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Two compact exhibits at the Farnsworth Art Museum bear out an old adage, which I’ll tweak more superlatively here: great things come in small packages. Although “Leonard Baskin: I Hold the Cracked Mirror Up to Man” (through January 15) has been on for quite some time, that show and “Louise Nevelson: Dawn to Dusk” (through December 31) are fitting statements. for our particular moment in time.
Both shows feature the work of Jewish artists which, with the holiday of Hanukkah approaching, seems timely. Additionally, Louise Nevelson was born Leah Berliawsky near Kyiv in present-day Ukraine, but she fled the pogroms of the Czarist regime in 1905 with her family, eventually settling in Rockland.
Nevelson’s background is not only a reminder of this region’s history of ongoing conflict, but also of the censorship and persecution faced by Ukrainian-born artists such as Alexander Archipenko, Kazimir Malevich (albeit of Polish descent) and others, first under imperial and then communist systems. . And inhumanity of many kinds, toward Jews, Native Americans, blacks and browns, victims of war, is the theme of Baskin’s exhibit.
Defiant as Baskin’s imagery is, it is worth remembering during the year’s most covetous and commercialized holiday for those who are less fortunate or find themselves in circumstances that make a joyous celebration almost inconceivable.
Years ago, when I was studying journalism and art history at New York University, I led the lunch crowd at a Greenwich Village restaurant called Café Loup, frequented by writers, intellectuals, and artists. One day the door was flung open and a woman walked in with heavy black kohl around her eyes, her head wrapped in a long black scarf that trailed behind her as she parted the waters of the restaurant. Louise Nevelson knew how to make an entrance. She had come for lunch with her friend Dorothy Dehner, the painter and sculptor who had been married to the volatile artist David Smith for 23 years.
Back then, what I knew of Nevelson’s work was mostly his all-black constructions, though a few years later I would discover his immaculately white 1977 “Chapel of the Good Shepherd” at St. Peter’s Church in midtown Manhattan (now under restoration). ). In the Farnsworth, a wall caption accompanying Nevelson’s seminal 1959 white built environment, called “The Dawn Wedding,” quotes her explaining her initial departure from the black works that had made her famous: “For me, the “black contains the silhouette, the essence of the universe. But the whites move a little more freely into outer space.”
Freedom, in fact, was Nevelson’s modus operandi. Which means that what is most interesting about this show is less these familiar works than the adventurous explorations he undertook along the way to reach them.
Among the surprises here are Nevelson’s early paintings, through which he tried various genres while developing his own signature. For example, with its rounded shapes, color palette, and Art Deco aesthetic, a 1929 work like “Female Nude” bears the stylistic imprints of Kenneth Hayes Miller and Chaim Gross, two of his professors at the Art Students League of New York. York.
The angularity and bright tones of his 1946 self-portrait, “Woman with a Red Scarf,” resemble the work of German Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Although it was painted in 1946, three years before she first visited Mexico, the Central American influences of “Dos Mujeres” – from the attire to the application of Tamayo-style paint – indicate that she was already familiar with the work of the great muralists. mexicans.
The freedom to experiment, as well as an obsessive search to find his own voice, is also evident in Nevelson’s journey through various mediums. Over the course of the show, we see her create art with paint, carved wood, bronze casting (the show is particularly strong in these collections), collage (both cut paper and wood), embossed handmade paper, fabric screen printed, jewelry and more. We see paintings, sculptures, fabricated environments, and even a set design for a 1984 production of the opera “Orpheus and Eurydice.”
A fascinating matchup occurs diagonally across one side of the gallery. To the left of the entrance is a wall box containing several of Nevelson’s collaged wooden pendants, some with gold painted overlays, mostly from the 1980s. In the corner diagonally opposite the box is “ Series of An Unknown Cosmos I”, a 1979 wood and paper collage on plywood that undoubtedly prefigures jewelry. It almost looks like a study for those bodily adornments.
By then, Nevelson had long established his particular magic of composing collaged wooden forms on his true, to use a word that has become hackneyed today correctly, iconic works. However, he still wandered through different mediums, crafting ideas through a plethora of techniques.
That is the mark of a great artist: the refusal to stand still, to refuse the continuous reproduction of the work that people know you for. By the time he entered Café Loup in the early 1980s, he had already done almost all of this. I’m glad I don’t know the extent of it. Otherwise, he might have been too mute and dazed to simply greet Nevelson and Dehner and escort them to table 14.
THE EVIL WE HUMANS DO
It’s hard to imagine that Leonard Baskin was ever a happy human being. After all, a sculptor and graphic artist, this was the man who founded one of the oldest and most influential art printers in the United States in 1942, which he named Gehenna, a term meaning “place of misery” and often Sometimes it is used as a synonym for hell. He was 17 years old and studying at Yale, and World War II was three years later.
By then, lynchings of African Americans had been going on for nearly two centuries. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by an atomic bomb was only three years away, and the development of the hydrogen bomb within a decade. Not without consequences, he felt a deep empathy for all this suffering. As the son and brother of rabbis, he was already well versed in a legacy of persecution. One feels in “Broken Mirror” Baskin’s visceral disgust at our human capacity for cruelty.
And that is why this is an important exhibition, with a capital “I”, to see. As they like to say in academia these days, “trigger warning”: it’s disappointing and deeply disturbing. Gaze at “Hydrogen Man,” a woodcut on paper that measures 3 feet by nearly 6 feet. It’s an image of a man reduced to raw fascial bone and muscle that appears to have been flayed (or the skin vaporized clean from his body).
It is a haunting and horrifying image. However, it is even more so when we realize that it was printed from a single, nearly life-size block of carved wood. Baskin’s choice to work on this scale (the scale of many works in this exhibition) must have intensified his own identification with his subjects. He was producing images of tortured souls in his own proportions. To ground this notion indelibly into our psyche, the exhibition produces a block of real wood, carved on both sides, which he used to produce two of his haunting life-size etchings.
The small gallery these works occupy is filled with equally disturbing references, including lynchings (“The Hanged Man”) and the Holocaust (“Man of Peace” and various other works). As depressing as Baskin’s posts are, however, you may find yourself leaving the show inexplicably euphoric. I suggest that this is twofold.
First, these are mindfulness jobs, and no matter how uncomfortable mindfulness jobs make us feel, there is an inherent vitality in being aware of our discomfort (its opposite is the insensitivity of our feelings to these kinds of truths). The more aware we are, the more we feel the totality of our human experience, including the innate dignity of our higher self and our ability to be kind and compassionate.
Baskin recognized that although humans have “made Eden a landscape of death,” we are still noble beings, even “glorious” because we possess an ever-present hope of redemption. Secondly, it is impressive to contemplate the power of an artist to invoke our vitality. Baskin once wrote that “the forging of works of art is one of the remaining resemblances of man to divinity.” And that, quite simply, is why art matters.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for more than 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]