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TENDER ARTWORKS

Some of the most influential taste-makers since the Medici, the Stein clan—Gertrude, Leo, and Michael, plus his wife, Sarah—collected Cézanne, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec, among other groundbreaking artists, and introduced Picasso to Matisse, initiating a lifelong friendship and rivalry. The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde will include life-size photos of the Stein’s Parisian apartments, allowing wistful members of our own Lost Generation of unemployed college grads to imagine themselves at one of those legendary Saturday-evening salons listening to Gertrude’s take-no-prisoners critiques. For an afternoon, at least, you can live your own little Midnight in Paris.

Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: Feb. 28. Continues through June 3, 2012

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Daniel Boulud Goes Cruising

In front, find a sparsely furnished barroom, seating perhaps 40 walk-ins, with a luxurious amount of room between tables. Beyond that, a deep dining chamber with a ceiling that undulates in great waves, as if you were standing on your head and gazing seaward. The décor is spiffily European, defined by parallel rows of striped banquettes. At the end of the room, a pair of impressionist landscapes that look like Napa Valley might have been done by Cézanne—if he’d ever visited California. Apart from those oases of brilliant color, nearly everything else is beige. Most remarkably, a narrow window looking into the kitchen runs the entire length of the dining room, revealing the boogying shoulders of the 10 or so cooks and little else.

Tucked away behind Bar Boulud on a Lincoln Center side street, and communicating rather strangely with its sister establishment via subterranean bathrooms, Boulud Sud is New York’s sixth and newest restaurant from Daniel Boulud, who has been our most talented and painstaking French chef for more than 20 years. Boulud Sud takes as its domain the entire Mediterranean rim, though its sensibilities remain entirely French, whatever cuisine is attempted. Despite a few missteps, this is summer cooking par excellence, and the lightness of the food combined with the smallness of the portions means you won’t drift away bloated into the sultry summer evening.

Yes, there are some dishes drawn straight from Provence, including soupe de poisson ($18). The pink potage that might be described as the heart of bouillabaisse is here interpreted with a single fish, turbot, and a pair of croutons smeared with aioli, rather than the spicier rouille. Miniature swatches peregrinate in the murk, and baby fennel bulbs stand in for the usual shot of Pernod. The only flaw lies in the smallness of the bowl, which would lead a Marseilles fisherman to double over with laughter. Other southern Gallic commonplaces include panisse (chickpea fritters, $9) that you’ll enjoy more than french fries and a splendid warm ratatouille, which enters theatrically in a white tagine. As the waiter doffs the lid, you’ll see atop the chunks of eggplant and tomatoes a slow-cooked egg, its yolk glowing yellow like the rising sun.

Chef Aaron Chambers does Sicilian impeccably, too, in a sardine escabèche ($14)—the dark filets relax in a space strewn with pine nuts, currants, and booze-soaked white raisins. The impact on your tongue is stunning, and the dish has the combined sweetness and sourness that the Italians call agrodolce. But as the menu marches north into central Italian, the cooks lose their way as the Romans did when trying to evade Hannibal, forfeiting their lives in the swamps of Lake Trasimeno. Thus the rabbit porchetta is not wrapped in crisp skin and stuffed with garlic and fennel; rather, it’s presented as a cold French roulade, with none of the earthy zing of the Umbrian original. Though arranged nicely on the plate, the northern Italian standard veal tonnato falls flat also: It tastes too much like canned tuna for a joint this fancy.

As the chef wanders around the Mediterranean, we get an excellent version of the north African soup harira, a brilliant Andalusian gazpacho with rivulets of green herb oil on its surface, and octopus tentacles in a Spanish salad with marcona almonds and sherry vinegar. Sadly, a Greek-leaning dish of duck meatballs resembles the mystery meat found in school cafeterias. The menu traipses rather confusingly through seven sections, of which only two contain conventional entrées, and those are largely under-sided. Both the grilled short rib of no apparent provenance and the Algerian-style lamb loin ($31 and $33, respectively) represent soul-satisfying hunks of meat, while the chicken tagine is as pallid as the white vessel it floats in. The fish called rouget, which arrives in a curl of cedar bark, leaves you wondering, “What killed the flavor?”

