responses to Ford House, she writes, “propose a modernity that honors visionary, utopian dreams of the past in which light, color, structure, material, ornament, poetry, and music could ignite a spiritual force that would unify the arts in harmony with nature and transform individuals and the social and cultural life of a nation.”

Structure and Ornament continues at the Frye Museum until 6 September, along with a series of exhibits on Andy Warhol and ideas of portraiture. Admission is free.

(c) 2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: architecture, art exhibition, Frye Museum, preview

Portrait Portrayals

There’s a feast of exhibits that have just opened at Seattle’s Frye Museum for the summer. I’ve just posted on the Structure and Ornament show from local artist Leo Saul Berk. Meanwhile, a series of small-scale exhibits explores the concept of the portrait, of self-portrayal and presentation.

Two of these exhibits represent polar opposites from the image-obsessed Andy Warhol. In an alcove-like room you can see the contents of Warhol’s Little Red Book #178 — examples from the tens of thousands of Polaroids he snapped to document his work and life in the 1970s. #178 is one of the collections Warhol organized into red Holson Polaroid albums. It contains nineteen pictures featuring such friends and collaborators as Jane Forth and Michael Sklar. Each is displayed in a separate frame.

These ephemera sometimes capture a revealing moment, sometimes seem too posed, and at times are even outright failures. But Warhol wanted to document it all. They emanate a ghostly presence that’s fascinating to compare to the glib instant-click instant gratification of our smartphone selfies.

Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol and Unidentified Woman, 1970. Polacolor Type 108. 4 1/2 x 3 3/8 in. Gift of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., 2014.002.18. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Richard Nicol

Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol and Unidentified Woman, 1970. Polacolor Type 108. 4 1/2 x 3 3/8 in. Gift of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., 2014.002.18. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Richard Nicol

Snapshots of fleeting moments versus the studied gaze of the Screen Tests: the Frye is showing a collection of 12 of the latter, made between 1964 and 1966 at the Factory. The reference to Hollywood auditions to check out an actor/actress’s potential motion picture charisma is tongue in cheek.

Warhol’s rolls of 16mm black and white film (using an entire 100-foot roll for each subject) are intended as a goal in themselves, their slow motion prolonging the self-conscious projections of self chosen by each subject. Notes the Frye’s description:

During the 1960s, these films were rarely shown in public, but were often screened at The Factory. Some of the Screen Tests were used by Warhol in projects such as “Thirteen Most Beautiful Women” and “Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys.” Programs of individual Screen Tests were also projected as part of the light show for “Up-Tight” and the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” Warhol’s 1966–67 multi-media happenings. For these events, The Velvet Underground and Nico provided live accompaniment; the Screen Tests were filmed without a soundtrack.

Along with the young Bob Dylan, the screen tests gathered here are of personalities like Susan Sontag, Dennis Hopper, Lou Reed, and Edie Sedgwick (transferred to digital files). See them in succession and try to decide who’s more self-conscious at trying to seem unselfconscious…

Maybelle, Thomas Eakins (1898); oil on canvas

Maybelle, Thomas Eakins (1898); oil on canvas

Work your way through this Warholiana and then head to American Portraits: 1880-1915, an intriguing selection from the Frye’s original collection of art focused on that turning-point era.

The angle here is one of Frye Director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker’s specialties: the influence of developments by German artists in particular in the late 19th/early 20th centuries on their American peers. The selection here considers works by John White Alexander, William Merritt Chase, George Luks, and Frank Duveneck, all of whom studied and spent time in Germany. Also included are portraits by ex-patriate artists Charles Sprague Pearce and John Singer Sargent and the “Ashcan School” maverick Robert Henri.

Birnie Danzker has placed Eakins’ strikingly naturalistic portrait of Maybelle Schlichter (wife of the boxing referee he painted in his famous Taking the Count) in a position that immediately catches the eye as you cross over from the Warhol Screen Tests. She notes that the subject portrayed by Eakins uncannily anticipates the unguarded character found in some of Warhol’s work — the glamour of the real.

Filed under: Andy Warhol, art exhibition, Frye Museum

World War One Installation at The Tower


Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, Paul Cummins

The ongoing installation/memorial in honor of the 888,246 soldiers (from the UK and its colonies) who were slaughtered in the Great War is spreading across the Tower of London’s long-dry moat. The installation is the work of ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper (associate designer with the Royal Shakespeare Company).

