Joseph Santore on Vincent van Gogh

Van_Gogh_The_Night_CafeVincent van Gogh, The Night Café, 1888, Oil on canvas, 28.5 × 36.3 inches

I must have been eight or nine years old when my older brother brought home a small Skira book on Van Gogh. I was fascinated by the book and remembered flipping through it over and over. Someone had given me an oil painting set for Christmas and for some reason I decided to copy the portrait of Eugene Bok. I canʼt remember why I chose that painting over all the other paintings in the book, but if I were to guess it would probably be because of the starry night sky behind the head. It certainly isnʼt my favorite Van Gogh and I canʼt say that Iʼve thought about it much over the years except to remember finishing it and that it was my first oil painting. A year or two later I saw the Movie Lust for Life staring Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin. The movie was directed by Vincent Minnelli and the story adapted from the book by Irving Stone. This was my introduction into the life of Van Gogh. The movie was filmed in vivid color and Kirk Douglas resembled Van Gogh and did a convincing job of portraying a tortured artist. I remember him sticking his bandaged head out the second floor window of the yellow house and screaming hysterically at the people below who were tormenting him.

Van_Gogh_Portrait_Eugene_BochVincent van Gogh, Eugène Boch, 1888, Oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches

It must have been in an art history class where I saw the poolroom painting by Van Gogh, The Night Cafe in the Place Lamartine, for the first time. Everything about it grabbed me–the color; blocks of yellow, red and green, the swirling lights, the billiard table with a stick and three balls laying on the cloth, the clock over the doorway to the back room set at just passed midnight, the large mirror on the wall and the customers at the tables, some passed out in folded arms. But most of all it was the man in the white suit standing by the billiard table under the phosphorescent lights, staring straight ahead and seeming totally at ease in his world, a saint or sinner with his thumbs casually hooked in his front pockets. Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo about the cafe in a letter dated August 6th 1888:

“Today I am probably going to start on the interior of the cafe where I stay, by gas- lighting, in the evening. It is what they call here a ʻcafe de nuitʼ (they are fairly common here), staying open all night. Night prowlers can take refuge there when they have no money to pay for lodging or are too tight to be taken in”.

A month later he wrote to Theo reporting that he had stayed up for three nights running, sleeping only during the day to paint the night cafe.

“I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. The room is blood red and dark yellow with a green billiard table in the middle; there are four citron yellow lamps with a glow of orange and green. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most disparate reds and greens in the figures of little sleeping hooligans, in the empty, dreary room, in violet and blue. The blood red and the yellow-green of the billiard table, for instance, contrast with the soft tender Louis XV green of the counter, on which there is a pink nosegay. The white coat of the landlord, awake in the corner of that furnace, turns citron yellow, or pale luminous green. I am making a drawing of it with tones in watercolor to send to you tomorrow to give you some idea of it.”

I spent a lot of time in corner hangouts and poolrooms when I was a kid in South Philadelphia, so the painting really hit home. I later graduated to the larger and older poolrooms, the classy and cavernous places where the great shooters gathered to
hustle their game. I knew all the nighttime hangouts, the “after hours” clubs and “bust out” joints, the all-night diners, all-night movie houses, the storefront speakeasies, and the institutions like “Horn and Hardartʼs” and “Lintonʼs”. These places were filled with lonely people, drunks and dreamers, junkies, perverts, insomniacs, somnambulists’, hustlers, hookers, and lunatics. Van Gogh also said:

“I have tried to express the idea that the cafe is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime.”

The biggest surprise at Yale was discovering that Van Goghʼs The Night Cafe in the Place Lamartine was part of the permanent collection in the Yale Museum right across the street from the Art and Architecture building. I visited often but somehow could not get used to how small it was compared to the size of a projected slide in a lecture hall. I was also kind of shocked by how roughly it was painted, as if he was carving into space with color. I remember Al Held saying that Van Goghʼs paintings never quite settled in on the walls of museums and that there was a strange awkwardness about the way they related to the other works around them. He said that Gauguinʼs work, as great as it was, looked much more comfortable in a museum setting.