Grazing lavishly among the apps and sides is your best bet at Boulud Sud, but make sure you save room for dessert. Pastry chef Ghaya Oliveira has come up with a series of meal terminators that threaten to upstage the regular food, proving that the principals of molecular gastronomy are better applied to sweets than savories. Her pièce de résistance is a frosty grapefruit bewigged with white spun-sesame hair dotted with black sesame seeds. Underneath, a brown mat of flexible caramel protects the topside hatchway. Just wait to see what you can dredge up from inside. You’ll spend 15 minutes doing it and won’t have so much dining fun all summer.

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‘Giorgio Morandi, 1890-1964’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Early on in art school, an instructor of mine showed the class slides of Cézanne, Hopper, Balthus, and other stalwarts of modern figuration. Those monumental apples, existential interiors, and chiaroscuro Lolitas humbled the majority of us who’d rarely been to museums and appreciated only magazine illustrations or the chaotic stylings of something recently christened “MTV.” Our gifted teacher got us to slow down long enough to comprehend the powerful visual buttresses underlying such works, but after diagramming the intense chutes-‘n’-ladders space of Hopper’s 1939 New York Movie, it was hard to understand why we also had to study a handful of battered beige cups and bottles by some guy named Morandi. Painted at around the same time, they felt clunky and desiccated next to Hopper’s emphatic composition. Always, during slide lectures, those spare still lifes would appear, with nothing much said except perhaps an admonition that Morandi was even more poorly served by reproduction than most painters.

Amen to that. Even if Morandi’s compositional variations are easily grasped from photos, the material presence of these small paintings must be experienced in the flesh. “Painter’s painter” and “once in a lifetime” are two clichés surpassed by the Met’s eloquent survey of this under-recognized modern master, which includes more than 100 works gathered primarily from Italian collections. The exhibition’s title is blunt—just dates bracketing a life unencumbered by love affairs or any known passions save for art. And yet this homebody—who only rarely ventured far from his native Bologna, where he shared an apartment with his mother and three spinster sisters—was cursed to live in interesting times, including two world wars (the first of which found him quickly discharged from the Italian army after a breakdown) and endless revolutions in politics, science, and the arts.

Morandi studied Italy’s early-Renaissance masters, and befriended numerous contemporaries, including Giorgio de Chirico, a painter whose mysteriously depopulated piazzas were influenced by Nietzsche’s foreboding intimation that “underneath this reality in which we live and have our being, another and altogether different reality lies concealed.” Like a physicist probing the atom, Morandi’s obsessive rearrangements of a limited number of workaday objects—their contours softened by coats of gesso or wan colors—led to images that feel straightforward, yet vibrate with an emotional resonance that the mind cannot quite pin down. He was capable of painting engaging self-portraits and landscapes: a 1913 view of hills and trees bristles with brushstrokes as weighty as Cézanne’s, while hinting at the agitation of his country’s Futurist movement. But it is his confoundedly simple still lifes that lift him into the modernist pantheon.

By the 1920s, Morandi had left Cézanne and Futurism behind, although de Chirico’s metaphysics could still be glimpsed in the bold architectonics of the still lifes. As he matured, Morandi began focusing on the corporeal heft of his inanimate characters, enveloping them in a strangely circumspect luminosity, as if even the speed of light had slowed down under his remorseless scrutiny. Invariably titled Natura Morta, these muted dramas further the enduring mystery of representation—how the three-dimensional elements of our physical world can be distilled into daubs of pigment on a flat surface. “Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own,” the artist once said. “Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.” A painting from 1960 (catalog number 105) features the lip of a pale, fluted cup melding into the top of a rose cylinder, which dissipates into the gray cone of a funnel that dissolves into an olive wall. This beautiful recessional of color and tone is so exquisitely balanced that a tiny bright triangle—the cylinder re-emerging from behind the cup—feels solid yet evanescent, the painting equivalent of that ineffable boundary between body and soul.

[related_posts post_id_1=”407832″ /]

Morandi broke rules that any first-year student is taught, as in his habit of aligning objects so that their contours form a continuous, flattening line. Yet, in his hands, such formal spines anchor brushstrokes that shift as imperceptibly as the edge of a weather pattern. In Morandi’s last finished painting, a ball, funnel, and box sprout from a single hazy axis, a trio of classic geometric forms that cast monumental shadows harking back to di Chirico’s broad, desolate avenues. This weave of abstraction and believable expanse is even more startling in a series of late watercolors that reduce his tabletop world to nebulous dark patches surrounding radiant white absences. The still lifes remain, but, stripped of solidity, the objects have become palimpsests of a reality just beyond perception.

