Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

A Stellar Year for Art: Exhibits Invite Competitive Praise, but Vision Is One of Grand Diversity

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

A Stellar Year for Art: Exhibits Invite Competitive Praise, but Vision Is One of Grand Diversity

Article excerpt

It all began last summer. First the Thomas Eakins exhibition came to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in late June. After opening to rapturous reviews at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of the museum's 125th anniversary celebration, the show had gone on to Paris' Musee d'Orsay, where Eakins' introspective realism captivated French crowds who had seen little of his work before. In New York the reception was equally enthusiastic. Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for The New York Times, proclaimed "The Gross Clinic" "hands down the greatest American painting of the 19th century," and not a few critics suggested that Eakins might be the greatest American painter of all (at least up until the heyday of abstract expressionism).

A few days after the Eakins, a dazzling and deep survey of Joan Mitchell's work opened at the Whitney Museum, and again people stumbled over words to express their delight in her light--and color-filled canvases. Lucid and lyrical though wholly abstract, her paintings evoked architectural and natural themes--bridges, landscapes, fields of flowers--and placed her clearly at the forefront of the second generation of abstract expressionists, perhaps even preeminent among them. The work grew over time, in scale, coherence and power, and a suite of paintings such as "La Grande Vallee," rarely seen in this country, could even lead someone to think--blasphemous though it seems!--that Mitchell was the best of the abstract expressionists entirely. The more one knows about her troubled life, from tensions with her father to alcoholism, betrayal by her lover, and savage cancer, the more one might think that she cultivated her gift more successfully than Jackson Pollock.

When the unparalleled collection of Leonardo da Vinci's drawings then came to the Metropolitan in January, the store of superlatives was all but exhausted. With a range and chronological completeness never before seen in America, the nearly 120 fragile pages, and one unfinished painting, were gorgeous, hallucinatory, grotesque, weird--and wholly engrossing. It took time and patience, in the Met's sumptuous installation, to study the babies, cats, Madonnas, soldiers, battle scenes, military machines, anatomical notes, old men and apocalyptic floods. The angelic hand that drew them revealed encyclopedic intelligence, investigative passion and a mysterious, "constant play," as Edward Rothstein wrote, "between the ideal and the real." If we have more studies and sketches than finished works by Leonardo, he nevertheless set a standard for artistic discovery and expression that remains unsurpassed to our day. And if it is only wordplay to call him the greatest Italian draftsman of his time, Robert Hughes could still write with reason that "not even contemporaries like Michelangelo were able to exceed, or regularly rival, him as a master of ... expressive and descriptive line."

By any reckoning it has been an extraordinary year for art in New York. But the splendid season offered its prime example of competitive comparison in February, when "Matisse Picasso" came to the Museum of Modern Art's temporary building in Queens after triumphant earlier visits to the Tate Modern in London and the Grand Palais in Paris. The two great figures of 20th century painting--Matisse, the older of the two by 12 years, temperamentally reserved and traditional but with an unequalled gift for composing through color, and Picasso, the often insolent Spaniard, a fierce and iconoclastic innovator, aggressively reconsidering all the possibilities of painting--were placed in conversation through paired canvases, sculptures and drawings over the course of their careers. …

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