In 1984 I saw the large retrospective at the Met of Van Goghʼs work at Arles. The Night Cafe was hanging right next to a doorway so I could see it from several rooms away. At that time I began getting tickets for these blockbuster shows for late in the afternoon. I would speed through the show then backtrack to the first room and wait for the guards to begin clearing the room. I would linger as long as possible and in this way was able to see all the paintings pretty much alone. I did the same thing in every room.
 I remember that afternoon mostly because of The Night Cafe. I had
spent over two years in New Haven and probably looked at that painting a hundred
times or more, but I never really saw it the way I saw it that afternoon when I stood on my toes a few rooms away to look over the heads of the crowd. The painting lit up like a hallucination with the light swirling so intensely that I thought I would begin to levitate from the excitement running through my whole body. I donʼt think any other painting ever affected me the same way.

I ran into William Bailey recently and we were talking about the Yale Museum and inevitably the subject of The Night Cafe  came up. He told me about his battle with the museum over the way they had reframed the painting and how the modern black frame made it look like a slide. Eventually, after enough people complained, they gave in and reframed it with the original frame.

“How did he do it?” Bill asked, “How did he paint all those great paintings in such a short time? He seemed genuinely perplexed.

“It was really just a few years,” I added. “The first seven or so were warm ups.”

“It doesn’t seem possible,” Bill said. I had nothing to add because people have been asking that same question for more than a century.

SONY DSCJoseph Santore, Titorelli’s Studio, 1990-93, Oil on canvas, 11 1/2 x 22 feet

James Siena on Albrecht Dürer

Durer_1497Albrecht Dürer , Self-Portrait, 1498, Oil on wood panel, 20 1/2 x 16 inches

Known primarily for his nearly unparalleled work in engraving and woodcut (and I say unparalleled because it is equal in every way to any painting or drawing), Albrecht Dürer managed to establish a mastery making paintings that, in spite of their relative scarcity, put him at the highest rank of painters, full stop.  It’s no coincidence that this particular self-portrait (the middle one of three he painted in his younger years) sits in the Prado.  We tend to identify the Prado as the repository of the great Spanish painters such as Goya, Velasquez, Zurbaran, El Greco.  But surely the royals who put this collection together were equally zealous about Cranach and Bosch, who are represented by masterworks of the highest quality, and indeed by Dürer, whose small scale portrait practically warps the space around it with its psychedelic, synapse-enhancing power.

Psychedelic means, literally, “mind evident”, and surely this work is as revealing about the psyche of the artist as any other.  What is so significant about this particular painting is that it may be the first true self-portrait, one that examines the mind and the ambition of the young artist.   Painted after his first trip to Italy in 1494-5, the influence of Italian Portraiture is obvious, yet the work is utterly Northern European.  The inclusion of the hands (the hands dressed in the finest deerskin gloves, but more on that later), the architectural setting with a brilliant landscape, which includes farmland, a waterway, and snowy mountains, and the bold stripes of the sleeves and neckline of the jacket, repeated in the soft leather hat with tassels (and repeated again in the braided cord that holds the cape over his left shoulder), are all visual devices of Italian invention. But Dürer, in his execution of the textures and weights of the materials of the clothing, in the finishes on the window frame and walls, in the nearly perfectly rendered and teased out cascading hair, wants to say, yeah, I went to Italy, and I can do this–but I can do it better.  He is saying this not out of arrogance, but out of ambition, and a very healthy ambition at that.  He wants those who see this painting to know how he feels about himself as an artist, and as a person who is to be respected for his vision and his skills.