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 9:30 a.m. Starts: Sept. 16. Continues through Dec. 14, 2008

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Giorgio Morandi, 1890-1964

Early on in art school, an instructor of mine showed the class slides of Cézanne, Hopper, Balthus, and other stalwarts of modern figuration. Those monumental apples, existential interiors, and chiaroscuro Lolitas humbled the majority of us who’d rarely been to museums and appreciated only magazine illustrations or the chaotic stylings of something recently christened “MTV.” Our gifted teacher got us to slow down long enough to comprehend the powerful visual buttresses underlying such works, but after diagramming the intense chutes-‘n’-ladders space of Hopper’s 1939 New York Movie, it was hard to understand why we also had to study a handful of battered beige cups and bottles by some guy named Morandi. Painted at around the same time, they felt clunky and desiccated next to Hopper’s emphatic composition. Always, during slide lectures, those spare still lifes would appear, with nothing much said except perhaps an admonition that Morandi was even more poorly served by reproduction than most painters.

Amen to that. Even if Morandi’s compositional variations are easily grasped from photos, the material presence of these small paintings must be experienced in the flesh. “Painter’s painter” and “once in a lifetime” are two clichés surpassed by the Met’s eloquent survey of this under-recognized modern master, which includes more than 100 works gathered primarily from Italian collections. The exhibition’s title is blunt—just dates bracketing a life unencumbered by love affairs or any known passions save for art. And yet this homebody—who only rarely ventured far from his native Bologna, where he shared an apartment with his mother and three spinster sisters—was cursed to live in interesting times, including two world wars (the first of which found him quickly discharged from the Italian army after a breakdown) and endless revolutions in politics, science, and the arts.

Morandi studied Italy’s early-Renaissance masters, and befriended numerous contemporaries, including Giorgio de Chirico, a painter whose mysteriously depopulated piazzas were influenced by Nietzsche’s foreboding intimation that “underneath this reality in which we live and have our being, another and altogether different reality lies concealed.” Like a physicist probing the atom, Morandi’s obsessive rearrangements of a limited number of workaday objects—their contours softened by coats of gesso or wan colors—led to images that feel straightforward, yet vibrate with an emotional resonance that the mind cannot quite pin down. He was capable of painting engaging self-portraits and landscapes: a 1913 view of hills and trees bristles with brushstrokes as weighty as Cézanne’s, while hinting at the agitation of his country’s Futurist movement. But it is his confoundedly simple still lifes that lift him into the modernist pantheon.

[related_posts post_id_1=”407832″ /]

By the 1920s, Morandi had left Cézanne and Futurism behind, although de Chirico’s metaphysics could still be glimpsed in the bold architectonics of the still lifes. As he matured, Morandi began focusing on the corporeal heft of his inanimate characters, enveloping them in a strangely circumspect luminosity, as if even the speed of light had slowed down under his remorseless scrutiny. Invariably titled Natura Morta, these muted dramas further the enduring mystery of representation—how the three-dimensional elements of our physical world can be distilled into daubs of pigment on a flat surface. “Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own,” the artist once said. “Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.” A painting from 1960 (catalog number 105) features the lip of a pale, fluted cup melding into the top of a rose cylinder, which dissipates into the gray cone of a funnel that dissolves into an olive wall. This beautiful recessional of color and tone is so exquisitely balanced that a tiny bright triangle—the cylinder re-emerging from behind the cup—feels solid yet evanescent, the painting equivalent of that ineffable boundary between body and soul.

Morandi broke rules that any first-year student is taught, as in his habit of aligning objects so that their contours form a continuous, flattening line. Yet, in his hands, such formal spines anchor brushstrokes that shift as imperceptibly as the edge of a weather pattern. In Morandi’s last finished painting, a ball, funnel, and box sprout from a single hazy axis, a trio of classic geometric forms that cast monumental shadows harking back to di Chirico’s broad, desolate avenues. This weave of abstraction and believable expanse is even more startling in a series of late watercolors that reduce his tabletop world to nebulous dark patches surrounding radiant white absences. The still lifes remain, but, stripped of solidity, the objects have become palimpsests of a reality just beyond perception.

