Saturday, September 1st, 2007

Old School

Zwirner & Wirth
32 East 69 Street
New York City
212 517 8677

June 27 to August 31

Hilary Harkness Flipwreck 2004, oil on wood, 13 x 22 inches, The Collection of Arthur Zeckendorf
Hilary Harkness, Flipwreck 2004, oil on wood, 13 x 22 inches, The Collection of Arthur Zeckendorf
Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Peasant Wedding Procession 1630 , oil on panel, 19-1/8 x 9-1/2 inches, both images Courtesy of Zwirner & Wirth, New York
Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Peasant Wedding Procession 1630 , oil on panel, 19-1/8 x 9-1/2 inches, both images Courtesy of Zwirner & Wirth, New York

Zwirner & Wirth’s “Old School” explores a tantalizing mega-generational gap: the divide between sixteenth- and seventeenth-century paintings and our postmodernist counterparts. Nearly thirty landscapes, still lifes and figure paintings by old masters and contemporary artists make for a fascinating mix, telling us a little about traditions of art and a great deal about current uses for them.

The paintings have been paired according to theme and style, on walls painted a rich shade of red. A 1630 panel of a wedding procession by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (son of the great painter) depicts self-absorbed throngs with the same busyness of detail as Hilary Harkness’s “Flipwreck” (2004)—though the latter’s shipwrecked women, in sexually masochistic poses and clothes, set an entirely different tone. Anj Smith’s small canvas from 2007 boasts much thicker textures than the adjacent painting of Saint Anthony by Jacob van Swanenburgh (c. 1571-1638), but both feature fanciful monsters in compositions of torn, turbulent forms. Michael Borremans’ conventionally skillful likeness of a young man from 2006 hangs next to an impressive, if facile, portrait from c. 1664 by Caesar Boëtius van Everdingen.

It should be said that most of the old master paintings demonstrate fine technique, but not the inventive brilliance of the greatest artists of their times. The Brueghel is a pale echo of his father’s extraordinary “Harvesters” at the Metropolitan Museum, and the van Everdingen shows an artist who clearly valued technical cleverness over a gravity of form; no part of the body—sleeves, hands, torso—rhythmically supports the flourish of the face. The masters of “Old School,” consequently, largely come off as quaintly dated foils for the postmodernists; it’s their quirks of style and subject matter that spark across the centuries.

Many of the contemporary artists appropriate these quirks with gusto. Richard Wathen’s “Once Removed” (2006) amplifies the vulgarity of the van Everdingen with eerie primness, depicting a mother and children—dressed as if sitting for a Gainsborough—with an almost amphibian coldness of color and detail. A still life attributed to the school of Caravaggio contains, along with fruit and melons, a grasshopper as fiercely detailed as an armored vehicle; next to it, Glenn Brown’s painting of a stringy mass amounts to a collection of such obsessive, unsettling details—in his case orifices, shriveled blossoms, and human and animal faces.

The exhibition does include a true masterpiece, a madonna and child by Lucas Cranach (1472-1553). In this panel, the angle of Mary’s head and hair exquisitely counterbalance the infant’s compact verticals. Colors and contours continuously press upon one another, so that points of detail—like the grapes clutched by mother and infant, or the child’s intricate foot—appear at the end of poignantly unwinding limbs and garments. A second panel attributed to this master’s studio is hardly less remarkable.

The Cranach tends to make the other old masters look dawdling, and the aims of most of the postmodernists…well, enigmatic. Figure paintings by Elizabeth Peyton and Karen Kilimnik, from 2001 and 2003 respectively, provoke thoughts about social perceptions, but both are so weak in their arrangements of color next to the Cranach that it’s unclear whether they are consciously parodying a genre or simply unaware of painting’s potentials. The DayGlo colors of Djordje Ozbolt’s 2007 landscape jangle nonsensically, reducing his panel to a kind of flip commentary. Mr. Brown’s previously mentioned work, somewhat tedious in its subject, becomes utterly so in its scaleless, measureless design.

John Currin, on the other hand, is represented by one of his stronger works; a certain discipline of rhythm animates the forms of his indulgently surreal still life from 2001, giving weight to the gestures of a violin and lobster. Notable, too, is Julie Heffernan’s “Self Portrait as Tender Mercenary” (2006), which, despite some indiscriminate amassing of detail, sturdily locates a figure in a strange scene.

Overall, though, “Old School” most consistently gives an impression of postmodernism’s peculiar love/hate relationship with the masters. While the presentation of these venerable painters—in ornate frames, on stately red walls—suggests reverence, neither the contemporary work nor the installation itself shows much inclination to discriminate between their greater and lesser efforts.

The cure for this ambivalence should be simple enough. Our huge expectations of art derive from the achievements of Giotto, Titian and Rembrandt, not their lesser peers. Getting to know these artists—as individuals rather than makers of quirky, generic artifacts—eliminates any doubt about the possibilities and demands of painting. Or so one might think, though it’s a challenge too seldom engaged by the young painters in “Old School.”