This goldsmith’s son wants to show his father (among many others) that his life’s work is worthy of respect, and he does this in the most audacious way:  he commissions his own portrait as a gentleman.  Here are his own words, written in 1506 in a letter from Venice:  “How I shall freeze after this Sun!  Here I am a Gentleman, at home only a parasite.”  Look at the finery he clothes himself in, the tunic crested by golden lacework.  The deerskin gloves, a typical sign of status in Nuremberg at the time.  But look, most of all, at the seriousness of his gaze, both haughty and humble, and note the irregularity of his rendering of his own eyes, one leveled at the viewer, just behind the nose, and the other, open a bit wider, and looking just over our own left shoulder.  He’s telling us something; I’m not entirely sure what, probably something about things having two meanings.  This remarkable painting is about a mind manifesting, supremely confident, but it’s also about a mind scrutinizing itself.  This is, after all, what all artists do, to this day.  Dürer was one of the first, and still, one of the best.

The inscription reads:  Das malt ich nach meiner gestalt/Ich war sex und zwanzig jor alt.  (I painted this from my own appearance; I was twenty-six years old).

Siena, Heliopolis, 2005, Enamel on aluminus, 29 x 22 3:4 inchesJames Siena, Heliopolis, 2005, Enamel on aluminum, 29 x 22 3/4 inches, Photo by Kerry Ryan McFate, Courtesy Pace Gallery

Scott Greene on Winslow Homer

Winslow_Homer_-_The_Herring_NetWinslow Homer,The Herring Net, 1885, Oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 48 3/8 inches

I’m not sure when I first saw Winslow Homer’s “The Herring Net,” but the piece bobs up and down in my imagination, weathering trends, taste and time. I consider Romanticism to be an affliction, one I cannot seem to shake. The more I search this painting’s subtle and complex alchemy, the further I’m set adrift.

For all its outward simplicity, it represents a synthesis of Homer’s experience as an illustrator, painter, adventurer, storyteller and social commentator. The sheer impact of the work, his forceful command over both subject and craft, transcends my threshold for suspending disbelief.

Like most great traditional paintings, “The Herring Net” is a bundle of contradictions. The sensuous, lapping applications of paint are loose and free, yet bound by observation and specificity. The jagged naturalistic mountains of water soften and shimmer through sfumato like a fading dream. Foreshortening compresses volume, creating a bold, graphic quality and expanding the sense of scale. An intimate glimpse surrounded by vast emptiness suggests isolation and vulnerability. Color values and hues are so close in places that, like a Morandi still-life, distinction between man and boat dissolves.

Everything is wet, slippery, moving. Homer’s expertise with watercolors, like J.M.W. Turner’s, informs his unique understanding of color and its vibrant light from within. The shifting sea is dark, warm and green in the foreground, and lighter, cooler and bluer in the far distance. The sky reflects its muted, grayish purples across the glassy water, defining angles and features like countless mirrors changing positions and directions. Pure and tertiary colors are placed next to each other to create ocular vibrations, and diaphanous layers of glazing allow the eye to penetrate the surface, integrating the image as a whole.

Meanwhile, edge quality indicates space and transitions. Take the sharp sweeping curve of the boat gunwale becoming vague as it moves into atmosphere; it cuts in front of the larger fisherman’s less focused contours, making him recede. And the sharpest point of contrast slices along the hat brim of the smaller fisherman hanging from the boat. Its glistening highlight is part of a flickering field of activity across the composition as it verges on breaking the picture plane.

Homer’s observational skills and use of iconography express a precarious state of human affairs. He worked as an illustrator for Harper’s magazine, “nose to the litho stone,” and his eye for documentation is obvious here. His job was to translate photographs back when photographers were learning to frame by co-opting visual language from paintings. Hence he rendered countless compositions with influences and subjects that harken back to the Renaissance while often referencing secular current events.

Here two fishermen plumb the depths for survival, bound by necessity in a risky and carefully choreographed venture. The bigger man threatens to capsize the boat as he tugs his fishing net, while his partner acts as ballast against an ebbing wave. The two fuse together into a monumental structure, their tableaux framed and backlit in a devotional manner reminiscent of Raphael or da Vinci.

Diagonal elements pointing toward the looming central figure create a pyramidal structure with his head at the apex, and heart dead-center on the canvas. He appears to rise from the vessel, head lowered prayerfully. A set of symbolic wooden oars, forming a cross behind him, comes into view from the atomized light. As in William Blake’s “Ancient Of Days,” the fisherman is God-like, exerting his will on the powerless below.