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 9:30 a.m. Starts: Sept. 16. Continues through Dec. 14, 2008

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The Brice Is Right

Over the last 40 years, the painter Brice Marden has been photographed wearing funny hats, wielding stick-like paintbrushes in his studios, sitting on Cézanne’s tomb, or occupying some breathtaking piece of real estate that he owns. Whether meant ironically or romantically, these photos have helped people think of Marden as some rock star shaman–Zen master–saint of paint. Unlike most self-conscious image manipulation, however, these photos haven’t obscured Marden’s amazing achievement or diminished his enormous influence.

This is because, since around 1986, Marden has methodically and compulsively, sometimes annoyingly, but nevertheless magnificently, made a seemingly endless, slowly evolving series of exotically colored paintings with Hellenistically shallow space and artery- and spaghetti-like looping lines and squiggles that move within these canvases like snakes in a box. These paintings resemble abstract illuminated manuscripts, subway maps from Shangri-la, insect architecture, organic labyrinths, woozy doodles, and pretzels. Depending on your point of view, Marden is either a keeper of the faith of painting or caught in a formulaic feedback loop.

Marden’s formula is familiar. On inflected fields of incandescent color, circuitous lines turn in asymmetrical arabesques. Almost always anchored in the upper right corner (perhaps because he’s left-handed and doesn’t want to smear the paint), a full-bodied ribbon might glide down across the center of a painting, cut back, coil, head out to the left-hand edge of the canvas, brush it for a half a foot or so, then fall away toward the bottom, where it will trace the lower edge for several inches. From here it might rise in a double-humpback configuration, loop, and graze the right edge of the painting. Then it will voluptuously wind its way back upward, arching ornamentally before rejoining its starting point at the top-right-hand edge of the canvas.

In this way, these lines—always going to or coming from the edges of the canvas—are being generated by the four sides of the painting. In effect, each painting is producing, describing, and—as painter Carroll Dunham brilliantly said of work like this—”remembering itself.” Marden’s paintings are like mimes pressing against the four walls of a cell. He wants to see if there might be a space of elsewhere within these confines. In some metaphysical way, then, Marden’s paintings ask questions each of us often silently asks: “Where am I?” and “Is there any way out?”

Beyond the linear structuring, Marden’s colors are often laid down according to the spectrum. In other words, if the line visually closest to the viewer in one painting is red, that line will always pass over the next closest color to the surface, which will invariably be orange. The orange line, in turn, will be atop the yellow, which will be above green, and so on, to violet. This dual ordering guides you so that you’re not only moving around and within the paintings, you’re moving into and out of them in similarly prescribed ways.

As seen on MOMA’s sixth floor, “Brice Marden: A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings” is a 10-gallery two-act play. The opening act takes place in the first five galleries and consists of luminous encaustic monochromes painted between 1964 and 1978. These paintings only get more sensuous over time and seem to recall the backgrounds of Spanish paintings. The second act, in the last five galleries, is composed of the “snakes in a box” paintings from 1986 onward. This retrospective is a shot in the arm to those who believe that painting should aspire to a condition of painting rather than photography or appropriation. Yet two crucial aspects of Marden’s career are unaccountably missing.

De Kooning once praised Gorky as “willing to be confused.” Marden has been similarly willing, but you wouldn’t know it from this show. First, Marden’s rich drawings, loaded as they are with false starts, dead ends, and messy thoughts, have been inexplicably installed far away on the third floor. Worse, the real second act of Marden’s career has been erased. By the late 1970s even Marden knew he was in trouble, that he couldn’t go on making monochromes. He told one interviewer that he was experiencing a “silent creative death.” Sadly, only a tiny sliver of that “death” is on view at MOMA, in three small irregularly shaped works on marble with strangely scratchy lines. Several galleries of this chaotic, unsure, deeply transitional second act would have shown that Marden has never been just an elegant master. Like so many other formalists, minimalists, and monochromists of his generation, Marden barely made it out of 1970s artistically alive.

Viewers will leave the sixth floor of this retrospective never knowing that Marden was in artistic hell for nearly 10 years. Nevertheless, the show is beautiful. Few living artists have such breathtaking ways of making things. Marden deserves the laurel he wears. Nonetheless, this retrospective leaves you with the impression that Marden’s endless elliptical journey around and within the edges of his paintings, as ravishing as it can be, might now be a kind of holding pattern or way to stave off another painful transition.

I love many of the “snake” paintings and the erratic trellis-like configurations from the “Cold Mountain” series that lead to them. By now, however, I think that Marden is perfecting and refining his formula rather looking for that elusive space of elsewhere. Marden invented fire in the early 1960s with his stunning monochromes. Then, after 10 years in a creative abyss, he rekindled that fire with these snakes. As churlish as it may sound, I left this ravishing exhibition wishing that Marden would try to light that extraordinary fire one more time. If anyone could have a four-act career, it’s Marden.


