Balthus: The Last Studies at Gagosian Gallery
September 26 to December 21, 2013
976 Madison Avenue, between 76th and 77th streets
New York City, (212) 744-2313
In its first effort to represent the estate of Balthus, the Gagosian Gallery is presenting an exhibition of 35 photographic works and an unfinished painting, the whole of which carries a whiff of brimstone and in my opinion suggests a scandalous disregard for an artist’s wishes.
Who exactly is the author of these 35 works: Balthus or whoever arranged them as groupings? In close collaboration with the artist’s family, it appears that Nicolas Pages and Benoit Peverelli, the “editors” of the two volume book of 2,000 Polaroid images, published by Steidl, have actually manufactured the combinations of 155 Polaroid images on view to simulate the up-to-date “look” of serial images by Duane Michaels or multiple image panels by Nan Goldin. It is a very clever way to hawk a wide range of images that vary greatly in subject, intent and quality, and have them range from $20,000 to $240,000 in price. And they have done a very fine job of obfuscation: one has to look closely before the smell of sulfur begins to emerge.
Balthus was known to be very reluctant to allow people into his studio while he worked, or to see work in progress, as Pierre Matisse once complained. Thus the exhibition of this unfinished work is nothing less than a betrayal by the family. Looking at the tiny Polaroid images of weak stages of paintings in progress made me wince. As a painter, in these last years, Balthus was “not the man he once was”, as he said himself in Damian Pettigrew’s film. And I write this as one who would champion the best of the late paintings as great.
After his eyesight and hand co-ordination had seriously deteriorated, Balthus took up the Polaroid camera as a substitute for drawing with three kinds of results: studies, accidents, and independent photographic works. There is much on view that represents genuine searching to find the telling image for a painting and explore the crucial particulars needed to adjust the “single-eyed” perspective of the camera to reveal the spatial relationships wanted by the artist. One might become familiar with this sort of search by viewing the sketchbook drawings of Edouard Vuillard. Yet, Balthus is known to have destroyed many of his drawings done to this end. The useful images are clear and as normative as many photographs that appear in magazines. Then there are the accidental images created by a shaky hand, works never meant to be seen.
From these accidents, Balthus seems to have pursued an idea both appropriate to photography and subversive of what I would call the medium’s innate materialism. The idea was to use the subtle movement of the camera, and the movement of the model to suppress detail through blur and create a sensation of fading consciousness, that plays ambiguously between the viewer and the subject. With moving intimacy and poetic affect Balthus evokes, in these images, both a sense of Anna’s drift from lassitude into dream and his/our fatality. In these works, a “young” photographer has melded the tenebrism of Titian to the futurism of Duchamp in works that are truly “deskilled” by a master.
By blending all three kinds of images into “super-sized” products, the estate has sanctioned a diminishment of his real achievement as a photographer. And by displaying a feeble and effaced canvas they have given comfort to those who would deny Balthus his due. Such work belongs in study collections like the unfinished drafts of poems, not in public exhibitions.