Thursday, July 6th, 2006

The New Landscape/The New Still Life: Soutine and Modern Art

Cheim & Read
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Chaim Soutine Carcass of Beef Circa 1925. oil on canvas, 55-1/4 x 42-3/8 inches
Chaim Soutine, Carcass of Beef Circa 1925. oil on canvas, 55-1/4 x 42-3/8 inches
Bill Jensen The Five, The Seven VII (Ceret) 2005. oil on linen, 37-1/8 x 28-1/8 inches
Bill Jensen, The Five, The Seven VII (Ceret) 2005. oil on linen, 37-1/8 x 28-1/8 inches

Like the artist it celebrates, “The New Landscape/The New Still Life: Soutine and Modern Art” is bursting with energy and ideas. The show presents Chaim Soutine 1893-1943) as a father figure of different traditions, American Abstract Expressionism and British expressive realism among them.

Of 46 works on display, seventeen are by Chaim Soutine himself, including such show stoppers as “View of Cagnes” (1924-25), on loan from the Metropolitan Museum and “The Carcass of Beef” (c.1925), from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.  These hang cheek by jowl (an apt metaphor for an artist notoriously drawn to dead animals as his favored still-life motif) with a range of modern and contemporary artists, including luminaries of the New York School like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston and Joan Mitchell; School of London painters Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud and Leon Kossoff; and individualists as diverse as Alice Neel and Joel Shapiro, Avigdor Arikha and Louise Bourgeois.

This line up is both a plea for Soutine’s contemporary relevance and a signal of his perennial outsider status.  The organizers of the show are Maurice Tuchman and Esti Dunow, collaborators (with Klaus Perls) on the 1993 catalogue raisonée of the artist which—very rarely for a scholarly work of this kind—sold out its first hardback edition of 25,000, reflecting a deep interest particularly among painters.  Bizarrely, as the authors observe, the fascination with Soutine doesn’t inspire the Museum of Modern Art to hang any of the artist’s work in their permanent display.  On the contrary, MoMA recently deaccessioned an important later canvas, “Chartres Cathedral” (1934), to their shame.  There is a sense, however, that such official neglect bolsters Soutine’s standing as a supreme “painter’s painter”—a maverick who inspires artists whether by his drivenness and eccentricity or his deep rootedness in craft and tradition.

Soutine satisfies either criteria, which in a way is his paradox.  He has been vaunted as a kind of painterly madman, a latter-day Van Gogh.  Phrases like “hallucination,” “drunkenness,” “Dionysian frenzy” litter the Soutine literature—one critic even spoke of his flinging down ready-made compositions and not particularly caring if they landed on the canvas—and yet in marked contradiction to this is hisfierce rigor, the hidden order that binds together his frenetic marks and energized compositions.

This duality comes across in the masterful and perplexing “Landscape with Figures” (c.1922), from Soutine’s watershed three year period in Ceret, when his work reached its most “abstract expressionist” intensity (he destroyed many of the fruits of this creative outpouring in disgust at its extremity.).  A seated group of women are on a village terrace overlooking a ravine.  There are violent flashes of color—red chairs, the orange tiles of the surrounding houses, the blue of distant hills, and the near black of the steep wall disappearing beneath the figures—which somehow survive a tendency towards chromatic mush.  Similarly, close scrutiny of what could come across as a formless, expressive swirl, reveals moments of careful observation.

Chaim Soutine Landscape with Figures circa 1922. oil on canvas, 26 x 21-1/2 inches
Chaim Soutine, Landscape with Figures circa 1922. oil on canvas, 26 x 21-1/2 inches

The elongated features of a woman with her back to the viewer, the exaggerated hat and almost dislocated, distended arms, appear to be carved out of the negative space around them—an area of intense greens and yellows that pop forwards into the picture plane.  Chairs and benches are at once specific and perfunctory, concrete and shorthand, lumpen and animate.  The whole composition is caught up in a kind of frenzy, submitting to the force of a spiral that moves down along the wall, up through the tree, and down again into the ravine.  There a sense of things coming into focus and melting away.

Some of the artists placed alongside Soutine relate more to his primitivism than to his modernist sophistication.  Jean Dubuffet, for instance, is represented by “Pierre Philosophique (D’Epanouissement)” (1951) and “Paysage Fossile” (1952), whose grinding, dense, existentialist gloom speaks to the expressionist angst in Soutine.

Two sculptures by Louise Bourgeois, a suspended bronze titled “The Quartered One,” (1964-5), that resembles a leg of meat, and a wall piece, “Rabbit” (1970), relate to the totemic, almost ritualistic identification with slaughtered animals found in Soutine’s work. “There is something electric and violent and fragile that touches me deeply in all of Soutine’s works,” Ms. Bourgeois told the curators in 2005.  His carcass motif—inspired by Rembrandt’s “Slaughtered Ox” (1665)–is also picked up by Gandy Brodie in “Meditation on a Kosher Tag” (1963), while the depictions of inert fauna by such painters as Georg Baselitz, Alice Neel, and Susan Rothenberg, keep company with Soutine’s game and fowl.