Why The Tower of London? According to the installation’s website:

During the First World War, the Tower’s moat was used to swear in over 1,600 men who had enlisted by the end of August 1914 at the recruitment station in the City to form the 10th Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers — the so called “stock brokers battalion” who fought for the duration of the war.

The source of the installation’s title:

“The Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red”
by Anonymous (Unknown Soldier)

The blood swept lands and seas of red,
Where angels dare to tread.
As I put my hand to reach,
As God cried a tear of pain as the angels fell,
Again and again.

As the tears of mine fell to the ground
To sleep with the flowers of red
As any be dead

My children see and work through fields of my
Own with corn and wheat,
Blessed by love so far from pain of my resting
Fields so far from my love.

It be time to put my hand up and end this pain
Of living hell, to see the people around me
Fall someone angel as the mist falls around
And the rain so thick with black thunder I hear
Over the clouds, to sleep forever and kiss
The flower of my people gone before time
To sleep and cry no more

I put my hand up and see the land of red,
This is my time to go over,
I may not come back
So sleep, kiss the boys for me.

The famous poppy poem from WWI:

“In Flanders Fields”
by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Filed under: art exhibition, poetry

Koonsian Therapy

Jeff Koons, Tulips, 1995–98; private collection © Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons, Tulips, 1995–98; private collection © Jeff Koons

Reviewing the current Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney, Hal Foster observes that “his readymades have as much to do with display, advertising and publicity as with the commodity per se.”

Notwithstanding Koons’s declaration that “my work is meant to liberate people from judgment,” Foster points to the “kitschy curios of the ‘Banality’ series,” finding that “we are not released from judgment so much as invited to entertain a campy distance from lowbrow desires or even a snobbish contempt for them.”

Ultimately, though, the Pop-infused aesthetic credo that drives Koons

fits in well with the therapy culture long dominant in American society (the only good ego is a strong ego, one that can beat back any unhappy neurosis), but it also suits a neoliberal ideology that seeks to promote our “self-confidence” and “self-worth” as human capital –- that is, as skill-sets we are compelled to develop as we shift from one precarious job to another. When the perfectly presented boy in “The New Jeff Koons” looks into the future, perhaps what he sees is us.

Jerry Saltz reflects:

We live in an art world of excess, hubris, turbocharged markets, overexposed artists, and the eventocracy, where art fairs are the new biennials. Shows like this cost millions of dollars to mount; once they’re up, mass audiences will gawk at the “one of the world’s most expensive living artists.” It becomes a giant ad, and the spectacle of more of Koons’s work up at auction awaits.
As perfectly executed as “A Retrospective” is, it’s also a culmination, a last hurrah of this era —- even as the era keeps going. It is the perfect final show for the Whitney’s building.


Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition

Glorified One

Glorified One, Leo Kenney (1945)

Glorified One, Leo Kenney (1945)

I was intrigued by the Stravinsky connection in this painting, currently on display as part of Seattle Art Museum’s Modernism in the Pacific Northwest: The Mythic and the Mystical. Leo Kenney (1925-2001), a native of Spokane, belonged to the second generation of the Northwest School of painters.

He referred to “The Glorification of the Chosen One” section from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as the inspiration for Glorified One.

Writes the curator Patricia Junker: “Yet Kenney was well-versed in Christian scripture and might just as well have been invoking the idea of resurrection in the post-apocalyptic second coming of Christ. A creature appears to live within stone, the one remaining sign of life in a landscape of complete destruction, perhaps a symbol of hope — or it may represent the final sacrifice to plead for peace and renewal.”

The enormous influence of Stravinsky’s score on other composers — which continues to this very moment — is well documented. Associations between this period of his work and the “primitivism” and Cubism of his colleague Pablo Picasso are also frequently discussed in a more general way (usually in terms of their putative influence on the music rather than the other direction). But I’m curious now about how the music of Sacre specifically influenced particular visual artists. Any other candidates?

Filed under: art exhibition, painters, Stravinsky

Sigmar Polke’s Art of Perplexity at MOMA

Sigmar Polke

I didn’t allow myself nearly enough time during my last trip to MOMA to dig into the enormous Sigmar Polke retrospective currently on view. It’s titled Alibis — not a recondite Latin phrase, but the plural of “alibi,” as in an exculpatory proof of absence from the scene of a crime.

The MOMA introduction explains further that “Polke studiously avoided any one signature style or medium; his method exemplified the definition of alibi, ‘in or at another place,'” and additionally contains a political connotation: “Polke grew up at a time when many Germans deflected blame for the atrocities of the Nazi period with the alibi ‘I didn’t see anything.'”