“The Herring Net” as a title suggests a shift from human drama to the plight of fish, but it’s a metaphor for the ephemeral. A wave of a different sort crashes over and into the boat—a net full of herring, eyes to the sky and bloody membranes showing under their gills. Blue-pink halation flashes off their scales, resembling highly polished ingots of sunken treasure. Specks of blood on the fishermen’s hands, clothes and boat glow from within the darker values. The men go about their business indifferently.

A traditional interpretation of “The Herring Net” might imply that no matter how things change, they remain the same. Renaissance principles of composition still have impact, people still struggle and die, the ocean is still dangerous. What has changed is the uniqueness of the moment. This painting is an eloquent and emotional piece of reportage, documenting a high watermark (so to speak) in the health of our planet. Homer’s painting represents a time before industrialization and wholesale degradation of the environment.

Unlike the orange buoy in the foreground, marking the limits for safe passage, we’re now drifting like a boat without an anchor—weathering global warming, as vulnerable as an offshore oil rig in the eye of a hurricane.

This painting would be impossible to paint now. I imagine the great swell of debris pushed out to sea over the past 130 years since Homer finished his painting, the sort of trove a net would gather from the flotsam and jetsam purged by waves up and down our coasts. What would the catch look like now?

Greene_Scott_La_Bajada_BluffScott Greene, La Bajada Bluff, 2013, Oil on canvas, 50 x 50 inches

Camilla Fallon on Édouard Manet

A14920.jpgÉdouard Manet, The Dead Toreador, 1864, Oil on canvas, 29 7/8 x 60 3/8 inches

The giant horizontal body seemed to be floating in black space, as if levitating. There was a profound stillness about it. I remember inspecting the body for a clue as to the cause of this stillness and my eyes lit on the spate of red about the mouth, which seemed such a tiny thing. Then, I imagined the charging bull.  As a young adult I made frequent visits to the National Gallery of Art and found myself returning over and over again to Manet’s “The Dead Toreador,” astonished and humbled by its power and monumental scale. There’s no action in the painting, no brilliant hues, yet, I imagined that I heard and felt the shocked silence of an unseen audience.

The figure cuts a powerful diagonal within the rectangle’s frame. The beautiful, exquisitely dressed corpse floats before us for our inspection. We see hardly a crease in the clothes, or a mark on the body.  The silent wide fact of it is a shock. Only the head is dramatically off axis. The young man is dead but just a trickle of red near his shoulder and smudge about the mouth indicates blood. Red is echoed throughout, notably in the pink satin muleta resting on the floor, emphasizing the ground plane, fixing the eye level, and leading us into the space that his body occupies. The tiny red flecks of blood on his hand and pink sash are another hint as the mottled sash bisects his body. Stretched out and motionless, this beautiful giant’s pink cummerbund conveys volume and whispers to our perceptions of stamina and virility.  The head’s counter-diagonal position relays the idea that the man is dead. But Manet holds back, creating drama not by indicating action but by using extremes of light and dark, with the blackest black and the whitest white inhabiting the same color space.

Originally titled “Incident at a Bullfight”, the first version of the painting included a bullfighting ring on its upper portion.   Manet created the image in his studio using Goya’s series “Tauromaquia”, possibly Alexander Gardner’s Civil War photographs and “A Dead Soldier”, (anonymous Neapolitan) in The National Gallery, London as source material. (Early National Gallery catalogues presented the painting as ‘by’ and ‘attributed to’ Velázquez.) Manet wrote in a letter to Henri Fantin-Latour in 1865 about Velázquez: “He is the painter of painters. He has astonished me, he has ravished me.” After critics found it spatially distorted, Manet cut the painting into fragments and eliminated all of the forms behind the matador on the bottom section.  The top section “The Bullfight” is in The Frick Collection.