Robert Rosenblum, 1927–2006

Robert Rosenblum was a magnificent imp of the art-historical perverse. On December 6, this intellectual rabble-rouser, a man behind so many revisionist ideas that are now so much a part of the mix that you don’t even notice them, died at the age of 79. For more than 40 years, to the horror of many academicians and museumheads, Rosenblum deftly played the part of art historian–cum–rebel angel. He reshuffled the deck of art history, undermined orthodoxy, and twisted the clean linear progression of modernism, occasionally laying new track.

In 1967, Rosenblum linked abstract expressionism to 19th-century landscape painting rather than seeing it as the logical outcome of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In 1975, he literally wrote the book, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, connecting artists like Caspar David Friedrich and Augustus Tack to Mark Rothko and Clifford Still. In 2001 Rosenblum wasn’t alone in masterminding the Norman Rockwell retrospective at the Guggenheim, but he may have been the only one who truly loved the artist.

Rosenblum’s modus operandi was “Only subvert!” He knew the art world was embarrassed about modernism’s messy ancestry. Rosenblum looked for and found stylistic skeletons in every art-historical closet. This m.o. wasn’t merely an exercise in relativism. Rosenblum’s archaeological approach was a reminder that history is teeming with styles and subjects, that art comes from all manner of aesthetic DNA, and that we have no way of knowing what will look good in a hundred years. In his entrancing, roguish way, Robert Rosenblum was the Charles Darwin of revisionism, a cagey, promiscuous thinker who played a game of revival of the fittest.


jsaltz@villagevoice.com

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Odalisques in Harem Pants, Icons of Modernity

Modernism has come to seem increasingly like an act of creative theft or translation: Think of Picasso’s relation to African tribal art, or Duchamp’s to American plumbing. And consider, as an early autumn treat, this ravishing show at the Metropolitan Museum, focusing on the bits of cloth that over the course of decades fired up Henri Matisse’s imagination. The grandson and great-grandson of weavers, Matisse spent his childhood in a northern French town known for producing luxurious silks, amid a riot of pattern and color. Animated by amorous and sensual longings, throughout his long career he turned to textiles the way a woman tries on a new blouse, thirsting for transformation.

His first affair was with a “toile de Jouy” (or so he misnamed it), a piece of canvas picked up in 1903 at a Parisian secondhand clothes shop, whose blue-and-white printed pattern of arabesques and flowers billows and swells throughout his early still lifes, upturning perspective, overwhelming the carafes and fruits he assembled atop it. Later, there were spoils gathered on his travels: woolly, flame-red Algerian rugs, striped silk Ottoman robes, and Moroccan screens made of fabrics embroidered and pierced like fretwork, the props for 1920s Orientalist fantasies. Put to best use, their wild ornament and color turn his hieratic nudes and odalisques in harem pants into icons of modernity.

Seeing these and other textiles from Matisse’s private collection—1930s Parisian couture dresses, Romanian peasant blouses, Congolese Kuba cloth—hanging next to his paintings, drawings, and late cutouts, the echoes of a complex dialogue between cultures become audible. And yet, sometimes it’s as if a Cézanne were placed beside a plate of apples—the thing itself so finite, compared with the art it inspired.

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Unequal Partners

Poor Pissarro, steamrolled by Cézanne.

That’s my five-word review of the Museum of Modern Art’s handsomely installed summer blockbuster “Cézanne and Pissarro: Pioneering Modern Painting.” MOMA loves putting its big guys together. We’ve already had “Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism” and “Matisse Picasso,” a/k/a “Matcasso.” Now this. As a famous art historian was reported to have observed at the press preview, “MOMA isn’t happy unless it has one artist killing another.” For me, Picasso didn’t dent Braque, and Matisse seemed that much more revolutionary by comparison. But this time, it actually is a kind of homicide. Pissarro is more or less done in by the massively talented, super-radical, wild-card Cézanne. This, despite the fact that Cézanne mightn’t have been Cézanne without him. It was Pissarro who pulled Cézanne toward nature, away from expressionist painting, the palette knife excesses of Courbet, and what art historian Roger Fry called “artistic madness.” Cézanne needed Pissarro’s restraint. It’s too bad Pissarro wasn’t able to adopt some of Cézanne’s raging intensity.