Alibis is also almost absurdly huge: 250 works across a wide (and unpigeonholeable) spectrum of media created or conjured into being by Sigmar Polke (1941-2010). Born in Lower Silesia, the provocative Polke was roughly of the same generation as heavyweights Anselm Kiefer (a few years younger than Polke) and Gerhard Richter (9 years older) — but inarguably in a realm all his own, even if he never settled on an identifiable style.

As New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl puts it in his glowing review: “With caustic humor and cultivated mystery, he could seem to hit a reset button from phase to phase, and even from piece to piece…” (The near-homonym of Polke’s name with “polka” only enhances the absurdist humor that’s essential to this artist’s aura.)

The exhibit’s first installation, sprawling across part of the atrium on MOMA’s second floor, immediately perplexes as to the intended “tone” as it offers a quick bird’s-eye view of four decades of the eternally distancing, ever-skeptical Polke’s work and “themes.” Not that the roughly chronological layout of Alibis really matters, given how wildly he can dart from one concept to the next: from puncturing art historical purism to complicating his critique of West German consumer culture — “Capitalist Realism” — with an ironic, Pop Art play on the Soviet dogma of “realism.”

And the tone really does perplex, as you travel from high ’60s performance art and Me Decade mushroom psychedelia to imposing glass panels painted with soot. Polke himself had begun collaborating with MOMA’s associate director, Kathy Halbreich, to design the show before he died of cancer in 2010. Doubtless he would have insisted on an even more enigmatic layout and wilder cross-connections; apparently Polke objected to the chronological convention followed here.

Holland Cotter’s New York Times review captures the weird mix of temperaments well:

Yet even in these ominous pictures, he fools around, delights in deviance, frustrates interpretive closure. One watchtower is painted on garishly cheery floral fabric; another is done on Bubble Wrap. A third has been washed with a light-sensitive silver oxide solution that will darken to black over time, obliterating the image.

Sigmar Polke, (Die Jagd auf die Taliban und Al Qaida (The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda), 2002; Digital print on tarpaulin, private collection; © 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Sigmar Polke, Die Jagd auf die Taliban und Al Qaida (The Hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda), 2002; Digital print on tarpaulin, private collection; © 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The reception has been especially fascinating, more than usual. Talk about diametric opposition. Here’s Michael Pepi, maintaining respectfully objective attitude in The New Criterion:

Polke worked on fertile ground for a provocateur… [T]he current show at MOMA further mystifies Polke, drawing his wide-ranging output deeper in line with reactions to modernity’s great shortcomings. Whether it be destructive ideologies, overdependence on technology, or even the abuses of history itself, Polke’s ability to move across not just media but also aesthetic positions is on rapt display.

Jed Perl at The New Republic devotes a lengthy and intense piece to his disappointment: disappointment at what he characterizes as a tame, “sociological” presentation but, more importantly, at the phenomenon of Polke himself as a leading “pompier” of today’s art scene. He suggests some comparisons with Salvador Dalí: for both, “style is a put-on job, an act — but an act pressed with such intensity that it takes on a weird, almost repellent authority.” (Perl co-opts the avant-gardists scornful term for the slick and popular establishment painters they sought to subvert.):

The Polke show is as interested in its own virtuosity — or in its own swaggering anti-virtuosity — as any exhibition I have ever seen… Pompier — and certainly the pompier of Polke — is a performance, and works of visual art are not primarily or essentially performances… I am held by some of what Polke has done, by the cleverness and the bravado and the sheer spectacle of it all. But I exit this retrospective that’s so aptly entitled “Alibis” with a deep sense of relief. No artist who really matters has ever left me feeling that way.

Lance Esplund at The Wall Street Journal finds himself even more repelled and has no doubt this is another example of the Emperor’s New Clothes:

Jester-of-all-trades, [Polke] was actually, according to the show’s curators, “masquerading as many different artists.” But instead of variety we get the same joke—dressed up here as a photograph; over there as a painting—played out over and over again… Deliberately disingenuous and ambiguous, Polke courted randomness through his appropriations and derisions.

Contrast that with Schjeldahl’s rapturous encomium:

[Alibis] is the most dramatic museum show of the century to date. It may also be the most important, if its lessons for contemporary art, both aesthetic and ethical, are properly absorbed.


Nearly everything he did reacted, somehow, against something. Celebrity was only one of the threats to the probity of his independence which required an emergency response. He was, and he remains, heroic.

