If You Can Only Visit One (Painting) Exhibit at the Met this Month

Make it George Bellows.

Like athletes? He paints ’em. Like seascapes? Yeap, does that too. Religious paintings? Why not. What about rough and tumble street life? He’s a pro.

"Stag at Sharkey's" 1909, one of George Bellow's most recognized paintings.

“Stag at Sharkey’s” 1909, one of George Bellow’s most recognized paintings.

Forget Matisse: In Search of True Painting. It’s a flat-liner. I know, I know, you love Matisse, and of course you do. Matisse is a blue-chip crowd-pleaser,  but the assemblage of paintings reveal nothing new nor nothing unique to Matisse. It is, effectively, thoroughly expected. He painted the same subject over and over. His style changed. He reworked paintings. It has the feeling of a student exhibition — here’s a thesis and here are all the paintings  in our collection (plus a few on loan from friends) that support it.

Instead, wander up to the second floor, where George Bellows waits to knock your socks off.

Once again, Dr. H. Barbara Weinberg struts her stuff as the most formidable curator in Pre-1945 American Art. Well paced and smartly edited, the exhibition is the first comprehensive retrospective on Bellows in half a century.  On display is his artistic range, revealing subjects in his oeuvre often subsumed to his find-them-in-every-textbook painting of boxers caught mid-bout.

George Bellows (1882-1925) died of appendicitis when he was only 42. His career and life were short, his artistic achievement, almost immeasurable.

"The Big Dory" 1913

“The Big Dory” 1913

He is best known as a core member of the Ashcan School — a group of New York painters, mostly students and associates of Robert Henri, whose style and subject matter confronted both the academy and American Impressionism. They were urban realists who painted gritty street scenes of the New York City’s working class, the city’s modernizing landscape, current events, and portraits with dark palettes and expressive brush work. Rather than art for art’s sake, they worked by Henri’s creed: “art for life’s sake.”

Bellows is the most recognizable of the Ashcan School, and his paintings are usually invoked as representative of their overall style. If you’ve picked up a textbook on American Art, his paintings and lithographs of boxers and the development of Pennsylvania Station get prime billing.

His paintings of the excavation of Penn Station are among his most recognized.

His paintings of the excavation of Penn Station are among his most recognized.

What you don’t typically see are his landscapes, his seascapes of Camden, Maine, his moonlight scenes of Riverside Park, or his religious allegories. The exhibition begins by introducing us to Bellows through what we know best and using his education at Ohio State University and talents as an athlete (legend goes he could have gone pro) as context for the subject that would later become his historical calling card.

"Riverfront, No. 1"

“Riverfront, No. 1”

And then you turn the corner to learn something new, see something unexpected. The first vista onto every new gallery is a view onto another showstopper, but also another a look into another chapter of Bellow’s career.

It’s the kind of exhibit that demands a long linger, as it reveals as much about a particular period in New York City’s history as it does about a canonized artist and the art world he negotiated.

"The Studio" -- catch the references?

“The Studio” — catch the references?

the shore

“The Shore.” No, it’s not Hopper. It’s George Bellows, a Jack of All Trades


Artwork of the Week April 26, 2010: Russian Tea

Irving R. Wiles

Russian Tea

about 1896, oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.,

In this interior scene, three elegantly-clad women and a young girl await the piping-hot cup of tea being prepared in an imported Russian samovar. Wiles’ painting exhibits exactly what we’d expect from a portrait of Gilded Age America — an opulent decor with equally opulent sitters and leisure activities combined with a new brand of internationally-minded consumerism.

Perhaps more interesting than the extravagant subjects and the imported ritual, is the artist’s study of light. In an age of plein aire and Impressionistic landscapes, canvases depicting domestic interiors always feel unusual — where did all the sunlight go? But Wiles’ painting, though not the expected Impressionist garden scene, is Impressionist indeed, but not just in its painterly style. At the heart of this work is a study of light. Here, Wiles examines how candle light, rather than natural light, illuminates a space. The warm but limited light from the lamps cast a soft glow on the porcelain-like skin of our feminine subjects while the cinched form and pink colouring of the shades seem to mimic the corseted bodies. The candle lamps are intrusive, their shades dominate the composition and obscure the figures so that we can’t ignore their role in setting the scene.

Redrawing Lilith: Canadian Painter Jon Tobin’s New Vision of the First Woman

She was the first that thence was driven; With her was hell with Eve was heaven

– “Eden’s Bower,” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1869

Lilith – Adam’s First wife, a temptress, a demon, the architect of Man’s fall from Eden. As the embodiment of “the perilous principle in the world being female from the first,”* she has captivated writers and artists since the dawn of civilization. Her image has become standardized, traditionally cast as a woman of supreme beauty, an un-aging seductress ominously entangled with the Serpent and the Tree. Yet Canadian painter Jon Tobin has envisioned a new Lilith – a psychological being and a woman of raw, primal emotion, journeying through darkness, as much tormented by her inner demons as humanity is by her deception.

Tobin’s Lilith is introspective. As she ages, she becomes increasingly aware of her true self. The blindfold present in each image in the series represents self-contemplation as well as her blindness to the havoc she wreaks. She is also carnal and raw – a “woman in exile who has returned to her body/ as one would return from a country on the other side of the Sun.”**

“The Lilith Series,” an ongoing study of the character, visualizes the artist’s personal interpretation of the Lilith Myth in the style that is signature Jon Tobin. The artist is known for his ethereal canvases that pulsate with internal energy, and Lilith emerges out of Tobin’s autographic palate of subdued hues, masterfully manipulated to create startling contrasts and tactile depth in darkness. The palate ultimately harmonizes to create a ghostly figure of Lilith that is mysterious, captivating, and haunting.

