Tuesday, December 11th, 2007

Painting Then For Now; Fragments of Tiepolo at the Ca’ Dolfin

Svetlana Alpers
James Hyde
Barney Kulok

David Krut Projects
526 West 26th Street, #816,
New York City
(212) 255-3094

Svetlana Alpers, James Hyde, Barney Kulok Loop 2007 archival inkjet print, 13-1/2 x 12-1/2 inches Courtesy David Krut Projects
Svetlana Alpers, James Hyde, Barney Kulok, Loop 2007 archival inkjet print, 13-1/2 x 12-1/2 inches Courtesy David Krut Projects

Entering the European galleries of Metropolitan Museum of Art by going up the Grand Staircase you walk through a gallery with three enormous paintings from Ca’Dolfin, Venice: Giambatista Tiepolo’s The Triumph of Marius, The Capture of Carthage, and The Battle of Vercellae (1726-29).  These are not, in my experience, given much attention. Battle scenes with a multitude of figures whose identity isn’t obvious, they are good pictures for the entrance precisely because they don’t attract undue attention.

These Tiepolos are the subject of “Painting Then For Now,” a collaboration between Svetlana Alpers, the famed art historian; James Hyde, the abstract painter; and Barney Kulok, a young photographer. Small sections of these pictures were photographed in a six-hour session, August 3, 2006, using an 8 by 10-inch camera. Nine negatives were scanned into a computer, and nineteen smaller portions chosen and printed on matte paper. The prints, two to three times the size of the paintings, are displayed at David Krut Projects, who published in the book accompanying the exhibition. They are identified by the represented details they contain. Thus Tambourine shows a hand on a tambourine, Foot a heel touching the ground, and Trophy a battle trophy.

There are no tricks. Apart from color adjustment and minor rotations, there was no digital manipulation. Viewed without knowing their sources, the photographs seem to show small abstract details, body parts or fragments of objects. But they should really not be viewed in isolation, for this exhibition is meant to send you from Chelsea to the Met to identify the photographs’ sources. Because these Tiepolos are very large, and the details small, it takes a surprising amount of time to locate them. After an hour, I still couldn’t find three. In his Mellon lectures, Painting as an Art (1990) Richard Wollheim speaks of how in the process of slow looking he practiced, “I became an object of suspicion to passers-by, and so did the picture that I was looking at.” This happened also to me. Watching me pace the gallery, twice guards asked if I needed help, as if I were lost or disoriented.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo The Triumph of Marius 1729 iil on canvas; irregular painted surface, 220 x 128-5/8 inches Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1965
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Triumph of Marius 1729 oil on canvas; irregular painted surface, 220 x 128-5/8 inches Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1965

Wollheim’s goal, he says, was to wait “for stray associations or motivated misperceptions to settle down,” so that “the picture could be relied upon to disclose itself as it was.” Mine was simpler. I wanted to locate the sources of the photographs. Loop, I discovered, is a chain left center below the middle of The Triumph of MariusSiege the besieged city at the left center of The Capture of Carthage; and Dead Man the man at the bottom right hand corner of The Battle of Vercellae.

Most photographs come from near to the centers of the three paintings. But so far as I could see there is no obvious significance in this choice of details, nor any special order in their presentation. What counts, I think, is the process of looking provoked by “Painting Then For Now.”  While looking for such a long time at these three Tiepolos, you cannot but reflect upon the significance of that procedure. Since you don’t know where these to find the details selected by Alpers, Hyde and Kulok, you find yourself scanning intently the entire pictures. And it is natural, then, to go down the grand staircase or back to the Great Hall, to see the Tiepolos from a distance.

“Painting Then For Now” raises deep, not easily resolved questions about old master painting, contemporary art, and their relationship. Tiepolo could hardly have imagined that these photographs, so what do they tell us about his art? Do they impose our contemporary ways of seeing upon his paintings? Or, rather, in our society of the spectacle when usually visitors move fast forward through museums, do the photographs send us back to see his paintings as he intended that they should be viewed?

By creating autonomous works of art of real interest, Alpers, Hyde and Kulok reveal much about how we look at visual art. Usually in Chelsea and at the Met, we are terribly rushed, as if we were looking at MTV.  Slow down, they urge us, and then we will see much more. In the book, Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence(1994) she co-authored with Michael Baxandall, Alpers argues that “much of the idiosyncrasy” of his painting “results from his registering the activity of the mind as it grasps the world. This is regressive.  . . . Tiepolo’s own activity is by nature deconstructive.” His subjects are traditional, but his way of presenting makes them our contemporary.

I can imagine no better demonstration of the argument of Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence then this exhibition. When these three Tiepolos were removed from the main salon of Ca’Dolfin, the intended site-specific lighting effects were lost. But Alpers, Hyde and Kulok recreate the way that, to again quote Alpers and Baxandall, “the world, on Tiepolo’s account, presents a conundrum and his painting makes us conscious of having to work to make things out.”

According to a brochure written by the Met curator Keith Christiansen, Tiepolo “is the master of sunny visions.” In their photographs Alpers, Hyde and Kulok reveal a very different, I think more plausible interpretation of Tiepolo. “His world, as always elusive and a bit bleak, here serves as a version of war.”

The book associated with this exhibition is published David Krut Projects, 2007. ISBN 978-0-9584975-7-2.

The Met’s account with reproductions of the paintings appears in Keith Christiansen, The Ca’ Dolfin Tiepolos (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998).