And Maike Pollack at The Gallerist discovers a hopeful message as well:

Ms. Halbreich suggests that for the postwar painter, visual ambiguity represented a resistance to the ghosts of Germany’s wartime political narratives and the authority that accompanied them.

Polke’s paintings created a new terrain… In [his] chemistry and bubbles and ridged screens, we see the Internet with its endless depths of images welling up. What’s more, his paintings are not cynical; they re-enchant the world of images and the possibilities of picture-making.

Filed under: aesthetics, art exhibition

Ballets Russes: “When Art Danced with Music”


Time to get in the mood for this weekend’s final subscription concerts of the Seattle Symphony’s season — and Ludovic Morlot has planned one hell of a program, with all three of Stravinsky’s blockbuster pre-WW I ballets.

I’m recalling the National Gallery of Art’s thought-provoking exhibition Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music last fall. The show gave a dazzling overall impression of the many different areas of creativity that the wizard Serge Diaghilev somehow managed to draw together (not without a massive amount of drama): composers, writers, painters, sculptors, costume and set designers, lighting artists, researchers, propagandists, and naturally musicians and dancers.

Diaghilev’s brain itself must have been a Gesamtkunstwerk. This was the way to out-Wagner Wagner, and Stravinsky certainly intended to do that.

The exhibition also probed into future connections, the way these artists set currents in motion that would give birth to Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism.

The always-brilliant Philip Kennicott points out that “the legend of the Ballets Russes was always a bit better — and better tended — than the reality of what the troupe and its lead artists left behind.” He offers this handy summary of what the lasting impact of the Ballet Russes as a crucible of experiment:

In less than two decades’ time, one sees the invention of something so familiar we take it for granted, the free mixing of commercial entertainment and more traditional forms of art, the valorization of branding and fashion within the intellectual realms of culture, and the troubling, persistent and essential fracturing of art into style and substance.

And it’s important to realize how much of Diaghilev’s legend became linked to the power of celebrity:

Much of what is on display falls into the category of holy relics: Costumes worn by dancers who are legendary names; programs and photographs and publicity posters from tours of the company that are still spoken of in reverential terms by those who remember or knew someone who was there. Theater, including ballet, invites hero worship, and there are many objects in this exhibition that appeal to our celebrity pleasure receptors more than our artistic ones.


[T]hat’s the difference between performance and the plastic arts. The allure of the former is all about the moment, the luck of being present, the willful illusion that magic is happening. Diaghilev sold that dream, perhaps more effectively than any impresario before or since.

Filed under: art exhibition, ballet, Seattle Symphony, Stravinsky

A Van Gogh Acquisition in D.C.

Vincent van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890

Vincent van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890

Delirium: the state induced by a mere couple hours at the National Gallery of Art, my old home away from home in Washington, D.C. This time I was able to finally see the National’s most recent acquisition: Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, which Vincent van Gogh painted most likely mere weeks before his suicide in 1890. This marks the ninth van Gogh painting in the National’s collection, six of which are on view (along with another 11 prints and drawings that can be seen by appointment.)

Hanging in the same gallery as five other late-period van Goghs — Girl in White (1890) (also from Auvers) La Mousmé (1888), The Olive Orchard (1889), Roses (1890), and Self-Portrait (1889) — the new acquisition invites the viewer to make some very interesting comparisons. Both the sense of a mystical energy animating the landscape and the drive toward abstraction seem to me the most striking features here.

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers came into the possession of the artist’s brother Theo and was sold to a Berlin collector in 1906, who later sold it to the great National Gallery benefactor Paul Mellon in 1955. Mellon’s widow, Rachel Lambert Mellon, was given rights of possession of this painting for her lifetime but chose to relinquish it to the National Gallery. What must it feel like to have such an intriguing masterpiece in your home (in Upperville, Virginia, for Mrs. Mellon), day after day? How does one make the decision to then “relinquish” it for the public good?

Notice where van Gogh places the horizon, the mirroring undulations of fields, flowers, clouds, road (or is it a river?). And the pulsating energy, reflecting an elemental joy despite the artist’s psychological condition at this moment in his life. Mary Morton, curator of French paintings at the National, observes the following:

Because there is so little to read in the composition, the focus is on the color but even more so on brushwork — the clouds whipping around in spinning circles, opening out and closing in, van Gogh’s brush squiggling across the surface in long calligraphic strokes. The paint is applied in thick impasto, creating the marvelous textured surface of van Gogh’s best loved paintings. Through his dynamic touch and vivid, unmediated color, van Gogh expresses the intense freshness of this slice of countryside.

Filed under: art exhibition, art history

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