Warhol, Picasso? Yawn

Article excerpt

Byline: Blake Gopnik

New geniuses are just waiting to be discovered.

For art critics, Groundhog Day now seems to come in September. Looking over this fall's major exhibitions, we see the same big names on offer last year, and the year before that, and before that: van Gogh, Picasso, and Warhol.

No sane critic could doubt the talent of these stars, and this fall's shows drill down into them. Becoming van Gogh, opening Oct. 21 at the Denver Art Museum, aims to track the artist's measured steps toward his final great works. (The mad genius will be replaced by the systematic innovator.) Picasso Black and White, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York from Oct. 5, will show how that master could make brilliant pictures without resorting to color. (The contrast to Henri Matisse, his chroma-mad rival, ought to become clear.) And Regarding Warhol, again in New York but at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from Sept. 18, will match the Popster with 60 of his heirs, charting his unparalleled influence.

Timothy Standring, who is curating Denver's van Gogh celebration, refers to his artist as "almost Shakespearean" in stature and range, and insists that Denver deserves this first chance to see him in depth. He argues that great masters provide the best fodder for serious curatorial thought: "The more important the artist, the more narratives you can tell." Fair enough--but isn't there also the chance that less touted figures might yield fresher stories? We aren't choosing the wrong names, said one senior curator, "we're choosing the right ones too many times." There's no doubt art lovers will come running to this season's blockbusters and will get lots out of them. But we can't be sure they'd get any less pleasure from forgotten masters, if they too were promoted as geniuses.

Let's remember that some of today's stars, such as Caravaggio and Vermeer, were barely known when they got their first museum shows toward the middle of last century. By constantly confirming our cliched list of greats, curators risk billing all other talents as also-rans. Genuflecting to genius again and again strikes me as more Old World royalist than American and democratic.

Arthur Wheelock, of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., made a big splash in 1995 with his insanely popular Vermeer exhibition. Since then, however, he's become famous as a rare champion of the art underdog, mounting almost annual shows of Dutch masters who need resuscitation. "[Gerard] ter Borch has elements of genius that Vermeer doesn't have. I believe Vermeer's reputation has gotten out of control," Wheelock says. …