The BullfightÉdouard Manet, Incident at a Bullfight, 1864, Oil on canvas, 18 7/8 x 42 7/8 inches

After gazing at and becoming familiar with the painting over time, and then reading a short monograph on it, I was stunned to learn how many steps he took to realize this image. It seems to be painted and conceived as one thought. After Manet cut the painting there was no longer any spectacle to consider, only the dead man. And that is where its power lies: he creates drama through its subtle structure, allowing the viewer to participate in the realization that the matador is dead and that this death was indeed violent. These extreme revisions changed the very nature and power of the piece; it had once been a narrative image but is now powerfully iconic.

Manet speaks to my contemporaries and me partly because he altered, manipulated, cut, and added to paintings as he worked. Manet was a studio painter, conceptual in his approach, and was intrigued by paint and its substance. He handled paint in a way that was palpable, direct and sensuous to the eye and brought energy to paint and the handling of it that was new.  He moved huge chunks and painted forms in and out, and through his process brought a bold new approach to painting.

My Face  84 x 60 oil on canvas 2012Camilla Fallon, My Face, 2012, Oil on canvas , 84 x 60 inches

Tony Robbin on Claude Monet

Claude_Monet_-_The_Water_Lilies_-_The_Clouds_1920-1926Claude Monet, The Water Lilies - The Clouds, 1920-1926, Oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 502 inches

It is rare, and always impressive, when an older artist turns a winter’s passion into a new body of work. If we knew Michelangelo Buonarroti only from his work after 74 years of age, he still would be considered a great artist, or rather a great architect: the final plan and the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome are his design. Henri Matisse began his paper cutout series at age 78 when he was too ill to get out of bed. Again, if we knew only this more graphic style, and the books, interior design, stained-glass windows, and textiles that the cutouts engendered, we would still consider Matisse a great artist with a major influence on the art and design that followed. But, in a way, the last works of both Michelangelo and Matisse can be seen as a continuation of the aesthetic philosophy developed throughout their lives. Monet does something more daring. Monet’s choice is to turn Impressionism on its head; the paintings change from the specific to the general; he takes on the avant-garde and becomes an abstract artist.

A Change in Aesthetic Goals

This evolution of Monet’s last style can be told as a story about edges. As the series of Rouen cathedral paintings progresses, the edges of the architecture dissolve. It just happens that there is a recognizable building: it is not drawn and filled in. By 1892 (the orange-lit Rouen façade in the Marmottan) the painting is cropped so that the edges of the building are outside of the canvas. This is clearly willful, as the artist, seated in the same spot, previously pictured the edge of the facade to be in the painting. As the light plays across the architecture, different features, such as the tympanum, advance and recede; the stone dematerializes into light. Architectural ornament becomes gestures of brush and paint.

After 1906, another type of edge is discarded. In painting the water lilies, Monet moves the bank of the pond, which is effectively the horizon line, up the canvas until finally it is off the painting. The view tips up. This is not flatness; rather, there is a volume on top of and also behind the canvas, as in Glycines (1919–20). Now the edge of the canvas itself disappears, as the paintings become more horizontal, encompassing our peripheral vision, even to the extent of being continuous ovals.

Finally in Roses (1925–26), the surface of the canvas as the plane through which we see is discarded. The blue that is both sky and ground is slapped on top of the reds and oranges of the roses. What is figurative is almost completely lost in what is paint.

Painters draw edges and fill in; Monet escaped from that. The paintings flicker between subject and object, between figure and gesture. No longer an observation of the hour of the day, they become a meditation on the passing of time. And in so doing, as an old man, Monet made the break, the terrifying break, with reality, cut painting off the world, made it pure sensation, made it abstract.

Art Historicity

In the 1950s, art history was psychoanalytical: artist so-and-so did what he did because he was a repressed homosexual, the Agony and the Ecstasy, and so on. The 1960s rejected so romantic an approach for the formalist: an artist inherited a tradition of making a work of art and structuring the response of the viewer, and then played with that tradition. The artist’s life experiences and personality were largely irrelevant. In the 1970s, Linda Henderson, myself, and others argued for a more contextual approach: artists exist in a culture whose members all have the same opportunities and limitations of consciousness. It is our human destiny to expand our awareness. In a way, everybody (artists, mathematicians, scientists, jurists) is working on the same problem. Unfortunately, “context” has often been seen as another way to focus on identity politics, and there is less understanding of the broader movement of consciousness. Now perhaps it is time to return to the life experiences of the artist.