The two came to Paris as outsiders. Pissarro was born in 1830 in the Caribbean to a Sephardic Jewish father and a Creole mother. Cézanne, nine years his junior, hailed from Aix-en-Provence and spoke in such a pronounced regional accent that many had difficulty understanding him. Between 1865 and 1885, the dates covered by this exhibition, the two worked closely, sometimes depicting the same subjects in the same places at the same time. Occasionally, one of them worked from the other’s painting rather than the landscape. During this period they helped forge some of the basic tenets of impressionism—the faceted attention to light, the short, repeating brushstrokes, and the process-oriented surfaces. Both exhibited in the history-altering 1863 “Salon des Refuses,” which introduced impressionism to a wary Parisian public.

Yet as early as the exhibition’s second room—maybe even midway through the first one—you find yourself concentrating on Cézanne’s mind-blowing radicality to the near-exclusion of Pissarro’s tamer-by-comparison talent. You may also wonder about the possible Freudian implications, since the curator of this show is Joachim Pissarro, great-grandson of the painter.

In fact, “Cézanne and Pissarro” is an unforgettable lesson in seeing. In this show you can learn to discern the difference between the good and the great, the very talented and the simply tremendous.

Put plainly, Pissarro’s work is the more supple, refined, and decorous of the two. Pissarro knew that academic painting was at an end and that something had to be done. But even though he was willing to take the innovative step of forgoing drawing in painting and he learned to build up his surfaces, Pissarro couldn’t quite let go of the structures in place. He was a rule bender, not a rule breaker. Pissarro’s canvases have a harmonious all-overness to them, a tonal homogeneity. His ebbing space is placid and well organized. Light is even and pleasing, color invented, not observed. In Pissarro’s world the weather is always fair.

By contrast, Cézanne is crude, stormy, and untamed. His color is simultaneously more observed and less idealized. Yet it is oddly artificial, as if everything he saw were filtered through some interior lens that broke things down into geometric shapes and culminating points of energy. Houses become cubes, wheat fields turn into ramparts. Cézanne’s filtering is relentless, rebellious, and hallucinatory. It also feels accurate. His world is vibrating and alive. Everything is faceted, as if you’re seeing every atom in motion. Things quiver and are on the verge of splintering. Yet composition is solid, almost classical. Nothing like this had ever existed on a flat surface before.

Stand between any pairings at MOMA, don’t look at the names, and before long you’ll see yourself seeing the difference. Not only are the differences vast, they’re unmistakable. In a Pissarro things move gracefully from foreground to middle ground to background. A road might begin at the front of the picture, establishing an easy entry point, then carry you gradually into the painting. In a Cézanne there is no such logic. Everything is broken up. Structure is established, but space is flattened and erratic and occurs in layers and sheets. The brushstrokes are all individualized, as if each one were also describing its own molecular structure. In Cézanne’s metaphysical landscapes nature turns into a kind of equation of shapes and planes. Cézanne triumphs because he is staggeringly inventive and viscerally physical. We also know how the story ends, that in effect Cézanne is the last prophet and the first saint: He is the last pre-modern and the first completely modern artist. Picasso called him “the father of us all”; Matisse referred to him as “a God.” Modernism, in other words, comes to us through him. For his part, Pissarro—who Cézanne referred to as “a father to me”—continued oscillating between student and teacher. He was a crucial influence on Gauguin, then embraced the neo-impressionist techniques of Seurat and Signac. But the story ends well for Pissarro too. He came into his own at the very end. Old and sick and confined to painting from his apartment window, he depicted the streets of Paris with the kind of affecting humanity that impressionism always lacked.


jsaltz@villagevoice.com

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Circuit Party

Brice Marden’s two-gallery show—his first exhibition of new paintings in New York in five years, and his best since 1991, if not since the mid 1970s—proves once again that this artist is a special case. In a time that is skeptical of straightforward abstraction, Marden’s work is widely loved. The advertisements and announcements that have, over the years, pictured him sitting on Cézanne’s tomb or wielding long sticks with charcoal on the end or shown his naked wife standing among his work, whether ironic, audacious, or romantic, are intended to make us think: “Behold, the lair of the Zen cave painter, the rock-star shaman. See his muse.” Contrary to most instances of self-conscious image manipulation, Marden’s behavior has never obscured his accomplishments. The work and what surrounds it are of a piece.