The viscous veils of swirling reds and blues in Bill Jensen’s “The Five, The Seven VII (Ceret)” (2005) eerily relate to the Buffalo “Carcass of Beef” .  Jensen’s layering of translucent colors offers an abstract equivalent to Soutine’s ability to conjure hidden pockets of space while pushing his marks and colors outwards to heighten the visceral, intrusive presentness of the meat.  In the same room an untitled 2006 construction by Joel Shapiro, who owns a Soutine rabbit, takes on a carcass-like complexion: The wooden pieces hang together with awkward lifelessness; they are stained an almost sinister sanguine purple; and the bent out of shape wire (a device he started using after September 11, 2001) adds poignancy.

The heart of this show, however, is a presentation of Soutine as the father of two traditions—American abstract expressionism and British expressive realism.  The American involvement with Soutine has an historic marker: the 1950 Soutine retrospective at the MoMA, which the New York School artists took in with great admiration only seven years after the artist had died in Paris.

While Pollock is represented by a 1934 canvas whose robust, hefty awkwardness feels Soutine-like, it is his trademark “all over” drip paintings that relate to a defining quality in Soutine, identified by another Abstract Expressionist painter included here, Jack Tworkov: “the way his pictures move towards the edge of the canvas in centrifugal waves filling it to the brim.”  It is this sense of a swirling gestalt, a method in the madness of compulsively accumulated marks, which also justifies the inclusion of the poetically intense Milton Resnick.

De Kooning, on the other hand, relates directly to Soutine’s instinctive rapport with materials, the luscious, succulent, urgent, voluptuous presence of oily pigment that brings both their canvases so rudely to life.  While De Kooning’s “Untitled  XVI” (1976) hangs with the “Carcass of Beef” it has an unmistakably sexual presence in the way slippery pinks, whites and grays ooze into each other.  It is the kind of canvas that exemplifies De Kooning’s legendary remark that flesh is the reason oil paint was invented.

De Kooning is as much an avatar of British painters Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff as Soutine.  Auerbach’s gooey, glistening, sparkling impasto is impossible without the example of the American.  But these men, with Freud, are convincing in their role here as contemporary incarnations of the Soutine spirit.  A glaring omission in this show is the chef d’ecole of the School of London, Francis Bacon (in 2001 the same curators organized an exhibition in Germany that juxtaposed Bacon, Dubuffet, De Kooning and Pollock with Soutine) whose “Painting” (1946) directly quoted the Soutine/Rembrandt carcass.  Freud is represented by “The Painter’s Garden” (2003), a relatively rare outdoor subject that relates more to one of Soutine’s heroes, Courbet, than to Soutine.

Leon Kossoff Here Comes the Diesel, Spring 1987. oil on board, 24-1/2 x 22 inches
Leon Kossoff, Here Comes the Diesel, Spring 1987. oil on board, 24-1/2 x 22 inches

Like Soutine, the English painters are romantics yearning to commune with the classical tradition.  Soutine was the victim of enormous prejudice even from critical supporters who mistook his expressive intensity for primitivism rooted in ignorance of painterly traditions.  He was seen as a wild primitive who painted from inner necessity, oblivious to conventions, whereas his style was in fact rooted in sophisticated observation of old masters, who he increasingly revered.  The School of London painters have a similar obsession with the past, which they believe can be reconciled with fresh, authentic, instinctive direct observation.  What is also telling is that just as the artist from the Lithuanian shtetl saw himself as keeper of the flame of French painting (working from Courbet and Chardin), the London painters (refugees from Nazi Germany, or in the case of Kossoff, the son of emigrants from Eastern Europe) as often work from Constable or Hogarth as from Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian or Poussin.

Kossoff is the English painter who comes across as the most Soutine-like.  He is represented by two of his finest works: “Here Comes the Diesel, Spring” and “Christchurch, Winter Evening” (both 1987).  Like Soutine, Kossoff (and Freud and Auerbach as well) prefer to have their subject present, although these Kossoffs are actually painted in the studio after copious drawings sur le motif.  Where Soutine would destroy many of his canvases, an equally doubt-driven Kossoff scrapes down numerous unsuccesful earlier attempts at achieving the desired image, some memory of which lingers under the final effort, the result of a single session.  His motifs, like Soutines, seem to wobble precariously in the expressive effort of landing in the picture.  And his buildings and trains, like Soutine’s French villages, anthropomorphize as if under the weight of their author’s ambition to instill into them a depth of feeling.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, July 6, 2006.