Tobin studied Fine Art and French-Canadian Literature at University of Waterloo. Besides serving on the Board of Directors of the Waterloo Regional Arts Council, Tobin teaches aspiring artists and lectures on the techniques of “tactile media.” His paintings have been widely exhibited at galleries in Toronto, Montreal, and his hometown of Kitchener and collectors have been quick to recognize the sublime yet subtle beauty of Tobin’s artistic vision.

*Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Correspondence of 21 April, 1870.

** “femme en exil revenant dans son corps/ comme on revient de loin/ de l’autre pays/ du soleil” from Michel Camus’ “Hymne a Lilith: La femme double.”

Artwork of the Week for June 23, 2009


Jeffrey Gibson
Headache (2009)
Oil and spray paint on digitally printed canvas
40″ x 32″

Brooklyn-based artist Jeffery Gibson’s art is bold, colorful, urban and personal. His city setting, his Native American background, and his global experiences all heavily influence his work. In the upper regions of “Headache,” buildings emerge from stripes of highly saturated neon paint, only to dissolve into disembodied bands of color towards the bottom of the canvas. Amorphous, yet suggestive, forms interrupt the geometry that attempts to organize Gibson’s imagined urban landscape.

From the NMAI’s 2007 exhibition, Off the Map:
“In 2004, painter and installation artist Jeffrey Gibson (Choctaw/Cherokee, b. 1972) began creating fantastical landscapes using layers of intensely colored marks, glossy and transparent pours, and his signature pigmented silicone. The environment he has created and explored with his work in the last few years reveals a narrative of emergence into a utopian state, which will lead, inevitably, to corruption and collapse.”

Headache will be up for auction at 10% — a fundraiser for the Rema Hort Mann Foundation — on Wednesday June 24. For more information about the event, cli

Artwork of the Week for June 1, 2009


Keltie Ferris
Super Friend (2008)
Medium: Oil, acrylic and sprayed paint on canvas

Ferris’ work is bold, gestural and urban. Some want to see masks, others numbers, still others maps in Ferris’ cacophonous paintings. Soft-edged forms blur against razor-sharp lines. Rigid geometry and artistic expression layer to create canvases that you just can’t take your eyes off. Her work is addictive, and for the New Yorker reminds us of too many morning-afters.

On June 24th, as part of a fundraising event for the Rema Hort Mann Foundation, Super Friend will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The Rema Hort Mann Foundation is an incredible organization that both sponsors upcoming artists and ensures cancer patients have family with them during treatment. I encourage you to attend and view Ferris’ work along with 70 works by other artists dedicated to the Foundation’s dual mission.

ArtWork of the Day for Friday, May 29, 2009

Chase, Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler_1

William Merritt Chase,
Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler (1883),
Cleveland Museum of Art

Dora Wheeler was a successful textile designer who in her student years, studied painting under William Merritt Chase in New York City. Chase’s painting of Wheeler was intended as an exhibition piece — neither Wheeler nor her family commissioned Chase to paint the portrait.

The portrait follows typical 19th century conventions for depicting female sitters posing the sitter seated in a 3/4 position. One hand cradles her face as she stares blankly out at the viewer while the other rests on the arm of the chair set against a blue vase painted in swirling brush strokes. The placement of the hand so near the vase draws immediate attention to the daffodils springing from its mouth. As direct references to her sexual presence as a woman, the flowers, the vase (a round vessel!) and the sensual fur trim of her blue dress make the artist Dora Wheeler into an entirely feminine being. Note also the echoes between the coloring of her dress and the coloring of the vase. She is a professional artist, yet there are no references to her profession except perhaps the wall-hanging. Similarly, the composition’s undeniable reference to James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. I: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, already canonical by 1883, further feminizes Wheeler by associating her with the woman’s role of motherhood (again, the vase!).

I love to look at this painting next to Chase’s earlier Studio Interior. In Studio Interior, yesterday’s artwork of the day, the woman serves as a decorative object in the artist’s studio. Here, Chase has taken an artist, an active being, and objectified her in much the same way. The oriental textile was a background popular in portraits of the day and Chase could have positioned his sitter in front of his collection of paintings to make the reference to her occupation more explicit. Above all, this portrait is an exhibition piece, meant to be looked at for its beauty and the its depiction of late 19th century femininity. The sitter’s biography and character are rendered irrelevant.

Art work of the Day, Thurs. May 28

Brooklyn Museum: Studio Interior

William Merritt Chase, (American, 1849-1916)
Studio Interior, ca. 1882

New Yorker William Merritt Chase remains one of the most popular of fin-de-siecle American painters. In the late 19th century, American artists were struggling to embrace an identity that balanced old world ideas of the artist as a singular outsider and new American ideas of the masculine capitalist entrepreneur. Chase’s New York studio was well-known for its eclectic opulence. He had amassed a large personal collection of prints, paintings and nick-knacks during his time abroad. This image is a fantastic example of the way many 19th century artists tried to market themselves to consumers — as embodiments of the artist as a bohemian and cultural connoisseur. I am also intrigued by the inclusion of the woman. Is she a potential client? A sitter? Either way, she is as much a part of the setting as the fabric and pictures on the wall — perhaps an allusion to woman’s long history as model and muse for the male artist.

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