Great-looking at 64, he paints with the vigor of someone half his age. Still, it’s difficult to talk about his art without sounding old school or new age. Ask someone what makes Marden great or why him and not a number of other artists who evince similar qualities, and you’ll hear words and names you don’t usually hear: “touch,” “color,” “poetry,” and “Pollock.” Marden began his career in 1966 to great fanfare, exhibiting monochromatic encaustic paintings that minimalism had already made theoretically passé. Even then he excelled at something he excels at today: making old issues new.

As easy as it is to like Marden’s paintings, and as effortless as they look, art hasn’t come easy to him. His growth has always been laborious; for a while in the late 1970s and early ’80s it was tortured. Marden’s beauty is coaxed, not natural. De Kooning praised Gorky as “willing to be confused.” Marden is similarly willing. Although he has made dogmatic pronouncements like “Art is an intense search for truth” and “Painters are among the worker priests of the cult of man,” Marden’s confusion is ever-present but also quite subtle. Some would say frustratingly or fussily so.

Marden admits he’s “a plodder.” However, if one were to see his oeuvre from the last 15 years, in a sequential, time-lapse, slow-motion movie, each work seamlessly blending into the next, Marden’s confusion would loom large. An elusive drama of rigor, control, and disquiet would emerge, a saga of gradual development. The shifting of little things would become more apparent, as would the funneling of techniques into and out of the work. Marden’s art looks graceful, but it is always in turmoil.

With this stirring, if overblown, two-gallery outing, Marden has raised plodding to new heights. Two or three recent canvases are as strong as any he’s ever made. On subtly inflected fields of incandescent, almost Persian color, circuitous lines twist and turn. Anchored in the upper right corner, a ribbony one might glide down across the center, cut back, curve, and gently caress the left hand edge before falling away toward the bottom of the canvas, where it may swell once or twice, graze the lower edge, swoop back to the top of the work, deviating now and then in an arching arabesque, before rejoining itself. The eye follows these meanderings, never completing a circuit, switching from one color to another.

Whether you see them as snakes in a box, subway maps from Shangri-la, or wallpaper patterns, these lines measure, echo, and correspond with the four sides that contain them. They’re trains of thought and flights of fancy. Given the simplicity, recognizability, and recurrence of his formula, not to mention an opacity of intention, a tendency toward preciousness, and an undeniable decorativeness, it’s a wonder Marden has been able to make so much out of such rigid limitations.

But he has. The exhibition of seven paintings and 11 drawings, dating from 1996 to last year, on 24th Street is laudable but ungainly and lacks the emotional grip of the 22nd Street show, which is speculative and grand. There, seven new canvases and 12 drawings show Marden sidestepping the sleepwalker state mature artists sometimes slip into (see Claes Oldenburg/Coosje van Bruggen at Pace), and intensifying his exploration of what the painter Stephen Westfall calls “deep structure”—meaning patterns that are simultaneously personal and universal.

Marden’s newest paintings are less lyrical than previous ones, the system more obvious. Everything is thought out yet mysterious. Recalling the solidity and sensuousness of his earliest work, surfaces are more worked over and distressed. Instead of being twiggy the lines are languorous, more full-bodied, and deliberate; they’re less calligraphic or nervous, and move you about dreamily but assuredly.

Resulting configurations may resemble circuitry, game boards, abstract figures, or still lifes. Each canvas is comprised of five or six colors. Importantly, the lines are ordered following the colors of the spectrum. A brandy red is always furthest forward, followed by dusky orange, yellow, green, blue, then violet. (In Round Rock, Tight Rock (4) and 6 Red Rock 1, my two favorites, the order is fiddled with.) Oddly, Marden never uses indigo. In contrast to older works, lines occasionally spill over edges. This thrusts the asymmetric grids forward, eliminates much of the middle ground, and makes these canvases more intense.

Whatever he’s thinking about, regardless of abstraction’s viability, and in spite of his work’s sporadic repetitiveness, Marden is still pursuing something primal in ways that remain transfixing.

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A Photographer in the Artist’s Lair

Photographs of artists’ studios—with their provocative disarray, inspirational totems, and the peculiarly compelling vacuum of work in progress—are only a minor subset of the shelter porn industry’s increasingly gaudy output. But for shameless devotees, they’re as fascinating as they are frustrating, allowing us privileged access to the creative sanctum but denying us more than a few suggestive glimpses of what transpires there. The model for this interior investigation is Alexander Liberman’s The Artist in His Studio, first published in 1960. Liberman, who produced the book during his extended tenure as editorial czar of the Condé Nast empire, focused on the French modern masters and included savvy written appreciations of Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Cézanne, Bonnard, and their peers both living and dead, along with portraits, personal anecdotes, and poignant color spreads of historic ateliers.