Bodies, minds, brains change and age. People make art and people are changed by circumstance. If art history cannot know that, then what can it know?

A Face in the Clouds

face detail_1The Water Lilies - The Clouds (Detail)

I have described Monet’s last paintings in formal terms, as a story of edges. I have also mentioned the aesthetic context and Monet’s desire to compete with younger artists and their new painting of the abstract. But what of Monet himself? Such an absorption in self, to be the center of a vortex of sensation that includes no companions, speaks of a degree of misanthropy, or at least feelings of isolation. There were deaths: his second wife Alice in 1911 and his eldest, closest son in 1914. And Monet had more and more trouble with cataracts; he surely knew about Degas’s blindness. Monet’s delight was in seeing the world; he must have felt that world closing in on him. I may be seeing things, but is there a face in the painting called Les Nuages at the Orangerie? If so, then the forehead, closed eyes, nose, mouth, ear, and beard are all in their right places. And if so, it is a portrait of the artist as an old man.

Tony Robbin, 2013-O-12, 2013, Oil on Canvas, 65 x 70 inTony Robbin, 2013-O-12, 2013, Oil on Canvas, 65 x 70 inches 

A longer version of this essay was first published on TonnyRobbin.net.

Peggy Cyphers on Francisco de Goya

from metFrancisco de Goya y Lucientes, Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga, Possibly 1790s, Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 inches

Goya paints animals like they were enchanted beings. In his celebrated portrait “Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga,” the pets are not merely props; they are animated creatures inhabiting the interior space with a charged emotional reality. The fabric that adorns Don Manuel Osorio is alive with shimmering light.  Across the taffeta elements, Goya’s brush seems to touch the canvas surface like a translucent vapor. Nonetheless, the crux of Don Manuel’s portrait is the subliminal plot staged in the sidelines by his menagerie. Cartoon-like cats, a precocious magpie and a cage of finches interact in a socialized exchange transforming the child’s form into the prop. Looming out of the darkness are the eyes of three cats, we can assume these are well kept pets and not feral creatures from the streets. From within the shadows beams their intelligent and concentrated gaze upon the clever magpie that is lifting Goya’s business card in its beak.

Don Manuel’s pets create an illusive narrative, one that sets the stage for Goya’s future projects as social commentator and archivist of brutality. This picture is the pinnacle of Goya’s early portraiture and foreshadows a similar staging in “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” from Los Caprichos.  Although much historical speculation has been written on Christian iconography in connection to a symbolic interpretation of these pets, I find this theory irrelevant and unsubstantiated.  Instead, the essence of Goya’s poetic genius is hiding attentively like the cats. The artist watches and records the realities of life he cannot divulge in the commissions. Goya is the one caught amidst the politics of court world.  This inter-species drama between magpie and felines is the dominant storyline, their cartoon antics embellishing the luscious portrait. The temporality of this momentary drama assumes an existential commentary on existence in time while it evidences the inherent tension between the peaceful and demonic nature of reality.

My interest in Goya began when I was a young art student in Baltimore and I first came upon a book of the plates for “Los Caprichos.”  Entranced, my love affair with his work continued in New York when I moved here in 1977.  Poring over the plates, I found the extremes of human suffering and cruelty succinctly expressed in his line and tone.  Many of Goya’s paintings, magnificent in their virtuous formal qualities, especially in terms of the fabrics that radiate with light, did not hold interest for me, a young modernist more interested in finding inspiration in Rauschenberg or Zen painting.  The exception came with Goya’s animals; they had a truer ring and I could feel a connection to his psyche and philosophy of life. This work was by far the pinnacle of that discovery of Goya’s interest in animals. Later in 1872, animals and their emotions would become the focus of naturalist Charles Darwin.  Goya’s artistic sensibility evidenced the enduring importance of animals as active social members of family life.  This was especially true for isolated court children. During the Enlightenment period, pets were highly regarded as a way to encourage a connection to nature. In Europe finches were taught tricks and kept for their singing abilities.