David Seidner, who died this past spring of AIDS, anticipated history by photographing 20 contemporary American artists, virtually all of them based in or near New York. His book, Artists at Work (Rizzoli, $50), is no match for Liberman’s critical sophistication; Seidner’s brief texts read like a besotted fan’s notes—no surprise after his introductory confession, “I worship artists.” Still, many of these artists were his close friends, and even if he isn’t able to capture that relationship in print, the best of his gorgeously precise photos suggest an intimacy that perpetuates the romance of the studio. Though there’s only so much significance we can attach to the conch shells on Brice Marden’s floor or Joan Mitchell’s bulletin-board collage of postcards, these details—as well as Francisco Clemente’s paint-slathered newspapers, Cy Twombly’s carefully arranged work table, and the plastic body parts scattered about Cindy Sherman’s floor—are the book’s real meat. Could be juicier, but it’s certainly prime.

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The Players

Bisected by an open kitchen, the long dining room is pleasantly underdecorated—the red-faced Laughing Cow glued to one wall, a few shelves of old glassware up near the tin ceiling, and a blue mural at the end of the room showing three homburged peasants seated at a table while a standing figure watches, smoking a pipe. It’s a knockoff of Cézanne’s The Card Players, but indistinct hand movements and the complete absence of cards make it seem like the men are abusing themselves.


Lucien is a new French bistro just north of Houston—yawn-worthy news except that this joint adds a welcome Provençale twist to the bistro formula. First there’s lapin moutarde ($16), a big bunny split down the middle (you get half), roasted, smeared with Dijon, and deposited on an undulating bed of fresh fettucini. The sharp mustard has been mellowed with crème fraîche, making the sauce absurdly rich, and the noodles gradually absorb every last bit. Set your pacemaker on stun.


Another stretch for a bistro is the marvelous duck ($16), served two ways on the same plate. The magret, or breast meat, is pan roasted and sliced thick, each piece discretely ringed with fat and presented medium rare, rather than the bloody “sanguiné” the French prefer. The other half, equally as good, is duck confit—the leg and thigh portion cooked in its own fat and scented with star anise, more Chinatown than Champs Élysées. There’s a vegetable mélange underneath and some lovely split-and-grilled fresh figs on the side, which must be why the guys in the painting are so excited.


Less successful is the Amish chicken ($12), a half bird spectacular in its moistness, but not herby enough, upstaged by the garlic mashed potatoes. Just so you don’t forget you’re in a bistro, three steaks are offered—filet mignon, sirloin, and bavette, the latter a coarse and flavorful skirt that, at $13, is the cheapest, and plenty good enough for me. Skinny, scraggly fries add to the excitement.


The greatest challenge of the Provençale menu is, of course, bouillabaisse ($19), the fish stew that has flummoxed many local restaurants. The seafood array at Lucien is novel but effective: snapper, monkfish, clams, and a bundle of king-crab legs that sit atop the bowl like discarded props from Alien 3. The swarming broth is dark and viscid, thrust with rouille-smeared toasts—just the kind of lavish tuck-in intended by the Marseilles fisherfolk who invented it.


More Mediterranean victories are scored among the appetizers, like the pair of ample sardines ($8) grilled by the chef in plain view. They’re served with a squiggle of dark sauce for those who can’t imagine a meal without balsamic. Mussels ($12) are steamed in the usual white wine and shallots, improved significantly by cilantro. That yeoman of bar food, calamari ($8), is heroically crisp, and rescued from normalcy by its North African dipping sauce.


Outside of the pricey Payard Patisserie, I can’t think of a single bistro with really distinguished desserts, although the spectacle of crème brûlée being browned with a blowtorch is a good reason to order it anywhere. Nevertheless, Lucien has hit the bull’s-eye with its tarte Tatin ($5)—not the usual insignificant mouthful, but a substantial wedge of a big pie. Cooked upside down, the caramelized apples retain their juiciness and zip, while the flaky pastry stays crisp. It’s a specialty of the Loire Valley rather than Provence. But, hey, it’s just a bistro—purism not required.