At the time of this painting, circa 1786, Goya writes “I have established myself in an enviable way.”  He finally is promoted to Court Painter when his patrons, Crown Prince Carlos and Princess Maria Luisa, assume the throne of Spain.  Previous profitable years painting cartoons for tapestries for the nobility led him to develop his knack and intellectual passion for ingeniously portraying high and low life spectacles of both the rich and poor.

By the time of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain and the Spanish Resistance War, Goya is left fully deaf, presumably from lead poisoning. In another twist of ill fate, the Altamira family becomes almost bankrupt and Goya is left without court work.  From that point on, he depicted with crude and raw abandon the world of the depraved, not the privileged. Luckily, the artist wisely invested in the Bank of Spain in the 1780’s so he is comfortably left to focus attention on the world around him – the myriad of characters that dominate the streets – beggars, gravediggers, torturers, feral cats and the starving. Realism in the form of his most celebrated prints “Disasters of War” and ‘Los Caprichos” established him as the greatest artist of war. This painting of Don Manuel de Osorio, with its full cast of animal characters, foreshadowed this genius.

Peggy Cyphers Insect icon  2014 46x34_ acrylic, gold leaf, silkstreen, sand on canvasPeggy Cyphers, Insect Icon, 2014, Acrylic, gold leaf, silkscreen, sand on canvas, 46 x 34 inches

Caren Canier on Henri Matisse

Matisse, The Piano Lesson, 1916, ft 1:2inx11ft 3:4in, oil on canvasHenri Matisse, The Piano Lesson, 1916, Oil on canvas, 96 1/2 x 83 3/4 inches

Matisse’s Piano Lesson is the painting I keep going back to at MOMA.  For me, it’s the most compelling modern painting in New York.   It’s hard to compare it to my other all time favorites at the Met or the Frick but certainly at MOMA, it exerts the strongest pull on me and it never, ever disappoints.

It’s the green triangle and the way it flips in and out of the window, the way it turns the gray to warm, but also complements the pink, which, in turn, turns the gray to cool.  That gray!  It’s warm and cool all at once, and there’s so much of it.  The longer I look at the painting, I feel myself absorbed by that ambiguous gray.  To reinforce the red/green complements, the blue and orange curtains/shutters climb up the side of the window frame above the boy’s head, offering a secondary, subtler version of simultaneous contrast.  Everything about this painting is ambiguous, that is, a good kind of ambiguous, not to be confused with vagueness.  All of its elements lock together in an amazing tension that feels as if the painting might explode if the boy hits a wrong note.

And the boy’s face!  The intensity of that wedge, mirrored by the metronome, teased by the black arabesque calligraphy of the balustrade!  I wonder what he is thinking as he reads his music in rapt concentration.  Or maybe he’s not thinking at all, so intensely focused on his music as he is.

I’ve never cared much about whether the woman on the stool is a painting or a person.  She’s just out there, hanging suspended in the otherworld of pictorial space – another ambiguity.  The painting offers us a superb balance of literal and formal information, poised between multiple interpretations.  In other words, it is an example of representation at its most powerful.

What I always ask myself as I stand before the Piano Lesson is how did he know when to stop?  What gave him the courage to create, accept and celebrate those ambiguities, to know just when they were poised in the right balance between clarity and uncertainty to keep us looking?

I’ve always loved The Red Studio that hangs nearby.  Both are wonderfully immersive paintings in which one feels submerged and surrounded by large expanses of color.  By comparison, however, The Red Studio seems lightweight and decorative.  The Piano Lesson is much more taut, more surprising.  For me, it represents Matisse at his most fearless as a painter.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACaren Canier, Albergo Sole, 2013, Mixed media with oil on panel, 40 x 60 inches